Recently I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea of inclusion in story telling in all forms of media. A lot of this came from my own lack of cultural identity while seeing examples of representation and cultural references in the books I’ve read. I’ve been trying to explore my own culture’s history to try and derive some kind of connection based on something I value a lot (history). I’ve come to realize just how important diversity is in storytelling and how it not only helps to grow more inclusive communities but also in strengthening one’s own identity. Seeing cultural representation that is respectful and well written not only helps to improve the confidence of the group represented but also helps to normalize that group in society.
Representation in media is a tricky thing to get right. There’s been some great examples of well-developed characters offering a good example of diversity and representation. There have also been examples of terrible representation shoved in that feel more like checking off a box rather than developing a good character that people can resonate with. In some cases representation is used to harm a particular group and this is one of the worst things a writer can do. I think this is something a lot of us up and coming writers need to understand as we create new stories for the world to experience. It’s especially important as YA (Young Adult Fiction) is one of the most popular genres out there and it’s a genre that thankfully loves and promotes diversity (I could be wrong but my experience with the YA genre has led me to believe this).
But what makes for good representation in a story? What is representation and why is it important? This can be a really difficult concept to clarify as it can be very subjective depending on who you ask. I know for myself as an Indo-Canadian, I never really felt like I had a character in any story that I felt resembled who I was. Now the majority of my life has been spent in Canada so I never really had a strong Indian identity per se. I had a diverse group of friends and I never really felt closer to one culture or another. In a sense, I never had a strong cultural identity. I never felt the need or understood the importance of representation.
That was until early 2020 when I played Fire Emblem: Three Houses. [Slight Spoilers for Fire Emblem Three Houses in these 2 paragraphs]. Now Fire Emblem Three Houses isn’t exactly a paragon of diversity and representation. It has a very Eurocentric fantasy aesthetic and almost all of the characters do reflect this. However Claude Von Riegan stood out to me in a way I never expected. He’s not exactly representative of any particular culture, he’s got a very generic brown person tone to him. But he was charismatic, charming, smart and endearing and a genuinely interesting character. I felt very attached to him through his love of history and learning everyone’s personal stories and the different cultures across the kingdoms.
I have to admit, I feel as though a lot of my connection to Claude was because of his skin colour. There were a fair number of dialogue options that alluded to the racism and intolerance that he faced both in Fodlan and in Almyra and I really felt that. I often felt alienated from my own culture as I can’t even speak the language while also never really fitting in with Canadian culture as well. I love my friends and they’ve helped to make me feel welcome, but there’s always that nagging feeling of being separate because I am different. While the game didn’t really delve into the themes of racism and intolerance, the fandom did. There are numerous comics I’ve seen about Claude dealing with intolerance and racism during his time in Fodlan. A lot of these are really well done and quite touching as they not only show the intolerance of others, but also the strength of Claude and the love and support of his friends. The inequality and struggles he’s had to endure were things I wish they touched on more in the game but the fandom made me love and feel attached to the character more.
This experience made me realize just how important representation can be for a lot of readers. It’s hard to ignore the fact that storytelling has had the default protagonist be a hetero white male character for quite some time now. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with this, it is important to recognize that he may not resonate with all readers. It’s not a deficiency of the character, he could be the most flawlessly written character in fiction, but that connection is subjective and hard to create. It’s not possible to create a character that everyone will identify with. What can help mitigate this is having a cast of characters with diverse backgrounds and fleshed out stories. Rick Riordan’s series The Heroes of Olympus does a great job with this despite what could be considered the two central characters being hetero white male characters. The entire cast all have fleshed out personalities and backgrounds that reflect their cultural upbringings in a way that adds to the story rather than simply checking a diversity box. I seriously recommend read the series for a good introductory look at representation and inclusion.
This has been on my mind for quite a while now as an author trying to write stories everyone can enjoy. I do apologize if the article feels a bit like rambling but I’ve had a few conversations with friends and former friends that has made me realize the importance of normalizing diversity in day to day life. It’s made me want to do a better job in my own writing to create characters and stories that can inspire and help people from all walks of life.