I write a lot about diversity in writing. It’s a big topic these days, and there are lots of “let’s make society better” reasons to have important characters who represent the wide swath of human experiences. Sometimes I talk about these, but I also think there’s some value in recognizing that this isn’t just a social issue. This is a better storytelling issue. Earlier I gave the example of how one of the biggest problems with the latest Spider-man reboot is the way they have mishandled disabled characters. It wasn’t just offensive; it set them up to characterize their villains in ways that were detrimental to the stories as a whole. Today, I’m going to return to that line of reasoning, and talk about how reflexively casting protagonists as white, straight males often sets writers up to lazy writing that produces boring protagonists.
I should say right away that there is nothing inherently wrong with writing a protagonist who is white, or male, or straight, or any other privileged class. I’m also not saying those protagonists are inherently boring. In fact, in a way I’ll be arguing the exact opposite. See, I think the reason these demographics are so popular for protagonists is that they are seen as neutral. It’s the default setting for people, and any points at which a protagonist deviates from that is “different.” You don’t want characters who are different, because that will make it harder for people to relate to them, right?
Hopefully you all are already seeing problems with this. Being white, male and straight (and for the rest of the time when I say this, go ahead and fill in cis, non-disabled, etc) is not normal. There is no objective normal. Real human beings come in all kinds of combinations; white, female and gay; trans, male and black; gay, white, gender queer and disabled, so on and so forth. Because one deviation from the privileged “normal” is enough to make a person “the other,” the vast majority of us are in some way different from Standard Hollywood Protagonist Demographic Model type one. If you want characters to be interesting to their audiences, you need to rely on a lot more than just “he’s a straight white man.”
I first realized this was a problem when the first Kick-ass movie came out. I liked some aspects of it, but I also found it kind of forgettable, and the main reason was how bland the hero was. Frequently the hero is boring because they spend most of the story reactive, not proactive, but this was not an explanation that worked. The hero of Kick-ass is very proactive. He wants to be a superhero, so he makes himself a costume and goes out to find some crimes to solve. I was struggling to relate to him, struggling to like him, and frankly if it wasn’t for Hit Girl I probably wouldn’t have cared at all whether the good guys won.
I was in college at the time, and I remembered a part of my homework where the author was introducing me to the concept of privilege. He pointed out how in order to be perceived as normal in this society, you have to be white, male, straight, cisgender, nondisabled, upper-middle class, vaguely affiliated with Judeo-Christian religion, etc. He asked us how many people really fit all of those categories. The male part alone cuts out over half the population, everything else whittles at it until you have to wonder if so many as ten percent of the population feels fully “normal.” Then I realized, this was why I couldn’t relate to Kick-ass. He was supposed to be an ordinary average teen boy. You know, white, and kinda Jewish but not really, very straight, not rich but not poor, not really outstanding in every field. Normal.
That wasn’t my normal. I was a homeschooled person, raised in a radical religion but coming to question it, attracted to men and treated as female but struggling with a feeling that I was supposed to be male. I started wondering how many other people in the theater could really relate to his “normal” life. Because the Hollywood market caters to teen males, probably that was represented more than average, but about ten percent of those were going to be gay. A lot would be Asian, black or some other race, and that would greatly affect their experience of teenage maleness. Some would have disabilities. Some would be Muslim, others pagans, some atheists, etc.
I also realized that, even though I had a few things in common with the protagonist, I didn’t really care. We were both white. So? I, for one, have never once gone, “man, I love that white protagonist. I can totally relate to the way our hair naturally looks ‘professional’ and we don’t have to choose between hair relaxers and battling for natural hair acceptance. And that scene where he walked into an expensive department store and didn’t get followed around by mall security? It’s just like how I don’t get followed around by mall security for no reason other than the lack of criminal stereotypes about my race. I sure hope that relatable white human being survives the movie.”
In my experience, people relate most actively to their most privileged or marginalized statuses. They form their sense of self around what they have had to struggle with, or fight for. If you want an easy way to get me passionately fixated on a character’s well-being, if you want that character to be my absolute favorite person in the entire book/movie/show, make that character trans. FtM or MtF doesn’t even matter; heck, in their absence I’ll get attached to the tomboys and the girly men. It’s not just me. I remember one day my boyfriend and I took a museum day, and accidentally both wore Star Wars shirts. Three different black security guards took the time to talk to us about the upcoming movie. None of them failed to mention Lando. They weren’t even trying to make a big racial point. Their minds just happened to collectively drift to, “have you heard anything about them bringing Lando back? Man, I love Lando. They gotta have Lando.”
What about minorities who I have no experiences in common with? Well, I am a person of average height. I have no dwarfism conditions. Despite this, Tyrion Lannister is one of my favorite characters on Game of Thrones, as he is for most people. Also, I really loved the character Peter Dinklage played in The Station Agent. In neither case did the external difference between us make it hard to identify with the character. If anything, the opportunity to see life from a different perspective made the characters more interesting. I liked both characters because they were people like me, and seeing their humanity through the lens of differences was cool.
This was what Kick-ass lacked. He didn’t have any character that went deeper than “well, that’s pretty normal of most teen heterosexual white males.” The part where he actually put on a superhero costume was a difference, but there was nothing inherent to his character that made him the kind of person who would do that. He was just wish fulfillment for nerdy white straight teen males.
Good characters don’t just walk around with census data stuck to them. They are first and foremost made out of things that connect us, collectively, as human beings. Then the author layers individualizing details over that; a backstory, a personality type, tastes, dislikes, aspirations, and of course demographics like age and race and economic status. Next the character must become dynamic, making choices that only they could make, but we see how those decisions come from emotions and needs and limitations that we all experience. Good characterization portrays the universal through the specific.
This is not to say that you cannot write white straight male protagonists. However, if you do, you should be careful to not see those as some sort of human default. Do not rely on that to make anybody relate to your character, and don’t dismiss other demographics simply because you worry they will be hard to relate to. To get people to care about your characters, the most important thing is to write a human being.
Or, you know, a black lesbian transwoman with mental health problems and a physical disability of some kind. That should work for everybody.