The Pros and Cons of Concealing Certain Character Traits
There are good reasons to avoid identifying a character’s ethnicity, exact age, and body type in your writing, especially when these traits aren’t crucial to understanding their actions. By revealing these specifics you limit the casting options in your readers’ heads. You make it harder for some members of the audience to see themselves in the role. If you leave these elements ambiguous your lead could be anyone your readers want.
At the time of this writing there’s stubble on my face. If I’m reading a story with a male lead I’m likely to imagine him with stubble too, until the author tells me he’s clean shaving. I’m six foot four, I have dirty blond hair, and greying sideburns as is every male lead of the books I read, until the author tells me otherwise.
I’m never heartbroken when one of these character traits is different from my own, but I usually see myself as the star from page one. I doubt I’m alone in my narcissism.
… But, what happens when a screenwriter decides not to specify a character’s ethnicity, age, or body type? That character usually ends up cast with a white actor, in their twenties, with a perfectly sculpted body. That’s the default setting in Hollywood. If a screenwriter wants to see diversity on screen they have to put it on the page.
When should an author cast their characters on behalf of their readers? The obvious answer is when it’s crucial to the story.
If the nationality of a character is important you should include it. If the story takes place in a backdrop where prejudice is prevalent then highlight the conflict. If the point of your story is to share an underrepresented perspective then the audience can find another way to see themselves in the character (as I’ll discuss later).
Why Writers Shouldn’t Fear Having A Diverse Cast of Characters
Full disclosure: I’m a white, cisgender, mostly heterosexual, male. I grew up in a suburb rubbing shoulders with clones of myself. I was the protagonist of countless stories set in the American midwest. I was one of the boys in Stephen King’s IT, biking all over town to solve the mystery of Pennywise the killer clown. I was one of the boys in Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, hiding from Mr. Dark’s carnival cronies in the mirror maze of mystery, and that was me learning the true meaning of the Jack-O’-Lantern in The Halloween Tree.
Everywhere I looked I was the hero of something. I was Huck Finn, John Connor, and Bart Simpson. My face was thoroughly represented throughout fiction.
This never meant that an appreciation for these stories was only for a white boy like me. Readers see more than just their physical attributes in characters. They see their hardships, quirks, and shared desires. If a character is relatable their ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation might be the least significant things about them. Their quest might not have anything to do with these surface level features.
… But, if all that matters is that a character is sympathetic then why shouldn’t I write a story about little a black girl going on an adventure of her own? Should white writers require a narrative reason to cast black characters? What if this hero goes to school with a mixed cast where her race is never a conflict? What if my only reason for identifying this character’s ethnicity is that’s how I first imagined her?
We writers draw the most from our own backgrounds. We’re hesitant to represent other people’s experiences for fear we’ll get them wrong. I grew up in the midwest, but not as a black girl. Would it be wrong of me to write a story that highlights the differences in that experience? This is why so many coming of age films are viewed through the eyes of white male protagonists, because there’s a disproportionate amount of us writing for the silver screen.
There’d be nothing wrong if I wrote about my own boyhood adventures. I could leave it to other writers to tell stories about their own cultural experiences, while I stay inside the borders of what I know.
… But I feel like I’d be doing my own fiction a terrible disservice.
For the last Seventeen years I’ve been living in Minneapolis. The city is far more diverse than my hometown of White Bear Lake, a place so white it’s in the name. When I say that Minneapolis is diverse I’m not just using the word as a euphemism for varying skin tones. I mean there’s a diversity of religions, sexual orientations, and cultural backgrounds. We have the largest population of Hmong and Somali immigrants in the country. In 2011, The Advocate named us the most gay friendly city in the US (a 2015 annual survey ranked us as the most literate). Minneapolis is a mid-western melting pot.
When I leave the city I miss that diversity. The rest of the state isn’t as whitewashed as Chris Rock’s “There are no black people in Minnesota” routine might have you believe, but rural areas get a tad too monochromatic for my liking. Let’s just say a lot of people wear camouflage as a fashion statement, and the principle form of recreation in my hometown is yelling, “Faggot!” out car windows at pedestrians.
This is why I don’t want to whitewash my stories or populate them with cookie cutter Joe Everymen. My boyhood was a culturally narrow one. I don’t want to limit the children that populate my fiction to my own experience. Of course I can relate to my background, but it bores the shit out of me. What if I find a character’s dissociation from my upbringing more intriguing?
I agree with Spike Lee’s sentiment that, “Culture is for everyone.” Writers from all walks of life should be able to celebrate the cultural differences of their characters, even if that requires some real world research.
My audiobook Terms and Conditions is now free on Bandcamp. You can listen to it right here!
After getting a lot requests for prints of my art I decided to open a store on REDBUBBLE where you can find prints and a whole lot more.