The next stop on my journey of discovery in diversifying my cast demography was learning adding just one of anything was risky business. Mostly because of the arrow hidden in the FedEx logo. I’m not sure how widespread this idea is; it’s gone far enough for me to be familiar with it, which I usually assume means everyone else must have heard about it ages ago. The arrow metaphor can be found described in full at this blog, but I will summarise for simplicity – if you look at the way the E and the X combine in FedEx, the white space between them creates a right-pointing arrow. The arrow is almost not really part of the logo, and yet it’s definitely created by the presence of the logo, and once you see it you may find it’s hard to stop seeing it.
So if I have a couple of leading characters – maybe they’re the only two characters and I’m writing a two-person play or something – and they clash and complement each other because one is intuitive and passionate while the other is logical and strategic, that could provide some interesting tension. Maybe it’s been done to death, but it’s harmless, at least. But if Lieutenant Logic is a man and Captain Compassion is a woman, even if that was decided with the flip of a coin and without any intended meaning on my part, it’s going to find itself sitting atop a colossal pile of stories that have come before it in which women are uncontrolled emotional creatures and men are restrained and rational. The intent of the creator isn’t particularly relevant – people will see the pattern and the implications. They will see the arrow in the blank space created by the features of the story, and that arrow will be pointing directly at Yay For Gender Essentialism.
It doesn’t stop there; that’s just the springboard it uses to get down to business. I’m a mildly suspicious person with a highly associative mind (my dad and I both have a tendency to quote and repeat like mad whenever a memory of good dialogue comes up), and I’ve started seeing these things everywhere. Most of the time, it’s not hard – we’re used to things that subtly or blatantly imply women can’t be rational, men have no self-control, and your connection to the primal forces of nature is directly correlated with your skin melanin level. What gets at me is that as I craft character arcs and interactions, I start realising that I can point arrows in any direction with a little effort and ingenuity. I’m trying to figure out what I’m doing wrong.
In one cast of four characters, I tried making someone a different race from the others and looked at what kind of arrows might appear depending on which one (or even two) it was: I found I had my choice of Those People Are Sluts, or Those People Are Lying Thieves, or the old favourite Those People Aren’t Really Human*. Depending on how parental the older characters tried to be to the younger ones, I found I also had options on Those People Will Corrupt Our Youth or Those People Need To Be Saved From Themselves. If I read with the ‘right’ perspective, I could fill three or four character interrelations with more arrows than Robin Hood’s target range.
A different story was far more cooperative, at least at first. I had a grizzled veteran military general among the tertiary cast, an old white guy, and I decided that was deathly dull, so he was rewritten as a black woman. (Still around 50 years old, because why not.) And I thought for a moment about how odd and arbitrary this was in-world: she was the highest-ranked surviving soldier in the army of an intensely nationalistic country that was none too fond of immigration, so why in the world was she the only person in sight who looked like her? I started extending the edges of the map so I could figure out where she came from, and then I had to figure out why she came from there: how the two countries made contact, why she became interested in their military, why she wanted to join, what in the world could convince the military to accept her and continually promote her over the decades. If I was to justify this general’s demography, I found she needed to be a fascinating, extraordinary person. It was like having dinner with an acquaintance when they casually mention that time they rescued the Dalai Lama from a shark attack – a long, compelling story sprawled seemingly out of nowhere. The general’s gone from being a tertiary plot device to one of the most central characters, and possibly my favourite.
I think the results work well (others will eventually judge for themselves), and in trying to figure out why, I realised that in the general’s life story, she was essentially an ambassador from her country of origin to her adopted homeland. And that’s really what any character becomes when they’re the only one of something in the story – when there’s only one gay man in the story, he’s got an excellent chance of becoming His Grace, Jeremy, Ambassador from Gay. Everything the ambassador does might be read as a reflection on his home country, on his people’s policy towards other demographics, on his culture’s inherent strengths and weaknesses. Anything that happens to him might be an authorial judgment on his fundamental worth.
This makes it all the more awkward when a scene rolls around in which I realise the most appropriate thing to do is kill him off. (He’s a paramedic making a questionable decision to lag behind the group to save someone else and gets overtaken by a furious pursuing mob of angry mind-control victims – there are consequences to decisions, especially noble ones**.) And so I’m left with the option to either kill off the main gay character (not good) or spare him specifically because he’s gay, whereas I would be quite comfortable offing a straight dude. It’s not a happy authorial position to be in. (At the moment, I’m considering reasons the mob might choose to take him prisoner rather than kill him outright. They’re not normally hostage-taking folks, but there could be unusual circumstances flowing naturally from other plot elements.)
The general works because she’s quite literally an ambassador, and that aspect of her experiences and her personality can take a very metafictional view on her role as ambassador-for-minority. The medic does not work (in my view) because he’s just some guy who happens to be relatively unique within the cast in that he 1) is gay and 2) dies. And so we come to the proper solution to the ambassador problem: don’t have just one person of a given race/orientation/gender/whatever. I need to add more. I need to have them disagree on values and philosophies and what it means to be ‘like them’. I need – there’s that song again – to have them be people.
This ties back to the previous post about ‘issue fiction’, because the concept of the token-whatever is so ingrained at this point that I wonder how easy it is to tip the scale and be designated as ‘special interest’ purely due to cast density of people who aren’t straight-white-cis-male-etc. (The statistician in me also notes that without external influences pushing people together or apart, we’d only expect, what, 12-17% of a random sample of people to be QUILTBAG in some way, but I figure things have been sufficiently skewed to ignore such folks for long enough that we can handle a bit of unrealistic representation in the other direction.)
Of course, ‘adding more’ can still backfire completely if you’re me and you then make the magic biochemist also gay, seeing as near the end of the story he may use his own sorcerously-adaptive blood as the primary component of an elixir to protect everyone from the terrifying physiological side-effects of mind control. And he may die doing so. And then I will have spared the medic only to have the heroes save the day by using a dead gay wizard’s blood to cure plague. (I did say this would come up eventually. Sigh. Back to the rough notes on that one.)
*There is room to debate whether being a majestic mythical creature in disguise isn’t even more awesome than being human, but I’m pretty sure no good has ever come from implying that races or genders are different species, regardless of who gets the wings and fire-breath.
**I have my issues with TVtropes, as do others, but it was an excellent crash course on just how many stories are out there in which the death of the gay character is pseudo-justified with the suggestion that he is too good and virtuous for the world and thus his nobility guarantees his doom. How convenient.