Diverse Reading: Why You Should Not Choose Protagonists Who Look Like You

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Do not underestimate the power of the written word and its ability to influence lives for better or worse.

People ask online all the time, “I’m looking for book recommendations featuring a protagonist that- (fill in the blank) is homosexual, is a man, is a strong female, is a minority, is asexual, is a redhead, is a single parent, etc. etc.” It’s even better when readers ask for these roles in their favorite genre.

It isn’t a problem to have strong protagonist characters of a specific type featured in a novel or story or song, but it is a problem to only read books with those kinds of characters; characters who look strikingly like us. And the problem is that we indulge in a kind of literary segregation, only and ever choosing our favorites and leaving the rest-a very wide swath of literature, indeed-to collect dust on the shelves.

The entire point of reading is to explore new people and places and situations we have never encountered and possibly never will. When done right, reading broadens our expanse of understanding and sympathy, it deepens our humanity and imagination, and it takes us to new places. Reading is ultimately about thinking and learning, although reading can be great fun in the process as well. But if all we ever do is read about ourselves or our fantasy-selves, then we, by necessity exclude the rest, resulting in our own echo chamber and perpetuating the very real societal ills of racism, homophobia, and general lack of community we are currently dealing with in American culture. Be diverse in your reading, and encourage your children to be diverse.

Read about protagonists that are mentally or physically disabled; that are your opposite gender; that are a different skin color than you; a different religion; a different culture; a different language (or more challenging/antique one); a different time; who love the things you hate; who hate the things you love. Stretch your mind, and find that it is so much less what we or others look like, than our underlying humanity that connects us.

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One thought on “Diverse Reading: Why You Should Not Choose Protagonists Who Look Like You

  1. Fair point. I must say, however, it does become problematic for the preferred (or even palatable or comprehensible) style to depict such variety of protagonists in some cases. If we need a different model once in while, the style we like and can relate to readily may not offer that.

    I can’t really delve into some styles but I know they have some good stories, and there is the rub. For two examples, I have been compelled to read “The Bluest Eye” and I do appreciate the book for its content and implications–nonetheless, I do not enjoy its style in the least; I also read “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” and did enjoy the style, but still don’t enjoy the narrative itself as much as much of Jack London’s work. I don’t know how to reconcile the need for branching out with the difficulty of assimilating different approaches to literature.

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