Q: How many art directors does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Does it have to be a light bulb?
There’s a family of Hollywood jokes that have similar punchlines: “Does it have to be a…” Often, the joke is about a studio executive who wants to turn an innovative idea into the same-old-same-old that the film industry pumps out each year. (“Okay, it’s a story about Anne Frank. But does she have to be Jewish? And does it have to be a girl? I’m thinking Matt Damon…”)
I prefer to use the question in the opposite direction. When writing science fiction and fantasy, you can ask, “Does it have to be an elf?” “Does it have to be an evil corporation?” And above all, “Does it have to be a straight white dude?”
I have nothing against straight white dudes—I’m one myself. But straight white dudeness is an over-plowed field that needs to lie fallow for a while. To put it another way, straight white dudeness is only one spice in the spice rack. It has its place in the recipe book, but we deserve a wider range of flavors.
When I’m planning or writing a story, I’ve noticed that every time I have to come up with a new character, an easy cliché will pop into my head. That’s natural; brains are designed to serve up fast easy answers, in case we’re running from a saber-toothed tiger and don’t have time for lengthy intellectual debates.
But fast, easy ideas almost always have been done to death already. So I’ve tried to develop a habit of asking, “Does it have to be a…?”
Once in a while, a character really does have to be the first thing that pops into my head. This may happen if I’m writing about a real historical figure, or if I’m satirizing a familiar person. Most of the time, however, a character’s place in a story has plenty of wiggle room. Few characters, for example, absolutely must have a particular sex or gender identity in order to fulfill their role in the story. Most characters don’t have a function that requires a specific sexuality. From a strictly plot-oriented point of view, it seldom matters if a character is male, female, non-binary, straight, gay, or anything else in human behavior.
I don’t mean that characters can be freely interchanged without affecting the story. Just like a spice, a character’s traits and personality provide flavor to a story, even if those qualities don’t cause upheavals in the plot. Choosing one type of character over another makes a difference in tone, if nothing else. Usually, it also contributes to worldbuilding (“This is the sort of world that has a person like this in it”) and to characterization (by showing how your central characters interact with different kinds of people).
If, for example, your protagonist only interacts with straight white dudes, you’re throwing away the chance to show the character in different contexts. You’re imposing an impediment to portraying your protagonist’s full identity.
Let’s take a simple example. Your plot calls for the protagonist (P) to ask a witness (W) for information about something that W saw. Let’s also say there are no plot restrictions on who W can be—W just has to be someone who might have been in the right place at the right time.
So first, consider worldbuilding. Your choice for W reflects what kind of person might be in that location at the time in question. Who’d be there on that street, or inside that building, or strolling through those woods? How can you use your choice of character to show the reader some interesting facet of your world? And by “interesting”, I mean something that the reader couldn’t predict from familiar tropes.
So on a street, if W is just some guy, it doesn’t advance our understanding of the world. But if W is a middle-aged woman who lost a hand in a sword duel, we quickly get an impression about the nature of local society.
Predictable stock characters waste the opportunity to show information about your world. But they also waste a chance to show us who your protagonist is. Do you really want your main character to interact with someone forgettable? Well, yes, if all you need is someone to yell, “The murderer ran off that way!” But if your protagonist is going to have a conversation, you can get a lot more mileage out of the exchange by having your witness be distinctive.
If W is a child, the conversation will show us how P deals with children. If W is an elderly person, we’ll see a different side of P. You can say the same if W has a disability…if W is a person of high status in society…if W is a person who is despised by the local society…and so on. Whoever W is, the ensuing conversation will show us what kind of person P is, and what P’s attitudes are toward various types of people.
You should never do this ham-handedly by using clumsy stereotypes—that’s just offensive. But I see nothing wrong with diversity for the sake of diversity, provided that you’re sensitive to the effects that you’re creating. Consciously striving for diversity gives you enriched opportunities for building your world and portraying your central characters…and of course, your central characters should be diverse too, for exactly the same reasons.
Expanding your range of characters also expands your options. It literally increases the range of actions that can happen in a scene—different types of people can do different things, and will deal with problems in different ways. If you don’t make use of all the available dimensions of personality, it’s like putting on blinders to give yourself tunnel vision.
Or like only using one spice.
Or like sticking with boring old light bulbs when you could have all the colors of the rainbow.
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