Creating Diversity from Generic White Script
So, I’m taking a screenwriting class, where we’re writing a short film script. I’m writing basically a story about an RA who’s struggling through the stress of like, cyclical catching students misbehaving, writing them up, school etc. My issue is, it’s a script, and something our prof has talked about is how it’s important to actively build diversity into the story to avoid the hollywood ‘Best (white person) For The Role’ which makes a lot of sense, but on the other hand, my story idea is currently… entirely generic, i.e.
I’m at that point where I have to make a decision about whether it would be fruitful to specify the race/ethnicities of certain characters. But my problem is, some of the characters speak very little, and most of them say things basically any student would say in the same situation. Even my main character speaks mostly in a professional context using basic RA lines like ‘hand over your IDs.’
Because it’s a script, it seems really weird to me to say, okay this character is asian, but then there’s no real reason for them to be or not to be, say, black, or latina, or mixed, etc.? At this point, I have to decide moving forward whether to build my characters to incorporate some indicators of specific racial/ethnic background (linguistic quirks, etc.), but I don’t know a) whether I should or not because it seems necessary only because of trying to subvert an all white cast, and b) how I might even go about this, again, seemingly arbitrary process.
So how can I build diversity into a script that’s relatively generic without it feeling arbitrary or canned? Or without specifically indicating race/ethnicity in a context in which it wouldn’t really be addressed outwardly?
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Your professor is correct. It’s time to normalize People of Color in scripts, stories, in all forms of media. White is still very much the default for Hollywood and clearly your script as you struggle to place us just existing without it feeling unnatural or obtrusive. You question whether it is fruitful to specify race where race won’t be addressed. I say it is. This is exactly what many of us want, just a story where we’re included and treated as human beings doing things, with agency, and not table settings and decorations for white characters to interact with.
It seems unnatural or unnecessary to specify race to you because you’re used to the default being white people who don’t need an introduction of race. It’s time to just stop feeling the need to have to explain our existence and just let us be there. Let us exist.
At this point, I have to decide moving forward whether to build my characters to incorporate some indicators of specific racial/ethnic background (linguistic quirks, etc.), but I don’t know a) whether I should or not because it seems necessary only because of trying to subvert an all white cast, and b) how I might even go about this, again, seemingly arbitrary process.
Why not add cultural and personal details, though? Even in the small ways? Honestly, if people are only speaking in professional terms and doing generic actions void of much emotion and personality, your story may come off as bland and the characters undeveloped and unmemorable. Perhaps I don’t have a full understanding of what you’re doing with this script, though.
The way people speak and the words they say, the way they react to things, it’s all informed by where we come from and who we are. You could show culture with a name, from the lunch they eat, the words they mumble in their native tongue in frustration…and those things come off as much more engaging to me than just White/Generic/Everyman does generic/ professional things.
I agree. We’d love stories where we’re the protags, but there isn’t a lot of hullaballoo about our identity. But that doesn’t mean wiping the slate completely.
(I’m thinking of a recent video featuring Martellus Bennett of the NE Patriots and how he actually has a book series with a Black protag going on adventures, and how he talked about the importance of having Black characters having their own stories that weren’t just about their identities.)
How to solve your problem: backstory.
Any generic script can be modified to PoC, depending on your definition of “generic.” If by “generic” you mean “ethnically uncoded"— well, you’re wrong. Generic is very ethnically coded. It’s white coded. You just don’t notice it because it’s the same markers in your life. If you watch something like Black-ish or Fresh Off the Boat, you’ll see the differences in ethnic coding in a family suburban sitcom.
If by “generic” you mean “uses archetypes familiar to the genre”, then you’re dealing with a situation where there really genuinely isn’t any race marker. As I mentioned— Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat are family suburban sitcoms. These are generic plots, made different by asking: what would this ethnic group experience in this context?
You don’t seem to know enough about diverse ethnic groups in order to insert them into the narrative. Black people, for example, tend to dress more professionally than is required. This is because the markers of “casual and cool” for a white person (jeans, t-shirt, sneakers) are seen as “slob and inexperienced” for a black person. There are hundreds of examples like this, if you start looking.
As Colette said: you’re used to the default being white people. All of us are! This is something you have to actively unlearn. But the way to unlearn it is to ask the same questions you do in general character building.
- How does this character’s background impact their behaviour?
- How do others see them? (Note- cultural markers like the above dressing professionally example heavily influence this)
- How did their parents push them?
- How do they want to be seen?
In order to build race into your characters, you have to get out of your all-white box and start to understand our perspectives. Just like you learn to write a whole bunch of different white people in writing, learn to write a whole bunch of Black, or Latinx, or East Asian, or South Asian people. We’re all still people, but our experiences have shaped us for who we are— just like white people.
When building characters, you have to ask yourself all of the questions about who they are and how they’re seen in order to write anything good. These are the steps for any character building, so if you’re thinking there’s too much work involved… well, sorry, no, there really isn’t. Not in this industry.
You live and die by your ability to create relatable characters, and in order to do that, you have to build backstory. And in order to build diversity in, you have to learn how to craft a PoC backstories that have just as much nuance and variety as white backstories.