We hear a lot about so-called representation on screen and how it’s important or conversely, NOT important.
Boiling down both arguments to their base ingredients, one side says that NOT seeing one’s own reality reflected back in fiction is a problem, because such exclusion tells marginalised voices (such as, but not limited to women, BAME, LGBT and disabled people) their worldviews are not part of the “norm”. It’s said this can demotivate people, isolate them and even stop them from believing in themselves or their communities.
In contrast, the other side points out that people have their own agency, so will seek out their worldviews in “other” ways, perhaps through niche audience stories and/or characters; or even within the context of the mainstream, only thematically instead. It’s argued that some may even see it as a call to arms to take ownership of their own stories, plus it may motivate them to tell them and challenge the current status quo actively because of previously being excluded.
Myself, I’m somewhere between both camps. On the one hand, I feel diversity is important and necessary because it IS incredibly inspiring to find yourself in the context of a story. When I was growing up as a member of a large, poor family I was hyper-aware this was not usual in a society in which 2.4 children (back then – even less now!) was the “norm”, due to the complete lack of large families in fiction. I did indeed find it lonely and isolating. I wondered where my family (and thus my place in the world) fit in the wider picture.
What’s more, being part of a large family was something actively used against me: it was thought by many people my family must be ill-educated chavs paid for by taxpayers’ money*, with none of us ever possibly amounting to much**. And why wouldn’t people think this? My family was synonymous automatically with the phrase “problem family” used by the newspapers and media. (*We did receive benefits. And? **All of us became professionals and taxpayers. Thanks, British Welfare State – sincerely).
The very occasional portrayals of large families I saw in fiction when I was growing up more often than not had absolutely nothing to do with the reality of my family, too. Depictions of large families might be seen in period dramas, but children were usually silent, decoration and/or plot device more than characters in their own right. In modern depictions, large families might be Catholic, American and/or Hispanic.
That said, there was ONE family that I felt I could relate to whilst I was growing up and that’s the Dingles in EMMERDALE. They’re a “colourful” bunch shall we say – drama IS conflict, after all – but the hardworking matriarch versus the scally father, versus the kids (who are a mixture of thugs, streetwise playboys and playgirls AND those trying hard to educate and develop themselves and get out of the cycle) was inspiring to me, no question. The fact they lived in a rural area, just like I did, was the icing on the cake. The Dingles felt authentic and relevant to me and of course I liked that.
However, I’m also aware the EFFECTS of representation on screen are often over-stated, especially on social media where space is at a premium. Breaking down barriers between everyone’s (sadly inevitable) personal prejudices is difficult, especially we’re not even aware of them and/or how ridiculous our own assumptions can be. For instance, though I personally knew the pain of the supposition my family were effectively ill-bred hillbillies and/or criminals, this didn’t stop me as a kid believing the same of other large families in the area, exceptionalising ours as being different “just because” (I know, right).
So in short, human beings can be complete divs and something being represented on telly or movies – for good OR ill – doesn’t always make the difference novelists, writers, filmmakers or even audience members *think* it will … Or if it does, it may not be for the reasons we assume, because interpretation can vary SO wildly, individual to individual in an audience. Which is why of course all this representation lark is SO hard!
But what if I told you that you don’t have to think about representation, or feminism, or politics or WHATEVER, yet you still can include diversity in your writing?
MY TIP, then:
Think – The “norm” = BORING!
In other words: KNOW what’s gone before and HOW your character can be different to that “norm”.
“Maverick Cop” might be a stereotype NOW, but he wasn’t always. Back in the 80s, when McClane (DIE HARD) and Riggs (LETHAL WEAPON) turned up, people were excited by these new representations amidst a selection of muscle-bound heroic types like Arnie’s – here, McClane and Riggs seemed more like “real” men, real heroes.
Now, as three decades have passed, we’ve OD’d on Maverick Cops with foul mouths, stubborn streaks, suicidal tendencies, addictions, dead wives and families in danger. So, we want something MORE, just like we want MORE than just …
i) … Representations of toxic masculinity (especially in Action Films and Thrillers)
The tortured hero is so done, guys. We’re already seeing more nuanced heroes with Max from FURY ROAD, so let’s keep going DOWN that road! MORE: 3 Questions For Your Male Action Hero Characters
ii) … White female protagonists (representing **all women**, especially in genre)
OK, so Michelle Rodriguez and Zoe Saldana have the “WoC in a group” role sewn up, but can you remember the last time a woman of colour LEAD an action film, for example? One that comes to mind off the top of my head is Lex in ALIEN VERSUS PREDATOR and that was 2004! Yet Lex is not just a WoC and none of her actions are attributed solely to race (because let’s face it, why should it in a movie about monsters duking it out in an underground pyramid??). Yet Lex is still a kickass protagonist with a strong sense of responsibility and survival instinct. OK, the film itself largely sucked, but we need more Lexes, if not AVPs. MORE: 5 Ways To Write A Strong Female Character
iii) More disabled characters, full stop
Disabled people’s stories are too often dubbed “inspiring” and the subject of Oscar bait movies. It’s not hard to see why, when drama is synonymous with “struggle”, but it can be reductive. I believe genre is the key is unlocking the personal characteristics of disabled characters, with disabilities just part OF the character, not their sum total. MORE: 4 Disabled Characters Writers Can Learn From
iv) More characters from the LGBT community
A character’s sexuality or lack of conforming gender identity should not be the most interesting thing about them. This isn’t the case in real life, so there’s no reason it should be in a story. It really is as simple as that. MORE: 11 Experts Share Their Notable Trans Characters Of Recent Years
When audiences say a character feels FRESH and RELEVANT, they generally mean this:
There’s an element to this character that relates to me personally and/or to people I know/have met or seen in real life AND we don’t usually see this in books, on TV or in movies. Yay!
This is EXCITING. The key is recognising you DON’T have to go too far in the other direction, either. You don’t want your character to be completely out the left field either. How far you go will depend on WHAT has gone before; WHAT type of story you’re telling; WHAT audience you’re targeting and WHAT you need to do to bring in the new stuff and jettison the old stuff. But ultimately it’s:
The “norm” = BORING!
So forget about politics, arguments, even representation … Instead, figure out WHAT the current norm is and how to change it. On a selfish level, your writing is more likely to be noticed for being DIFFERENT, plus on an unselfish level, you’re ADDING to the picture, rather than taking from it. So what are you waiting for??? MORE: Top 7 Writing Tips For Great Characterisation
Then check out my book, Writing Diverse Characters For Fiction, TV & Film, out now from Creative Essentials. Available in paperback and ebook, from Amazon and all good book stores. Click on the link or the pic for more details.