Hunger Games and the treatment of race in fiction

The book to movie adaptation of Suzanne Collins book the Hunger Games had a huge opening weekend pulling in a $155 million dollars, but recently the story has been about a series of racist tweets that have come up regarding casting.

Some fans were upset with casting of the  character Rue as a young black actress Amanda Steinberg. The tweets that came out were ignorant and blatantly racist.

You can find the story here.

This story and the ongoing case with Trayvon Martin has me thinking about race and how it applies to my own writing and my treatment of characters in fiction.
The issue surfaced in the adaptation from book to movie. When they cast Steinberg to the role, all of a sudden the character on the screen is different from the one that several tweeters imagined their characters to be.

Unfortunately, a readers imaginations can reveal a person’s racial biases unknowingly.

Certain characters, themes and tropes conjure up specific images for people. The racist tweets about the Hunger Games are revealing of people’s expectations are of innocence. One of the tweeters viewed Rue as an innocent young child that was white instead of black, which was a perfectly honest assessment in their eyes, and a racist one to boot.

It got me thinking about some of my own fiction and how I would tackle this issue.

The skin color of my character really never crosses my mind when it comes to building characters. Look is less important as their personality and internal motivation, because inevitably the internal struggle is what drives a story forward.

I come from a school of thought that too much description of the way people look takes away from people’s ability to imagine what their characters look like. Personally, I try to stay away from specifying race if at all possible because there are so many implications to specifying it.

Notice Collins treatment of Rue in the book— she has “dark brown skin.” That’s a big difference than saying Rue was black.

It may be a semantic difference, but to specifically say your character is a certain race brings with it a certain set of expectations and images to a readers’ mind whether that is what you intended or not. Those expectations are going to color the way people view that character’s actions.

That may be fine if you are writing a novel that deals with issues that come with being a certain race, but if you aren’t then you better be aware of what you are doing.

That is not to say you should avoid specifying race, just be aware of what you are getting yourself into. Nobody wants to be racists, but you really have to accept the fact that we all have racial biases come up whether we choose to acknowledge them or not. It’s the product of the society we live in, the way we grew up and what we are exposed to.

That being said, it doesn’t excuse stereotyping and a writer that uses “token characters” to make it easy for people to imagine who a chrachter is not just lazy it’s racist whether you did it on purpose or not. Whether they are flat or round, take the time to build characters based on personality traits and motivation rather than relying a set of assumptions come with skin color or nationality.

It is really your responsibility to first be aware of your own biases and then make sure that you aren’t wading into some dangerous territory.