What we mean by characters who ‘just happen to be…’

Gather round, friends! It’s time to talk about a common theme that comes up when we discuss diversity in media and pop culture and what we’re looking for in representations. First, we say that we want, for example, disabled characters. And people go ‘ah, yes, I see,’ and a bunch of nondisabled people scurry out to write things all about disability — the tragedy, the pathos, the agony. Maybe someone acquires a disability and the story revolves around that. Maybe someone wants to die and is chasing physician-assisted suicide. Maybe someone is triumphing over adversity!

So we say ‘er, no, that’s not what we meant. We meant more characters who happen to be disabled?’ And people go ‘ah, yes, I see!’ and then they write stories where the character’s disability is mentioned once on page seven or act one, scene two and then never again, and the story is not at all about their disabilities, nor are their disabilities acknowledged in any way, nor do they play a role.

And we say ‘er, actually this isn’t what we mean either’ and people say ‘well what DO you want, then, random people berating me for not diversifying pop culture to their liking?’ I understand where the frustration that drives this question comes from — people who don’t come from marginalised backgrounds dutifully heed the calls for diversity they hear and then get told they’re doing it wrong, over and over again. Many don’t understand that the diversity isn’t just about what’s presented to the consumer, but who is creating it, and that there are inherent problems with writing an experience that isn’t yours, but we’ll set that aside for a moment.

What do we mean when we talk about good depictions? Why do we say that we want characters who ‘happen to be…’ and then get angry when creators write diverse characters who are only identified as such with one or two passing comments? Isn’t that the very embodiment of ‘happen to be…’?

Well, no. And this is something worth delving into because at least some people including diverse characters genuinely do want to depict them well and are interested in doing the work to ensure that what they create has a positive impact on the world. The discussion about whether you should write outside your lived experience is something I’ll set aside for the moment, because I want to focus on ‘happen to be…’ as a construct surrounding diverse characters.

What we mean by this is that we’re very tired of seeing stories that focus on marginalisation — for example, transition stories are very boring to me at this point, and I would like to see other things about trans people. Likewise, sad gays or tragic disabled people or people of colour bravely enduring racism also aren’t super appealing to me. They have a place in the pop culture canon because these are real stories about real things that happen to real people, but when so few stories exist in the first place, it’s important to make them diverse — not just in characterisation but representation. Trans people don’t spend their whole lives obsessing over transition, any more than Black people spend their entire lives consumed by a single racist incident.

So we want stories about things other than characters’ identities. But that doesn’t mean that their identities are not part of a story. Someone’s gender, for example, will change the way they interact with the world and how the world interacts with them. Think about a story featuring a cis boy — the way his parents and teachers treat him is different than if it were a story about a cis girl, his gender silently marked on each page and silently interacting with the text. When he does things that fall outside gender norms, we know, and we understand why they’re considered abnormal.

Consider a Black girl, who is going to be treated differently by the adults around her. Place her in a school for magic — people are still people, and her race is still going to be a factor in how her teachers address her and how other students treat her. Upend racial norms, putting this Black girl in a world where Black femininity is revered and valued — this, too, will affect how she is treated. This should be coming through in your creative work, reflecting the fact that you have built a world and thought about it carefully, and that your characters are engaging with the world you have created for them. Check out N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season for some great examples of how race is described and handled, with the very language used to describe people’s features showing how people think about race and identity.

Or take a wheelchair user who’s training to become a spy. In the context of the story, he ‘happens to be disabled,’ inasmuch as the focus is on learning spycraft and presumably pursuing a thriller plot. But at the same time, the fact that he uses a wheelchair is clearly going to influence his training, the work that he does, and the people he interacts with. There are things he cannot do because he uses a wheelchair, but there are also advantages — for example, he can use disablist social structures to make people think he’s harmless and not worthy of attention while he’s conducting missions. The story isn’t about his disability — but his disability is part of the story.

If this seems like splitting hairs, think about your own identities, whatever they might be. Let’s say you’re a white, cis, heterosexual woman. If you were telling your life story, would your identities play a role? How, and where, and why? Does being a woman present challenges and disadvantages that might affect crucial plot points in your life, like missing out on a job or being mobilised to join a movement? Does your white privilege confer advantages that you may think of as unmarked, but could actually play a huge role in how people conceptualise you? Put yourself in a different world, a different setting, and think about how your traits might interact then — are you in a genderflipped world, or one where heterosexuals are a feared and distrusted minority? If someone were writing a story about you, would you want them to focus on the fact that you’re cis, lingering over the details of your gender, or would you want it to be a story about, say, overthrowing an authoritarian government, while your cis femininity plays a role in how other revolutionaries interact with you, and how your victory is perceived?

Image: Splinter (live), Stopgap Dance Company, Flickr