Commentary

Understanding Character Representation

This post is 1 in the series: Social Justice Concepts for Storytellers
Simple counting is all it takes to realize our stories feature some groups of people way more often than others. This inequality must change, but the process of correcting this imbalance can be confusing and intimidating. While it will take more than one article to explain everything you need to know about diversifying you characters, it helps to understand the issues involved in representing marginalized groups and why we at Mythcreants make the recommendations we do.

Why We Should Have Diverse Characters

Imagine there’s a big party happening in the center of town that everyone is talking about. The whole town waits excitedly for the day to arrive, but then the invitations go out. The host has invited all the white, straight, cis, and able-bodied people in town, but no one else is allowed through the door.

At the party, the guests get to know each other better. They support and inspire each other, learn about each other’s needs, and make important connections. They mostly forget about the people who weren’t invited, because they aren’t present. Sometimes the party-goers hear secondhand rumors about the people who were left out and assume they’re all true.

If you don’t have marginalized people as characters in your stories, you are the party host who has chosen to exclude all the marginalized folks in town. You choose the traits of every character that you depict. If they’re all white, straight, cis men, it’s because you didn’t want to include anyone else. While different in degree, this is not so unlike running a shop and putting a “white people only” sign on your door.

While a person of color could still read your story or look for another one that better suits their tastes, neither of these options can replace everything they lose by being excluded. Stories are not just entertainment; they provide validation and empowerment. But that validation and empowerment only works if you see yourself in the story. Reading story after story without any characters who represent you is demoralizing.

And the more well-known a story is, the more its contents become a cornerstone of our culture. When all of our popular works exclude marginalized people, this reinforces the idea that privileged characteristics are normal, and marginalized characteristics are weird. On top of that, we all know what white, straight, able-bodied men care about because those things are central to our most popular stories. Many of us have never heard of things that are critically important to disabled people. The things we think are most important to them may just be rumors filtered through the mouths of able-bodied people.

While fixing these issues must include supporting marginalized storytellers, stories by privileged people are given more acclaim and attention. That’s why every party host needs to look for anyone standing out in the cold and invite them to join the festivities.

How We Can Mess Representation Up

In our town with the big party, the marginalized people are knocking on the door, asking to be invited inside. Realizing the mistake, the host invites them in. But as soon as the new guests join the party, the host humiliates them in front of everyone. They call them by hurtful names and then kick them out before the party is over.

When someone points out this behavior is inappropriate, the host throws their hands in the air. “I was supposed to let them in, and I did! Now you’re mad at me for having them here. There’s just no way to win!”

Meanwhile, the new guests have gone through a rude awakening. When they asked to be invited in, they naturally imagined they’d be treated with the same respect as everyone else. It’s obvious what the host is doing is not okay, so why can’t everyone see that? They don’t want to spend the party trying to teach their defensive host manners; they’re supposed to be having fun like all the other guests. 

No one wonders how to write a white guy into a story, because we watch stories with them all the time. Since most of these stories were also written by white men, these plentiful examples have taught us how white men want to be depicted. But marginalized groups have barely been covered in stories, and when they have, it’s usually through the lens of white men. That means if we don’t take the time to learn how to treat other people respectfully, we’ll probably be bad hosts.

What exactly are we doing to be hurtful? Let’s use the depiction of hobbies as examples. While they are not usually as crucial to our identities, many of us care about our hobbies. I’ll make up three here, but I also invite you to think of something important in your life that distinguishes you from many of the people around you. Choose something that would make you feel good if a protagonist on a TV show also shared this hobby or characteristic.

  • I’m a cat person, so seeing someone with a cute cat they are bonding with would definitely make me feel good.
  • Since you’re here, there’s a good chance you consider yourself a geek – someone who like games, comic books, STEM, and speculative fiction.
  • As a third example, let’s use a classical musician – a violinist.

When we think of these things, we are naturally thinking about them positively, because they play positive roles in our lives. We know what a good depiction is without thinking about it, and we’re not looking for all the ways depicting our passions or hobbies could go wrong. But they can.

Stereotyping

Any depiction of a person can choose to take the worst caricature and run with it like it’s real. This often happens because the storyteller is trying to use the characteristic for novelty.

  • The cat person could be an old cat lady who has far more animals than she can care for.
  • The geek could be a pimpled young white man who lives in his parent’s basement and thinks women are a foreign species.
  • The violinist could be a snob who looks down on everyone else’s music.

Think about the worst stereotype of the hobby you like. Would it make you feel good to see that in your favorite TV show? Would you still feel like you can relate to the protagonist with this characteristic?

Downgrading

Characters with marginalized traits often have the least-glorified roles in the story. This suggests that the storyteller doesn’t really want marginalized people at their party or maybe even that they think marginalized people are inferior.

  • While Team Good has no pets, the villain is a cat person who delights in watching their cat play with mice.
  • As soon as Team Good gets in a scary situation, the geek squeals and runs away.
  • In the first chapter, the serial killer sneaks up behind the violinist as they are practicing and chops their head off.

These second-rate depictions deny marginalized people the validation and wish fulfillment that privileged people get. When a character dies early, it can even be interpreted as punishment they deserved.

Miscasting

Alternately, storytellers may just get crucial facts about the group they are trying to represent wrong. This not only makes it impossible for those people to feel represented, but also spreads myths about them.

  • The person takes their cat out for a walk on a leash, during which the cat barks at people passing by. They go home, and the cat chews on a bone.
  • The geeks in the story get together every week to play Monopoly and Yahtzee.
  • The violinist is playing a viola.

Sure, that cat example is pretty funny, but it’s funny because few people mix up cat and dog behavior. If you were a cat owner who had to constantly correct people who thought cats were just like dogs, it would be a lot less funny.

This dynamic makes it hard for the most privileged people to understand when someone tells them they’ve been doing the wrong thing. We will not always have a frame of reference to understand what other people are experiencing. But we don’t need one; we just have to listen to what people say about their own experiences and trust them.

Remember our lesson from Spider-Man: with great power comes great responsibility. It’s not fair to put the burden of reforming our stories on those who are already being squeezed by the status quo. The more privileged traits we have, the more work we should do to better represent those who are marginalized. It’s our responsibility to learn how to treat other people respectfully.

Balancing the Good Against the Bad

Publications such as Mythcreants are tasked with helping storytellers do the right thing. We do this in many areas where we are ourselves privileged – because it’s not the responsibility of marginalized people to educate everyone and because we think that, to some degree, privileged storytellers need to learn from others who have gone down the road they are on. We do our best to listen to marginalized people and convey what they need in language clueless people can understand.

Sometimes it comes with decisions. If we know many storytellers are going to take the “no marginalized people allowed” sign off their doors only to be disrespectful to their guests, should we tell them to take it off? In this case, absolutely. Including marginalized characters is a clear step forward and something the vast majority of marginalized people want. When it comes to basic inclusion of characters with marginalized traits, we feel confident the answer is to demand they be included while also offering what education we can on doing it respectfully.

However, as the subject matter becomes more sensitive, more difficult to depict, and less obvious in its benefits, our conclusion on this basic dilemma changes. Next time, I’ll discuss the exploitation of marginalized experiences.

P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?

 

Comments

  1. Dvärghundspossen

    A fairly recent thing that bugged me: I used to watch Orange is the New Black, but gave up on it for various reasons a few eps into season 6. One thing that really bugged me was the characterization of “Crazy Eyes” Suzanne.
    In Season 1, the one that’s at least somewhat based on real events via Piper Kerman’s memoir, Suzanne comes across as threatening, dangerous and really weird, but you know, I was FINE with that. She’s a mental patient who’s also a violent criminal and doesn’t get the psychiatric help she needs AT ALL, because the psych ward is just horrible, so it’s less bad for her to be with the general population and treated like everyone else, which her somewhat affluent family pulls strings to make happen. I can totally buy that the real person she’s loosely based on was threatening, dangerous and weird too.

    Later on, the writers tried to, IDK, make her more sympathetic I guess? And how did they do that? By turning her into a big child in an adult woman’s body! W.T.F. It wasn’t too bad at first, but it got worse and worse, and in season 6, it was insufferable. And they COMBINED this with the tired and totally false old cliché of psychotic people having 100 % realistic hallucinations, like being in a perfect VR simulation, when off meds, but when on meds, these just vanish. W.T.F!!!!!

    I think positive example of schizophrenia in pop culture is Owen in Maniac. I haven’t seen the Norwegian original, but from the trailer and info on Netflix it seems like the original show also does the idiotic “because he’s psychotic his life is like a stream of fun VR simulations” thing, and possibly the “child in an adult body” thing too, just to top it off. But the American remake portrayed Owen very well, I think, and they kept the VR simulation aspect by making the show a bit sci-fi, and have him partake in a psychiatric experiment with an ACTUAL VR machine.

  2. Dave L

    Spoiler for Game of Thrones

    >In the first chapter, the serial killer sneaks up behind the violinist as they are practicing and chops their head off.

    Given the lead time, this must have been written BEFORE GoT killed off their only WOC

  3. Kalani

    I loved the examples they also made good points about representation. Congrats on another great article!

  4. Adriano Tenório

    Hello. Great article, Chris!

    There’s something I’ve always wondered, but never could grasp. When you read a fiction that takes place in a (more or less) homogenized culture, like Japan, Arabia, Africa, you can always assume the majority (if not all) of your characters belong to that culture.

    But when the story happens in a multicultural setting, like Brazil or the USA, there shouldn’t be a default race. Nevertheless, whenever the author describes someone, if they don’t actively describe them as part of this or that group, it’s common to assume them white.

    If you describe someone using stereotypical racial traits, I believe they’re gonna be seen in a stereotypical fashion. So how can we describe them without doing that?

    Thanks

    • Chris Winkle

      If you’re writing in a setting that has Earth, you can just say what they are. If they’re Asian, say they’re Asian. Skin color can also be used to indicate a character isn’t white, just don’t use food names for colors, no “chocolate.” But “brown” is fine. Names are also commonly associated with different cultures and are helpful in clarifying. If you are writing in a world where Earth has never existed, specifying ethnicity can get more difficult, but it’s still easy to make characters people of color in general, and plenty of other marginalized traits are easy to specify in other worlds.

      • Adriano Tenório

        But that’s what bothers me. Saying someone is asian, or has brown skin, makes me feel like they’re different, and that their difference is what’s important about them, when it shouldn’t. On visual media, we can have a diverse cast without underlying reasons. We see them black, white, asian and it all flows beautifully (unless they’re from a far far away galaxy with space wizards).

        I understand that it might come from the fact that for ages writers leaned towards white characters, writing for a white audience, so they didn’t bother specifying racial traits.

        They could describe everything of that character without having to turn to racial traits, like skin color. Everybody understood the characters were like them, unless stated otherwise.

        But would a writer in a diverse society have to actually specify every single trait, considering there’s no “standard” one? Would a non-white author from a prominently non-white country (Africa, Asia, Arabia…) have to describe a character having “fair skin” if they wanted to make clear it’s not “one of them?

        • Cay Reet

          There is actually a historical reason for the white standard already – colonialism.

          It’s not only media where the straight white man is the standard hero for all stories (and where the love interest often is white as well – unless they’re supposed to be ‘exotic’).
          Look at male fashion – the business suit is the only thing to wear for business occasions, even in climates which are ill-suited for this particular piece of clothing. Look at how African and African-American people straighten their hair, because it looks more like white people’s hair that way and is considered more attractive like that. Or how they try to bleach their skin to make it look ‘fairer.’ Look at how Asian people undergo surgery to change their eye-shape to something more European. Or try to dye their hair blond, which most of the time results in a shade of orange.

          Due to history and the control white people had on all continents for some time, white is standard even where it shouldn’t be. That is why, unfortunately, specific traits have to be mentioned in writing, where you can’t just see a character, to make it clear that they are not the white standard.

    • Matt

      One way is using names (especially last names) of their race.

    • Dvärghundspossen

      You should check out writingwithcolor at tumblr for tips!

  5. Chris

    Examples like this generate more questions when trying to understand the concepts outlined above. Missandei was “treated with the same respect as everyone else at the party.” Many vital supporting characters have been killed regardless of sex or race. This series kills like none before it, it’s part of its distinct suspense. I didn’t enjoy this writing choice personally for several reasons, but can’t we understand her value, depth, and impact on the plot without solely tying it to her identity? Or does representation mean that dangerous or fatal storylines shouldn’t be given to anyone besides cis white males? This seems to oppose the impulse we’re aiming for in treating characters equally.

    • Chris

      This was replying to Dave Ls comment about GOT.

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