STORYTELLING WITH MEANINGFUL REPRESENTATION, PART IV: AVOIDING TROPES
When you consciously avoid using tropes, you encourage yourself to build a character from scratch, without shortcuts. Nuance, development, and intention can more easily come into play. The possibilities are endless! The only restrictions are the ones you place on yourself.
Another benefit of avoiding tropes is that you will be taking steps to also avoid perpetuating harm to marginalized communities. Tropes have a powerful influence on society. We believe them so wholeheartedly that they are now also shortcuts to convey information about real people. In this way, society applies the transitive property of equality to tropes, transforming even seemingly innocuous tropes into weapons against marginalized people.
Let’s take a look at three examples of this:
1). Smart People Wear Glasses is a relatively harmless trope, if inaccurate.
Transitive Property of Equality: If (glasses = smart) and (smart = nerdy) and (nerdy = unattractive) and (unattractive = socially awkward) and (socially awkward = outcast) then glasses = nerdy = unattractive = socially awkward = outcast.
In other words, glasses = outcast.
If you are trying to avoid this trope, why not have a sexy, vivacious, social-butterfly character who wears glasses but isn’t a nerdy genius? This one may seem not too harmful but it does have an effect on how society views people who wear glasses, which perpetuates the narrow standards of physical beauty, which, in turn, impacts people’s lives.
2). Curly Hair is Unconventional. Nothing wrong with being unconventional. Seems pretty harmless.
It has been proven that natural Black hairstyles have been deemed unprofessional by many workplaces and schools, though there are now laws against this kind of discrimination. Ask yourself this: if you have a Black character who works in a corporate office or hospital or government building, do you imagine them wearing a natural Black hairstyle? If not, I ask you to challenge your own biases and take a look at what these professionals and these students have to say.
3). Poor Grammar Means Uneducated is a very common trope. It perpetuates many negative stereotypes associated with education because our classist society values and gives opportunities to educated people and oppresses those who it deems “uneducated”. There are multiple harmful transitive property of equality effects with this trope; see if you can recognize a theme:
Transitive Property of Equality A: If (poor grammar = uneducated) and (uneducated = less valuable) and (less valuable = inferior) then (poor grammar = less valuable = inferior).
In other words, poor grammar = inferior.
To be clear, a person’s moral center and their education-level are not co-related. Also, many educated people have “poor” grammar. I have worked in several medical offices and doctors often made grammatical errors. Did we correct their grammar? Not unless we couldn’t understand what they communicating!
Transitive Property of Equality B: If (poor grammar = uneducated) and (poor grammar can = neurodivergent people) and (traditional education = challenging for some neurodivergent people) and (uneducated = less valuable see Transitive Property of Equality A) and (less valuable = inferior) then (poor grammar = neurodivergent = uneducated = less valuable = inferior)
In other words, neurodivergent people = inferior.
The idea of “poor” and “proper” grammar doesn’t take into consideration disabled people. Some neurodivergent minds process language differently, regardless of education level. Neurodivergent people are frequently disregarded as being unaware or unintelligent. Those who are non-speaking are not given the same agency as those who are speaking. And those who are speaking are condemned for not trying hard enough. Neurodivergent people are denied access to education even when they are given access to the classroom!
Transitive Property of Equality C: If (proper grammar = Standard American English, SAE) and (poor grammar = non-SAE) and (non-SAE = African-American Vernacular English, AAVE) and (AAVE = spoken primarily by Black Americans) and (poor grammar = inferior) then (poor grammar = non-SAE = AAVE = Black Americans = inferior)
In other words, Black Americans = inferior.
Transitive Property of Equality D: If (poor grammar = uneducated) and (uneducated = poverty) and (uneducated = morally inferior) then (poor grammar = poverty = inferior).
In other words, poverty = inferior.
Can you imagine a character who has a PhD in English and lives paycheck to paycheck as an adjunct instructor? What about an autistic character who volunteers at the public library (reading to kids) and lives with their parents? How about a character who drops out of high school, doesn’t speak American Standard English, and finds financial success as a business owner? Is this character an immigrant? Someone from the Black community?
It needs to be stated: people who are poor, uneducated, and/or don’t speak SAE are not inferior to those who are wealthy, educated, and speak “proper grammar”.
So, now that we see the harm tropes can cause, how can we go about avoiding them when they are so ubiquitous? I use two methods:
I. CASTING A ROLE
Let’s say you have a character in mind for your story. At this point, all you know about them is what they do and how they relate to the main character. Now imagine you are a casting director, hiring an actor to play that character. Who do you pick and why?
For example, what if you have a character who is an IT tech and friend of the main character? As casting director, who would you pick right off the bat to play them? It would be easy to use a trope, like filling in a blank: IT Technician played by Indian Man.
And sure, lots of Indian and second-generation immigrants work in IT. But remember, not all Indians do. The reverse is also true. Not all IT techs are Indian.
This tends not to be reflected in media. Be the one who reflects these truths. Unless your character has to be Indian for the story’s sake, take the opportunity to avoid this trope entirely, to stop perpetuation limiting stereotypes and to start being more inclusive.
What communities are underrepresented in professional positions in media? In real life, Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people work in IT. Wheelchair users do. Transgender people, as well. There are so so many people who don’t see themselves reflected in media.
We are going to change that. We are going to cast a Mexican-American woman to play the role of IT tech.
Here is where I caution you. This isn’t fill-in-the-blank. This isn’t tokenism or trope. This is intentional, thoughtful work. The IT-tech-friend-of-our-main-character needs to be a real person. So once you decide who you are going to cast in that role, you’ll need to research and flesh out that character to make them as real as your friends are to you.
I like to start with what I call a driver’s license description plus of the character, so I can visualize them and get a feel for who they are.
IT TECH DRIVER’S LICENSE PLUS: Mexican-American woman, mid-30s, 5’3″/150lb, black hair, brown eyes, brown skin
Additional information: met main character through Running Club, bob hairstyle with bangs, tattoo of butterflies on right calf, American accent, fluent in Spanish, married to man, smells like Dove soap
Our IT tech is starting to become fleshed out! In the next post, we will explore how to develop her further so she becomes three-dimensional to us and your audience.
II. CREATING A PART
This method is the inverse of the above. Say you have a person in mind, maybe based off your Muslim neighbor or your polyamorous best friend or a teacher who was an amputee. When you start listing all the different people you’ve encountered in your life, you can really see how few of them are represented in media. Recognize this and be more inclusive by creating characters drawn from real life.
Here is an example from my own writings: I was outlining a short story and wanted one of my characters to have ADHD because my cousin and a college friend both have it.
I decided not to write the story from the perspective of the ADHD character. While I am neurodivergent (autistic) and understand how difficult it can be to navigate a world that is setup for neurotypical people, I don’t have ADHD and don’t feel comfortable narrating the story from that perspective. Thus, my main character (the narrator) doesn’t have ADHD. I wanted a secondary character to have it, if I could create one who fits into the story.
The story’s conflict is set at the main character’s workplace. She has a hostile relationship with a colleague because their supervisor promised the one promotion to both of them.
I decided the colleague doesn’t have ADHD because the likelihood of the main character knowing her colleague’s neurotype is very low. They don’t confide personal information in each other. They are nemeses!
Also, the colleague, as portrayed through the main character’s perspective (lens), is the antagonist. ADHD is already stigmatized in society through harmful stereotypes and tropes. Even though the conflict between the main character and her colleague has nothing to do with neurotype, I would hate to further perpetuate the stigma.
Please note: it is certainly possible to write the colleague as having ADHD and flesh out the character so he doesn’t fall into stereotypes and tropes but I chose not to since we don’t have enough positive representation of neurodivergent people at this time. I, personally, am tired of neurodivergent people being the antagonists (or, on the flip side, inspiration porn) for neurotypical people.
The only other potential secondary character was the main character’s wife. I knew nothing about her yet, not what she does, how they met, or even if she was going to be a secondary or tertiary character. All I knew was she exists in the main character’s world.
As I worked through my outline, I decided to make the wife a secondary character to balance out the main character’s negative work environment and to have a more positive representation of ADHD. My next step was to start to visualize her and get a feel for who she is.
WIFE’S DRIVER’S LICENSE PLUS: American woman, late-30’s, 5’6″/230lb, light brown hair, hazel eyes, white skin
Additional information: meet cute (main character couldn’t reach something off top shelf of grocery store and asked future-wife for help), short hair (goes to barber), butch, full-sleeve tattoos, has ADHD, teaches at charter school, loves archery
I came to the story knowing I wanted a character with ADHD. Through the processes of brainstorming and outlining, I created a character who can meaningfully represent ADHD without adding to stereotypes and tropes.
Avoiding harmful tropes can literally make a difference on how society views various marginalized groups. I believe creators have the power to challenge society’s norms and beliefs. Use that power. Be honest about your own biases. Be intentional and aware.
Character Study: Zahid Raja, Atypical [SPOILERS]
Zahid Raja is a breakout character in the Netflix series, Atypical, played by Nik Dodani. Beloved by fans for being authentic, layered, and hilarious, best friend and all-around compassionate and generous human being Zahid breaks away from every Indian trope without every whitewashing the fact that he is Indian.
For example, he is smart but not socially awkward; goofy but not nerdy.
Zahid lives with his parents, whom he calls his roommates. They are loving, warm, and supportive – very different than the stereotypical Indian immigrant parental representation we see in media.
Zahid works in customer service, smoke a lot of pot, and is very sexually active (without being exoticized). He is a great friend – loyal, willing to compromise, a good listener. He is a three-dimensional character, complete with flaws. He has agency, goals, and a life outside of his friendship with the main character.
Zahid has an arc: he has a painful heartbreak, becomes a nurse, recovers from cancer, and finds someone with whom he can potentially have a romantic relationship (all done with humor and poignancy).
The creators of the show avoided tropes and developed a fully fleshed out character. Nik Dodani portrayed him with nuance and a true understanding of who Zahid and his autistic best friend, Sam, are. To learn more about how Nic researched and prepared for the role, read this interview .
Next section: Character Development
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