When I was growing up, I can distinctly remember LOVING the old school martial arts flicks that they used to show on Channel 66 in Chicago on Sundays! “Incredible Kung Fu Mission”, “Five Deadly Venoms”, “Drunken Master”! A good Shaw Brothers original? They never failed to excite me and have me locked in to the point where, by the time it was over, I’d be fighting my own pillows and trying to kick couch cushions across the room with my non-existent skills as a five or six year old Kung Fu warrior. Hehehe, sad but true.
But…one thing that always stuck out to me in those old movies was the idea of the bad guys thinking they’d be able to effortlessly take down someone that they thought would have been an easy win. If you go back and watch those movies, it was always the people that most would have written off as being helpless or of lesser strength or ability that would TRULY fuck you up if you messed with them! Little kids, demure and quiet housewives, hardcore drunks, old men, the handicapped or the disabled, etcetera. You could be the most feared martial artist in town…but if you go into a tavern and have to face off against a blind, one armed, swordsman…? Just walk away! You’re going to get your ass handed to you! End of discussion! Whatever advantage you thought you had over them…leave it at the door. It doesn’t matter. They are just as much of a badass as you are, and probably even more so. You would be foolish to think otherwise. That kind of thing could get you sliced wide open! Hehehe!
The point being, the attributes and power behind those characters has nothing to do with how they appear from a distance. They’re good characters because you wrote them that way. As it should be.
When it comes to creating stories, I really do believe that character diversity is important, but not just for the sake of appealing to a certain audience or trying to show your readers how ‘open minded’ you are. It’s simply a representation of reality itself. At least in my mind. I grew up in Chicago, where there were many different races, cultures, religions, sexual preferences and identities, and financial classes. So, for me to write a story that didn’t include and represent different kinds of people in my projects comes off as unnatural and unrealistic to me. Including a variety of different people isn’t forced or something that I do just because, it’s just how I view the particular character that I’m creating at that moment. I mean, every love interest or supporting character that I write can’t be a slim, blond haired, teenage boy with bright blue eyes and a pretty smile. That’s not a default setting for what the world considers as ‘normal’. I think I would be bored to death if that was all that I was allowed to write about. That’s not the world that I live in. But how can a writer explore a diverse cast of characters without being patronizing or having their intentions be (or seem) disingenuous in the long run?
Hopefully, this discussion will help writers and readers alike understand the difference between being diverse and being condescending. Because there is a difference, and it can sometimes turn your readers off if you get the balance wrong.
So let’s talk character diversity, shall we?
One of my very best friends actually took improv comedy classes at Chicago’s ‘Second City’, where the crowd calls out certain characters, professions, or situations, and the actors on stage are supposed to create a spontaneous skit from their suggestions. Now…the thing about this practice is that it ends up getting the actors to settle into certain stereotypes when it comes to portraying the kinds of people that the audience suggests. Not in a malicious way…but in ways that people will recognize it for what it is supposed to be. If you ask improv actors to be a cowboy, they might widen their legs as if they’ve been riding a horse all day and talk with a Southern Texas accent. If you ask them to be a rapper, they might sag their pants and talk with a certain slang. Ask them to be a gay guy, and they might show you a limp wrist and speak with a lisp. Again…it’s not meant to be hurtful or insulting, but it’s a series of recognizable gestures that people associate with a certain characterization or situation. And a lot of times it works out just fine for the sake of humor in the moment. However, when you’re writing fiction, people are going to be genuinely more invested in the characters that you create. And stereotypes can become easily offensive to them if those types are the only thing that you have to lean on as an author. Let’s go into detail…
Having a character in your story that is black, Asian, gay, Jewish, overweight, or a woman…understand that this is not a character trait. That’s a character DESCRIPTION. It’s a look. An outer shell. And it doesn’t let you off the hook when it comes to actually creating a real character of depth and meaning beneath it. Don’t just toss them into your story for ‘diversity’s sake’. Even if you attach a bunch of popular stereotypical speech and behavior traits to these characters. That shouldn’t be the only thing that defines them in your story. In fact, if you were to change the color of their skin, their gender, or their sexual identity, it shouldn’t have that much of a major impact on them as a character according to the plot at all. Unless, of course, their skin color, gender, or sexual identity, is the main focus of the story itself. If not…then why does it matter? Think about that while creating them. Let your characters be more than their outer appearance.
The same goes for characters that are elderly, or teenagers, or heavily religious, or extremely wealthy. These are not the traits that define them and make them interesting and important in the eyes of your readers. It makes for a few extra details, but it’s not enough to say, ‘that’s the gay kid’, or ‘that’s the transvestite guy’, or ‘he’s the foreign exchange student’. That is a very small part of who they are as a person, and you can’t rely on that security blanket view to carry you through your story if you’re not going to give that character anything else of significance to do or to build them up in a way that’s important to the plot.
In the first set of videos below, you’ll see some very strong female characters in lead roles for their own movies. And yes, they existed before Wonder Woman came along. But this time, pay attention to what’s not there. The extra emphasis. You don’t have to deliberately emphasize the fact that they are women. We can clearly see that. I think that’s where the friction comes from. You don’t have to say, “Yeah, she’s a woman…but she’s a total badass!” What? BUT she’s a total badass??? Do you see the issue here? It’s like…you’re praising this one woman because…women can’t be badasses unless we tell you they are. Not unless we use it as some sort of a ‘gimmick’ or try to make it look so out of the ordinary. Ok, mistake number one. Don’t do that. The fact that the main character is female (much like the old school Kung Fu movies that I mentioned above) doesn’t mean that she should be underestimated or highly praised for being ‘the pick of the litter’ for kicking ass. It’s just a part of her character. That’s all there is to it.
There’s no need to justify it, explain or make excuses for it, or even acknowledge it, really. Don’t let the current buzzwords from modern day ‘rant pirates’ trick you into thinking that strong females in movies and TV were never a thing before the current media blitzes of today. Ripley from “Alien” was a strong female character. Sarah Connor from “The Terminator” was a strong female character. Princess Leia in “Star Wars” was a strong female character. The ENTIRE horror movie genre was built on the one strong female character that escapes at the very end of the movie, including Jamie Lee Curtis in “Halloween” or Nancy in “A Nightmare On Elm Street”. We’ve always had a treasure chest of strong female characters to see on screen or read about. From Cleopatra to Joan Of Ark to La Feme Nikita to Fury Road. Don’t pretend that this is some new conspiracy that popped up in the last few years. It isn’t. So what was the difference here?
The difference was the fact that their strength wasn’t based on the fact that they were women. It wasn’t BECAUSE they were women, and it wasn’t DESPITE the fact that they were women…it was because they were written as strong characters. They displayed their strength through their actions and their ability to deal with the obstacles presented to them. And if any one of those characters had been written as being male, or black, or Muslim, or Latino, or had been put in a sci fi make up chair for four hours a day to make them green with alligator scales every day before filming…the actual ‘character’ should still remain just as strong and as important to us regardless of the visuals.
Even in gay fiction, being a woman isn’t a character trait…it’s a character description. Same rules apply.
Some good examples of strong female characters that never once had to scream, “I’m a woman! Hear me roar!” in order to be respected and enjoyed as great characters in their own right.
The term ‘woke’ was never intended to be a negative comment. But, more and more, I see it being weaponized and used to attack people and make accusations that are WAY out of bounds. Why? Being woke is the opposite of being asleep. That’s it. There are gay people where you live. There are black people where you live. There are poor people where you live. There are transgender people where you live. What’s so wrong with that? Your art is supposed to reflect reality, right? So reflect reality then. The people you went to school with, work with, shop with at the mall…feel free to write them into your story if that’s what you want to do. And if not, then don’t. But if you’re trying to paint a realistic picture of the world…you can’t do it with just one brush. Just saying.
Now, I don’t want anybody to think that this is some ‘push’ to force anybody to create characters that they don’t want to create for the sake of diversity. If that’s not the story that you’re trying to tell, or you don’t think you can build something genuine with characters that don’t fit your narrative, then that’s fine. Write what you want to write, what you know best, and be proud of it. That’s what the whole writing process is about.
I just imagine my own characters as being representations of the people that I grew up around. My best friends and my classmates and my co-workers. Some of them were Muslim, some were Jewish, some were heavy metal rockers with piercings and tattoos, some were hip hop kids with tilted caps and hoodies, and some of them were rich kids with fancy houses and sweet automobiles. Some were tall, some were short, some were younger than me, some were older than me, some were heavyset or husky, and some were bony and thin. It’s all fine. The variety of people inhabiting my world gave me the chance to really appreciate people for who they are, and not just what I could use to put them into some kind of ‘category’ that probably wouldn’t fit them anyway. You know? I’m so thankful for that. The world that I live in gets channeled into the stories that I write. It’s honest. And I draw from some of the most incredible people and experiences that I’ve ever had in my life. And…spoiler alert…they don’t all look alike. So…yeah.
Either way, if you want to add a diverse cast to your current stories or anything in the future, the one thing to remember is that people are people. Point blank, period. Changing their sexuality or their gender or their skin color shouldn’t really matter. Unless (again) it is the main focus of the story. If your story is about homophobic bullying, then there has to be a gay character, or someone who is assumed to be gay. If the story is about racism, then you should have a character of a different race or color. If the story is about bashing atheists, then religious beliefs obviously matter. But if it’s just a character in your story that has a desire and a goal that is relative to all of us as a whole…love, friendship, opportunity, comfort…then the outer description or belief system shouldn’t mean anything more to the reader than the clothes that they’re wearing. “She wears a red hood, she’s atheist, and she’s a lesbian.” Ok, that gives us some information about her…but unless that’s what the story is about, specifically…then you’re going to need more than that. Develop their character with emotions and motivations and a backstory the same way you would with any other. Otherwise, it kind of looks like you just threw that in for kicks. And…why?
Stay focused on who your characters are, and not just what they are, unless it directly links into the plot somehow.
…However…no matter WHAT you do, there’s always a chance of stepping on the landmine of having to deal with people this…
I have a character in the vampire story, “Gone From Daylight”, named Jenna. Very beautiful, very sweet, a little on the sensitive side, and pretty quiet for the most part. Before becoming a vampire, this girl with the long blond hair actually came from a very wealthy family on the other side of the country. However, when Jenna and main protagonist found themselves under attack, she jumps right in and it’s discovered that she can easily brawl with the best of them! Even better than the protagonist himself. And this was a moment of shock and awe for fans of the story when that chapter was first posted, because they didn’t see that coming at all. Not because, “Whoah, she’s kicking a lot of ass to be a little rich blond girl!” But because her actions were a complete left turn from what they knew about her as a character. It’s a departure from her personality, her quiet voice, her sensitive ways. That’s the focus of the scene, and that’s exactly what I needed it to be. If you concentrate on every character in your story depending on their individual personalities, advantages, flaws, etc…everything else falls into the background. I didn’t want to make Jenna a damsel in distress. I never had any plans to make her a rich brat, or some vain popular girl that was worried about her looks all night long. She’s a three-dimensional character that adds something to the rest of the ensemble cast. Everything else is inconsequential.
Another example would be Tristan’s best friends, Lori and Michelle, in the story “Jesse-101”. Tristan is a gay boy in high school, and while he’s not overly effeminate, it’s just enough to keep him from having a lot of guy friends. He has more in commons with his best girls instead. But when I write those characters, and the dialogue that they share, I wanted it to be clearly obvious why they’re the best of friends. I wanted it to feel as though there was some history there between them. But Lori’s not just a ‘girl’ for the sake of saying, “See? Female character!” That wouldn’t do anything for the story. And she would eventually fade into the background, just popping up every now and then to remind readers that she’s supposed to have a purpose in all this. Instead, Lori is a huge motivating factor for Tristan. She can be strong when she needs to be, funny when she needs to be, a shoulder to cry own, or a dedicated protector, or an excited cheerleader, when she needs to be. They feed off of one another. Gay stories can have awesome female characters, and straight stories can have awesome gay characters. Any character with any particular attributes can be used in any story if you want to use them, just don’t let the shallow stuff overwhelm your plot or fall into the background if you can help it. A few nudges, winks, and jokes, are fine…but have your readers love them for their personalities and contributions to the project…not just for their description.
And now…speaking of having fun…Why don’t I end this off by doing exactly that! Have a few laughs with me for a while, and always remember not to overdo the messaging thing. Hehehe, we get it. Enjoy! I’ll see you next time with more! 😛