I’ll admit I was sorely tempted to skip posting this week and just binge-watch Hamilton, but since it made me cry every time I saw it live (and I did so several times) or listened to the soundtrack (which I did even more times), I decided to pause that thought and save those tears for another day.
I’m currently taking an online class sponsored by The Beau Monde, the Regency writer’s group that is (was?) part of RWA. The class, Critical Lens, is taught by LaQuette and aimed at those “interested in learning what constitutes positive representation and how we can respectfully depict communities we don’t belong to.”
One of the first topics addressed was “Marginalized Characters” and the session started with a simple description of a variety of characters. Some white some not. Some gay, some not. There were various professions, income levels, and housing choices. And a young white billionaire.
The exercise was simple: Which characters do you find believable (and why or why not)?
While there were questions about how the billionaire might have gotten his money and could he really have done so at his age, the participants generally found him a believable character, as have thousands of readers of the well-worn white billionaire trope. The acceptance of that character was no different than the acceptance by Regency readers of the existence of hundreds of Dukes, when the period only sported a handful. Even if a character isn’t particularly plausible, is generally accepted when it fits the dominant narrative (which we talked about last week).
When it came to the marginalized characters, things were a little different.
While most participants said they found the characters believable, there were more questions raised.
“Why would she make that housing choice?”
“Would he really afford to live there on his salary?”
“Could that character really have risen to that rank in the police force?”
A number of participants said that all of the characters could be believable, if the author provided enough context in terms of backstory and motivation.
But, is that right?
Should that be necessary?
I read stories with vampires, werewolves, shape-shifters, implausible Dukes, and royalty of non-existent countries (not all at once), yet I have no expectation that an author is going to (or needs to) defend how those characters could plausibly exist.
I’m reading fiction, after all, not reference books.
So why does there seem to be an inherent expectation that an author should prove that their marginalized characters can exist and are somehow valid?
“We must get out of the habit of attempting to justify why marginalized people are able to or would want to do things that white people are never questioned for doing.”
“When it comes to marginalized characters and work, the need for this hypercritical analysis of a character’s profile happens all too often. So, every time you think up a reason why [a] situation. . . isn’t believable, I want you to ask yourself this: Would I put all this energy into attempting to invalidate the existence of the white billionaire trope?” ~ LaQuette
One question raised by one of the participants was:
“Does an author have responsibility (or even a good way) to change a reader’s lens other than putting the most realistic characters on page possible?”
The short answer to that was, “No.”
And that makes sense.
The focus should be on writing the best story you can, with characters that have goals and motivations; strengths and weaknesses; wants and needs. What author wants to have to spend time convincing their readers that their characters deserve to be believed and to have their happy endings.
Of course that’s not a problem when your stories and characters fit the dominant narrative.
I’ll leave you with this last quote from the class, which really resonated with me:
“We have to accept each story has its own inherent value and that it doesn’t need to be familiar to our personal experiences in order for it to be a good story. It’s good story because it’s a good story.” ~ LaQuette
So, what do you think?
When reading (or writing) marginalized characters, do you find yourself reaching for a higher believably standard?
If so, have you thought about why?