Checking Boxes

Writers are a lot like cats, they just hate people, especially their characters
Writers are a lot like cats, they just hate people, especially their characters!

I had to take a step away from my computer yesterday when I saw a question.   “WIP has trans character and autistic character. Adding POC because the world feels way white. Do writers people their books other ways?”

My short answer… yes.  In fact, if you pause to consider the racial/ethnic/cultural/religious/sexual makeup of your cast, it should be in terms of the story and the world setting.  Worse, in my opinion, is calling attention to it.  You aren’t being “diverse” or “inclusive” you are checking boxes, you are making an outward display and nothing more than that.

Think of it this way: you shouldn’t be making friends in order to check off boxes, why should you write your characters that way?  If the first thing that identifies a character for you is something beyond his/her central defining characteristics, then you are literally only going skin deep on your characterization.

Any of these characteristics that are hot-button topics in today’s media are literally secondary to the story you’re telling.  If you’re writing some deep, societal-driven message fiction where this is central to the story… sure, go for it.  If you’re writing epic fantasy with heroes fighting to save the world… that stuff needs to take a secondary role.

Yes, a character dealing with internal or external conflict about his racial/ethnic/cultural/religious/sexual differences can be a subplot… but it’s a very trite one.  Friends or family or strangers not accepting the character for who he is?  That comes across as the standard coming of age story, regardless of whether that’s because he wants to be a hero and or because he is a black, dwarf, worshiper of Hel who secretly wants to be a princess.

Sorry to break it to you, but that comes across as lazy.  Worse than that, it’s insulting to readers.  If you’re waving a flag in the air, going so far as to post to public forums about how “inclusive” you’re being, what you’re really doing is showing that you think your readers need to be beat over the head with how great you are.

It shouldn’t matter if your character is gay, black, or worships the purple goddess of night.  If your characterization is weak enough that these are the only things that your readers can identify them from… then you’re not really writing very deeply at all.  You should strive to make your characters vivid, realistic, and above all, entertaining (that’s why readers are reading, right?)  People aren’t made up of their outward appearances; they’re made up of the morals and ethics they follow, the things they value, and the choices they make.  Measuring against that, the secondary things that identify them such as physical characteristics, religious preferences, sexual preferences, and the like are simplistic.  They really don’t have much of a place in the story, unless they’re a central feature to the character.

A religious fanatic bent upon forcing the world to convert or die is a very tired trope.  It’s often used because a writer is lazy and doesn’t want to go through the effort to characterize or define the motivations of his villain, he just needs a bad guy to fill the role.  If you don’t go beyond that, you’re doing a disservice to the reader, no matter how well developed your other characters may be.

Similarly, having a character who is a “victim” category is just as insulting.  Not only do you rob those “victims” of being real people, setting them up as cardboard cutouts of “good” because of some outward physical characteristic, but you do your readers a disservice by forcing them to relate to your character by those outward characteristics.

In short, write the characters that your story needs… but don’t feel the need to put someone of a “special” category into your story just to check a box.  The characters should be defined by the choices they make, not because of some outward characteristics that they have little or no control over.


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