Build a Better Population

I was once part of a writing group on Facebook that would discuss various aspects of writing. I should have assumed from the start that this would end poorly, eventually. Alas, in the immortal words of “They Might Be Giants,” I was young and foolish then; I feel old and foolish now. The question posed for debate at one point (which ended my involvement in the group) was, what responsiblity do writers have to try to be inclusive and representative of minority groups such as women, people of color, indigenous cultures, LGBT, etc.? To my immense dismay, the resounding answer according to this particular group was that “political correctness” had no place in the pristine imaginative fields of a writer’s mind. The writer should create their characters as they come to him, without “imposing variations” that do not naturally occur to them at the moment.

Well, that’s horse shit. Stories and characters may seem to come out of nowhere, sometimes appearing in all their entirety, as if the writer is not in control but simply a vessel, a receptor for the creative spirit. But any writer who’s been around the block a few times will tell you, when asked where their stories come from: “my own head.” And a writer’s head is not a pure place, oh my no. It is chock full of the insecurities, prejudices, misjudgments, ideals and fallacies of this strange little human. A writer’s head is full of nonsense and emotion and wild flights of fancy. If it wasn’t, the writer wouldn’t have much to draw from. Frequently it’s full of libido. (Not a bad thing.) It is not a place that should be romanticized, idealized, or protected from criticism and outside influence.

Now let’s look at those “variations.” Society is full of people who, in one way or another, have been treated like crap because one aspect of themselves is different. But the fact is, most people have some aspect of themselves that makes them different; it’s just that it’s something small for each person, unless they happen to possess multiple minority traits, such as a Jewish black woman in a wheelchair. Take a closer look at people, and you’ll see that most of us, in some way, are a minority, as backwards as that sounds. And the fictional world does not reflect this. Half the human population is female, but a much greater chunk of the population in the collective realm of fiction is male. America and the world have significant populations of people of color, but the fictional world is strangely white-washed. Just about everyone has some religious ideas, but when they come up in fiction, they are far more universally generic-Christian than otherwise. LGBT people make up a single digit percentage of the population, but in the fictional world, that decimal place moves at least one point to the left. And let’s not even talk about bisexual erasure or the Kinsey scale. A great many people have some sort of physical or mental disease, handicap or condition, that strangely never seem to afflict fictional characters unless it is the crux of the story.

The reason this is important it two fold. One, if a writer’s aim is for their story to be rooted in reality, their characters have to be as much like people as possible – and the default model human is not white, cis, healthy, prime-aged American male. That’s actually a much rarer model than you would think. People come in varieties, and making a character female or Hispanic or disabled is not “putting a variation upon the base model”, and it’s not catering to the irrational demands of a political feel-good group. It’s just making a human. Humans are variable, and characters should be also. Are all your characters brilliant? Sassy? Badass fighters? Computer illiterate? Have lovely singing voices? No, of course not. And they shouldn’t all have the same body, either.

The other reason to diversify characters is for the sake of representation, which is a GOOD THING. To a normal human who is not a white, cis, healthy, prime-aged American male, it can be disheartening, disappointing, even heartbreaking, to not see someone like themselves in the stories they love. The message is, “People like you don’t belong here.” It’s sad, and it means popular media is missing out on story and characterization opportunities for the sake of appealing to the lowest common denominator. Change up the bodies and cultures of your characters to more closely match that of reality, and you’ll actually appeal to a larger market.

For the record, I have just as much love for the white, cis, healthy, prime-aged American male as I do for any other subsect of human. Tony Stark is … omg … just … seriously, let me catch my breath. And I identify very much with Steve Rogers. But it shouldn’t be the default model for everyone, and there are no more “token” characters than there are “token” people; it’s a straw man argument. The default model should be a human, and the variation factors on top of that – race, sex, background, history, personality, skills, gender identification, bank account, sexual orientation, literary taste, BMI – should vary just as much as they do in real life.

You’ll be a better writer that way.