Saturday, January 21, 2012

Non-white Protagonists in Sci-Fi/Fantasy

I was thinking recently about non-white protagonists in genre books I'd enjoyed.  One of the first things that struck me is that I'd probably seen an order of magnitude more books with non-white main characters in romance novels than in sci-fi and fantasy.

Which struck me as a bit odd.

Note, I was trying to recall stories with either a non-white protagonist and or non-white main love interest or both.  I didn't count stories with paranormal or alien races which have, say, yellow skin but which have cultures based on a European culture.

Anyway, I came up with a bunch of possible reasons for the romance vs sci-fi/fantasy discrepancy.  Many have to do with my less-than-awesome powers of observation and with basing conclusions on half-remembered anecdotal evidence.  Here are some others:

  1. There are just more romance books written total, so even if percentages are comparable, absolute numbers won't be.
  2. Romance series where each book centers on a different couple are really popular.  Readers tend to become fans of the series as a whole, not of a particular book.  So with this sort of format, you have a wider total main cast for the series and can make some of them non-white without making the whole series look too scarily "Ethnic" for those who might be put off by that sort of thing.  Of course, I don't see a lot of non-white main POVs in fantasy epics, which you'd think would be the same sort of situation.
  3. Having a protagonist or love interest who looks like you is more important to romance readers,  so publishing houses take the time to solicit/encourage books that specifically appeal to various ethnicities in the same way that they solicit particular story tropes.  Sci-fi and fantasy are supposed to be less formulaic so publishers don't even try to do it there.
Regardless of the reasons, I don't entirely like the result.  OTOH, I really enjoy the books I already read, so it's not like I have anything to complain about other than a vague, existential dissatisfaction with the situation.  I guess, rather than complain about the ones that I haven't read (all those sci-fi fantasy books with non-white protagonists that could have been there but which weren't), I've decided to celebrate the ones that I have enjoyed.  And maybe go out of my way to read some more over the next year or so.

In any case, over the next week or two, I'll be posting a series of lists about sci-fi and fantasy books that I've really enjoyed and that have non-white protagonists.   
  1. SFF stories with Native American protagonists
  2. SFF stories with Asian protagonists
  3. SFF stories with black protagonists
  4. SFF stories with Middle Eastern protagonists
I sadly haven't read enough books to create sci-fi/fantasy lists for Native Australians and Pacific Islanders or Latinos. It's doubly frustrating because I'm Latina, so I would have thought that I would have kept an eye out more for that.  

Anyway, if anyone wants to recommend books for me to read to add to the lists, just let me know. 


  1. Hello,
    Thank you for your article. Recently, I have been looking for a list of fiction books with black protagonist. Were you able to find any which you could recommend?

  2. Argh. Yes. I made the post and then forgot to update this page. It's here:

    Thanks helping me realize it and commenting. I hope you like the selections - let me know if you like any of them or want have any you'd like to recommend.

  3. These lists are brilliant, they've given me a big ol' list of books to get reading. I've actually just been having a conversation about this with some of my friends, as this is something that's bothered me for years in fantasy books. You should have a look at Tamora Pierce's novels, by the way - she's one of the few writers I can think of who (though most of her main characters are white) has a consistently diverse cast, especially in her later books.

  4. Wow - thanks.

    I don't know what rock I was hiding under, but I never heard about Tamora Pierce until this year, and now it seems I'm hearing recommendations for her every week. I may wait and read them for the first time with my daughter though. She really likes stories with strong heroines, but is still working through the TEEN Agent now and then wants to go back and finish the second Time Hunters book before starting a new author.

    Oh, I added a new list to the series for Middle Eastern Protagonists at in case you want more recommendations.

  5. No problem!
    Haha, I make it a bit of a duty to tell people about her, seeing as Pierce isn't nearly as well known as she should be. When you & your daughter get round to reading them, by the way, I'd recommend reading each set of series (the Tortal books, and the Circle of Magic ones) in order. It's not necessary, but you get to know the characters much better.
    And thanks for the new list, I'll check them out.