Elizabeth: Marginalized Characters

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?

6 thoughts on “Elizabeth: Marginalized Characters

  1. I read a little about marginalized characters — I’m more likely to read about non-White majorities, though. Trevor Noah, for example, grew up in a mostly Black environment, and his book Born a Crime is an interesting read for many reasons — but very interesting as far as this post goes for presenting a non-dominant narrative. A Mixed-race child growing up in a Black majority. How his grandmother wouldn’t beat him as she would her non-Mixed grandkids because she felt he was more fragile, for example.

    Crazy Rich Asians was another non-White majority culture. I’m a little ashamed to say that a lightbulb clicked on in my head — of course there must be Old Rich Chinese in the world (given the vast Chinese diaspora, they didn’t all disappear with the Communist regime). It was so fascinating to read about the intersections between Chinese from different countries, as well as the tension between Old Rich Chinese, New Rich Chinese and plain ol’ Peasant Class Chinese who had moved to America and earned their degrees on merit (and the love of the rich boy on merit, as well!). I only had a moment of hesitation where I stopped reading and started thinking things through. But I soon decided, “Yes, of course this would be possible” and got on with reading the story quite quickly.

    I’m currently reading a story about free Blacks in Philadelphia in the 1800s (I think I might talk about it Saturday), and the (contemporary) author had to handle these things very carefully. A big purpose of the book was to show that Blacks could learn, govern, etc. I’m probably going to repeat this in my post, but it’s just a terrible indictment on the American system that 160 years later, there are STILL people who believe that Black people can’t attain the same intellectual levels as white people, or the same business acumen, or the same manners, taste in furnishings, CLEANLINESS, for goodness sakes.

    So, when Webb showed a Black millionaire, he had to provide some background, and he had to show as well as tell. The book was all about showing White people what a Black person in 1857 could achieve, if given freedom and a chance. Very interesting.

    I write a lot of marginalized people. I can’t really help it — they just show up that way, and who am I to deny them? I like happy endings, and am not particularly fond of Dark Moments of the Soul, and that shows up in my work and my characters. I’m nervous about my portrayals, but I try to do my due diligence, and stay true to the characters I write.

    It would be a LOT easier for me if I could simply write about White people in Japan, Japanese people in Japan, and Mixed-race kids in Japan. But I really can think of only one Japanese character I’ve written, and only two White people in Japan. They were the only ones who showed up . . . .

    I have rambled. Forgive me.

    • I appreciate the ramble, Michaleine. That’s interesting about Trevor Noah. I have only recently started listening to some clips of his shows and have found them very insightful. I’ll have to add Born in Crime to my reading list.

      I love the vision of your marginalized characters just “showing up.” I picture your writing environment a big happy neighborhood gathering where people wander in and stop for a drink and conversation.

      • I was reading something in Twitter today about an author who has the whole plot in her head first! I was really amazed, because I get these characters who show up in my head, and then it’s a struggle to find something for them to do. They’d like to eat popcorn and chill! But nobody wants to read about that, LOL.

        I can’t recommend Trevor Noah enough. He’s an international wunderkind. He jokes, he knows his news, he READS and has authors on the Daily Show, and he can write really well, too. And there’s a lot of kindness in his humor, as well. It’s gotten a little bit sharper in the last four years, but . . . well, we are all a bit more prickly four years later, I think.

  2. I’ve worried about my marginalized characters, whether I’m being racist or not. I’ve been hoping that if I give them speaking parts, develop them as much as I can for the weight they carry in the story, I’ll be all right if I pay attention to avoiding stereotypes. But in my WIP I have two lawbreaking villains, one Latino and one black. The black character appeared in the first two books, so he’s got to stay. The other guy, though—I’m almost finished with the book and now I’m thinking of making him Russian, just so I avoid the occurrence of a second POC villain. These days, though, it seems that villainous Russians are about as much of a stereotype as any other.

    That class by LaQuette looks awesome. I wish I’d signed up for it!

    • Kay, the class has been very good so far. I’d recommend it if she teaches it again (which seems likely).

  3. Kay, why does he need to be Russian (or Latino, or anything, for that matter)? I watch enough crime shows (the documentary ones that show how it was solved, not CSI or NCIS) to know that there are plenty of plain ‘ol American white guys who commit crimes. Just curious.

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