Character flaws

I’m planning to see Doctor Strange tomorrow, and am looking forward to it, as I do for all of the MCU stuff. There are, however, some problematic aspects of it (as there are with pretty much anything that gets mainstream distribution), particularly in the casting of Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, the story’s mystical leader. In the original comics, this character was a cringeworthy Asian stereotype, but because of the lack of Asian representation in big-screen movies, particularly the MCU itself, casting a white woman in that role was still an unfortunate choice because of whitewashing. The film’s director, Scott Derrickson, has addressed this issue, explaining how he made that decision and what he tried to do to make up for it. While it’s not for me to decide whether he made the right choice–I’m white; I don’t get a say in whether something is racist–as a writer, I do understand that choices like those aren’t easy.

The problem he ran into is unfortunately common with a lot of adaptations and remakes of older works: The original material is from an era in which bias was common, whether intentional or no, and you have to make some sort of deal with the devil to retool it to put out as many of those fires as possible while also not sparking new ones in the process. Even with original work, however, it’s still hard to make sure you’re not screwing up on some level or other. Some people simply don’t care at all about whether they’re actively hurting marginalized people with their work, but even the very well-meaning can screw up–goodness knows I have. All of us have privilege-induced gaps in our understanding, and all of us are occasionally going to write something that lands in that gap, even if we’re doing a bang-up job on other things. There’s no magic formula for getting it all right, but approaching it with the creative version of the Hippocratic oath–first, do no harm–certainly helps.
The basic challenge for most of us who at least want to make an effort at this is striking a balance when you’re writing someone outside of your own personal experience; making them recognizable and authentic–not just characters from privileged groups wearing different faces–while also not slipping into stereotypes. The usual advice people give is to write a well-rounded character and then make them from a marginalized group, but that doesn’t work. Most people in privileged groups assume that a “generic” person is someone with traits that come from their own group. In trying to avoid, for instance, writing a stereotypical gay character, straight people often write straight characters who just “happen” to be gay, because they conceive of straightness as the default state of humanity, and gay as a mere variant on that. While there are indeed a few people who think of their orientation as something that begins and ends with specific instances of sexual behavior, for most, it goes well beyond that. This is not to say that everything we queer folks do is distinctly queer-flavored (aside from the fact that it’s being done by a queer person), but more that being queer is something we carry with us all the time, not something we put in a box on a shelf and only take out in certain circumstances. For instance, we may not all have experienced discrimination the same way–or at all–but the potential for it always exists, and that changes how we exist in the world. It’s hypervigilance, of a sort. And this goes for things that aren’t necessarily dangerous, too. Gender is such a pervasive thing that when you’re doing it in a way that isn’t the most common, life can sometimes feel like you’re having to translate everything you read and hear into your own first language.
The same goes for every other kind of marginalization (including, of course, language itself.) When you’re not the most common, most dominant, most respected or whatever of some aspect or other, you’re always adjusting what you do to fit into a world that’s not quite shaped for you. And the converse is also true: When the world is mostly made to your specs, there are literally thousands of adjustments you never have to make. Everything from the words you exchange with a barista to how you sit on public transportation is a product of the specific assortment of privileges and disadvantages you’ve had. If it helps, imagine it as a tightrope: If you’re a small quadruped with nicely grippy claws, racing across the thing presents no problems at all. If you’re a balance-challenged biped with a fear of heights, every step is a traumatic experience.
A lifetime of this–making a lot of adjustments or very few–means you simply aren’t going to be the same kind of person, at every level, as someone who doesn’t share certain traits with you. And because of all the other variables involved, it also means you’re not going to be the same as every other person–or even any other person, maybe–as others who share that same trait. I’m not the same as a cishet man of average size with no health issues, but I’m also not the same as every other person who shares my gender, my orientation, my size, my health issues, etc. The combination of all of these things is what makes me who I am, and that means I’m always going to be uniquely me, even if I do have a similar flavor in some ways and some circumstances as others with whom I share some commonalities. If someone was writing a character based on me, there’s no way they could just write a cishet man of average size and health and then paste on my labels. But they also couldn’t write a genderqueer person of average size. Or a fat cis person. Or a queer person with no health issues. Leave off any of those things, and whoever you’re writing, it isn’t me.
When you’re writing, then, you can’t just say, “Oh, I’m going to write a Black character,” or a gay one, or one with a disability or a marginalized religious faith. You can’t just make ethnic Barbies and think that’s the beginning and ending of what you need to do. You have to think about your characters as whole people, even if they’re only in three scenes. OK, so your character is Black. That’s just a start. Where is she from? Where did she grow up? Urban, rural, suburban? Has her family been in the same country for six generations, or did her parents immigrate from somewhere else? How wealthy was her family? Does she have any health issues or disabilities? Is she cis, het or no? What size is she? How does she prefer to do her hair? OK, now you have a basic framework to build on. Now think about all the other stuff that makes a person an individual: Is she serious or a joker? Does she like music? What kind? What’s her favorite movie? What was her first car? Her first job? What did she want to be when she was 5? Did she have a bad experience with a pony ride at 11 and is now afraid of horses? Did she have a childhood BFF and are they still in touch? Does she have siblings? Does she get along with her family? Does she cry at weddings? It may feel like overkill to think about these things with every character you create, but the benefits of being this thorough aren’t just doing the least harm to people who already have a rough go in life, but also making your work better.
I don’t, of course, claim that I’ve been perfect on this. Goodness, no. Thunderstone, my first novel, has all sorts of cringeworthy aspects that I really wish I’d done better, and I know I’ve screwed up stuff in other work, too. I will also continue to do so because I’m not omniscient; it’s literally impossible for me to see things from perspectives I don’t personally share. But I do at least try to approach this with an attitude of respect and deference to the perceptions of the people whose lives can be affected by my potential mistakes. And when people point out that I’ve missed the mark, I take that criticism to heart and make a note not to screw up in that particular way again. If only all other creators–especially ones with far greater reach than a little indie author like me–would do the same.

About Shawna (A Mediated Life)

Writer, singer, parent, fan, media maven, and general ne'er-do-well. Fierce protector of the rights of the disadvantaged and endless pontificator on subjects both ridiculous and sublime.
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