Michaeline: Diversity Beyond Stereotypes

a dwarf drummer statue on cobblestones

A Tolerance Dwarf in Poland. Via Wikimedia Commons, but for more info, check out this Polish site. You may need to click the English toggle. http://krasnale.pl/en/

I get bored easily, and diversity is something I enjoy, both in my reading and my writing. But these days, it seems that “diversity” is a polarizing word. Some people think it’s a PC word for “get rid of white people.” Others, on the other hand, seem to put diversity at the top of their list of things they want from pop culture.

I know a wonderful woman who preferred the first season of CBS’s Elementary (IMDb description) over the first season of the BBC’s Sherlock (IMDb description).  When pressed for reasons, her big one was that she felt Sherlock didn’t have enough diversity. She was missing the strong women and people of all colors in the foreground. Which was true. For me, the most important thing was the way the puzzle pieces fit together in Sherlock – both Sherlock and Elementary are in the mystery genre, so the puzzle is important. I’m not just talking about the mystery puzzle, though, but the relationships.

As I remember it, the first eight shows of Elementary were adequate, but there were so many missing, misshapen pieces. For example, Dr. Joan Watson had a boyfriend show up in one of the early episodes to add characterization. The Boyfriend did nothing else. IIRC, he didn’t hook into the main mystery, and he didn’t show up for the rest of the first season. In fact, I think he was a disposable artifact to show, “oh, poor girl, she has a heart, it has been wounded; see, see, she has Reasons.” Yet, we saw the Boyfriend get the kind of screen time and dialog that belongs to a Major Plot Point.

I’m still kind of mad and disappointed about that, years later. I saw Elementary start to pull its act together around Episode 8, and I heard that later seasons of Sherlock descended into meanness.

But anyway, my point was that for me, it was about the relationships between the people. They could have cast any actors in the parts; for me, the writing carried (or didn’t carry) both shows. But for her, the point was that they could have cast any actors in the parts, but Sherlock didn’t take bold steps in casting, while Elementary made stuffy Dr. Watson into a hip Asian woman. That made Elementary the show to watch for her.

I’m not sure what we can do about diversity. I’d be hesitant to manufacture it. I wouldn’t want to say, “OK, I need a lesbian in a wheelchair. Now, how do I make that happen?” I would certainly consider things like that. “OK, here’s my character. What happens if I made her from India? Nope. China? Nope. Brazil? Oh, yeah, then she could know all about X, Y and Z and it would be really cool for the story!” Maybe a checklist would be helpful for that, but I tend to just depend on what I’ve been reading on the internet lately to help boost my diversity.

For some reason in my current WIP, my characters have been morphing into a very diverse cast. I’m writing about misfits in West Berlin during the 1970s. And I like that, but it makes me very, very nervous, because I’ve only met a few transvestites. And now, my antagonist seems to be a person of small stature.

He started out as a leprechaun, but fantasy tropes have their own special type of stereotypes – not exactly offensive, but kind of stale. I knew my man Thomas wasn’t a Lucky Charms kind of leprechaun. I knew he had to “pass” in real life as a real person, while doing his magic on the side. And the real world analog would be one of the Little People.

Fortunately, we have the internet, so we can avoid some of the obvious traps. I didn’t know that midget was considered the “m-word” in LP communities, but the history behind that resentment is fascinating. There’s a great post here on film critic Roger Ebert’s blog about how that came to Ebert’s attention. It’s also a great piece for figuring out how to negotiate polite words. Both parties, Ebert and actor Daniel Woodburn, are models of civilized discourse. I think the result was a win for everyone, including the general public.

With a little research, I found some great seeds to make my leprechaun into a real person. Michael J. Anderson, who was in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, had a career as a NASA computer programmer before going into acting. So . . . with that sort of real life model, would it be so far-fetched to make Thomas a shoe designer who fell into drug running (hollow heels), and then decided to pursue a more peaceful career as a jazz drummer? That’s a rhetorical question! Doesn’t matter if it’s far-fetched or not; right now, it’s what the story is demanding out of my antagonist.

Anyway, if you get the urge to go diverse, don’t ignore it. Dig deeper, and you may find your instincts can lead to a three dimensional character that will be anything but boring.

4 thoughts on “Michaeline: Diversity Beyond Stereotypes

  1. Ebert’s blog post/correspondence was fascinating. Somewhere along the way, I observed that the word “midget” was politically incorrect, but I had no idea why. Now I know.

    One of the challenging things about getting older is that terminlolgy that was acceptable, if idiomatic, in our youth becomes unacceptable and we don’t always know it. To be honest, even if we know it, our familiarity-loving prefrontal cortexes resist change because it’s so much easier just to do/say what we’ve always done/said. That’s probably one of the greatest single challenges of writing was we get older–it’s far too easy to fall into irrelevance.

    When I started work on my WIP, at the suggestion of a friend I set it in Sedona, AZ. All that New Age energy seemed like a good spot for a demonic comedy. It was only after I was well into my first draft that I learned Sedona is 92% white and the median age is 50. I had figured, given its location, it would have a large Hispanic and Native American component. Not so much. I’ve done what I can to mix it up, but it’s not nearly as diverse as the first one in the series.

    • Oh, I can empathize with the changing language woes. Sometimes I’ll pick up on a word that’s new, and won’t quite realize all the . . . ramifications. My word of the year is “Bae” which I love, and I think is totally charming, but I get the sneaking suspicion it carries a lot more luggage to someone who is living in the U.S.

      I just looked up my hometown. 95.7 percent white, which surprised me — I thought it might be closer to 99 percent. Still, even in such a small town, we’re talking about 160 people who don’t identify as white, and that’s the same number of people in a small village or hamlet.

  2. Achieving diversity in writing fiction can be difficult, because often the way you have to do that would be called racist (or whatever) if you were writing a news story. So, for example, in a piece of fiction where you want to make a character a person of Chinese extraction, you say that, or you describe her as Chinese-American. You’d never do that if you were writing a news story (unless her ethnicity was relevant to the news), and if you were casting a mystery TV show, you just cast Lucy Liu. But if you’re writing, and you say”Chinese-American,” then—is “white” the norm? Certainly not if you’re Walter Mosely. And yet, it’s awkward to describe every character by race.

    In my WIP, I have an Indian character who has an Indian name, and his ethnicity seems fairly obvious. But I realized just today that I don’t mention my African-American character is black. This is book 2 of a trilogy, and I mention his race in book1, where in his POV he thinks that the white FBI agents look like triplets. But how I’m going to bring his race up in book 2, I don’t know.

    Loved the Ebert correspondence. Loved his openness and willingness to retire words. Thanks, Michaeline!

    • Wasn’t there some controversy lately about a “beloved character” who turned out to be black in the writer’s mind?

      It’s really hard to bring up race in a story, especially if there is only one viewpoint. For a person who is a minority, being that minority isn’t really a marked state. I’m a minority in my area, and I don’t often go around thinking, “Oh, I’m a minority!” OK, I do sometimes. But usually I’m being a bit bitter and resentful, and . . . I don’t want to portray minorities that way in my books! I want them to be happy and productive and . . . . Maybe this is some sort of weird wish fulfillment.

      I guess I’m hoping the book cover will make things clear.

      I have a mixed-race heroine in a short story set in the same universe, and my reference to her race is rather oblique. I just don’t quite know which way to go, but she is a fully formed character, so maybe I’ll just see what future beta-readers and editors have to say about the matter.

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