What To Do When All Your Characters Are White

Or perhaps I should call this one what I do when I realize all my protagonists are white. Nah, that’s less catchy, but I’ll clarify now that this is what I do. I’m hardly a Multicultural Writing Expert. These are the tricks I use for the kind of writing I tend to do. I’m putting them up here in part because I think others might find them helpful, and in part because I’m hoping other people will have some more ideas that I might find useful.

I should also go into a little bit into my rationale for caring in the first place, because that has a huge bearing on my process. I belong to the school of thought that says that stories play a role in how we form our ideas about the world around us. If those stories all have white protagonists and only have people of color as villains and one dimensional tertiary colors, that helps bolster racist ways of seeing the world, while being accustomed to hearing all sorts of stories told about people of all races makes racism untenable. I believe the stories we tell have more power to change minds than all the workplace mandated sensitivity trainings, for the simple reason that people come to stories open hearted, while they go through workshops watching the clock for a chance to escape. However, I believe that for stories to have their full impact, they must be believed. To be believed, they must feel real. For that reason, I think painstakingly ensuring every story has one black person, one Asian person, one Native American person, and so on is ineffective. At one point that approach was a step forward, but these days its just cloying and obvious, and nearly as easy for the audience to dismiss as those sensitivity trainings. Stories should not feel like I deigned to put some POC characters in, or like I grudgingly chopped out a space for them in deference to political correctness. Those should feel natural, so the audience hardly notices they are there. One day, we should get to a point where lacking diversity is as jarring and noticeable to readers as having diversity was to readers fifty years ago.

1. Think about the setting. Which races are germane to the setting, and which are rarer but still plausible? Something in the Medieval England countryside, probably doesn’t need any characters who aren’t white. Japanese characters won’t fit into any story outside of Japan, from 1635 to 1868. They had a strict isolationist policy. On the flip side, though, there are many settings that we think of as less diverse than they necessarily are. Note how I said Medieval countryside in the first example? The ports and major cities were a different story. Plenty of Spaniards, Italians and Moors made their way there, as merchants, diplomats, sailors, mercenaries, and so on. The American Old West also gets very inaccurately whitewashed. In the Southwest, much of the territory was recently acquired from Spain and Mexico, so a high percentage of the population was Hispanic, just as it is today. Furthermore, the new territories were popular destinations for freed or escaped slaves. A quarter of all cowboys were black.

2. Think about cultures. I have a basic rule; I don’t have to be intimately familiar with a culture to write a character who belongs to the race associated with it, but I do need intimate familiarity to write a character who identifies strongly with that culture. Real people exist along a spectrum when it comes to culture. We belong to many groups, and we usually identify more strongly with one group than another. You don’t have to know everything about Hispanic culture to write a person who is Hispanic; nobody will think its implausible if you write a person who happens to be Hispanic but identifies primarily as a tremendous geek. On the other hand, trying to write a culture without some experience with it is like trying to draw a portrait going only off of secondhand descriptions. No matter how great an artist you are, you never seem to end up with anything better than a caricature.

Those two steps together give me an idea of which races I should be looking to add into my story. That in turn helps avoid tokenism. Saying, “okay, if I add one black, one Asian and one Hispanic character, hopefully no one will yell at me,” looks contrived. Saying, “Cleveland really should have more black people,” is just being realistic. The rest of the steps help me decide which characters to change.

3. How clear is my sense of each character? When I write, I like the characters to feel alive in my head. Some writers complain about their characters taking over the story, changing its direction. I’m almost disappointed when they don’t. So if I have a strong character who has been very assertive about who they are, I’ve learned to avoid messing with that. For reasons I can’t fully explain, even changing a character’s hair color can make them lose a certain vividness in my mind. This can be a problem as I’m looking for characters to change races. On the other hand, it can also be an advantage. Sometimes my characters are being less lively than I want them to be. Either they aren’t coming to life, or they have come to life, but become characters I’m less interested in writing. These characters are the first on the block to change race. The new race doesn’t change who they are as people, fundamentally; rather, giving them a new face, and often a new name, also gives my own mind the flexibility to solve some deeper character problems. I come out with a cast that is more diverse, and also just better.

4. Deal with stereotypes. Obviously, if making a character a particular race would also make them into a stereotype, don’t make that character that race. However, this is most likely to be a problem if only the low ranking, tertiary characters are being made minorities, which itself is an issue. Major characters are supposed to be fleshed out and complex. A character whose only noteworthy traits are being smart and Asian is a stereotype. A character who was always good at school but particularly loves astronomy and lies awake stargazing and wondering about alien life, whose passion eventually took him to Astronaut Camp where he has begun actively wondering about his odds of becoming a real astronaut, because he really wants it, but so do many kids and only a handful become astronauts (but then again somebody will get to do it and why shouldn’t it be him?), and meanwhile he is having a summer romance with this girl who is allergic to peanut butter which is driving him crazy because peanut butter is his favorite food ever, which is leading him to wonder whether this is proof that he really loves her because he is making a sacrifice, or proving that he doesn’t because if he really loved her he could give it up without any trouble… that character isn’t a stereotype, even if he happens to be Asian.

Which brings me to another thing I think about. Just as in my previous writing about gender, a person’s race might not define how they behave, but it will affect how people around them think of them. So I don’t only think about how to avoid making stereotypical characters. I also consider which characters will interact in interesting ways with the stereotypes society might hold about them. Once, for example, I had a love interest who everyone thought was stupid and troublesome. He was considered a bad boy by nearly everyone. Part of the love story revolved around the protagonist realizing that he was actually a very nice guy, and intelligent. He had ADHD and some other learning disabilities that were diagnosed late. By the time they had, he had already gotten a reputation among his teachers. He, in turn, had developed a sense that his teachers would always be less patient with him, and had a certain distrust of authority at school, which is why he continued to butt heads with his teachers, but in other contexts he was actually very sweet and responsible. Initially he was white, but I realized that the stereotypes young black men often have to deal with fit very neatly with his backstory. I’ve actually seen this dynamic at work in one of the elementary schools I used to work at; the white teacher expects the black boy to be trouble, and so has less patience with him when he is trouble. He in turn realizes she isn’t expecting his best behavior, and so gives up trying to please her, which she takes as confirmation that she was right all along, and the cycle continues. So in that case, even though the character was fine as a white person, I changed him.

5. Top characters get changed first. While writing minorities of all sorts has improved over the years, an issue that remains is that even when non-white characters exist, they are almost never the protagonist. If I can change the protagonist’s race, I do. I also look to love interests and deuteragonists, characters who are the protagonists of major subplots and narrators. What I try to avoid is the black best friend problem, where everything important to the story is done by white characters and then the one non-white role is taken by someone whose role is just to listen to the white protagonist whine. Best friends might be important to the protagonist, but that is different from being important to the story. Characters important to the story are the ones whose actions significantly alter the course of it, or who are profoundly shaped by the course of the story. If a character’s primary role is providing commentary, or getting rescued, or giving aid in a way that doesn’t require them to put in real effort or make a significant sacrifice, they are really just ambulatory plot devices. If those are the only characters I’m changing, I’m not doing it right, and I need to take another look at my truly important characters.

So, what do the rest of you think? How do you approach diversity in your casts?

Why None of the New Spider-Man Villains are Working

I’ve written twice so far about the problematic villains of the new Spider-Man franchise. I wrote about the disturbing side of Dr. Connors’ motivations and viewpoint, and my own alternate interpretation of Max Dillon’s whole character. So I suppose this is the conclusion to an impromptu trilogy on why these villains aren’t working.

There’s a pattern to the way the villains of this new series have been written. First, the character is given a medical condition. Dr. Connors was missing an arm, Max had some sort of mental problem, and Harry has retroviral hyperplasia. The disability provides the one and only motivation the character will have for the entire movie. Dr. Connors sought physical perfection, Max is lonely and obsessed with Spider-Man and Harry was looking for a cure. None of them come across as bad people when you first meet them, but the disabilities have laid the groundwork for their villainy. Then they get hit with Applied Phlebotinum and are transformed into monsters, both mentally and physically. Their initial, disability inspired motivation will still inform what they do, but they will never again be anything but scenery chewing villains.

I want to talk more about the writerly issues with this than the political issues, but please understand that’s not because I’m not bothered by the implications. One disabled villain might or might not have bothered me, depending on how well that character was written and whether there were any other disabled characters. Three in a row is a problem, especially when all of them are, one way or another, motivated towards evil by their disability. The reason I’m not talking about that is because many others have talked about the need to be cautious when portraying minorities, particularly when that minority is stigmatized and the character can potentially reinforce the stigma. I think it’s a worthwhile issue to talk about, and the only reason I’m not saying anything about that right now is because I don’t have anything to say that hasn’t been said before. But don’t mistake that for my thinking that the biggest problem here is that they weren’t artistically satisfying. It’s only that this is the problem that I have something at least somewhat new to say about.

From a writer’s perspective, giving a villain a disability is not in and of itself bad writing. Erik from Phantom of the Opera is a villain with a medical condition. He’s disfigured. Because he lives in the era of superstition and circus sideshows, and not the era of plastic surgery, he has been caged, beaten, put on display like an object, and finally hidden away from all society by the one person who took a moment to see the world from his point of view.  Everybody who likes the play loves Erik. He’s the one who brings the audience to their feet at curtain call, because he’s interesting. He terrifies the audience, but also evokes their sympathy. He’s a tragic, poetic figure. And frankly, I don’t think many people come away from Phantom of the Opera thinking, “damn, better stay away from those disabled people, because they are creepy.” They come away thinking about how horribly and unfairly Erik the person has been treated.

Compare Erik to any of the Spider-Man villains. The story takes to the time to let us get to know Erik. We see where he lives, we see flashbacks to his childhood, and we hear how people talk about him. We also know things about him that have nothing to do with his disability, like the fact that he loves theater and has excellent taste, and is highly intelligent, all of which play into his role in the story. He shows us anger, jealousy, sorrow, depression, hope, love, lust and even tenderness. I don’t know much about Dr. Connors as a person. I just know he is missing an arm and feels rather bummed about that. I’ve imagined a lot about who Max Dillon might be, but really as he’s portrayed in the movie he’s just a nutcase with a Spidey fetish and some skill with electronics. Harry Osborn gets more characterization, but ultimately it doesn’t come to much. His early bantering with Peter tells us a bit about his life, but nothing established there is really used later on. His vengeful attitude towards Spider-Man is not foreshadowed; he is not shown to be a vengeful character until he is suddenly required by the plot to be so. Furthermore, he becomes determined to discover a cure immediately for a disease that apparently took decades to kill his father, and I don’t recall seeing any indication that it’s likely to kill him any faster. It’s illogical and broke my suspension of disbelief.

Which brings me to a rather strange problem. Not only do we not learn much about any of these characters besides that they are disabled, but we don’t even know much about that. We see specific examples of how Erik’s disfigurement affects his life, and the mask he wears is a nice, iconic detail that fits in with the rest of his character. He’s inventive and artistic, so he found a way to make a mask that covers exactly what he wanted to hide. It always bothered me that someone as troubled by his lack of an arm as Dr. Connors, and with as much access to state of the art technology, he never bothered to get a prosthetic. Add it to the fact that we never see him use any other sort of assistive device, we never see him harassed for his condition, we never see the handy technique he developed for opening doors when he’s got an armful of paperwork, it looks like the writers didn’t think it was important to research or develop the one trait that defined their character.

This pattern continues for the other two villains. My personal headcanon aside, I have no idea what Max Dillon has. I don’t think you could make schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or any other diagnosis fit him without at least as much imagination and reinterpretation as my autism diagnosis did. It seems they just gave him stereotypical “crazy person” traits and called it a day. Instead of being put into his head, so we can understand what he is doing and why, we are pushed out it with a hand wave of “yeah, sure, whatever. He’s insane. What more could you possibly want to know?” With Harry, we finally get a name for his condition, and it’s real. I looked it up. His lethal condition only occurs in walleye pike. Also it’s not lethal. I suspect they strung together a bunch of medical sounding syllables and then nobody bothered to do a Google search.

The point is, these villains have barely even been written. Villains are not bit parts. The second most important character, after the protagonist, is not the love interest or best friend or wise old mentor, it’s the villain. Without the villain, there would be no obstacle and thus no story. A villain can even get away with being more engaging than the protagonist, and not infrequently they are. When the villains are poorly constructed, they drag the whole story along with them. The hero’s struggle won’t be as engaging if it’s against somebody the audience cares little about. The conflict becomes at worst unconvincing and at best unoriginal and boring.

The writers of the new Spider-Man series are not bad writers. Peter and Gwen are both excellent characters. Many of the scenes, subplots and side characters in both films were great. So why, why why why, did these writers say, “our villain has a disability; our work here is done”? Why did they not research what they were getting into, think about life from a disabled person’s point of view, or give some thought as to who these characters were as people, aside from any medical condition?

Why did they not write characters?

Why Dr. Connors Failed as a Character

Disclaimer; I do not have a physical disability. What I wrote below was based on experience working with various disabled communities (ASL interpretation and special education), relationships with people who have disabilities (such as my father and ex-boyfriend) and reading the writings of people about their experiences with disability. Take with appropriate quantities of salt.

After my second viewing of The Amazing Spider-man, I decided its main problem was the weakness of its villain. This is not an uncommon opinion. Even those who liked it thought he needed work. However, there is no consensus on what is wrong with him. Theories range from superficial special effects problems to deep rooted character problems. He’s struck a wrong note with almost everyone who watched, but most people can’t explain exactly what that wrong note was. For my part, what stood out was the moment where Dr. Connors went from a disabled scientist who just wanted a cure to a lizard monster intent on turning everyone else into lizard monsters. It was, shall we say, less than coherent. It felt less like a tragic fall of a good man, and more like two characters from different stories superglued together, possibly by a four year old.

The most simple explanation is that the serum he took altered his mind and turned him evil. I believe some events in the sequel support this, although I’d have to watch it again to be sure. In any case, this disturbs me, because from a storytelling perspective it strips the character of all autonomy and reduces him to a diabolus ex machina, while from an activist’s perspective it seems to be equating mental illness with evil. The serum makes you crazy, therefore the serum makes you evil. I think the story also leaves room for a secondary interpretation; the serum doesn’t make you crazy or evil. It makes you impulsive, obsessive and potentially aggressive, but how that manifests depends on who you are as a person. I think it is more than fair to judge the story on that assumption; it’s plausible, it  paints the story in a better light than either of the other options I’ve considered, and frankly if there’s a third conclusion I’m missing I think the writers should exposited it more clearly.

My assumption takes us back to the original problem. First Dr. Connors is nice and humanitarian, and then he is suddenly bent on inflicting every human in New York City with a terrifying transformation, just because he has arbitrarily decided we are better off with the body he likes. What on earth was there in his character to foreshadow this shift?

Well, quite a lot actually. The first words he speaks are “I am not a cripple, I’m a scientist.” To many people, that probably sounded like a powerful, confident statement, but if you look under the surface, it’s actually self-devaluing and fairly creepy, because it’s inaccurate. He is both. He is missing one arm, and he’s also a brilliant, successful scientist; clearly the two are not incompatible. I’ve never heard a famous, successful person with a disability talk about themselves that way. Can you imagine Marlee Matlin saying, “I’m not deaf, I’m an actress,” or Peter Dinklage or David Beckham talking like that about their conditions? You could argue that Dr. Connors doesn’t mean he’s not disabled, he’s only rejecting a label that stigmatizes his medical condition. I don’t buy it. Everything else he says suggests he has a mentality where a disability is not a medical condition that makes one or more aspects of life difficult, but a stain on a person’s value as a person. One of his catchphrases is “everyone is equal,” but he never says it in a way that implies he thinks that is already the case. It’s always in conjunction with dreaming about a world where every ailment is cured, “a world without weakness,” and the outcome of that better world is that “everyone is equal.” As if they aren’t already. As if Stephen Hawking and Richard Feynman’s relative value to the world can be judged based on which of them uses a wheelchair. He never actually says disability, which is a frank but clinical and neutral word, and instead favors actively stigmatizing language like “crippled,” “weakness,” and “deformity.” By rejecting his disability so adamantly he is actually suggesting that his real feelings are the reverse. He feels that his disability takes something away from who he is as a scientist, and that he has to push away the one in order to get full credit for the other.

This is not an abstract problem, but a real life, dangerous perception that people with disabilities have to deal with all the time. They are constantly judged, not for what they can do but for what they can’t, not as a gestalt of their goals and fears and strengths and flaws and actions and thoughts and personality, but simply for the sum of their parts. People in wheelchairs are talked to like they are children, even if they are mentally average or above average. Family members try to avoid diagnosing or even discussing a condition because they let fear of the stigma of disability outweigh the need to cope with and overcome it. It is called ableism, and it compounds the difficulties of the lives of people with disabilities every day.

So Dr. Connors, as he is portrayed, comes across as a self-hating ableist. This stretches plausibility a bit, but it’s a potentially interesting characterization, and it lends some coherence to his actions. All along, he was someone who judges human beings and their worth based on their physical ability. Naturally, when exposed to a serum that made him feel physically superior to humanity, he decides the whole human race must partake of it, with no acknowledgement of the rights they have to make decisions about their own bodies. A dehumanizing view of people with disabilities lead to a dehumanizing view of all non-lizard people. However, I don’t think that’s the point we are supposed to get. I think this for two reasons. One is that this movie is not subtle about good guy/bad guy lighting or cuing the villains with scary chords. Dr. Connors is always given good guy music and good guy lighting, until he becomes the Lizard. The second is that nobody ever dissects or challenges his view of disability. They just nod sagely and compassionately.  We aren’t supposed to think there’s something wrong with his attitude towards disability.

So we are back to the same old problem. He’s portrayed as a nice guy who suddenly turns evil for no reason, and there’s an added problem of his holding deeply prejudiced views that are never challenged in-story. This leads into another strange thing I noticed about his portrayal. Pre-transformation, two things are missing; scenes where he doesn’t talk about his disability, and scenes where his disability is shown to impact his life in any negative way. The first is a problem because we never learn about anything beyond “disabled scientist”, the second is a problem because we never learn anything about what his disability is like for him. We can safely assume that it impacts his life, but we never understand how his life with his disability is uniquely his. I assure you, we can’t pretend to begin to know what his life is like just from knowing what his condition is. My Dad’s experience with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis was not like that of the teacher I worked with or my classmate in ASL class. My ex-boyfriend’s deafness was not like my favorite teacher’s Deafness. Tommie’s autism is fairly classic autism, and it’s still not like the autism of any other kid I have worked with. So how am I supposed to understand why Dr. Connors is so preoccupied with his disability if I never see who accepts him and who rejects him, how he copes and in which areas of his life he fails to cope?

In short, Dr. Connors can’t escape being judged as clumsily written, no matter how close you look for inner depth and motivations, and close examination not only fails to turn him into a coherent character, but reveals some indications that his writers probably are more than a little ableist themselves. If they can write him with such a dehumanizing mentality without ever suggesting he’s wrong, maybe it’s because they actually think he’s right. If they make him behave as if the disability is the only important aspect of his life, and then tell us nothing else about that life, it suggests that they tend to assume the only important thing about a disabled person’s life is that they are disabled. What’s interesting to me is that this characterization didn’t just strike a wrong note with me, the person who has received a pretty good education of what disability is and what ableism looks like. In the many reviews I’ve read, nobody liked him. Some hated him, some just thought he was bland, but to everyone he felt off. Ableist mentalities bred a terrible character, and anybody could recognize it.

There are many people trying to pressure Hollywood to do a better job representing women and minorities, to counter stereotypes and increase public understanding and empathy and all that. The main tool used to convince them is the stick. The activists say, “if you write in an ableist, sexist, racist, classist or otherwise prejudiced way, we won’t like you very much. We will think angry thoughts and write stern letters and maybe not even go see your movie.” The whole issue is treated as a tug of war between the pressure to remain politically correct and the desire to write without that pressure. What I think a lot of people on both sides of the tug of war don’t realize is that there’s a carrot here, as well as a stick. Well written characters are entertaining. They do a great job selling a movie. Who is better written, Dr. Connors or Professor X.? Who brings people to the theaters? Who do you think activists like more? There’s a reason the answer to all three is Professor X, and that is that he is a human being, with hopes and flaws and strengths and struggles and a personality. Social justice, at its best, is ultimately about seeing people as people; not as members of homogenous groups or stereotypes or as if one trait can define their whole life, but as people. Good writing is no different.

How to Write Gender; a Trans Man’s Perspective

As someone who has lived on both sides of the gender binary, and mucked about in the murky swamp of the genderqueer, here is my carefully considered, foolproof, all-encompassing and patent-pending method for writing a character who is not your own gender; write a well rounded character, and then supply the appropriate pronouns.

Yeah, on second thoughts I can’t actually patent that, now can I?

Writers get hung up on gender a lot. Women assume they can’t write men, men assume they can’t write women, and if you even consider writing a non-binary character you’re a very rare breed (a breed so rare I’m going to ignore it for the rest of this post. I do so not without guilt). For the most part, though, concerned writers are over-complicating what they have to do. They’ve heard that men don’t cry, that women can’t stop talking, that one gender is obsessed with cars and the other is obsessed with shoes, and they feel they have to shoehorn every stereotype into this character. At the same time, they don’t want to seem to be writing a stereotype. Their creativity is blocked by these contradictory intents, and as artists they want to be creating compelling, vivid characters, which neither cliches nor social obligations to be PC can inspire them to create.

How many people never defy any gender stereotypes? I can’t think of anyone. The most feminine person I can think of, my mother, likes action movies more than almost anyone else in my family. The most masculine person I can think of is my boyfriend. As the previous sentence indicates, he’s gay. When I think of well written male and characters, the same thing is true. Penny from The Big Bang Theory is a gossipy, emotional shopaholic, who also loves beer and football games and prioritizes her career over romance. Marshall Erikson from How I Met Your Mother is a big softy who harbors a secret love of fruity cocktails. Boys are supposed to be brave and stalwart, particularly around the creepy crawlies, so they can come rescue their girlfriends from the snake on the porch and the spider in the bathroom. Indiana Jones loses his shit around snakes.

As a trans person I tend to think of your gender as your core identity, and not any of the traits or biology conventionally associated with it. I came to this conclusion because for years, I was studying gender, trying to find a way to justify my feeling that I was a boy. I tried doing it by finding a checklist of gendered traits and putting all checks on the male side. The checklist failed because not only couldn’t I do it, but nobody I knew could. Everybody I knew deviated from what men and women were supposed to be by at least one trait. Then I tried making it a game of averages. I was male because I had a crucial level of masculine traits. Again, I failed, because I knew of both women who were more masculine than me, and men who were more feminine than me, none of them uncomfortable with their birth sex. Then I tried to find some cluster of essential traits that made somebody a boy or a girl. Again, I failed. Even biology doesn’t work, and not just because of trans people. Is a woman who has had a double mastectomy less female? Even at the level of hormones and chromosomes, some people have intersex conditions with very subtle external effects, so they live most of their lives unaware they are XXY, or that their bodies produce an unusual amount of estrogen or testosterone. Are you going to tell them they are wrong to keep on considering themselves male or female? As far as I’m concerned, all you need to be male is to say you are male, and all you need to be female is to say you are female. That goes for real people, and fictional characters.

Are there differences between the genders? It’s a controversial question, but I’m going to say yes. Studies show measurable, statistical differences. Are they biological or cultural? I’m not going to touch this one, as scientists contradict each other wildly, and both can produce evidence supporting their claims. What is consistent, however, is that the differences measured, whatever their origin, are overlapping bell curves, not distinct columns. Your aim isn’t to write only characters who exist at the exact peak of the bell curve, but to write human beings, and human beings exist in every gendery combination imaginable. So if you feel like you know about a rough, masculine sort of person, don’t worry about your inability to write convincing dialog about manicures. Write a rough, masculine, wouldn’t be caught dead in a dress girl, and tell an interesting story about what it’s like to be her.

Now, there is one important difference between men and women that is absolutely relevant to your writing. They live with different social expectations. I did once read a draft of a story where a classic “bad boy” type character was given the redeeming excuse of “that’s just how he was socialized. Everybody expected him to be a troublemaker so he was.” Then the writer abruptly decided this character was going to be female, but with the exact same backstory and excuses… you can’t use “male socialization” as the reason for why a female character is the way she is, unless you’re setting it in a world where the gender stereotypes are reversed.

Then again, that story was published and moderately successful, so maybe that’s just me. I also know there are some people who think that shouldn’t

Regardless, the social rules of gender change by time, culture, class and family, and every individual responds differently to their society. Scout Finch is not Scarlett O’Hara. Jane Eyre is not Mina Harker. Dean Winchester is not Sam Winchester. The only advice I can give is to be aware of it. Research if you are writing an environment outside of your experience, and if you are writing in a familiar environment, practice your observational skills. The only tools you need to write a good character of any gender are the ones you need to write any character, and the most essential one is seeing your character not as a collection of traits, but as a person.