Thursday, April 19, 2012

Pet Peeve: Tokenism

This is my last post (for now) in my series on beginning writer mistakes that give away a book as being an author's first. I'm sure I'll notice things up the line that bother me, but this week was devoted to the markers I'd been noticing in debut novels of late. On Monday, I wrote about clichés. On Tuesday, I posted about low stakes, and how it cheats the reader. Yesterday, I blogged about infodumps, and why it's both insulting and amateur.

Today, I'm wrapping up with a post on token characters. A token character is when there's just one person there to represent an entire group, often a minority. It can be a token female, a token black person, a token Jewish character, a token gay character, a token person with a disability, a token Asian character, or any number of underrepresented characters in fiction. The token character represents everyone within that group, and therefore is defined by what makes that character different from the main character. Token characters often fall within stereotypes and have a flat characterization compared to the rest of the cast. Or, they're just like every other character, with nothing to distinguish them except that they're described as having a different color skin.

I know exactly where the token character comes from. Writers don't want to populate their worlds with a homogeneous group of straight, white, neurotypical men. They've absorbed the message that there should be a diverse cast, without thinking about the pitfalls of pretending to speak for a minority group.

The solution isn't to add more minority characters to your story, if you only have one. There is no quota to fulfill, and sheer numbers aren't going to do it. If you're falling into a stereotype with one character, chances are good that another minority character is just going to wind up representing another set of stereotypes.

The answer is research, and character development. A character is more than the role he or she serves. Characters I encounter in well-written books each have their own lives, their own conflicts, their own stories outside that of the main character. So should the minority character. While that life shouldn't revolve around what makes him or her different, it should be informed by it.

You would do well to start your research, if you haven't encountered it already, with Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. There are many, many things each of us takes for granted that isn't in the world view of a person who belongs to a minority, or who grew up in a different financial background, or who has a disability. It's of utmost importance to acknowledge that perspective before you even begin to put your minority character on the page. Assuming that none of that matters is a big mistake, one I've seen many, many writers commit.

Another good step is to read stories written by people of many different backgrounds. Pay attention to the parts that resonate with you, and be ready to accept the differences. If you find yourself reacting emotionally (anger, defensiveness, frustration), take a step back, and try to acknowledge why you're reacting personally to something that isn't directed at your perspective.

If you're writing about a minority group to which you do not belong, it's great that you want to show a whole, diverse world. Just be ready to listen to those who belong to the group you want to have a representative of in your book. Have an open mind. You may not get it right the first time, or the second, or even the twentieth. What's important is that you keep listening, keep trying to improve, keep trying to get it right.

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