STORYTELLING WITH MEANINGFUL REPRESENTATION, PART III: TROPES AS A STARTING POINT
Tropes are artistic tools storytellers use to convey information to the audience.
Since the beginning of time, tropes have been defined as figures of speech, such as hyperbole (get it?! since the beginning of time … hyperbole?! 😂).
In the mid-aughts, TVTropes.org expanded the definition of tropes to include: a shortcut for describing situations the storyteller can reasonably assume the audience will recognize. Tropes are the means by which a story is told by anyone who has a story to tell. Examples of this type of trope would be Born In An Elevator and Opposites Attract.
In and of themselves, tropes are neither bad nor good; they’re simply storytelling devices. But, as shortcuts, they tend not to be fleshed out. Because of this tropes can be harmful, especially when it comes to underrepresented communities. The one- and two-dimensional nature of tropes becomes a template upon which audiences base their ideas and beliefs about communities that are otherwise unfamiliar to them.
For example, Indians on American television shows have historically been cab drivers, convenience store owners, doctors, or engineers. On the rare occasion their stories are explored, these cab drivers and convenience store owners were often professors or accountants in India who can’t get the same work in the United States. Or the doctors and engineers were forced into their careers by their domineering parents.
To be clear, many Indian immigrants are cab drivers, convenience store owners, doctors, and engineers. The problem with the trope is it reduces Indian characters (and, ultimately, Indian people) to these singular traits. Instead of seeing individuals with their own stories, agency, and dreams, the audience sees Indians as a monolith. As other. They. Them. Different than us. Weird, smelly food. Many gods with many arms. Strict, emotionally-distant parents. Funny accents.
As long as storytellers stick to tropes, they keep those underrepresented communities at a distance. The audience can’t relate to them because they are one- or two-dimensional cardboard cutouts. Less-than-human because humans are three-dimensional.
From personal experience as a multiply marginalized person living in the United States, I can attest it isn’t too big of a leap for people to go from seeing members of these communities as other to treating them as subhuman to hurting them for simply existing.
Stories can make different experiences, cultures, and perspectives relatable. Relating to characters leads to compassion for them because they are humanized, multidimensional, real.
Do you have characters who are tropes in your story? If so, don’t despair. Remember tropes are neither good nor bad in and of themselves. It’s how you use them that counts.
For example, you can play with them. Buffy the Vampire Slayer [SPOILER AHEAD] does a fantastic job of subverting the Damsel in Distress trope. The very first scene takes place in a dark, empty high school. A boy and girl are walking the halls. The girl seems nervous, asking whether they’re alone. When the boy confirms they are, she transforms into a vampire and kills him. This subversion is exciting, unexpected, and sets the tone for the rest of the series; we know it is going to be clever, surprising, unpredictable.
You can also develop your characters to add dimension.
- What if your Indian cabbie is studying to be an EMT and driving a taxi in Manhattan/Miami/New Orleans/San Francisco gives her flexible hours, pays for her school, and keeps her driving skills sharp?
- What if your Indian convenience store owner is an entrepreneur with the first fully vegan shop in his city?
- What if your Indian doctor just graduated medical school at fifty-five after a successful career as a middle school art teacher?
- What if your Indian engineer is also a drummer for a neo prog-rock band she started with her brother?
Aren’t these characters suddenly more interesting and relatable? They have passions, hobbies, and lives outside of their trope-iness. Using tropes as a starting point means writing intentionally, giving you, the storyteller, space to create layered, complex secondary and tertiary characters.
And for the love of thoughtfully-crafted inclusive writing, I beg of you to avoid the following tropes:
- Magical Negro (and its many many cousins, including Magical Queer, Magical Asian, Magical Romani, Magical Indigenous Person)
Fleshing out your characters will go a long way to avoid falling into these damaging tropes. A very simplified example: If you have two characters who are friends, one Black and one white, be sure they each have agency and lives outside of the friendship. Balance the give-and-take of that friendship (unless of course, the imbalance is part of a conflict, in which case you avoid the trope by acknowledging the imbalance and the problems it causes!).
Some tools to help guide you:
Whew. I know this is a lot to take in but you can do it. You, the storyteller, have the power to represent marginalized people as fully fleshed out human beings with their own fears, hopes, desires. This doesn’t mean your marginalized characters have to be perfect. It means they have to be real.
Character Study: Saanvi Bahl, Manifest [SPOILERS]
Saanvi Bahl is a secondary character in Manifest, played by Parveen Kaur. Saanvi is a research doctor whose initial presence was solely to support the main characters. She enters the show as the doctor who created a cure for a specific type of cancer – the very cancer a main character’s son has.
As an Indian-American viewer, I was simultaneously ecstatic and disappointed to see Saanvi. Ecstatic because so rarely do we get Indian characters in American television shows, let alone an Indian series regular. Disappointed because … of course she’s a doctor.
This ensemble show has many characters including three detectives, a police captain, a professor, a flight attendant, a religious leader, an airplane pilot, a caterer, a conspiracy theorist, a director of a government agency, a deputy director of said government agency, a hiker, a released hostage, an army major, a lab technician, a college student, a bartender, a drug dealer, a bus driver, an archeologist, and two scientists.
Think about casting actors for those roles. Subconscious bias plays a role here. Our society defaults to white, straight, cisgender. People can imagine casting a white, straight, cisgender (most likely) man in any one of the above-mentioned roles. Say you, as creator of this show, want to include a more diverse cast. Can you imagine any and all of the above-mentioned roles being played by, for example, an Indian woman? Why or why not?
Hence the disappointment. Especially since I am an Indian-American who has worked a number of jobs, none of them doctor, cab driver, engineer, convenience store owner. Think actress, retail worker, research assistant, receptionist, educator, writer (!). I’d love to see someone like me represented!
A few months after Manifest premiered, Parveen Kaur discussed the casting limitations she has encountered as an Indian-Canadian actress:
I would hope that after doing a show like Manifest, as a South Asian [actor], future roles would break out of that stereotype. At the beginning of your career, you have to take a lot of these parts. You have to work and it’s all a learning experience, and best you can do is to try and bring as much humanity and conviction to the role and enjoy the character. I’m hoping these roles are only going to be a stepping stone that sees South Asian women and men play outside of the doctor, scientist and nerdy character. I’m going to push for that going forward. After Saving Hope, I said I would never play a doctor again, but then Manifest came along and the way [Saanvi] was presented to me… she was ferocious and had a nice layer to her. So my feeling is mostly a positive one, but personally I would be ready to move on from that after we finish the show.
In another interview, she describes the differences between her and the more typecast characters she has been playing:
I had green hair up until Manifest, and even when I got Manifest, there’s definitely a different side and my personality isn’t one that the world gets to see too much of on screen, this free-spirited kind of person that didn’t become a doctor or a lawyer. I mean I didn’t even finish high school. [laughs] I mean I know I’m a commodity in my own community. And I think that you don’t get to see that, that much. I want to get to a point in which young South Asian people can see something different. I’m ready for people to start seeing a brown girl, and how I was raised, and not necessarily what people think we are. I left school, I left home, I bounced around and I’m ready for people to see that. I’m hoping to get a project that allows me to express that journey and what that might mean.
In general, Manifest has hired many diverse actors but as this article posits, the diversity has not always included diverse stories.
It is after these (and other) interviews and reviews were published that Dr. Saanvi Bahl’s character began to truly grow. The trope then became a starting point instead of the entirety of the character. I wonder if the writers heard what Kaur and the critics had to say. I hope so, because that would mean they are listening, which is vital to good storytelling.
This growth has paid off for Saanvi Bahl, one of the most beloved characters on Manifest. As the show progresses, so does Saanvi’s role. She’s a research doctor, yes. But she is also so much more.
She’s passionate, focused, heroic, willing to do anything anything to protect the people for whom she feels responsible. She is a risk-taker who puts her life on the line many times. A spy. A killer. A lover. A visionary.
Once the trope became a mere starting point, Saanvi Bahl became so much more interesting, complex, and real. She could be someone we know; she could be us. We understand the choices she makes, even if they weren’t the ones we would make. We feel compassion for this three-dimensional human being.
A bonus: Saanvi’s relatability serves to make the story that much better – we are invested in her, so the stakes are higher, and our commitment to following her journey keeps us returning to the show again and again.
Next Section: Avoiding Tropes
It is one thing to strive for perfection and another to expect it. When we expect perfection, we don’t give ourselves the space to learn and grow from our mistakes – to acknowledge, to listen, to do better next time … to go on this very human journey.
~ Kalpita Pathak