Books, Venue

Leaving a fictional character’s identity ambiguous: harmful or helpful?

Genuine representation in literature has been a debated topic for a while now. We all (hopefully) agree representation is important for the voices of minority groups to be acknowledged, heard, and related to, but the technicalities of carrying this out are often contested. When it comes to the explicit representation of identities, readers tend to fall into one of two camps. 

On the one hand, many readers believe it is more effective for characters to be described in minimal detail, leaving room to interpret the character however they choose. The reader can, instead of being explicitly excluded in terms of representation, adapt the character to themselves. A character can have any skin colour, body or sexuality the reader chooses, because what is there to stop a character being whoever the consumer wants them to be? 

A recent example of this coming to the forefront of the arts world is Noma Dumezweni’s casting as Hermione Granger in the first production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. As a Black actress, Dumezweni’s casting was met with mixed reception, despite Granger’s skin colour never being explicitly stated at any point in the original series. Until the original book covers depicted Granger as white, there was nothing in the text to label her as such. So, what makes this artist’s interpretation correct, and why is it more valid than the casting director’s choice (which was extensively criticised)? 

With no explicit diversity, however, comes the assumption there is no diversity at all. Unless it is stated, is it there? Some would argue it is not present unless addressed, hence the queerbaiting accusations thrown at J.K. Rowling for labelling Albus Dumbledore as gay long after the series was wrapped up. When the author does not fall into a minority identity, the default setting of white, able-bodied and straight is almost always assumed, tokenising any deviation from this when it is tacked on after the text has been published.

On the other hand, explicit representation through a character description or a plot point is often the only form of representation that carries enough weight to be meaningful. Relatability and seeing yourself in a work of literature often transcends a descriptive feature, instead being rooted more so in shared experiences associated with the community or the perception of other characters in the book, which cannot be expressed when nothing blatantly sets the character apart from others. To flip this on its head though, a character coming from a minority group can lead a life that is not defined by their identity, demonstrating that they aren’t defined as a victim to issues caused by their minority status.

It speaks volumes to people to have their identity or community represented on the page to any extent, as long as it is done accurately. Inaccurate or flawed representation is often worse than no representation at all. There is the danger for authors to treat adding diversity to their work as a box-ticking exercise in order to please people, a damaging reality that is all too real. Throwing in diversity for the sake of having it is not only ineffective, contributing nothing to the wider cause, but it also shows a detachment on the author’s part for not having conducted adequate research to connect with more readers, which is ultimately the aim of writing a story.

Essentially, there is a fine line between interpretation and explicitly highlighted diversity. Although eventually reaching a point where diversity is the default, addressing it directly and incorporating diverse characters and issues into stories is the way to go in order for it to be normalised more so. The topics and the struggles associated with the Black experience, queer experience or having a disability, as examples, will always be important diversity that needs to be upheld. 


About Author

Sam Hewitson

Sam Hewitson

Travel Editor - 2019/20

Editor-In-Chief - 2020/21