This past weekend, I had a conversation with a friend of mine who works in the game industry on the creative team for a well-known fantasy game. He was thinking about how, as a cisgendered, heterosexual white guy, for example, he can write and incorporate all that nifty non-Western/Celtic/Norse fantasy stuff in his work. “It’s something we talk about a lot,” he said.
This is a big conversation and worth more than one post. Today I wanted to carve out a little bit of the negative space around writing good characters outside your own demographic by looking at some things I seek to avoid.
Are they the only type of person with that race, gender, ethnicity, or sexuality in your entire fictional universe?
Sometimes being The Only One is relevant to the plot. That’s okay. But be aware of how often this comes up and who the dominant group is in these stories. Is it always the same?
Did you make a character or pick a skin?
In games this is a mixed bag. In a fantasy game like Dragon Age: Origins where you are literally picking your character’s skin and appearance down to the smallest detail, then it’s vitally important to have a wide range of options.
However, try not to include a character who’s a different color, say, just to have a character who’s a different color without thinking about how that different color would affect them, particularly if they are the only character of that color in your text.
An unfortunately classic trope in cartoons and games is the distaff character, which is the single female member of a team who is distinguishable because she is a girl.
How has their race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality informed their life?
Talk to a black person who was The Only Black Kid at a predominantly white school. You’re damn right that stuff affects a person. Not only that, but everyone’s experience with this will be different. Gosh.
How to Avoid Tokenism
A simple antidote to tokenism is to have more than one (female, queer, black, etc) character in your work.
This can be in terms of significant characters, but also in terms of crowd scenes. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media did some research into crowd scenes on film. On average, they found, crowds consist of 17 percent women. Geena Davis advises actually writing in screenplays “a crowd of 50% women and 50% men” to avoid this.
Let your work form naturally, then look at it with a critical lens. Have you fallen into tokenism? How many of your characters share your demographics? What would it be like to switch things up on a character, write them differently? Think about it. You work won’t be some perfect balance of every single demographic being represented. It won’t. It shouldn’t be; it should contain characters specific to the story you’re telling and the world you’ve created. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think about what kind of characters are in your work. Think about it.