It’s About The $$$
Regardless of where you stand on the likes of diversity in the industry, the recent #OscarsSoWhite controversy or feminism and film (such as Female Ghostbusters, or #Clexa and #The100), it’s BORING to see the same-old, same-old. We all know this.
And most of us have strong opinions on what *should* be done.Yet ideals and $$$ rarely make good bedfellows and let’s face it, we also have to get REAL. We all know this, too: if we want to be professionals, then it’s not about “selling out”, but rather about SELLING.
But what if I told you this whole diversity conversation is a big fat red herring and that the solution (as writers, at least!) is actually RIGHT UNDER OUR NOSES?
It’s not about diversity …
If we look at the definition of “diversity” in the dictionary, then we find it defined as “the state of being diverse; a range of different things.” I’d argue that doesn’t really tell us much, until we look up the actual meaning of “diverse” which is: “showing a great deal of variety; very different.”
… It’s about VARIETY!
Variety is one of the forgotten two key words when we talk about diversity. Its dictionary definition is “the quality or state of being different or diverse; the absence of uniformity or monotony.”
I would venture it’s the UNIFORMITY and MONOTONY of the current status quo we are currently reacting to when it comes to stories and characters, such as (but not limited to):
- Too many male-centric stories
- Too many white-centric stories
- Too many “worthy” dramas about the same people or topics
- Too many female, BAME or LGBT actors in the same *kind* of secondary roles
- Too few disabled and trans actors / stars
… The list goes on. In other words, we’re talking same-old, same old. LE YAWN.
The Same … But Different?
But this is the thing. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel here. When it comes to variety, it’s NOT about creating a *different* character completely out of the left field, either. Great characters exist not because they’re entirely “new” but because they take something RECOGNISABLE and twist it, rather than start from scratch or copy something wholesale that came before it.
From there of course, casting is a major issue – and that can be out of writers’ hands, sadly – especially when notions of “star power” come into play. There’s not much we can do about this — other than GET BEHIND movies with non-typical characters!! If it’s about the money (and it is), then we have to support movies with diverse characters and actors in (doh!).
But we CAN still try our best at grass roots level on the actual page to write differentiated characters that defy the “norm”, without being totally whack, either.
Next, I will argue we need to rid of the tags we assign individual characters and role functions, because they’re actually HOLDING US BACK from engaging with the true craft of writing, distracting us instead with notions that take us down the wrong track. Check these out for size:
1) “Strong Female Character”
SUBSTITUTE WITH: Complex character (who happens to be female).
Her role function might be protagonist, antagonist, or a secondary position – but she will be flawed, have problems and thoughts and an agency of her own. This means she may be reactive to say, a (male) protagonist , but she won’t exist solely as a sounding board or facilitator for other (male) characters.
Example: Amy Dunne, GONE GIRL (2015). Like other infamous female leads before her such as Catherine Trammell, BASIC INSTINCT (1992) or Alex in FATAL ATTRACTION (1987), Amy Dunne is absolutely evil and vengeful in equal measures. There is no stopping her vitriol or her cunning and she will make her victims pay in blood for any slight, real OR imagined. The likes of Dunne and co proves a great female lead does NOT have to be the protagonist, or be necessarily “positive” to bring out fantastic characterisation that grips the imagination.
Counter Example: Bianca, in CREED (2016). Bianca might be a secondary character rather than the lead, but she is exemplary. She is a talented singer and musician; plus she has thoughts and opinions and even problems of her own, such as her fading hearing. She offers inspiration and support to Adonis, but she doesn’t take any shit from him either. Bianca is the perfect follow-on from Adrian and her relationship with Rocky in the original movies, plus she’s proof the much-maligned “wife or girlfriend” role function can still be authentic and fresh.
2) “Sacrificial Minority”
SUBSTITUTE WITH: Expendable Hero.
Some characters will sacrifice themselves for the protagonist and/or the rest of the group in the narrative, especially within the Action-Adventure and Horror genres. The reason for this is obvious: it adds to the conflict and provokes an emotional response in the audience, ie. they don’t want that character to die.
Example: Braz, THE CORE (2003). Braz invented Virgil, the big screw-nosed ship that drills down into the centre of the earth. Braz dies saving not only his ship mates, but the entire WORLD. His death is agonising and easily one of the most memorable moments of the movie. THE CORE is essentially a disaster movie, so lots of people die, not least most of the crew of The Virgil, but you guessed it … The white protagonist survives, ‘cos hell, he nearly always does.
Now, it’s true that historically, black men occupy the above character role function, but to call Braz a “sacrificial minority” ignores the fact Braz is a great character in his own right. He is a genius, he doesn’t give a shit, but he’s fiercely loyal and has a huge sense of responsibility … what’s not to like about that characterisation??
Counter Example: Dallas, ALIEN (1979). Following on, I’d venture Braz also sounds like DALLAS from ALIEN in 1979, no? Dallas is probably not a genius, but he’s definitely the other 3 characterisation elements I list. Dallas also dies for the SAME reasons as Braz – responsibility. Put simply, it makes no sense to call one “the sacrificial minority” just on the basis of his skin colour and make it the role function’s problem, when really we should be addressing the REAL issue of casting.
3) “Magical Negro”
SUBSTITUTE WITH: Change Agent (including “mentor”).
Some characters exist to bring a new idea/way of thinking to an audience, so they do this via educating, informing and/or inspiring other characters within the narrative, especially the protagonist.
These Change Agents will usually “stand alone” in some way – this may be literal, metaphorical or a combination of both. The Change Agents will be *different* to the norm, but this does not mean including them has to be tantamount to a voyeuristic freakshow.
Example: God, in BRUCE ALMIGHTY (2003)
Morgan Freeman is frequently held up as the ultimate version of the “magical negro” character role function, with God in BRUCE ALMIGHTY considered the “worst” for this. However, God is supposed to be all-powerful and wise, plus God is traditionally considered to be white, so it *could* be considered challenging to the “norm” that a black actor should play him.
“Magical Negro” is not a term I like or would use personally, but we do have to accept the perception of this role function exists as a result of historical critique, especially of American literature. Regardless, arguably Freeman is the epitome instead of what I would call the “wise old man” persona – it’s part of his appeal, along with that voice of his.
Freeman was a good looking man in his prime and remains so into his eighties, like most Hollywood stars. He stays in work because of ALL this and retains his star power because audiences like him and there are plenty of “wise old man” roles around.
Counter Example: Professor X, The X Men Franchise (2000 – onwards)
By the same token then, Patrick Stewart benefits from the same kind of roles and projection of “wise old man” as Freeman. His voice, like Freeman’s, is distinctive and he’s also good looking, albeit in an unusual way.
Like the God role in BRUCE ALMIGHTY then, Professor X is a clever, powerful figure with almost God-like powers. He is essentially God of his own X-verse: he gathers his people to him; reads their minds and even sends them out on missions like avenging angels! He gives the other X Men life lessons and inspires them in equal measures.
Now, a question: if Morgan Freeman played Professor X, rather than Patrick Stewart, would we think him a “magical negro”? We can’t know for sure, but I wonder. Yet “change agent” actually describes both God in BRUCE ALMIGHTY *and* Professor X in THE X MEN.
Again, we’re back to characterisation *on the page* versus casting/ real world perception. I’m not sure there’s a solution to this one. What I CAN say: is write the best character you can. And that includes the “wise old man” – because there’s nothing inherently wrong with him at grass roots level.
A Note On “Inspiration Porn”
“Change agents” are frequently lambasted in so-called “inspiration porn”, another tag I dislike. “Inspiration Porn” typically describes a drama about a person with the odds against them, because of a disability; a mental health issue; or maybe a refusal of society’s norms on gender or sexuality, such as coming out or trans stories. Basically, think any Oscar winner of recent years.
SO: Rather than assume able-bodied audiences want to be voyeurs, consider how films like this can raise AWARENESS, something activists are supposed to want … But also think about how disabled (and other marginalised) characters can still be part of genre movies, too. They are NOT the sum total of their disability or status.
Change The Picture, Don’t Take From It
The above can work for social issues, too. Let’s consider JUNO (2006). Teenage pregnancy has been big news for decades and largely, writers have painted teen Mums as stupid victims or conniving Lolitas. In other words, they’re nearly always represented in fiction negatively. But this is only half the story.
SO: Sometimes when a representation is wholly negative, doing the OPPOSITE is enough on its own to make it seem fresh. But that doesn’t mean every character has to be a “positive” representation, either. There is NO social responsibility on the writer because – you guessed it! – movies and TV are entertainment, not education. Besides, drama is conflict and how can we create conflict if everyone is so good?!
Remember: Drama Is Conflict
It’s all very well throwing accusations around about storytellers being racist, ableist, misogynist queer-bashers when characters we love die, face struggles or do terrible things. But this is why it’s about entertainment, NOT theory. Filmmakers and novelists are limited by the very resources they can access, including their own perceptions on a matter! They cannot please everyone.
So, whilst representation is important, by the same token, looking to stories for our education on social issues is an own goal – it can’t possibly happen. What CAN happen, as writers, is that we can write the best character we can – and accept someone out there is ALWAYS going to hate on it. Sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for ill, but end of the day it’s about perception. Nothing more, nothing less.
It’s very clear that when we say “diversity”, what we really want is VARIETY. This is why putting the blame on individual character role functions is not productive.
Whilst it’s true that writers have no control over casting, we can still try to ensure our characters are different to the “usual”. So if you want to write a great character, that DOESN’T copy exactly what came before it, think about the following questions:
- What is my character’s i) motivation? ii) role function?
- What has come before with these *type* of characters, in these *type* of stories?
- How is mine i) the same ii) but different?
- Reject UNIFORMITY. Reject MONOTONY.
- Think “left of the middle” NOT “out of the left field”!
- Be realistic. What’s on the page may change if you’re lucky enough to get produced – and for a variety of mad reasons, too. But you have to get that far, first. Good luck!!
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Brilliant piece thank you. You absolutely nailed it!!
Thanks Karen! 🙂
Very encouraging. You’ve hit the nail on the head.
Thank you Lucy.
You’re welcome 🙂 Best of luck with your writing