I read a lot of blogs by fellow writers. Politically speaking, I am slightly left of centre yet when it comes to creating characters and character development, there is one thing that leaves me slightly uneasy when I talk with them about how to create and develop characters.
I’m British so naturally I live on these things.
First, please think about this question. Is your character one of these things:
- A larger than life Muslim character who calls out “Praise be to Allah!” and claps his hands at every ounce of good fortune
- A black man who can dance / is good at sport
- A person of Chinese descent who is naturally good at algebra
- A person of Indian descent who is naturally good with technology
- An old black woman who has a sixth sense (Spike Lee refers to these as The Magic Negro)
- A gay man who is good at interior design and knows more about fashion than all the girls
- A male romantic lead who is over 6′, incredibly good looking and ludicrously rich
- Action Girl who is better at doing practically anything than all of her peers, especially the male ones. She is never just so-so or average at anything
Do you see where I am going with this? Many on my side of the political spectrum seem very intent on the idea of not creating a character, but a positive trope to “properly represent” a demographic. It’s almost as though the character has become less important than positive stereotyping in creating an image and fitting a number of tick boxes. I have many problems with this.
Firstly, it’s lazy. Tropes are never a good idea and readers know what to expect. It forces characters into boxes, rarely permitting for development, removing all hope of complexity and the subtle nuances that create a truly compelling character. That’s fine if you want that, and many writers make a career out of filling books with tropes, but they are not pretending to be doing a public service. I want heroes with fatal flaws. I want villains with redeeming qualities. I want anti-heroes you’re not sure whether to trust and I want sympathetic anti-villains. I want characters who are people with all the flaws and variations that means.
Secondly, it creates impossible standards for people to live up to and it creates expectations in the people around them who do not share their profile. I’ve heard women say they want a gay male friend to take them clothes shopping. I get asked about cars and DIY all the time (when I know next to nothing about them). We expect people to fit in positive boxes and that adversely creates a very negative stereotype. “Oh you’re a man who is not into cars?” *makes disappointed face* “Shame, because I was hoping you’d do an oil change for me.”
Third, it places limits on what people can do or are expected to do. Thus, we limit the roles of people by assuming they are “naturally” better at something because of their gender, their ethnicity, their sexuality. It closes doors and shoves them firmly through others whether they want to go through them or not. Why do we assume that all male airline attendants or male hairdressers are gay? Because they are always gay in films and on TV. Why is a woman naturally and automatically a better nurse than any man? Because women are supposed to be naturally compassionate and patient, more so than men.
I’m sure I’ve created a hornet’s nest here so let me do some science to back it up. Fascinating open access research article here on the dangers of “positive” stereotyping.