There are all sorts of conversations flying through the YA world on characters. Just this past week, I’ve been involved in a pretty intense debate on whether you should include diversity for diversity’s sake, a discussion on stereotypes, and even one on whether characters all have to be model pretty.
There’s an annoying trend, at least I find it annoying, for all the characters in a book to be amazingly hot, straight, white, able-bodied individuals. To me, this is just another side of the wish fulfillment character. There’s the argument that readers don’t want to read about themselves, they want to read about extraordinary people. Writers have also said, “why diversify? If it’s made into a film/tv show, they’re going to cast beautiful white people anyway.”
Sadly, this is true more often than not. Jane Eyre is a good example. In the book, she’s not attractive and isn’t supposed to be, however, in film a beautiful actress always plays her. Like Joan Fontaine, Ruth Wilson, Anna Paquin, and Mia Wiasikowska for example. Or take “A Wrinkle in Time.” Meg Murray clearly regards herself as ugly, of course many teenagers do, but even her family and those around her comment on how average looking she is. There isn’t anything special about her. She’s been played by Katie Stuart who I guess could be called average for an actress, but is still way prettier than I ever imagined Meg to be. (In that adaptation, Calvin O’Keefe was played by the non-redhead Gregory Smith. I love the actor, but he’s not Calvin-so the casting director got the whole thing wrong in my opinion).
The authors always support the casting with the same answer. “The character is more than how they look. Personality, mannerisms, movements are bigger than appearance and actor XYZ who auditioned nailed it. He is the character, physical looks aside.” (I’ve melded several quotes into one here. If you’re really dying to know the actual quotes and authors and I can try to find them for you). I can agree to a certain extent, that the character is more than looks. But you can’t convince me they couldn’t find an actor just as good to be that character. Especially when they sub in a white person for a black/Native American/Middle Eastern/you name it character.
Then there are times when casting is spot on, but people still aren’t happy with it. Like the drama with the Hunger Games and the casting of Amandla Stenberg as Rue. Some were outraged they would *gasp* cast as black girl for a character described as having brown skin. The nerve of those casting directors.
I think everyone agrees there isn’t enough diversity in literature, especially YA, but no one agrees on how to go about fixing it. Should you be intentional about describing skin tone? Or should you not bring it up? If you mention that a character is black, isn’t it weird if you don’t mention another character is white? Will you get accused of pandering for praise for your diversity or will you get blamed for whitewashing?
When I write, characters just appear to me fully formed. I know their hair and eye color, skin tone, the way they stand, how they sound, and so on. But I don’t describe my characters all that much. Sure I’ll throw in a sentence about their hair, and then chapters later mention their eyes. There aren’t any descriptive paragraphs, though, unless that trait plays a specific part. I have a character who is a thief, so I mention she’s thin and can squeeze in small places. If not for that, I wouldn’t have mentioned body type.
Same goes for attractiveness. Unless the fact a character is really beautiful or ugly or just average plays a part in the story, I don’t bring it up (To be fair, I don’t mention many things that don’t play into the story. I’ve written about my problem with word count before–hence the name of this blog–so every word has to have a purpose or else I’ll end up with 100,000 words and a lot of revisions ahead!). I like to give a few characteristics and let the reader fill in the gaps. To me, that forms more of a connection between reader and character. We all have our own ideas of what is attractive or unattractive or average. I’d rather let the reader get their own image. It’s something I liked to do anyway, but cemented itself after I read “On Writing,” by Stephen King. He chastised writers for giving too much away and not letting the reader participate, and I agree. I hate seeing a movie before reading the book because then I get the cast in my head instead of forming my own version of the characters.
I will say that most of my characters are average looking, because most people are average. If you ask me, there should be more average in YA. The majority of YA lit features characters who are hot. Plain and simple. What about the regular folks? All the crap about casting directors casting pretty people is just that. Crap. Diversity can be done, and well, and it can work.
Take a look at the British show “Skins.” That show, at least the first series, I never caught the others, is a great example of fairly normal teens with an average, yet diverse, cast. That’s why it was such a smash. The characters were flawed, externally and internally, but likeable and, most importantly, real. The majority were white and straight, but they were by no means drop dead gorgeous. Even the lead, the “hot guy” wasn’t conventionally attractive in the way American TV stars are hot. He was kind of quirky. His best friend was socially awkward and a bit odd. The lead’s girlfriend was insecure and pretty, with an absent parent. Her best friend was a black girl who was super smart and an incredibly talented clarinetist with a close family. Other friends included a lazy, fun stoner whose mom abandoned him, a goofy Indian guy who just wanted to get laid and had strict, religious parents, his gay best friend who was artist, and a mentally ill anorexic girl. Spoiler if you haven’t seen it, but at the end, the lead gets hit by a bus and isn’t exactly able-bodied anymore. The show defied stereotypes, included diverse characters, and was highly entertaining.
Compare this to, say, “Gossip Girl” in the states. Not that I watch the show, but I’ve seen enough. It’s about beautiful, white kids in New York. I’m not bashing the show, I’m sure the characters have their intricacies, but click my link and look at the IMDB page. Zero diversity and model pretty, stereotypical rich kids. Entertaining as people may find this show, I think we can do better. Of course that’s tv and I’m thinking more about books, but “Gossip Girl” was a book first. (Again, that’s just the first example that came to mind, I don’t have anything against the show or the book).
What it comes down to, for me, is be real. Write characters who feel real, who have depth and dimension. Whatever kinds of characters you include, straight, gay, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, able-bodied, wheelchair bound, autistic, mentally incapacitated, genius, and so on and so forth, make them multidimensional. The more real your characters are, the more people are going to connect with them, root for them, and most importantly for writers, continue to read about them. The best advice I’ve read about writing is “be honest,” which I think goes hand in hand with be real. Readers will totally tell if you’re fake. They’ll know if your characters are cardboard cutouts of real people. Be honest about your characters and how they act and what they do. Be honest with yourself about why you’re including those characters. Are you intentionally trying to be diverse? That’s fine, but flesh the characters out, don’t just drop in a black, gay, Jewish, one-armed, paraplegic for no other reason than you want that character in your story so you can claim diversity and leave him. Give him some depth. Be honest with yourself if you’re not trying to be diverse. Why aren’t you? Is there a reason? Be honest with yourself about why your characters are all gorgeous/average. Do you just like pretty people?
One of my favorite stories as a kid was “The Velveteen Rabbit.” If you’re unfamiliar (you poor, deprived child!), it’s about a boy who gets a stuffed rabbit for Christmas. The toys come alive when no one is around, but they aren’t truly real. The rabbit finds out he can only become real if his owner loves it and “…once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.” The boy does love the rabbit and carries it everywhere, until he becomes ill and all his toys must be burned. The boy receives a new rabbit and forgets about his old one. While waiting to be thrown into the fire, the Velveteen Rabbit cries a real tear. A magic fairy appears and tells the Velveteen Rabbit that because his owner loved him, he can become real. He then discovers he’s a real rabbit and hops off into the forest with the other bunnies.
I insisted my teddy bear was real, just like the rabbit in the story. She was my dad’s first teddy bear, given to him on his first Christmas and loved by both of us so much she had no fur left. She eventually got so old, she’s 47 now, she started falling apart and has had several reconstructive surgeries. Even though I’m married, Mama Bear still sits on my dresser. And to me, she’s still real.
That’s what we have to do with our characters. Give them time and attention and love and eventually, just like the Velveteen Rabbit, just like my Mama Bear, they’ll become real. Then you will know you’ve created something truly magical.