Do I Really Have To Check All The Boxes?

There is a growing “thing” in publishing right now. Well, actually, it goes back a few years, but it has been receiving extra attention and energy recently. That “thing” is protagonists and characters with no purpose other than to represent certain groups.

Dictating that a character represent a specific race or gender or sexuality, or any other thing, solely for the purpose of being that thing seems silly, if not counterproductive pandering.  It is basically creating a character just to check a box and ensure you fit a narrow perception of people and reality driven by some vague “mandate” about symbolic diversity.

It is not – or at least should not be – of much value to create a character solely to be a gay character, for example, then figure out how to fit them into the story. Characters have to be themselves. A character should be just that: a character first (who and what they are within the story), and only then happen to be gay, or black, or…

I know that sounds like sophistry, but semantics are important, as is emphasis. I did not create or write Oz, for instance, as a message character (well, not that specific message). He was created as the only point of stability and warmth in Connor’s life…he was best friend and confidant first, and only after that was he gay. Now, as I worked through the story, his sexuality became a major subtext  for both his character and for Connor’s, but it was an outgrowth of the character himself, not an effort on my part to impose something on the two boys*.

*I will say, Oz’s unrequited love for Connor was an important part of the initial story idea, but is taking on even more meaning and significance as I work on the sequel…there are all kinds of parallels with Oz as Connor begins his own struggle with unrequited love.

Another example: Nat, for her part, is black. She is not, however, specifically a black love interest…she is the girl Connor targets, then falls in love with, and she just happens to be black (and, yes, I see a young Gina Torres when I think of her).

See the difference in those two examples? Substance over symbolism. Or am I worrying about angels and the heads of pins?

Up to this point I have been talking mostly esoterics, about how things are portrayed and emphasized. Everything good, so far, no problem. Where things do become a problem for me is with artificial and shallow creations like the “Bechdel Test” or the “Mako Mori Test”. Those things, and their ilk, take worthwhile discussions and turn them into shallow and misguided gatekeepers.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I think strong female characters are needed, and there are a million stories still to be told*. But to artificially judge a work on just that as an isolated criteria? That’s nuts.  You can tell me all you want that Lord of the Rings is misogynistic and racist and I’m still gonna think you’re insane.

*Hell, English history alone provides examples of incredibly strong woman worth stories of their own: Baodicea, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Margaret Beaufort, Margaret of Anjou…just to name a few.

Again, a real world example: my own stories (currently) are from the sole POV of a teen-age street kid. The things that happen, and what is noted and described, are very specifically what are important to Connor himself. As a rule of thumb, a seventeen year old boy with serious intimacy issues and a drug/alcohol problem is not a particularly good vehicle for communicating anything other than his own personal shit. Not and be true to the character, anyway.

That, by the way, is not to excuse or dodge the fact that I did not write Nat to be as strong or as real as she should have been.  And, yes, I am fixing that in Silence.

Wrath, by the way, fails both of those artificial tests. It is, however, still a story that is very serious about communicating (or attempting to, at any rate) the very real issues of exploitation, inequality and despair…and, ultimately, suicide.

As a writer you very much can – and I argue, should – leave aside all the box-checking and agenda items, and just write the damn story you want to write…and that your characters demand.

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