#1 Big Problem
Most writers want to write characters NOT like themselves, but fear making a mistake doing this. ‘I don’t want to get it wrong’ is a common worry amongst the Bang2writers I talk to.
Similarly, we know lots of writers HAVE made big mistakes writing characters in the past right up to the present day. Stereotypes, stigma and cultural appropriation get called out in the digital age, so it’s understandable why writers want to avoid this.
But what if I told you there’s often one big problem at the root of diverse characters who ‘get it wrong’? The #1 problem, if you will.
Seriously … Avoid this #1 problem and you’ll avoid probably 90% of the issues that could come with writing characters UNlike yourself.
The Mistake To End All Mistakes …
It’s such a tiny and obvious thing, you will literally kick yourself. Wait for it …
… Writers model their character on JUST ONE ‘DIVERSE’ PERSON THEY KNOW.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had conversations about this. I will flag up a stereotype, toxic trope or other problematic representation and the writer will come back with:
‘B-B-But this character is based on my parent / sibling / friend / spouse / kids / celebrity / boss / delete as appropriate’.
First up, let me say there’s nothing inherently wrong with starting characterisation with a real person you know. Most of us probably start here in some capacity, literally or metaphorically, whether we realise it or not.
This is because writers can only think of/ write stuff we have experience with as we are filtering everything through our OWN brains first.
However, it becomes a mistake when we RELY on that person as the **whole character**.
You Can’t Write ‘Variety’ … Without Variety!
When we break it down like this, it becomes obvious.
One person cannot be representative of an entire community.
People are not a monolith. It is this simple.
So, what do writers do?
The problem’s cause is simple, but luckily the fix for this mistake is too … DON’T rely on just one person’s experiences to inform your character!
Compare and contrast as much as possible. Collect multiple experiences from multiple people, mix and match. This has the added the bonus of ensuring you create an ORIGINAL character, with nuance and layers … and that you’re not ‘stealing’ anyone’s life story. Result.
Also, ask YOURSELF some hard questions. For example, if you want to write a gay character and your gay sibling or friend seems fairly ‘typical’ to you, ask yourself if they are really … OR are you viewing them through that ‘typical’ lens?
It’s funny, but the moment we put the onus back on OURSELVES as writers, the quicker we can challenge our own bias (which everyone has). As long as we are doing this, it’s very difficult to recycle the same-old crap unthinkingly.
I don’t totally agree with this. If I base my character on a real person, that character might not be a good representation of all of a certain group of people, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s just one character. And its experiences are as valid as the real persons they are modeled after. It only becomes problematic, when I base a bunch of characters on the same one real person.
No one said a character ‘needs’ to represent an entire group of people – as the post says, people are not a monolith. Re: your second point, you unwittingly hit the nail right on the head … even unconnected writers DO create a bunch of characters based on one person or characteristic, that’s how we end up with dated, inauthentic and even offensive tropes across the board. If you don’t believe me, check out the repetitive patterns that appear in characters over history, as well as the lack of diversity – once you spot it, it’s like a million lightbulbs go on in your head. It’s even worse in the spec pile of novels and screenplays.
I guess I am “lucky” in having quite a lot of gay friends and one family member who finally came out. They ranged in personalities from straight-laced business suits to medical personnel to outgoing trans people to musicians. My sister, who worked in the music industry had a friend who was a lesbian and they were talking one day and she informed my sister, “I don’t do the whole “Lesbian” dress thing, it’s not me.” She was readying to take the bar to become an attorney and she wore dresses. So, for me, they range (I was using dress to display their differences) from sedate to wildly frank in their expressions. I think the one thing they all felt was the hardest thing for them all was the actual “coming out” process. Why? Because they never knew who was going to react badly when they were told about it. Especially family members and friends. Now, it’s not so traumatic as it once was; they can live without lies and even marriage is acceptable for them. Another reason is that people STILL think it’s a “lifestyle” choice, though much less these days. Wouldn’t that be a place to start, Lucy, or do you think that is also offensive? I mean, you could write an entire novel on the process of one person getting to the point of coming out and the reaction of both themselves and those important to them. Am I way off-base here?
No not way off, coming out is super important to LGBTQ people and can make for excellent stories … However there is the feeling in the community that coming out stories for LGBTQ people are overrepresented. There is a real hunger for stories involving characters who ‘just so happen to be LGBTQ’ (and so on), rather than fueling the story. More here >> No, Diverse Characters DON’T Have To Drive The Plot http://bang2write.com/2020/05/no-diverse-characters-dont-have-to-drive-the-plot.html
@Daylin Banks – maybe use your friends’ experience in another way. If there was a commonality amongst their stories of the fear of losing a loved one who couldn’t accept them for who they were, maybe consider writing about a character who just happens to be homosexual or bi or trans etc living through whatever experiences your story is about, and incorporating a b-story centred either around losing someone they cared about, or even a close relationship or friendship that withstood the coming out and therefore became much more important because of it. That way you’re drawing on real life experiences, writing something that is inclusive of LGBTQ+ values, AND writing a quality story that is an alternative to the classic coming out journey.