STORYTELLING WITH MEANINGFUL REPRESENTATION, PART V: CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT
The secret to character development is to create real people. I know, I know, easier said than done, right? Actually, the process of character development isn’t necessarily difficult; it will take time but I assure you this time will not be wasted, even if 90% of what you create ends up not being used in your stories.
Let’s start with an exercise to flex your creative and observation muscles:
1. Actively observe the people around you – in your neighborhood, at your work, in school, at the grocery store. Write down what you see. Use detail: what do they look like? what are they wearing? how do they move? what are they doing? what are their mannerisms?
2. Since we are working toward inclusivity, be sure to note whether the people you observe are visibly marginalized. Maybe your pharmacist uses a wheelchair. Or the bartender at your corner dive is Chinese-American. Perhaps the librarian at the public library uses Mx instead of Mr. or Ms.
3. Take these notes a step further by being specific! Is the wheelchair electric or manual? How do you know the bartender is Chinese-American? Did they tell you, did you conclude it based on their name or clothing, and/or did you make an assumption (watch out for those subconscious biases!)? What does the librarian look like (try to avoid genderized terms and focus on specifics, such as hairstyle, clothing, nails, jewelry, etc.)?
4. Get comfortable respectfully and directly describing people’s appearances. Don’t forget to describe white people – too often, creators will describe BIPOC and not white people, meaning they perceive the default to be white. This simply perpetuates the idea that white is “normal” and BIPOC “other”.
My neighbor, Mrs. Chen, chews on an apple that looks as big as a boulder in her small, brown hand. She waves to me and Jeff, who wears a hat to protect his white skin from the morning sun.
4. Give the people you’ve observed little backstories. Maybe the guy at the grocery store is looking up a recipe on his phone so he can cook dinner for his new boyfriend. Maybe the pregnant women in the coffee shop is wearing flip-flops in winter because she is having hot flashes and her feet are swollen.
Do this exercise at least once a week and you will find yourself noticing the characteristics that make each person unique. You can use those observations to help flesh out the characters in your story!
These notes will be useful when it comes to creating your tertiary characters. After all, when doing the exercise, you have a certain distance from and a limited amount of time with the people you’re observing. And isn’t that the perfect description of a tertiary character? Those who don’t have dialogue, arcs, or physical descriptions still offer opportunities to represent diversity. Whenever you find yourself leaning into your default, challenge yourself to be more inclusive.
For example, your main character’s neighborhood barista could be named Akio or their therapist, Dr. Habib, could have dark brown freckles on his nose and cheeks or they may go to a wedding in which the bride wears a bridal dirac.
This exercise can also be applied to more developed secondary and primary/main characters. Let’s take a look at the two characters for whom we created driver’s-license-plus outlines in the previous post.
1). IT TECH DRIVER’S-LICENCE-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 skin
After observing the people around me and doing some more research, I know more about her! Her name is Luisa and she goes by Lu. Like an acquaintance of mine, she has a tan-line on her wrist from the heart rate monitor she wears when she goes running. Like one of the runner’s I’ve observed in my neighborhood, she moves with a coiled energy, languid and agile. Her calves are defined, muscles flexing as she bends and squats to work on various computers. Because of this, the butterfly tattoos seem to flutter as she moves! Like the rock-climbing instructor I’ve observed from the corner coffeeshop, she always has a water bottle with her and squint lines around her eyes that look like stars.
Lu is married to Ángel, a Mexican-American man. They have two kids whose first language, like Lu and Ángel’s, is Spanish. They are Catholic. I know Lu is pro-choice (she wouldn’t have an abortion but doesn’t believe she can make that decision for others). I don’t know yet how she is registered to vote (though I know she does vote).
I have more pondering and research to do to flesh Lu out further. But she is definitely becoming a three-dimensional, complex person. Am I going to use all my Lu-notes in my story? No! Even if she were a main character, I wouldn’t include every single biographical detail.
The purpose of this process is to make the characters as real as possible. By knowing all these specifics, I am separating Lu from me. She is a whole person, independent of my beliefs, background, and experiences. The more informed I am about who Lu is, the more accurately I can describe her responses, interactions, movements, mannerisms, everything!
2). WIFE’S DRIVER’S-LICENSE-PLUS: American woman, late-20s, 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 don’t know the wife’s name yet! I do know her students love her. She is funny, warm, and open. She takes the time to understand her students’ behavior and feelings. She is a flexible and accommodating teacher, one who remembers what it was like being a kid. Like my college friend, she is super fun and a natural teacher. She sets her students up for success and this is reflected in their educational and personal growth. Much of this is related to her ADHD.
Sadly, I know many people with ADHD and they are treated so poorly by society they can’t see the many wonderful traits associated with their neurotype, traits that drew me to them in the first place! I am on a mission to portray this character’s neurotype realistically and positively.
The wife is a carer and nurturer. Like one of my coworkers, she wears her dad’s 90s flannel shirts and prefers Doc Martens and Vans. She came out in college and began embracing her “butchness” after reading Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues. Her life, while having its share of tragedies (especially as a visibly queer, neurodivergent person) is full of love and joy.
Her marriage is healthy – the relationship “normalized” with chores and errands and date nights and disappointments and romance and arguments and private jokes and compromise and trust. The main character supports the wife, cheering her on at archery tournaments and attending school events with her. The wife offers the same support to the main character. Their relationship isn’t perfect but never, ever is it toxic, not even when they fight.
Because media portrayals of butch folk have been both sparse and othering, I am approaching this character with great care and intention. Butch folk are marginalized, often met with contempt, disregard, mockery, and violence. Even the term butch is fraught with meaning, sometimes derogatory, sometimes reclaimed (in this story, the wife uses it as a positive self-identifier).
As I am fleshing out the wife, I am taking time to re-read Stone Butch Blues, to understand butch history and global butch cultures, to remember conversations I’ve had with the butch folk I’ve dated/befriended, and to research butch perspectives. I refer to my observation exercises to describe her (and my ex’s) swagger and throaty chuckle, as well as the way she strokes her chin when she is listening, the way the mail carrier in my old neighborhood did. I take note of butch folk’s self-realizations and their realizations of others like them, that poignant vulnerability and honesty.
I know it may take some time for the wife to be fully realized. She is complex, living at the intersection of at least three marginalized communities. That’s fine, because all this research is helping me understand who she is. It shapes her, even if all the details don’t end up in the story. What I want most of all, is to represent the wife (and the butch and the ADHD communities) authentically and lovingly.
As I did above, you can take bits and pieces from the various people you’ve observed in this exercise (and in life in general!) and layer them onto your characters to give them depth. The more detail you can add the more you will believe them to be real. When you believe your characters are real, your audience will, too!
Character Study: The Characters of ER [SPOILERS]
ER premiered in 1994 and it is still one of my go-to shows when it comes to learning about inclusivity and character development. Over the course of its fifteen seasons, audiences saw many characters come and go. These characters, whatever their status (main, secondary, tertiary, and background) are fleshed out and diverse.
While the representation – even for its time – is imperfect, ER is a show that strived for perfection and rarely took the easy route, rarely became complacent. The creators peppered scenes with diverse characters, truly reflecting a real life urban American city and the hospital that serves it.
Here is a shortlist of some of the ways ER told inclusive stories:
- BIPOC characters
- LGBTQIA+ characters
- disabled characters
- immigrant characters
- characters with mental illness
- characters with HIV
- sexual harassment
Much of the representation is three-dimensional, the main and secondary characters given stories that include their aspirations as well as their professional, romantic, platonic, and familial relationships.
Here are just four examples of fleshed out, marginalized characters:
1). One of the main characters, Peter Benton, has a deaf child. The hearing medical community encourages Benton to consider cochlear implants for his son. Instead, Benton also meets with a Deaf doctor who educates him about the Deaf community. He learns about Deaf culture, that Deafness is an identity, and opts against the implants. He and his ex and her husband all learn sign language with their son.
2). A Black, female main character discovers she has HIV. Rather than tell yet another HIV tragedy story, ER follows Jeannie as she advances in her career, navigating how much to disclose to her employers. She and her philandering but loving husband eventually separate and she ultimately finds love again and has a child. When we meet up with her a few years later, she and her second husband have separated but she is very fulfilled, raising her son and working with HIV-positive youth.
3). A young male doctor becomes a double amputee when he has an accident and loses both his legs below the knees. He ends up with a happily ever after, dating a woman who is his best friend and true love. He also has his dream job, working primarily with disabled veterans in his beloved hometown.
4). A disabled female doctor, Kerry Weaver, needs to have surgery due to debilitating pain from congenital hip dysplasia (in real life, the able-bodied actress was experiencing back pain and curvature due to her manufactured limp). The surgery will render her forearm crutch unnecessary. Weaver is reluctant to have the surgery because being disabled is a significant part of her identity. In one moving scene, she asks a colleague to describe her. The colleague talks about Weaver’s hair and sense of fashion. Per CrankyRecaps (blog):
Weaver cuts her off and says, exasperated, “I’m a disabled person”. [Her colleague] tells her that’s not how she sees her. Weaver asks “Why not?” She then goes on that it’s who she is, it’s who she’s always been. It’s how she grew up and it’s how she sees herself. She explains that she’s never considered herself “handicapped” or “broken” and adds “I don’t need to be fixed!” … Weaver continues that if it weren’t for the pain and the limits that she’s facing at work and trying to take care of her son, she’d never even consider getting a new hip. Not looking at [her colleague], she quietly points out that this surgery is going to take away her crutch forever. Looking up at [her colleague] she emotionally puts forth that everyone says that’s so great, but asks what else will she be giving up? “Who will I be then?”
Still, some of the representation is lacking, particularly with the trans and intersex community. Trans and intersex stories, rarely included in media, tend to focus on trauma or turn those characters into punchlines. ER did use trans and intersex characters for comedic relief more than once. On two occasions, however, they try to represent Black trans women and young trans girls with compassion in an effort to highlight the real barriers trans folk encounter even to this day: 1). Black trans women are disproportionately affected by violence, homelessness, and unemployment and 2). trans youth in the U.S. are being denied access to sports and gender-affirming care.
The problem isn’t that they highlight these two realities; the problem is they never balance out the tragic tertiary characters with main or secondary characters who are fleshed out the way other marginalized characters are on the show. And they should never use these incredibly vulnerable communities for comedic effect (which doesn’t mean trans characters can’t be humorous – but the fact that they are transgender should not make them the object of ridicule).
The show did evolve over time, though, both behind the scenes and in front of the camera. Laura Innes, who played Kerry Weaver, (a gay, disabled, adopted woman) directed several episodes of ER. Able-bodied in real life, Innes learned how important it is for marginalized actors to play similarly marginalized characters. As a result, she became an ally, supporting inclusive representation, intentionally including marginalized background characters, and, on the sets of other programs, pressing for accommodations so disabled actors are able to work (a lack of accommodations should not be a barrier for actors).
As for in front of the camera, the main main character at the beginning of the show is a wealthy, white, male, internal medicine doctor. By the end of the series, the main main character is a middle class, British-immigrant-of-Indian-descent, brown, female surgeon. I’d like to think if ER were still being filmed today, its main main character would be transgender or intersex and we, the audience, would get to explore that character’s aspirations as well as their professional, romantic, platonic, and familial relationships.
Next Section: Researching for Authenticity
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