How a character is described (or drawn, in the case of artists) can say just as much about the creator—and not just how often they must stare into mirrors, considering how many initial descriptions have protagonists navel-gazing at their reflections. I mean the kind of appearances we allow to be seen in our works, as well as how they’re represented. It’s a discussion that often pops up on my various social media dashboards, and since it’s just resurfaced this past week, I figure it’d be a good starting topic for this blog.
Fiction, be it visual or written, can be an escape to a more fantastic, more “perfect” world. Thing is, by excluding different bodies—those of color, of different sizes or genders, or even disabled ones—we thus imply that those bodies are not perfect or deserving of representation. Everyone deserves a chance to see themselves in fiction, not just those who happen to have the right measurements and a smoldering gaze.
Granted, we’re used to wanting to make our characters likable (even those love-to-hate villains), and in our attempts to give them a good first impression, we make them attractive. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—it’s part of our society, like how everyone has to dress nice for a job interview. But readers and viewers are going to spend far longer than a fifteen-minute interview with our characters, and in the case of our protagonists, get to see their thoughts and personality at the same time as the physical stuff. Because of this, we can unlearn our urge to make everyone pretty little defaults. We can make a cast whose bodies are as unique and diverse as real life—and it always helps when even the most fantastical fiction has roots in reality!
While it’s a goal that’s all well and good, it can be hard to know where to start. Adding diversity can be a difficult tightrope, walking the line between “is my character more than this one trait?” and “did I just add this trait to this character so I can check off on my invisible diversity checklist?” Now I’m no expert, but here are a few tips and tricks I’ve picked up in my own body-building quest.
Let their bodies help fuel their narrative, not consume it. In the “Deadly Drinks” series, for example, protagonist Jarrod Gallows is a trans-man. I chose this because a lot of his story is about being pulled between two sides—human and huldra, nature and nurture, mundane and magical—and having him be trans* fit that narrative. But while his gender identity and connected dysphoria is brought up, it’s not the only thing that defines him. He’s also a protective paranormal investigator who drinks to deal with all the morally-gray cases tossed his way; in that respect, the only thing separating him from Dean Winchester of “Supernatural” fame is that he’s wearing a binder under his shirt. (And has a tail from his half-huldra heritage and a curse hiding on his body…but that’s another bullet point entirely.)
Don’t leave your main characters out. It can be easy to introduce a minor character who’s a WoC in a wheelchair if she’s only around for a scene, but if the rest of your cast is still full of skinny-white-Hollywood-stars, readers will notice. Same for if your protagonists are “traditionally pretty” and your antagonists aren’t so much. Take your main cast and see what you can push about their identity. Does your ex-soldier have a bad knee from a fight gone wrong, prompting him to sometimes use a cane and adding tension when his leg is further hurt? Is your romance heroine perhaps a little soft, except for a sharp nose that she doesn’t mind because it’s the same as her grandmother’s? Even small details can go a long way.
Looking for a starting point? As the adage says, write what you know, and look at yourself or others in your life for characterizing physical details. My family tends toward having rather large noses, so I’ve developed a tendency of giving a lot of my characters the same fate in both my writing and art. (At least my nose isn’t quite as pointy as the Gallows’ family nose…) My Dad’s side of the family (myself included) has also had a fair share of dental nightmares, enough that I made a whole short story on the subject, and it also shows up in how Retz Gallows uses some of his bone-controlling powers in “Bones and Bourbon.”
Don’t just research a cursory introduction of what to know if you aren’t of a certain race/gender/size/health/etc, but also what stereotypes to avoid. A person with ADHD is not necessarily loud and manic! Overweight and athletic are not mutually exclusive! People of color can have narratives that aren’t about immigration or discrimination! If you can, research what people are saying not just academically when they talk about media, but also informally in their own blogs and posts.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember, however, is that one author can’t do it all. We each only have our own perspective, with our own opinions and biases. That’s why it’s important to help read, watch, and support diverse creators that we enjoy! (You can even start by sharing a few in the comments below, if you’d like.)
Until next time,