Calm down Doris I have not lost the plot! The drive for more diversity (*cough* variety) in all stories is still very much part of this website. Obviously B2W would never advocate ‘ignoring’ the politics of characterisation. It’s literally this blog’s remit … I wrote an entire book about this subject, FFS!
So, what am I banging on about? Well, there’s a common misconception writers have about diversity in storytelling … They think diverse characters can ONLY exist for **plot reasons**.
I’m here to say NOPE. Here’s why.
A Quick History Lesson
Not so long ago, diverse characters DID only exist for *plot reasons*. This still applies, especially in so-called ‘diverse stories’ – ie. stories *specifically about* race, sexuality, gender, disability and so on.
First up, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with telling a story about ISSUES. Some important, groundbreaking stories have been told using this model.
However, it does mean historically, certain characters got ‘sidelined’ …
- Female characters got shoved automatically into ‘female stories’
- LGBT characters into coming out and transition stories
- BAME characters into stories about race and slavery
- Disabled characters into ‘inspiration porn’
… and so on. This also meant certain characters like this ended up in various tropes in *other stories*, especially genre. These range from the stale and cheesy and right through to stereotypical and offensive. It even means that well-meaning attempts STILL get it wrong, as these top mistakes with diverse characters illustrate.
At grass roots level, basically it came down to the white, able-bodied cishet male driving the story most of the time. It also suggests he’s a ‘real person’, whereas everyone is symbolic of ISSUES. Yikes!
The Drive Forwards
Storytelling has evolved, in-keeping with audience preferences. They want to see and read far more nuanced, varied characters. This means characters can be ‘diverse’ WITHOUT the automatic need for their ‘difference’ to drive the main story directly.
In this new model of storytelling, diversity is instead just part of the natural order of things in that storyworld. That doesn’t mean that ‘difference’ is ‘ignored’, either. Instead that character’s worldview will be powered by their experiences (like all good characterisation!!).
‘There Can Be Only One!’ – Erm, No Thanks
Consider the TV sitcom Brooklyn 99, which I put under the microscope in my last B2W case study.
The series focuses on a group of very different NY police detectives. Each character is a personality FIRST, not symbolic of ‘issues’. Also, because it sidesteps what B2W calls ‘The Highlander Effect’ (“There can be only one!”) a character doesn’t end up accidentally representing an entire group of people, ie …
i) Captain Holt and Lieutenant Terry Jeffords
These guys are both African-American, blue collar cops from working class backgrounds, but they were raised very differently, with very different experiences as young men. Their ways of negotiating the world around them are poles apart … And all this is long before we get to the fact Captain Holt is married, out-and-proud gay man, whereas Terry is a heterosexual family man.
ii) Sergeant Amy Santiago and Detective Rosa Diaz
They are both Latin ladies from broadly similar backgrounds. Amy comes from a family of cops and her father is Cuban, though due to Rosa’s secrecy, it’s difficult to know exactly what her background is. We have seen her parents though, who seem quite straight-laced with high expectations. We have also been fed various tidbits over seven seasons, so we know she’s been a ballet student; went to medical AND business school and has been involved in crime in her youth. In short, still waters run deep!
But the two women’s race is not what’s important, nor their gender. Amy is incredibly uptight and uber-organised; she’s a nerd and proud of it. She is never happier than when shopping for stationery and binders.
Rosa is the exact opposite, cool and badass who does not give A.F! But she’s wise with it, mentoring not only Amy, but a good chunk of the squad such as Jake, Terry, Boyle and occasionally Captain Holt himself.
Read more about female leads in How NOT To Write Female Characters.
iii) Detective Jake Peralta and his best friend Detective Charles Boyle
These fellas are both white men of comparable ages, again from broadly similar backgrounds. Jake wants to be a hero, but is a man child with daddy issues, due to abandonment and benign neglect in childhood. This doesn’t make him incompetent or an asshole though; he’s always there for his friends.
Whilst it’s clear from the offset Jake is the protagonist of the show as he operates the ‘main’ jester role function, he is nothing without Charles. Charles is not just a straight man, however. He is a clumsy foodie who enjoys being number 2, despite Jake telling him ‘It sounds like a turd‘.
Like Terry, Charles is a family man, but unlike Terry he is highly sexualised (a characteristic we never normally associate with straight men/best friend characters). Despite Charles’ almost constant inappropriateness, he is naive and harmless with it, so this means we don’t see him as a perv. As a result, women cannot resist him! More on the characters in the B99 Wiki, HERE.
Infographic: How To Write A Diverse Character
Whether you like Brooklyn 99 or not is immaterial. What it does brilliantly is illustrate you DON’T have to make your diverse characters drive the plot. It’s a subtle but crucial change to how diversity is approached in storytelling … The more modern way, if you like. (Yes obviously we have a long way to go still, we are not in some kind of diverse storytelling utopia yet, more’s the pity).
This new approach also leaves options open, because writers can also make reference to these ‘differences’ in later storylines and make them drive the plot if they want to. They’ve done this in various episodes of B99, such as
- Terry getting racially profiled
- Rosa’s parents rejecting her bisexuality
- Amy sharing her past history of sexual harassment in another precinct
Any writer can do similar, in any genre or medium if they want to.
Summing up though, the days of ‘just’ shoving in a single diverse character to drive the story *as standard* are vanishing … and rightly so. Brooklyn 99 shows us without a doubt that TRUE inclusion comes from VARIETY on every level, starting with the characters’ experiences and worldview. It’s not only more interesting, it’s literally better writing.
B2W calls this ‘diversity as backstory’, which you can see on the infographic below. What’s more, you can use this approach in WHATEVER mediums you’re writing in … TV, film, novel, short story, you name it!
Have fun crafting those brilliant characters … who just so happen to be ‘diverse’ (whatever that means).