Make Your Characters Fascinating without Stereotypes
Storytelling with interesting characters that make a connection with their audience and yet intrigue with their differences is a difficult balancing act. Characters have to be unique to attract actors, create interesting conflicts and elevate the entire story. But sometimes, in the name of interesting characters, writers embrace stereotypes that at the least can be tired, repetitive or negative, and, at the most can actually contribute to bigotry, oppression and ignorance. Don’t be that writer.
When you craft a character from a special group, whether it’s the autistic community (including the group formerly known to have Asperger’s Syndrome), or an ethnic minority such as the Roma or Romani people, sometimes known as Gypsy, it’s not about being politically correct. It’s about doing the research and not just accepting what you may have read or seen. Herein is the danger. Stereotypes tend to be propagated without question. Yes, the audience knows it’s watching a story but they may buy in to what they see as the underlying truth in characters to varying degrees. If you get your information about people from what you’ve seen, heard, read in media and then create characters based on that without investigation or consideration, then you are part of a vicious circle. Plus your writing is that little bit stale.
It’s absolutely true that stereotypes may be true for a portion of whatever group you want your character to belong to. But the very fact that the stereotype exists and that it doesn’t represent the whole group is a wonderful chance for conflict and interest. In the new NBC show Crossing Lines, one of the ensemble characters is an Irish Traveller. The stereotype of Irish Travellers is used to drive conflict between McConnel, the Traveller, and another character, and confront unthinking beliefs. The varied lives of Irish Travellers provide a rich cultural context and an Irish Traveller who is a policeman, puts conflict in every level of this character. Hopefully, this character will still continue to explore culture and challenge and examine stereotypes. Acknowledging and examining stereotypes is much more interesting than just presenting a stereotype merely for the sake of making a colorful character.
We’ve had a veritable explosion of autistic characters lately, particularly in television. We have characters where autism apparently confers magic powers. There are quite a few representations where autistic equals asshole. Not all assholes are autistic and not all autistic people are jerks. Even if you’re going to push the boundaries and use some poetic license, you should have a really good grounding in what being autistic is really like. There are lots of different symptoms and groups of symptoms on the autistic spectrum, and many come with varying degrees of severity.
In the Jungian model of artists, they mediate between the collective unconscious- sort of a storehouse of wisdom that belongs to all people and reality. Artists tell us what we’ve forgotten or ignored from the shared wisdom. It’s interesting that we have so many autistic characters and many other characters that are neurodiverse. They are as fascinating to the audience as the writers who are creating them. If we are exploring them because we need to understand what normal means and how people who think and act differently are important to us then an autistic character is an excellent choice. But, a stereotypical character that is just used for the sideshow value not only doesn’t contribute to rich context and subtext where conflicts can play out in all kinds of ways, it can be harmful in the real world. Sadly, a large part of our population gets their information from things they see on TV, even in fiction. Autistic people can suffer from discrimination and bigotry in everything from employment to education. Do you really want to be the person that makes that reality for someone because it was an easy writing choice? That’s not to say you shouldn’t show negatives or sanitize people into some kind of politically correct cartoon. Those characters are flat and undramatic too. Context is the key to unique characters. To provide a rich context requires some work on the writer’s part but the benefits are huge. Know the stereotype and by knowing the reality too, use it, turn it on its head and then throw it as a great big rock at your character.
Researching and understanding a group elevates your character and your story and may help you find levels you hadn’t considered. If Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man were just a “magical” autistic savant where would the story have been? It was the whole reality of autism, the good and the problematic that drove the story that provided the conflict between Raymond and his brother and created the rich context that made the story so compelling. Without the totality of who Raymond was, it would have probably been an average thriller with Charlie racing to the casino and to his attorneys in California with the authorities in hot pursuit. The journey wouldn’t have been particularly interesting and Raymond would have been more of a device than a person. Instead we went on a journey of discovery with Charlie that found new levels in himself as well as the story of the flight to California. The stereotypes and misinformation about autism are confronted through Charlie and allows the conflict that ultimately creates the bond between the brothers and changes Charlie from the inside out.
There is a real world and the way we portray people matters. We need adversaries and villains and opponents. Conflict is the heart of drama but cheap stereotypes don’t make good drama. And they can, in fact, do real damage. All across Europe the Roma, the people known as Gypsy, are suffering levels of persecution and oppression almost unprecedented since the dark days of fascism including forced sterilization, ghettoization, educational apartheid, state sponsored violence and murder. Pretty horrific stuff and much of it founded in stereotypes. And yet, we still have these stereotypes- all Roma (Gypsies) belong to criminal families or Gypsies have magical powers- in primetime television and media. People die, lives are destroyed, and children are condemned to lack of education and poverty because of these stereotypes. Just like any other group, sometimes the stereotypes are true. There are Gypsy criminals. But if you take the easy way out and use the stereotype without challenge without the deeper and richer context, you rob your character of subtext and complexity, and you pander to the ignorant and evil. Writers who do only cursory research, such as using the Roma language or some customs from a particular sub group of Gypsies can actually do even more damage. By adding that small brush stroke of authenticity, it validates the stereotype as truthful, the only truth.
Most people have no idea that there are many different, distinct groups of Gypsies, all speaking different dialects with customs that vary greatly even from family to family within that group. Usually only the American Vlax Roma Kalderash criminal families are portrayed in most media. There are occasionally Eastern European Roma, usually Romanian, usually also criminals as a change of pace. Small wonder that the vast majority of Gypsies in the United States keep a very low profile. And unlike other stereotypes, most of them are settled and employed. Many modern Gypsies do not acknowledge their ethnicity and often call themselves Native American etc. because of the prejudice and bigotry that abounds. As an experiment in the last census, a group of Roma identified themselves as such instead of another ethnicity or just Caucasian. For the first time, despite education such as undergraduate and Master’s degrees, income levels that were middle class and above with addresses also in middle to upper income etc., all received a call back where they were asked questions such as did they have family members in prison, were they itinerant etc. Think of it this way: the Mafia is Italian but would you write every Italian character as a criminal? But then again maybe you might. Just remember that fresh and interesting characters do not go with stereotypical writing.
Stereotypes are lazy writing. You can do better. Take a step up above the competition and write fresh characters that are unique and attractive to actors. When you’re entertaining, you don’t have to be focused on making the world a better place, but maybe not making it sleazier isn’t such a bad idea.