1. Man in the Box
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    Man in the Box Active Member

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    Representation of social groups in stories

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Man in the Box, Feb 8, 2014.

    Ok so here's the problem. I'm a middle-class, straight white male. I live in a multicultural country and need to take this into account when marketing my story. But whenever I think of a new character, making the character black (or even Asian) or homosexual seems to be an afterthought. In most media, white and straight people take the big roles and I end up being influenced by it, having mostly white characters, however I feel like I'm being prejudiced when I think about it. Also, I'm seeing authors in various media (in my country) being criticized for lack of black characters, for example.

    I really don't know how to phrase this... But how do you deal with representation of certain social groups in a story? People of different races than me are easier, since they probably just have different goals depending on their background (race is really irrelevant unless you want to make a point that there is prejudice against someone), but what about gay people? When do you make the decision that "this character is going to be gay, or bisexual"? When you write about what you don't know, you run a risk of being stereotypical.
     
  2. stevesh
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    stevesh Banned Contributor

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    A character would be gay (or white, or black, or Asian) when it suited the story. Write the story first, then worry about what groups your characters belong to. Please don't allow yourself to be bullied into some sort of 'quotas' by the dark forces of political multiculturalism. In the real world, birds of a feather do tend to flock together.
     
  3. Renee J
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    Renee J Contributing Member

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    You could also write characters that have vague backgrounds. Not every character has to have a love interest as part of the story. So, readers could make up a background for them, including that they might be gay. This would keep you from stereotyping. (But, this only works for minor characters.)
     
  4. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't describe my characters other than what's absolutely necessary - so readers are free to see them however they wish. I suppose I could toss in "gay", or "black", or whatever to appease some people, but they would still be the same characters, so I don't bother.

    I always remember a book I read a couple years ago - throughout the story, I saw the MC as a black guy. I don't know why; I just saw him that way. It was quite jarring when, near the end of the book, the author suddenly decided to toss in a line about his skin tone - which was definitely not that of a black guy.

    Somebody, somewhere, is going to find something to criticize about any given book. The sooner you quit worrying about that happening, the sooner you'll write the story you should be writing.
     
  5. David K. Thomasson
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    David K. Thomasson Contributing Member

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    I'd suggest following the rule of thumb that anything -- anything -- that gets into your story must get there because it helps to advance the story. If a character has red hair or wears a toupee, that information isn't included unless it helps in some way. If he's black or white or Asian, same thing.

    Example: Bolt, the furnace guy, runs into Chester, the janitor, in the church basement:

    Chester was fifty and looked seventy. The veins and creases in his face were the ravages of alcoholism. Bolt had heard the story of his recovery and respected him for it. Eight years ago when Chester was in rehab, Thad Miller had spoken at one of the meetings and, afterward, offered him the job. He’d been a sober, reliable janitor ever since.

    Question: What race is Chester?
    Answer: I don't know and I don't care, because including that information wouldn't help this story at this point. So it doesn't get in.

    Now try this one:

    I know what it feels like to be a foreigner in my own country. I'm just a regular American white guy, but I was living in Miami on 31st Avenue just off Southwest 8th Street -- the Tamiami Trail, Calle Ocho, sometimes known as Cuban Broadway. Within a ten-block radius of my house, there was not one other plain American white guy like to me to be found. Everybody spoke Spanish. The children spoke English fluently, of course, because they had to learn it in school. But most of their parents spoke virtually no English, a convenient fact for the kids because it allowed them to cuss openly, which they did at top volume while playing street football after supper. They would run one play, and then argue for five minutes. "Bullshit! Bullshit! You crossed the line of scrimmage!" "Hell no, I did not! You're full of shit! You're full of shit!" I would turn the TV off and just listen to them, howling away like a gang of little sailors on shore leave. They were funnier than any sitcom I ever saw.

    In this case, the writer's race and nationality, and the surrounding Cuban culture, are essential to the story, so in they go.
     
    Last edited: Feb 8, 2014
  6. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    So, as a real-life gay latino, here's my opinion. If you, the writer, feel that you're forcing "me" onto the page out of a sense of political correctness, you're ruining the story. Firstly, I, the real-life gay latino, am going to feel it when I read it - trust me on this - and worse than lack of representation is patronization. You should not feel that it's your job to include me on the page. It's your job as a writer to write a good story. If I happen to be part of that story, terrific, but if not, don't jam me in there. I, the real-life gay latino, don't hate you for not having a gay latino in the story. I don't. And other real-life gay latinos who do hate you for not writing about them can f*** off, or better yet, they can sit down at their own computers and write stories about real-life gay latinos. I mean, it's what and who they are, so who better to write it?

    If my tone feels terse, it's not at you, not in the least. It's at some (I said some) of my fellow gays and latinos who bitch and moan about lack of representation and then do NOTHING about it except bitch and moan.

    And there's that. ;)
     
  7. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    On the other hand, and I do agree with what's been said above, we need more minorities and women in fiction be it on the page or on the screen to counter the social biases. That doesn't mean to inject them into a story, but rather I suggest we write more stories where ethnic characters break stereotypes.
     
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  8. Bryan Romer
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    Bryan Romer Contributing Member Contributor

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    The most important thing is when you feature a other than WASP character, for goodness sake don't get the character's social and cultural nuances wrong or it will be even more irritating. For instance, many Indians are quite happy with arranged marriage, and not all Chinese are Buddhists. In fact, not even a majority.
     
  9. Mans
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    Mans Contributing Member

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    When you are writing, don't tend to the race or political matters, except when your story is moving in the one of these two subjects orbit. Also don't tend to choose a sexy subject because nowadays families ( specially in your country) are sensitive about their children and are opposite against the stories which have been written based on such contexts. Not matter your character is white, black, yellow or red ( of course I am not black. The avatar is one of my pictures which has been taken by a cheap camera in a beach and the sunshine has made me tan) because readers mostly pay attention to the personality of characters.
     
    Last edited: Feb 10, 2014
  10. Man in the Box
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    Man in the Box Active Member

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    Thanks, I didn't consider your point of view when writing it. Main reason I created this thread is that, in a recent soap opera aired in my country, the author was criticized for not having many black characters, and the few ones that existed were poor people. The problem is that the main setting was a hospital, and medical career is expensive and considering black people tend to be poor in my country, it's more difficult for them to enter the medical university and become doctors. So featuring many black doctors would please black movements, but would feel unrealistic. If you're going for a realistic setting, you have to look at reality and, unfortunately, until things change in my country, it's not possible to feature many black people in privileged positions in a work of art.

    On the other hand, sometimes I feel like a comics writer, like, for example I introduce a character just to appeal to a certain audience. If the character is good, then it's a right move, if not, then it's just a cheap attempt at grabbing a bigger share of the market among certain groups.
     
  11. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think it is extremely difficult to write a character that is in a social class that you've never inhabited. As Wrey noted, it's worse to throw in a token gay/black/Jew/woman -- whatever it is, than to not have any. You need to write what you know. (And it is possible to "know" through extensive research, but that's another issue.) If all you do is simply indicate that character X is black, but you have nothing else that relates to him being black, then it's pointless.

    In my story, most of the characters aren't extensively physically described. And they all inhabit more or less the same world that I have lived in and know well. Someone else will do a better job describing the community that they know, and since we have people from all different cultures and backgrounds, we'll get stories of people from all different characters and backgrounds. Now, my MC has a best friend. If my story were to become a Hollywood film, I could see some of the studio types saying, "Hey, let's make that best friend black. That way we get diversity." Now, there's no reason that that character couldn't be black. It doesn't happen to be how I pictured him, but he could be. But I wouldn't change my story to make him black, as there wouldn't really be a reason for doing so. I think if I threw into the story "hey, this guy is black" it would seem strange. If it somehow were to become relevant, then I would do it.

    You need to write the story that you want to tell. Not the story that you think other people want to hear.
     
  12. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    Also, I think that part of the criticism you see, particularly when directed at television, etc., is not so much that the author did not include some characters of color, but that the studio execs only seek to show stories that are written by and reflect the experience of white, straight, Protestant people, and don't seek shows written by people of color or that reflect the experiences and viewpoints of various ethnic and other groups.
     
  13. JayG
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    JayG Banned Contributor

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    A good rule of thumb. If a line doesn't develop character, advance the plot, or meaningfully set the scene with what matters to the protagonist, it doesn't belong in the story.

    Some things to keep in mind: The reader can't actually see/smell/taste/hear/feel the scene, so describing a bit about a few things or people in it is no more than a list unless it strikes an emotional chord in your reader, as it would were you to talk about the sound of children playing, or the scent of the gym locker room.

    We can see a huge volume of things, but pay attention to only one at a time. So telling the reader what the protagonist could notice because it's in their field of vision, but never pays attention to, serves to slow the narrative. It's their story, so talk about what matters to them.

    A reader, because they don't know the story as yet, has no way to know if a given thing that's mentioned will matter later, and so must be remembered. And, readers not only have limited memory space to devote to your story, them may have put it down for a week and have forgotten small details. So it's unreasonable to mix critical information in with trivia that doesn't matter, and expect the reader to remember it when it's needed. The short version: tell the story, don't bother the reader wirth trivia.

    We hope the reader will use our protagonist and their evaluation/opinion as a measuring stick to calibrate their own response, as they live the story in parallel with the protagonist. That's a very different thing from being in the audience listening to someone talk about the story. And as the ereader lives/fantasizes the story the character has the same ethnicity as that reader—or their own impression of being whatever you've assigned to the protagonist. Men, in general, for example, don't favor books in which women are the protagonist because their own internal calibration may argue with the emotional decisions the protagonist is making. Women have the same problem with a male protagonist. Is ethnicity any different?

    If a given character must be of a given ethnicity or society for dramatic purpose, by all means make it so. But paint them different shades for political correctness? Naaa.
     
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  14. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Well, it might be unrealistic if you wrote a story that happened in your community and everyone was white... But that's another story.

    @T.Trian and I decided to set our story into an international space community 'cause we felt it'd be realistic for such a community to be multicultural, that if the space powers were ever to unite and colonize space, it'd be a joint effort and in the end, there'd be Russians, Americans, Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Europeans etc mixed together. Uh-oh!

    But I've enjoyed writing it, imagining a world where cultures have started to merge, yet at the same time they try to hold onto their own cultural identities.

    I feel it's a fitting setting, but if you had to force something in there to please others, I'd say don't bother. I'm not guaranteeing it will show, but why do something that doesn't feel right?

    Maybe I should be concerned that people think the story I mentioned above has token characters. Of the main cast, one is gay and one is black. Yikes. But I love writing them both, that was the way they turned out, the way they are meant to be, and I'm not apologizing for that. As far as I'm concerned, you don't have to apologize for anything either.
     
  15. Bryan Romer
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    On the other hand, it could be possible to write a story with a character(s) of a different race from the MC (assuming (s)he is white), without going into that person's POV or cultural and linguistic background, by having him/her act "white" throughout the story, but instead concentrate on portraying how the other white people react and respond when this person of different race turns up, and using that to define and highlight the "otherness".

    This was done to great effect in many police stories based in the US South during the '60s.
     
  16. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    As I recall, the Hunger Games has two characters who are black -- one a boy and one a girl. When the movie came out, there were a lot of people who were actually *mad* that these two characters were black, as they had somehow missed it in the book, and had thought of them as white.

    So, sometimes, even if you explicitly tell the reader that a character has some physical characteristic or is of a particular race or ethnicity, it will be ignored by some readers if it doesn't comport with their preexisting ideas or frames of reference.
     
  17. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    Definitely. Characters are rarely seen by me the way the authors describe them - I've "seen" characters as black when they were not (according to the author), and author's descriptions of "attractive" characters typically turn me off. So I generally skip or read-and-forget descriptions anyway.
     
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  18. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Hear, hear! My most unfavorite of all authorial intrusion is this. The writer describing a ravishing beauty - male or female - in terms that translate to me as equine of facial feature or bovine of comportment. The writer has every right to his or her concept of ravishing, but to assume that I, the reader, would use the same benchmark is ludicrous. And this does all relate back to the OP's original question. You should be creating people the reader can relate to and that fit the story. If you over-manipulate the reader in directions that are false to the story, it will show like a turd in a punchbowl.
     
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  19. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Dang @Wreybies, I would love to have your talent for metaphors and similes. :D
     
  20. Mackers
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    Mackers Contributing Member

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    Wrey, what the hell does this mean? :O
     
  21. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    What it means is that what is heart-stoppingly beautiful to you may be meh or worse to me. Over-description as regards what is "attractive" may well be self-defeating because, unless the attraction to these specific features and behaviors is crucial to the story, you've removed from the reader the ability to paint in their own image of beauty and grace. These things are too subjective to assume the reader will agree. I do believe that is what @shadowwalker was getting at. For example, I'm not attracted to tall fellahs' at all. After about 5' 9"-ish, blokes turn invisible to me. And too thin is not my thing. If you weigh less than 10 stone, I'm more likely to want to feed you than date you. ;) This doesn't fit in with what might be the general idea of attractive, but it's my idea.

    Now, if you were asking as to the actual words I used, what I said was horse-faced and bull-headed. ;)
     
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  22. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Well, your notions of attractiveness might be entirely wrong, but you're right it's a little silly to describe a person's features AND call them beautiful, ugly, etc. Personally I think that's just poor writing.
     
  23. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Beg pardon?
     
  24. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    A quip, that's all, I swear!
     
  25. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    @123456789: Always remember the smilies! ;)
     

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