Debunking the Base Model Human

There is this idea in mainstream fiction, in film, books, plays, all mediums – and therefore, to some extent, in our own minds – of a Base Model Human. The Base Model Human is, roughly in order of importance, male, white, straight, able-bodied, early 20s to late 40s, middle class, speaks English, of average intelligence, graduated high school and possibly college, is Christian or Christian-compatible … and the like. Any deviation from this model is seen as an add-on, like a feature amended to the Base Model to make them something else. For instance, I have heard some writers say that when they are developing a character, they may start with a Base Model Human and decide after the basic characteristics are set if that character needs to be a woman, or a person of color, elderly, poor, etc. More than one director has openly said they don’t strive for diversity, unless the story actively needs it, or there is an outside reason to make a character anything but a Base Model Human. This isn’t just an enormous logical fallacy, it’s substandard writing.First of all, let’s take a cursory look at what percentage of the population, just in the US, is actual Base Model Human. These statistics are from the US census in 2015, found here: . I am rounding to the nearest tenth. 50.8% of the population is female, so 49.2% is male. 61.6% are white and non-Hispanic. That gives us 30.3% of the total population that are white males. Now let’s take out anyone of the LGBT, nonbinary, nonheteronormative, etc. spectrum, which make up about 2% of the population, a conservative estimate. 29.7%. 60% of them are not minors under 18, or seniors over 65. We’re down to 17.8%. Able-bodied? Some estimates put disabilities or chronic medical conditions at 20% of the population – consider that disabilities include hidden problems like depression, bipolar disorder, autism, etc. But let’s be super conservative and say 10%, for the sake of argument. That gives us about 16%. Let’s stick with that number. And we’re not even taking into account people who live in crushing poverty, people without education, people of religions other than Christianity, incarcerated people – we’re being very generous with our numbers.

The United States has a population of about 319 million. That’s 319,000,000. 16% of that is 51,040,000, or about 51 million. That means there are 267,960,000, or nearly 268 million people, that do not fit the Base Model Human design. And yet, somehow, they are considered modifications on the default. To put those numbers into perspective … in a random sampling of the population of the United States, in a group of 25, there would be 4 Base Model Humans. They are a minority. They have just been billed by mainstream media as “the most normal”. But it isn’t true.

Humans DO NOT HAVE a default model, especially when seen in a global context, not just the United States, when the population of Base Model Humans plummets to a single digit percentage of the global population. There are three major reasons to make a disproportionate number of characters in any media – film, books, theater, documentary, whatever – Base Model Humans. One, active bigotry, naturally. Of course. Two, money – you think keeping your characters as “default” as possible will make it more popular and net you greater revenue. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Rogue One” tromped THAT idea into the dirt. Three, ignorance: you really do believe in the Base Model Human. This is an indicator that you, as an artist, have not spent enough time considering the breadth of the human experience. 

The last one is surprising in how prevalent it is, which goes to show how widespread the impulse of the Base Model Human belief is. Happily, it is also the easiest to root out. When you create stories, watch for these trends in your own work. Are around half your characters women? Are some of your characters minors or seniors? Are about 1/3 of them people of color? Is there someone in your story who is non-heteronormative, neurodivergent, disabled, non-Christian, or some other manner of “different” from the Base Model Human? And most importantly: how do their experiences as a non-Base Model Human contribute to who they are? If you don’t know, then you need to get out into the world and find out, because you’re missing the one thing an artist depicting humans really needs: insight into the human experience. As the Major said in “Ghost in the Shell”, “A system where all the parts react the same is a flawed system.” And once you’ve retrained yourself to see the world in a more realistic light, you’ll stop having to intentionally diversify your cast. Your creative impulses will do it for you.

As an afternote … some people will say it is “PC pandering” or “unrealistic” to purposefully include non-Base Model Humans in their stories, or to assert that they should be allowed to create however they want. Sure, go for it, do whatever you like, no one’s stopping you. But your representation of the human experience will be more true to life, and will resonate more with a wider audience, if your cast of characters more accurately reflects the actual population. In short, when your writing is better. And, sorry, the numbers weigh out – only 16% of the United States is actually a Base Model Human. Your fictional population of characters ought to be about the same. You shouldn’t have to argue for diversity – that’s just what real life looks like. No, it’s character homogeny that is unrealistic and pandering, and requires an explanation.

Oh – and if you’re about to argue that for the setting you’re working in, like academia, government, etc., really does have more Base Model Humans than a random sampling of the population? Maybe you should consider why that is. It has nothing to do with the inherent superiority of the Base Model Human, and much more to do with thousands of years of systemic bigotry. You really want your art to be a part of that?