After covering Parts I and II of Manuscript Killers, we’re moving on to Part III. This installment is reserved for the accidental fatalities where we focus on character. Why? Because terrible characters will kill our babies quick, fast, and in a hurry. How many times are women dingbats, homosexuals disgusting, people of color violent, antagonists shallow, or main characters white men who have all the answers and must educate the world around him?
The unfortunate thing is that we as writers learn to depict characters this way. We study novels of time past, best sellers, highly rated stories reviewed by die-hard fans, and we learn a pattern. Then, subconsciously, we create in that pattern. We write characters from groups that we don’t identify with and either consciously or subconsciously depict inappropriate things because we learned this is what heroes do, this is how villains behave, and this is why the damsel needs to be saved. We write in these stereotypes because we read them.
Publishing professionals have pardoned this ridiculousness, but now, thanks to the power of online reviews, they have to set standards regarding the way the books they represent and promote depict (or don’t depict) people. Now they’re figuring out that people want to see themselves in heroes—and to stop seeing themselves in villains.
In this article, I’m going expose some no-no’s so that we can do better as authors.
Cisgender, straight or whitewashing by accident
You know to avoid stereotypes when it comes to ethnicities, however, what if your people of color don’t depict their culture, but depict Caucasian values? There’s a reason women of color wear satin bonnets, and why men of color wear do-rags (and why cornrows are a preferred hairstyle).
There’s a reason why Jewish men have beards and wear the yarmulke, and why Hindu women wear the bindi.
Not all androphilic men are emotional and overly feminine. Not all gynephilic women are butch. However, if every one of them in your story are, then this may be a problem (depending on the book/theme/genre—think, farce/satire written by said demographic).
Not all transgender people are transsexual—non-binary people are transgender, too. Not all queer people are fully LGBTQ2S+ supportive.
If you portray people of a different color, religion, gender/identity, ethnicity, culture, nationality or sexuality, it is vital that, in avoiding the stereotypes, you’re not also cisgender, straight or whitewashing these characters. While it’s okay to avoid giving a homosexual man “the accent,” it’s not okay to make him notice a beautiful woman to the point of her making him nervous. As a straight woman, I can say with confidence that a conventionally beautiful woman would NEVER put me off my game, so I imagine her enchantment wouldn’t work on him, either. Just because he was born with male paraphernalia does not make him subject to a woman’s appeal.
If you put somebody who’s “not like you” into a story in a significant way, you *must* be as intentional in depicting this person’s culture as you are with avoiding the stereotype that would destroy it. And I’m not saying that you have to be thorough with secondary characters, I’m saying don’t show your rabbi eating pork, or your Hindu cooking live lobster, or a person with curls “smoothing out her hair.” Or first-generation Asians wearing shoes in their homes.
Research is your friend.
Ever notice that most antagonists are all-around unattractive? Maybe their voice is whiny, they’re overweight, ugly or completely unlikable—contrasted to the amazing, fit, strong, intelligent and all-around perfect hero.
There’s a reason anti-heroes are a thing. It’s time to stop equating beauty with goodness. Make your villain handsome. Depict her as ideal wife material. Then give your hero missing teeth, or a jagged scar across his face, or a limp, or *open-mouth, hands on cheek gasp* make him obese. Or a little person. With high sex appeal. (Again, sensitivity/accuracy audience.)
Bad guy just because
One of the biggest issues I’ve had with books (and not even just books, but movies, shows etc) is that the villain is bad for the sake of being bad. He has no depth, no backstory, no real purpose. He’s there because the protagonist needs a nemesis.
He’s unattractive, he has a terrible mustache, he’s everything people tend to despise, or a fanatic. This is such a two-dimensional character. For me, some of the most compelling antagonists are kind to people. They are loving to animals, generous with their money, play caregiver for someone at home, and are loved by somebody innocent (child, three-legged dog, whatever). Perhaps they never harm innocents and are “bad” because they “clean up the streets.” Give him purpose to his evil.
The hapless stereotype
Unfortunately, secondary characters are a crutch for writers. They rely on the foolish character to need the main character to explain things to them (instead of the author putting the work into showing it).
Don’t rely on what the world accepts as cursors in depicting your characters. Writers from the eighteen hundreds to the two thousands have relied on readers’ acceptance of ridiculous women. Do any of your favorite older books have a woman who has no ambition, no agency, no fight, no sense? These are the secondary main characters whose ineptitude has allowed the (usually male) main character to shine.
How many women have caused accidents because of a spider, or scream uncontrollably because of some shocking image that none of the men react similarly to?
Gay men are often “overly emotional,” and the characters excuse his behavior on account of him being gay. Women and gay men aren’t overly emotional by nature, and if someone is emotionally unbalanced, they need therapy, not an, oh, s/he’s excuse.
We’ve studied from the greats and we learned the pattern—straight, white males are the key; silly, dependent, subservient women are their right hands; and shallow cardboard cutouts are their foes.
But these weak, unlikely characters from novels of time past will kill your book in today’s market. Relying on tropes that authors have gotten away with for centuries is a no-can-do these days, and we’ve got to redefine what makes good primary, secondary and tertiary characters.
This (so far) finishes the three-part series of Manuscript Killers: the Overts. Hopefully some of this proves useful as a starting point or finishing point in your quest of developing strong narratives with strong characters.
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