”Oh, so just because she’s a woman she must be into shoes!”Of course the Chinese guy knows martial arts- and for Gods sake Samurai swords are Japanese!’ You’ve all heard people rage against a character on the internet.
For the millionth time, we get another fashion obsessed GBF who talks about sex, never has any, and gets to be the butt of hilarious gay jokes; another lesbian who either dies because she’s expendable and can’t be used as a sassy accessory like the gay men; secretaries and women relegated to support roles and black women who are either entertaining and sassy or high court judges who never get any real characterization or role in the plot. Asian martial artists. Latina maids. The super crip. Russian spies.
But the question is, is writing a stereotypical character always a bad thing? Because, here’s the thing- most stereotypes aren’t randomly pulled from the ether. A hell of a lot of women AREN’T able to become high powered lawyers or mechanics (the same way most white men aren’t) , and they ARE nurses and secretaries. While we rail against the effeminate gay male stereotype (the Kurt Hummels, the Hollywood Montroses), they do exist- although they are definately a minority amongst gay men and with each passing year that breed of gay men are becoming rarer and rarer. A lot of black people DO like Hip Hop and R n Band listen to Bob Marley.
And railing too hard against the stereotype can be a problem, because we can reach the other extreme; we can reach the idea that a female character can’t be strong unless she’s angry, unemotional and hates fashion and girly things (but she still has to be young and hot- a woman is still worth as much as her attractiveness to men); butch lesbians are terrible, a black woman can’t be a worthwhile character unless she’s a lawyer, an honour student, a doctor or a good role ( a standard which isn’t applied to white characters, who can be everymen) . And I think we can all see why deeming these real life people as inferior is a problem.
1) DON’T! Do you REALLY need to write a stereotype?
In spite of the premise of this article, my first piece of advice would be not to write a character filling that stereotype. First off, that character type is pretty much catered for. We’ve seen enough gay hairdressers, Asian martial artists, promiscuous bisexuals, Latino/a sex machines, so you really don’t need to fill that void. However, the asian basketball fans (an old roommate of mine), black scientists, lesbian who actually survives and isn’t obsessed with babies categories are extremely underrepresented.
Second off, writing a minority group which you are not a part of (or the opposite gender) is extremely challenging at the best of times; but writing about one whose experience is completely alien to you, and of whom every single portrayal is steeped in stereotypes and misunderstanding that you don’t know which ones are true, and which ones are false caricatures? That’s a tricky, tricky task- and one that even writers with the best of intentions get wrong.
Write a character you can relate to. For instance, a lot of people are terrified of not giving a woman enough feminine characteristics in fear of being criticized for writing a ‘man with boobs.’ Trust me, as a woman I’d rather watch a strong active heroine who is ‘a man with boobs’ than a woman who’s defined by being someone’s love interest/ mother or given a forced girly hobby because ‘chicks dig that, amirite?’
As for the stereotypical ones? I’d say leave writing them to the butch lesbians, girly girls, flamboyant gay men to write (or at least, the people who know a lot about that community).They’re the ones who can write them with the nuance they deserve, because they understand that stereotype. For example Ryan Murphy from Glee managed to turn Kurt Hummel into a great and complex character… even though I think he dropped the ball a little in The New Normal. Ai Yazawa wrote NANA, who’s main character is an air headed, boy crazy girly girl who’s impulsive, makes terrible life choices…yet it was framed in such a way that she was used to show the challenges of a young woman in Japan.
2) CHALLENGE your internalised prejudices. And RESEARCH
Look, in spite of what people tell you, no, just because you have gay/ black/ trans friends does NOT mean you don’t have a touch of homophobia, racism, sexist etc. It’s a ludicrous argument and by that stroke, Bluebeard could argue ‘I’m not a mysogynist: all my wives are women… well, were- before I killed them! Now they’re dead- but they were alive!’
Just because you agree with interaccial marriage and don’t attend KKK rallies doesn’t mean you’re not prejudiced; you’ve just cleared the world’s lowest bar, and there’s plenty of prejudiced behavior in between being Jesus and committing a hate crime. And, when you start writing, often those prejudices that you don’t normally betray in every day life become magnified
You can counteract this by RESEARCH. Believe it or not POC, LGBT people are REALLY keen on telling you want, and writing about their experiences. Read stories from their POV, about what it was like being a say, latina maid, or an effeminate gay man who grew up having an interest in clothes and make up since he was a young boy.
2) Avoid language that’s locked, loaded and coded
This is a big problem and primarily applies to effeminate gay men. I’ve read of gay men described constantly as ‘sashaying’, ‘mincing’ ; take for example, Lord Akeldama from The Parosel Protectorate, the Patron Saint of terrible cliched gay writing:
He minced into the room, teetering about on three-inch heels with ruby and gold buckles. “My darling, darling Alexia.”
Oh God. How does one even mince into the room? Is he waving around his limp wrists and voguing to an invisible camera.
You see, when you start using these buzz words, you are not writing a fully fleshed person based on reality. You are drawing on cultural stereotypes as a short cut to portray a certain idea of that type of person. It also singles out their ‘otherness’; why can’t an effeminate gay man just ‘walk’ or ‘stroll’ into a room like every other character? Why does he need a special gay walk because he’s different? Please, don’t use coded language and let
3) Do NOT make their otherness their sole personality trait. And do NOT bring it up constantly
Fangs for the fantasy wrote an excellent example on the Lesbian Shark. Sometimes writers are so enamored/ obsessed with the characters otherness that they think its interesting in and of its self that they have to bring it up constantly. If your whole character can be summed up as ‘gay’ or ‘female’ or ‘sassy black friend’ then you have a problem (and no, the fact they have a couple of token interests you cling to like Shakespearean plays does NOT stop them from falling into this trope).
The worst example is Sir Loras in the TVs version of GoT. Oh God.Every time he’s mentioned, it’s always to bring up a HILARIOUS gay joke, or about his gayness, or to show him persecuted because he’s gay and so he HAS to be persecuted or forced into an arranged marriage (not in the book) or some other stereotype relating that, or to show him banging a guy to please viewers. This isn’t inclusion, this is a hollow shell.
4) Do NOT make their otherness their sole ark
This is not inherently a bad thing, because marginalization really, really does have a massive impact on people’s daily lives. Especially in historical times, when women were property, black people were second class citizens or slaves, gay people could be murdered for who they love (which still hasn’t changed), being disabled made you less than, and being trans was an impossibility. These issues should be dealt with and it would
But it gets frustrating when everyone else gets to deal with a multitude of interesting ‘neutral’ issues, like saving the world, or dealing with PTSD, or their commitment issues, what it means to be strong, a hero etc while minorities get to deal with minority problems. The first woman pilot/ mechanic etc. Racism at work. The coming out story. We are more than just our race/ gender/ sexuality etc, and we deal with other problems too.
The one thing that’s even worse is when their minority
A great example is Tyrion. Tyrion is a dwarf and constantly has to deal with a barrage of prejudice from his father and everyone around him. But that’s only part of his story: first and foremost he’s a pragmatic, cunning, witty noble with a penchant for wine and women, who is scheming enough to be a politician in Westeros, but lacks the cruelty of other characters. We see him leading battles, dealing with his tyrannous nephew, get arrested for murder and end up on the run. This is how you write a minority character and treat their prejudice.
A bad ex
5) Do not reduce them to a side kick, supporting role
The sassy black best friend, the GBF, the magical cripple. Too often, if a writer wants to include a minority, they make them a sidekick or a best friend. The main problem is their whole purpose to the plot and their character is defined by their relationship to the protagonist. Inevitably, they will end up becoming a useful servant to the protagonist.
Give them an actual role- give them their own plotline, or even – gasp- make them the protagonist!
5) Please do not make the sole/ most prominent female the love interest
This one is the mother of all terrible female tropes. Too often women’s existence is defined by her attractiveness to men and as being a wife or mother, so we see this constantly reflected in the media. It doesn’t matter what she’s achieved, her kind personality, whether she’s funny, made mistakes or throws one hell of a party- all that matters about her is who she’s married to. It’s frustrating because even if she is a great character, she will always be seen as ‘X’s’ girlfriend and will be in his shadow as the less prominent/ successful half of the couple.
Even when love interests start out interesting, because the story isn’t about them but their boyfriend, too often she will end up getting sidelined and get stuck in the kitchen. Look at Mira from Spartacus, who for all her talk of independence got bumped off as soon as she was no longer Spartacus’ love interest and therefore there was no point to her; or Fiona from Shrek, who was left behind in the castle in 2 and 3, and only got to do stuff in 4 because the alternate timeline meant she was no longer with Shrek and therefore they could reset their meetcute.
There are exceptions like Katara, who’s very much not primarily viewed as Aang’s love interest and has achieved a lot in her own right, but she is very much the exception to the rule and even she still got imperiled multiple times to motivate Aang (though she was kickass the majority of the time).
Hell, the reason Elsa was so revolutionary was because, for once, we had a female not defined by her romatic relationships.
I honestly would say that if she’s the girlfriend of a more prominent male character, she hardly counts as inclusion. Please, include females who aren’t love/ sex interests.
What advice do you have for writing minorities? I’d like to hear your thoughts in the comments.