Changing the Race

Anyone who has seen many movies in the past ten years has seen at least one occasion where a character in the source material was one race, but they ended up another race when they hit the screen.  This is especially true in movies based on comic books, like Thor, which features Idris Elba as a Norse God.

Elba’s version of Heimdall was one of the more impressive figures in a movie filled with divine figures, making it easy to forget that Norse characters are ethnically Caucasian and have red or blond hair.  For one reason or another, this keeps happening, largely in the name of diversity.

At least, diversity is the reason I use when I change a character’s race in my own works.

There have been two occasions in my work where I’ve decided a character needed to be a different race than what I originally intended.  It’s not a decision I make lightly and, in both examples, I found a distinct presence or voice that I wanted that character to have.

The first time was when I was writing Ashes of War, a fantasy that has an elite figure as one of the leads.  When I first thought of Hokairu Itobe, I imagined a tall man with blond hair and fair skin.  He was supposed to be a refined warrior-scholar, someone who could apply the history of war when deciding tactics or strategy.  Eventually, I discovered the actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who naturally has a refined intensity in his voice.  I kept imagining him when I wrote dialogue for Itobe.  Over time, my mind physically recast the role, giving the story a chance to deal with racial divides in addition to national divisions.

When I found myself doing this sort of recasting again, it was for a very different reason.

In Tesseract, I have exactly four point of view characters.  At first, they were all Caucasian, with two of them being blond.  There was no way I was going to present my multi-species interstellar culture with an Aryan predominance, especially when in my setting notes most of the characters would be descended from at least one person from the Far East.  When I looked at it in those terms, the problem presented the solution as well.  I took a character who was supposed to be physically similar to an actress I know personally and started basing her more on Utada Hikaru.

With these examples in mind, I can better explain just why this happens in general.  I’ve already mentioned diversity, since that’s worth acknowledging not just within a story and setting, but to keep in mind the intended audience.

Diversity is good within a setting because it represents just how varied and realistic the population of story is.  It’s also good to have diversity to serve the audience since it’s getting harder to classify an audience being made of a single ethnic group.  Going back to the original example of Thor, the creators cast Idris Elba in the role, at least in part, because there were so many Asgardian roles that were Caucasian, with the only other exception being Tadanobu Asano as Hogun.  It’s only a small change, but it gives a larger part of the population the ability to more deeply relate to a character and the story as a whole.

And I don’t think finding a wider audience is a bad thing at all.


Note: This topic was inspired, in part, by The Literary Omnivore’s Sunday Salon post for May 19, 2013.  It’s largely a video post and deals with major spoilers for Star Trek: Into Darkness.


3 thoughts on “Changing the Race

  1. I really like seeing ethnic diversity (and especially characters of fuzzy ethnicity) in works of fiction. There’s always the danger of tokenizing people, though. Fortunately tokenizing is really easy to spot because it usually involves stereotypes and there’s usually just “one of each kind” that isn’t white.

    I still don’t know a good way of introducing a character’s race. If I’m thinking of someone with mostly Korean features, how do I mention this when introducing the character, and how do I do it without seeming like I’m obsessing about people’s heritage?

    How do you do it?

    Alastair Reynold’s Blue Remembered Earth does it really well — there’s probably not even *one* white character in that tome of a book and it’s all handled greatly, I think.

    1. Usually, I make comparisons between character features and real-life images. I try to avoid racial markers, at least in my narration, because I want the reader to take the comparisons I make and apply their own perspective.

      Not only to I avoid making people mad by doing this, I get to crank up the ability to engage my readers directly.

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