Literature is a vast and salty plain. And by salty I mean, you know, white. And often very male, too. Can a salty plain be male? Well, it sure as hell is, at least in terms of the hiercharchical access to power and legitimacy.
Part of this, sadly, is conscious. Some writers will simply choose to perpetuate these false (though often culturally reinforced) tropes. Conscious denial, conscious positionings of power, are out there.
Other times it will occur out of ignorance. The surrounding culture inevitably finds its way into the headspace of writers, sometimes with a fanfare of trumpets and sometimes with soft cat-like feet (but clawed, oh yes). And I don't entirely blame people for their ignorance. I mean, it's my ignorance, too. How much of what we know comes in on the backs of assumptions that we forget to question and interrogate? I have a few bucketfuls myself, I'm sure. Eyes wide shut. Sometimes, though, I can blink, and when I open my eyes I realize I'm an idiot and I get a little smarter.
And then there are the people who would like to do something, but are scared. And this fear is normal. They would like to write minority characters, complex female heroines, and the disenfranchised. But what if they do it wrong? I think our culture emits an almost overwhelming vibe that it's better not to try than to try and do it wrong, or do it badly. Especially for topics like this.
It comes down to decency, I think. A lot of writers are simply decent people who don't want to offend. They would like to write a black or brown character, or a complex and real female heroine, but it seems risky: what if they offend black people or brown people or women? The thought of having people consider them a racist or misogyinist is almost unbearable (even though this fear often helps propagate these very things). Deletion, then, becomes easier than risking offense. Forgetfulness is safer and more comfortable than accidental cruelty. "Black people? Oh yeah, there's some black people in this country over here somewhere. But they don't have any dragons."
The task seems too large. How do I write a Black Person?
I think, in a lot of people's minds, it's capitalized just like this. It gets big. How do I encompass Blackness? Or Brownness? Or Being a Woman?
The thing is, of course, that this is impossible. You can't encompass these things in a single character. If you try, the characters will likely feel sort of unformed and hollow, silhouettes ghosting across a stage. They might have a familiar shape, but they'll be empty and unreal.
It helps to take the capitals away. It helps to remember that you're not trying to encapsulate anything, except this particular person.
And that's the key, in my opinion. First, think of them as people, think of all the other things that influence them. Characters will be influenced by their race, and by their ethnic and gender identities, but they'll be influenced by a million other things, too, the same as everyone else, the same as the people you "know" (whether from real life or the familiarity born from cultural consumption) and feel you can write about. Family, loss, work, reality television, cancerous cell phone emissions - they're all in the mix.
It helps to start with the other things. It helps to start with the little things that help make them the people they are, rather than overwhelm yourself with the big capitalized words from the get go. Once you have a person, once you have some sense of a history, of an emotional logic, then you can reintroduce important concepts like race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and otherness.
Now they are no longer abstracts you're trying to encapsulate in the form of a walking symbol. Now you have some sense of a person. Now you can ask how these things will influence the character. How do they change, knowing the facts of their gender identity? Of their ethnic identification? These ideas are now fulcrum points between the characters and the culture around them. How do they exert pressure on each other, seeking or preventing change? accomodation? legitimacy? power?
Better to try, and then try again, than to forget that other people may wish to hold dragons in the palms of their hands.