Diverse Characters & Getting It Right
I recently finished reading Cassandra Clare’s LORD OF SHADOWS (LOS). I have been a fan of Clare’s since I picked up her work last year. It started with LADY MIDNIGHT (the first in THE DARK ARTIFICES (TDA) series), of which LORD OF SHADOWS is the sequel). I got about 100 pages into the book, but felt like I was missing something. And I was. Something huge. TDA series is a sequel series to THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS (TMI). If you’ve seen the movie City of Bones or the show Shadowhunters, you’ll recognize the name.
I started with TMI series and immediately I was hooked. Clare’s urban fantasy series hook you in and take you along for the ride. There’s no warning. One second, you’re reading CITY OF BONES, and the next, you’re eight books in wondering how the hell you got there. Her stuff is that good.
From Clary Fray and Jace Herondale, to Alec Lightwood and Magnus Bane, to Emma Carstairs and Julian Blackthorn–her characters are so well done. Not only is it easy to relate to the characters, but I found myself completely enraptured in their stories. The characters are loveable, with natural flaws (selflessness in the example of Julian, or vanity in the case of Jace). There’s plenty of romance, magic, and lots of ass-kicking battle scenes. Shadowhunters are Nephilim, a race of half-human, half angel, charged with killing demons and maintaining order between races of Downworlders (vampires, werewolves, faeries, etc.)
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But beneath all of the fantastical elements of the stories are very real themes that apply to the world today. In TMI, Alec Lightwood is a gay character. But he’s not completely out yet. You see, in the world of the Shadowhunters, being different is something that’s frowned upon. He’s worried about what being open about his sexuality would be to his family, to the eyes of the Clave (those responsible for maintaining Shadowhunter laws). I loved the real dive into what it’s like in America to be a gay man. I thought Clare did an amazing job with Alec’s story of coming into himself and finding love with Magnus Bane (High Warlock of Brooklyn and sass master).
So, in LADY MIDNIGHT (LM), we dive into the story of the Blackthorn family (who were briefly in TMI series at the end). Five years have passed since the end of the Dark War. The Blackthorn family has eight living members: Helen (exiled because she’s part faerie), Mark (part faerie, in the Wild Hunt), Julian, Tiberius, Olivia, Drusilla, Octavian, and Emma Carstairs (an adopted Blackthorn at least). Through the journey of LM, you learn the quips and quirks of each character.
Tiberius (Ty) is a highly logical young man. Julian (who’s been left in charge since losing their parents in the Dark War) has found ways over the years to help Ty understand things like sarcasm and metaphors, as well as given him tools to keep his hands and mind busy when he’s feeling overwhelmed. In LM, it is never addressed head on that Ty is autistic.
In LOS, a new character is thrust into Ty’s world. Christopher “Kit” Herondale is a Shadowhunter, but didn’t know it before. He had a relatively normal upbringing in the mundane (mortal) world. He knows things about mundane medicine and treatments. He is the first character to mention the word autistic. You see, the Clave has banned use of any and all mundane medical treatment. If a Shadowhunter were to seek treatment, they could face exile. They have their own methods for healing, none of which includes doctors. And because Ty is different, Julian is terrified something may happen to him. That the members of Clave will notice there’s something different about him and mistreat him.
There’s a second character, Arthur Blackthorn, uncle to the children, who’s gone mad. His mind was broken in the faerie courts. But they can’t let anyone know he’s mad, because if he is outed, the Clave could split the children up. All they want is to be together.
There’s a third character who turns out to be transgender in LOS. I will spare the spoilers for anyone who hasn’t read it.
Each of these characters face harsh treatment at the hands of the Clave, much as people with autism, mental health issues, and are transgender deal with in normal society in the real world.
I was absolutely floored by Clare’s treatment of these diverse characters. I’ll admit, I’ve kept my characters pretty “standard” in my own writing. There’s always the fear of trying to tackle serious issues like these and doing it badly. As a writer, you have to be sensitive when it comes to touchy subjects. Some people even go so far as to have sensitivity readers to ensure their work isn’t putting those characters down. It is a very slippery slope. You don’t want to offend and you certainly don’t want to do an injustice to issues that real people deal with every day.
In the middle of reading this, I stopped and texted my best friend because I had to tell someone. I didn’t want to post spoilers on the internet (this was barely a day after the book was released and I’d already seen some posts spoiling it for me!). I genuinely applaud Clare for the job she’s done. Using these issues to represent the stigma surrounding these social issues in America (and the world, really) today was such a brilliant move. Thousands of people read her books. And even if just one of those readers come away with a greater understanding of people facing these issues, then her job as a writer is done.
Brava, Cassie Clare! I look forward to the final installment in TDA series, as well as the additional two series in this universe. I look forward to seeing what other diverse characters she cooks up.
If you’re interested in her work, check out her website here. Of the three published full series, I would suggest starting with THE INFERNAL DEVICES, as it’s first chronologically. Will Herondale is probably my favorite of the Shadowhunters in all of the series. Then, THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS (first published, second chronologically) before diving into THE DARK ARTIFICES.