On the Subject of Albinism

I’m going to begin this post by stating that I have absolutely no albino friends or family members in real life. All of my “knowledge” comes from internet research and the testimonies of others.

Ok, disclaimer over.

Am I the only one who finds albinism really fascinating? I don’t know if this comes across as rude or insensitive, but I like them. I mean, most of them look different, sure, but it’s… cool. Interesting. I want to know more.

SPOILER ALERT: one of the protagonists of my current book series is albino. Not much of a spoiler, considering it’s mentioned pretty early on in the story, but still.

I wanted to get as close to realism as possible, without risking storyline. Lucky me, I’m dealing with steampunk sci-fi, so her poor eyesight can be believably corrected with special 19th century steampunk Victorian prescription sunglasses. And she’s living someplace that really doesn’t get much sun, so the lack of melanin isn’t going to cause a sunburn or skin cancer problem for her. Really, it’s the perfect setting for an albino protagonist.

A lot of albinos in movies are evil, I’ve noticed. The twins in the second Matrix movie, Paul Bettany’s assassin in the Da Vinci Code movie, I think there was a James Bond villain once, etc., etc.

And I’m just wondering… why? What’s so attractive about making albinos evil or psychopaths or whatever? Is it because they look different? Why not make a villain with purple  skin for a change, if that’s all you’re looking for? The bad eyesight and aversion to sunlight don’t seem like very valuable villain traits to me, unless you’re dealing with vampires or something.

So, I’m trying to defy stereotypes. But there’s a difference between defying a stereotype well and being completely unrealistic and screwing up characterization and storytelling just for the sake of raising one character/archetype/race above the others. For example: a historical drama (mid 19th century-ish) where the black characters are treated just like the white characters. Great for the characters, except any sixth-grader who wasn’t asleep in history class can tell you “That’s not how it went!”

Here, I’ll give you another example about my “defying stereotypes well (I hope)” idea.

I know it might be a bit egotistical to use characters from my own books, but let’s be honest: it doesn’t matter if I’ve read your book once or a hundred times; I will never know your characters as well as I know my own. Why? Because my own characters have to speak to me, have to be real to me. More real than someone else’s characters, because bringing the characters to life is the responsibility of the writer, not the reader.

It’s like the difference between driving a car and just riding in a car. If you’re just a passenger, you probably don’t need to know much about the car beyond “is it safe?” and “will we get there in time?” On the other hand, if you’re driving, you probably need to know the gas mileage, top speed, how the brakes and transmission works, how wide it turns, and how well it handles steep hills. Because you’re in charge. Your passengers are just along for the ride.

Moving on:

The protagonist of the second book in my series is albino. She’s also extremely poor, and has been so for her entire life. She’s a thief, she’s grown up in some really rough parts of town, and she’s stuck in her current (unpleasant) situation because she literally has nowhere else to go, because nowhere else in the city accepts albinos. She’s bitter, sarcastic, and cold to practically everyone else. But she is also stubborn, driven, and undyingly loyal once you’ve earned her trust.

Those are the traits of an action hero. She’s a grumpy, borderline sociopathic bitch (for lack of a better term), but she works with the good guys because she (grudgingly) isn’t as evil and cold as she likes to think. It’s not a perfect, classical heroine with no flaws and undying purity, but she’s just as human as anyone in the real world.

Because isn’t that the issue with albino portrayals in the media? That they’re so far gone from the “norm” that they’re not treated as human anymore?

She’s grumpy, and cold, and lacks emotional expression, and has no particular moral qualms with stealing from whoever she needs to. But she’s human. She’s real, and has real motivations and drives and hopes and dreams that haven’t yet been stamped out of her by a society who mistrusts her. And that’s what, in my opinion, makes her a good character.

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