So last week I talked about diversity in fiction, and why it’s important to have a variety of stories about diverse characters. Some of those stories should address the issues of privilege and discrimination, but it’s also important to write stories about diverse characters that don’t function solely to expose prejudice, and just show diverse people as the real, rounded individual people they are. And this sentiment is echoed by a lot of people. There’s a great discussion going on online about how important it is to include people of different race, sexual orientation, gender identities and backgrounds in stories. But what I don’t hear discussed often enough, is how it’s not good enough to just insert diverse characters into your story, you have to also be mindful of the narrative of your story, and the way those characters are used in the narrative.
A few examples come to mind of wonderfully written, complex, developed minority characters who were completely betrayed by the narrative of the story.
1. Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I haven’t even seen every season of Buffy (I know, I know) but I’ve heard enough people lamenting Willow’s fate to know what happened. The show’s creators spent years developing an amazing gay character (problematic bi-erasure aside) that people related to and identified with, and then threw everything away by having her turn evil and die, and incredibly common and harmful trope surrounding lesbian characters. (Edit: my apologies, as mentioned in the comments, Willow doesn’t die. Her girlfriend Tara dies, and Willow reacts by “going dark”. Queer characters have a history of being evil and/or dying, and the show hit them both in one fell swoop, which was disappointing after they had done such a good job developing Willow and Tara’s sexualities and relationship.)
2. Daisy Fitzroy from Bioshock: Infinite. The game goes to immense trouble to set up the city of Columbia as a false utopia, where the rich white bourgoisie live in luxury, while the poor black and Irish workers are exploited. One character whom we are led to sympathise with is Daisy, an African American maid who becomes the leader of the inevitable revolution that occurs. For the first half of the game, we are shown just how awful the situation is, and how justified Daisy’s actions are. And then Daisy is abruptly killed by, and her death used as character development for the white, female main character. To add insult to injury, the formerly sympathetic rebel group is then condemned in the narrative, and it is implied that they are nearly or just as bad as the wealthy bourgeoisie because they resorted to violence.
3. Well, just read this: Visual Representation: Trans Women in Comics
These are all fairly extreme examples, but there are also a million little ways in which minorities can be negatively represented. Female characters constantly falling for and/or being less competent than the male main character. The same female character dying to further the male main character’s character development. And even just plain old stereotypes like gay characters being interested in fashion and black female characters being “strong, independent women.” There’s a seemingly endless trail of pitfalls to avoid when writing diverse characters. And often a narrative tool or trope isn’t inherently bad, but it’s been used so often with regards to a particular minority, that it becomes a harmful stereotype. And of course there’s the simple but dangerously easy pitfall of including diverse characters, but in the end making them less important in the narrative, and ultimately sacrificial to the needs and character development of he majority characters. Like I said, there’s really no foolproof way of avoiding hitting some of these stereotypes, which is why it’s important to accept that when you’re writing about a minority you’re not a part of, you are going to screw up, and behave graciously when you do.
So why do we write these tropes? Why can’t we seem to avoid falling into these pitfalls? Well partially it’s because, like I said, there are just so many of them, you’d need extensive history and study to unearth them all. Although, here is an excellent reference page from tvtropes: Avoiding Unfortunate Implications. (Yes, that’s three external links in one post. Next you know I’ll be writing academic essays and citing my sources.) The other reason is that, unfortunately, we’re steeped in these stereotypes. A lot of the time it’s subconscious, and for a lot of authors, we rely on our subconscious knowledge of stories, plots, and characters to produce our work. I mean, yes, some authors study narrative extensively and produce best-selling books based on a perfected formula. But for a lot of us (myself included) we’re mostly winging it, allowing our experience with stories and our natural creativity to guide us. Unfortunately, a lot of the stories we experienced growing up and are continuing to experience are deeply racist, homophobic and sexist in ways that aren’t always visible on the surface. If we’re not careful, we take these deeply hurtful tropes and insert them into our work, without ever becoming aware that we’re doing it.
I don’t really have any easy tips and tricks or life hacks to help avoid putting harmful stereotypes into your stories. The number one thing is just to be aware, be critical of all the media you consume, and look for patterns that you want to avoid. It’s also really important to listen to people from the minority you’re writing about, and if possible, ask them to beta your work. And be creative, for goodness sake. Don’t use tired old tropes in your writing. Come up with new ones. Subvert the old ones. Have the girl save the guy. Make your main character a person of colour. Make the story revolve around them. In fact, write a book with no white people in it at all! Write something different. And write something real.
Coming January 27th, 2015: Double Take
Part of Less Than Three Press’s Trans Geek Out Collection
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Studying magical science at the prestigious Kemet Academy is a privilege and dream come true for Teka, a poor student from D’mt. But focusing on school doesn’t mean xe can’t also admire Hasani, the handsome graduate student overseeing Teka’s work.
Then late one night at the school library, Teka runs Hasani and is completely astonished when the stern, quiet man xe knows by day acts so flirty and casual, it’s like he’s a different person. When the late night encounter leads to dating, Teka can scarcely believe xyr luck.
But the luck plays out when xe discovers why Hasani seems so different between night and day, a discovery that seems to have no resolution except heartache… (Warning: This story contains incest)
11 thoughts on “Being Conscious of Your Narrative”
Willow never dies, unless it happens in the comics which I dont read. And the criticism of her being evil is kinda unfair because Giles has pretty much the same reaction when Angelus kills Jenny Calendar in season 2.
You’re right, my apologies, Tara dies, and Willow turns evil (that’s simplified obviously, but she does some bad stuff). I don’t think the trope of someone turning evil after their partner dies is necessarily bad. As I said, a lot of times a trope is perfectly fine, but when it’s overused for a particular minority, it can get problematic fast. LGBT characters being evil and/or dying is a very common, offensive stereotype. (Here’s a cracked article that mentions it: http://www.cracked.com/article_20082_6-insane-stereotypes-that-movies-cant-seem-to-get-over_p2.html) As it says in the article, the fact that Willow and Tara went out with such a stereotypical bang was particularly upsetting because their characters and sexuality had been so well developed up until that point. In essence, while they were great characters, they were let down by the narrative, which fell back on tired, offensive tropes instead of coming up with a less cliche end for their relationship.
Hope that clarified my thoughts a bit. Thanks for your comment!
I get what you’re saying and I would agree if Willow and Tara were the only couple that in death or tragedy in general and all the straight couples lived happily ever after. But almost every major couple in a Joss Whedon created and run show/property has ended tragically. Which is why I find pointing out Willow and Tara as offensive is ridiculous. Because their tragic end(like the tragic end every other couple in the buffyverse) was done solely for the purpose of conflict, drama and stabbing viewers in the heart not because they were a same-sex couple.
Fair enough, I’m not really familiar enough with the show to comment extensively about it. Obviously it’s ultimately the creator’s decision what to do with their minority characters, but I feel that it’s best if the creator is aware of the problematic tropes that accompany the minority they’re writing about, so that they can make an informed decision about whether or not to write those tropes (and if they choose to write a problematic trope, they should be prepared for some backlash from the community they’re writing about). Like I said, individually, a queer couple having a tragic end is not necessarily an issue. But when it happens over and over again, across various forms of media, then it’s something that needs to be addressed.
That is very true. But it is also important to look at the tropes in the context of the particular story it appears in helps greatly. For me Willow and Tara aren’t problematic because the straight couples suffer similar fates but the queer Angel from the musical Rent dying AIDs but Mimi the drug addict with HIV and is homeless and on deaths door at the end of the musical magically gets better seem very problematic to me.
I’ll defer to your judgement, since you’ve seen the show and I haven’t. But yeah, it’s definitely a common thing to have the queer character die off while the straight characters somehow manage to stick around. And it happens to all minorities. If I recall correctly, there was a study done where they looked at deaths in comic books, and overwhelmingly the male characters who died wound up coming back from the grave, while the female characters stayed very dead (usually with bonus manpain.) There’s also the cliche of the black characters dying first in horror movies, and all the trans/gay movies where the queer characters die at the end to show how horrible homophobia is. Obviously people can write whatever they want, but choosing to have a queer character die (no matter how sound your motivations are) is just adding to the already huge pile of queer dead bodies, and I just don’t want to read or watch those kinds of stories anymore. (Which is why I write and read mostly queer romances. Guaranteed happy end!)
While I see what you are saying, I don’t think forbidding queer characters being put in peril is a good idea for all stories involving one. It would be like having a queer main character in a horror film that was never put in peril. It would be really boring.
Yeah, I see what you mean. I think the solution is to not be afraid to have more than one queer character/couple in the story. That way if one of them does die, you haven’t killed off the only gay character while letting all the straight people live. Same with writing the only minority character as a villain. By including several members of the same minority with different backgrounds, motivations and eventual fates, you avoid tokenism, and you don’t have so much pressure to do right by this one minority character that you’ve inserted for diversity’s sake.
Also, watching horror movies, you almost expect everyone but the young, white straight couple to die. Having the minority characters actually live for once would totally be unexpected, and definitely not boring.
Off the top of the head, the remake of The House on Haunted Hill be one of the two survivors and the 2004 slasher Hellbent had an all gay cast, and I think depending on the version Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3 has a black survivor. In the 2002 tv movie version Sue Snell is played by a black actress. So while rare gays and blacks do survive horror.
Awesome! If I wasn’t such a wimp about scary movies I’d watch them, haha.
Haha Well there is a the horror comedy anthology film Chillerama with the gay story “I was a Teenage Werebear” starring the gay pornstar Brent Corrigan. But sadly its the weakest story in the movie.