Counting Characters: A Lesson in Diversity

aalMy Novel Incubator instructors loved to tell us to kill our characters. Most of us came into class with drafts bloated with characters who served no purpose, so it was sound advice.

During revision, I created a giant diagram of all my novel characters and mapped their connections to one another with red, yellow, and green lines to indicate their interpersonal tension. I even cast the characters. The casting of characters was simply a matter of procrastination. All of this effort was, really. But the character map was helpful because I could see tangible evidence of character bloat. But that cast of characters in the diagram showed me something more important than that.

In college, I’d signed up for African American Literature because my high school English teacher had introduced me to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Before then, I had not considered books as anything more than chores for class or easy entertainment at night, something to shut out the world while I waited for graduation, independence, financial freedom. But within those pages, I found another Arkansas girl who was unlike me in almost every way, but one who had awakened me to the power of language and empathy. I wanted more of that.

My African American literature professor was an astute observer of pop culture. Our first class assignment: Count the number of black characters you see on TV in the coming week, including commercials. I don’t remember what I thought at the time, other than: Awesome. I get to watch TV for class credit.

All that week, I watched, I counted. This was in the mid-nineties. The count was not high1)http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:1990s_American_television_series.

The next class, we wrote our findings on the chalkboard. We discussed the numbers. What they meant, why they were so low, the factors that contributed to them. The numbers stayed on the chalkboard until the very last class as a reminder.

Ever since that class, I count characters on TV, in films. I count characters in books. The count has expanded beyond black or African American to Native American, Asian, Latino, and others. It’s not a conscious thing, and I don’t literally write down the count, but I pay attention, as my professor taught me. I also count in other areas of my life. When I look for a job, I look at the staff. How many females are there? How many people of color? Will I be the only gay person?

Once I was made aware, it became hard not to see. It became hard for me not to think about the experience of others in a group dynamic who have the adjective “only” attached to them.

I think about what it was really like for my hilarious, fellow headbanger friend Saba as the only black Muslim girl at the hair metal concert we attended. I think about the kindergartner — the only black student in the entire elementary, junior, and high school in the rural town I moved to. I think about all the little girls who don’t see themselves on the shelves at the Disney Store — or only get one choice — while on a trip to the Magic Kingdom.

How different might the minutes of their days and the trajectories of their lives be if they had seen themselves reflected back in the books and comics they read, the TV shows and movies they watched, and the paintings they viewed in galleries?2)Portrayal of Minorities in the Film, Media and Entertainment Industries See: https://web.stanford.edu/class/e297c/poverty_prejudice/mediarace/portrayal.htm What if they got to be the heroes in hero stories instead of the object of Mighty Whiteys3)A Mighty Whitey is usually a displaced white European, of noble descent, who ends up living with native tribespeople and not only learns their ways but also becomes their greatest warrior/leader/representative. See: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MightyWhitey? The nobility who gets to perform heinous and dastardly deeds instead of being the noble savage4)The term noble savage is a literary stock character that expresses the concept of an idealized indigene, outsider, or “other” who has not been “corrupted” by civilization, and therefore symbolizes humanity’s innate goodness. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noble_savage?

I ask myself, who am I to write about this topic? There are plenty of writers of color who handle it far better than I. Should I worry about the diversity in my own work? It’s a a lot easier to “write what I know.” Am I, as Teju Cole mentions, satisfying my emotional needs?

I suppose I am. And who I am to do that? In the grand scheme of things, I’m no one.

But I’m a reader. Every time I open a new book, I’m looking for that same feeling I had while reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. 

I’m a beta reader and an occasional freelance editor. I pay attention, like my professor taught me.

And I’m a writer, the creator of many universes. And in these universes, I want to create societies that are far more diverse and therefore far more interesting than the one I inhabit. I’m 100% positive that I’m going to write something wrong and say something wrong, but I’m 100% positive that it’s better to get something wrong, be humble, and, as Maya Angelou advises, do better when I know better.

 

Note:

I am not the right person to instruct writers on how to include more diversity in novels. The best lessons are often found in the works of other writers. If you’re not sure where to start, check out the authors in this list of favorite authors of color, submitted by BookRiot readers.

I have also found the following writers, blogs, and essays helpful:

References   [ + ]

1.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:1990s_American_television_series
2.Portrayal of Minorities in the Film, Media and Entertainment Industries See: https://web.stanford.edu/class/e297c/poverty_prejudice/mediarace/portrayal.htm
3.A Mighty Whitey is usually a displaced white European, of noble descent, who ends up living with native tribespeople and not only learns their ways but also becomes their greatest warrior/leader/representative. See: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MightyWhitey
4.The term noble savage is a literary stock character that expresses the concept of an idealized indigene, outsider, or “other” who has not been “corrupted” by civilization, and therefore symbolizes humanity’s innate goodness. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noble_savage

4 comments

  1. “I’m 100% positive that it’s better to get something wrong, be humble, and, as Maya Angelou advises, do better when I know better.” Good words to live by, yours and hers.

  2. This is such a wonderful post. Sometimes I wonder how different my teen years would have been if I’d had strong female characters and strong LGBTQ characters surrounding me in books, comics, films and TV. As writers, we have to include different voices in our work. It’s so important for people to see themselves reflected in fiction. Thanks, Kelly for writing this post!

  3. Stephanie Gayle

    I love and hate counting media for representation. It is often a disheartening act, but important. Great post, Kelly!

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