Main Characters and Diversity In Storytelling

Most of us writing about story pick one of the following terms and stick with it:

  • Main character — shortened to MC
  • Hero(ine) — the feminine form has pretty much died, though we still often say ‘actress’
  • Protagonist — which these days means ‘main character’

On this blog I use these terms at random, though I’ve started to drift away from ‘hero’ in favour of ‘main character’. When I learned that technically ‘protagonist’ means ‘the character who starts the action’, I dropped it completely, because it bothers me to use a word ‘incorrectly’ even though language does change.

The more I reflect on this terminology, the more obvious the need for some clarity. We have entered an era in which it’s no longer acceptable to write the same stories about the same few kinds of people. It’s time we move past tokenism. Our main characters need to be as diverse as they are in real life.

But how do you say who is the ‘main character’ in a story? Any story? This isn’t as clear cut as it seems. John Truby has a pretty good method which works most of the time: Who changes the most?

Pair this with guidelines shared by John August back in 2005: What’s The Difference Between Hero, Main Character and Protagonist? In 2016, the Draft Zero guys discussed John August’s post in relation to Mad Max, Star Trek and a couple of other films.

I’m particularly interested in how these ‘functions’ of character can be useful when critiquing a story in terms of diversity. We’re never going to progress beyond faux-representation in narrative unless we start thinking en masse in terms of what John August calls ‘character function’.

This became crystal clear to me when I saw a Julia Donaldson picture book (Zog) widely hailed as an example of feminist characterisation. Zog is even included as a recommended resource in a non-fiction book for feminist parents. When I looked at other people’s reviews on Goodreads, I was alone  in my view that Zog is actually a redemption story about two male characters, with the female character useful only as a bit player in what is essentially  The Female Maturity Formula. In short, the picture book isn’t feminist in the slightest. Why can’t everyone see this? Because it only becomes clear when the reader has a deeper understanding of how story works.

A FULLER LIST OF CHARACTER FUNCTION

Combining everything I’ve read about characterisation over the past few years, here is a more exhaustive list of character function. Some of it comes from screenwriting gurus, some from children’s literature academics such as Maria Nikolajeva and some is from the field of narratology. You can apply labels to these if you like, though the labels may also hold us back. I include examples of stories which would have been less terrible had their creators grasped a deeper understanding of character function. These are basically the questions writers should ask when setting out to tell a diverse story. They are the questions reviewers should ask when writing a review. They are the questions an audience should ask before recommending a story to a friend. We are all critics, at least.

Who do you see the most of on the page/on screen?

Possible labels: main character, hero, protagonist.

This is a simplistic way of working out who the main character is, but is a pretty safe place to start when applying the functions listed below. As John August wrote in his post, the Most-On-The-Page character is usually the one who you identify with/changes the most and so on and so forth.

Which character do you identify with the most?

John August calls this character ‘the hero’.

Here’s a rule of storytelling: The reader/audience tends to pick one character to identify with. In a TV series it may change from episode to episode, but even in an ‘ensemble’ cast, there’s one who stands out.

On the one hand, you can argue this is out of the writer’s hands. Every member of the audience brings their own unique life experience to a story, after all. I identified with Barb in Big Love, whereas a male viewer may well identify with Bill. Other women identify more with Margene. Depending on the episode, it varies.

In Breaking Bad I identified far more with Skyler White than much of the male audience seemed to. But when you take a close look at those stories you can easily see how manipulated the audience really is. Vince Gilligan went out of his way to make us empathise with Walter White. He had to. In order to create empathy for an antihero, a writer must go out of their way to engender empathy in the beginning, and he did a masterful job.

Here’s another truism of storytelling — an audience expects the first character they see to be the character they’re meant to root for. This is such a well-known phenomenon that an episode of Courage The Cowardly Dog is based on the ‘audience is like ducklings’ joke.

Beginner writers are not as skilled at manipulating an audience to root for one character in particular. It takes a lot of know-how to do it. But skilled writers take one character and create the following:

  1. a character who is empathetic (we understand WHY they act, not necessarily AGREE with their goal)
  2. we get to see this character’s vulnerabilities
  3. we get to see them ‘save a cat’ even though they’re significantly flawed (Blake Snyder’s trick)
  4. we get to see them being misunderstood by other characters (because we all feel misunderstood at times, it’s a failsafe trick)

If you ever see these tricks in use, the writer has meant for you to identify with that particular character. When Vince Gilligan blamed the viewers for their misogynist takes on Skyler White, he didn’t admit that he’d used every trick in the book to make us hate her. But if Gilligan’s team meant for the general audience to empathise with Skyler, this was a complete failure on their part. The writers gave us nothing to work with. Marie’s character was even less empathetic, together creating a gender bias for the earlier seasons of the show. It’s only when you take a close look at how the writers manipulated identification in Breaking Bad that you even see any gender trends inherent in the story. Even Gilligan couldn’t seem to see them after the fact.

Bear in mind that ‘character you identify with’ does not equal ‘character you’d like to drink tea with’. Not in the slightest. Ask, who were you rooting for? Who did you find yourself wanting to see win, even though you didn’t agree with their morality, necessarily? More simply, who was the most interesting character? Who did you want to see turn up on screen/on the page?

Who has the biggest range of change?

John August uses the word ‘protagonist’ to mean ‘character who changes the most’. (Not related to its original Greek meaning.)

This is an important question for feminism and PoC. Female characters (especially in children’s stories) are very often mature at the beginning, mature at the end, undergoing no real change whatsoever. (This the Female Maturity Formula mentioned above.)

In the case of characters of colour, we have the trope of ‘magical negro‘, in which black characters are noble and strong but exist only to facilitate the character arc of white characters (most often male).

Bear in mind: ‘range of change’ refers to psychological growth only. It does not refer to ‘changes in circumstance’. It does not refer to ‘from dead to alive’ (e.g. Million Dollar Baby) or to changes in fortune (rag to riches and vice versa).

Fangirl Jeanne reminds us to look at who gets to live and thrive inside storyworlds. Also, who is redeemed? The theme of redemption has an especially non-diverse history within storytelling. It is almost always a white man who is redeemed, and people are murdered, brutalised and raped all around him in order for redemption to happen.

Joss Whedon’s body of work is worth an especially close look for a pattern in which the male characters get to live and thrive after redemption. This article makes me glad Firefly was cancelled after one season.

Who has the most noticeable self-revelation?

Also called a ‘hallelujah moment’ (by Matt Bird). In a sit-com it’s unusual for any character to have a self-revelation. Sit-com characters don’t grow. In didactic children’s stories like SpongeBob Squarepants, it’s often the audience who has a self-revelation in lieu of the character. (Yes, SpongeBob is surprisingly didactic, when you do a close reading.)

Some characters completely change their philosophy between the beginning and end of the story. This is sometimes called a ‘reversal of values’.

This is intimately connected to ‘who has the biggest range of change’, of course. This is simply an extra question to help you pick that character. The one who changes. Because it’s so easy to get blindsided by ‘changes in circumstance’.

Related to this is another important question:

If a character gets killed or raped, who has the self-revelation because of it?

Ask this as a separate question because, too often, women and people of colour are killed in service of the character arcs of white men. That’s the only reason they’re killed. It is the only reason they exist in the entire story. That’s what the problem is.

Unless a critic understands this character function, it’s easy to fall back on a simple murder count to justify these murders and rapes. A simple count up will reveal more male characters killed in fiction than female characters, overall. But there’s a really important difference. When male characters get killed they most often have agency. Effectively, male victims are self-determined characters, even at moment of death.

The Women In Fridges trope was coined by Gail Simone after she read an issue of Green Lantern in which The Green Lantern comes home to find his girlfriend has been killed and stuffed in the fridge. In Thor: The Dark World (2013), a woman gets murdered, and that forces the brothers to work together and grow. And so on and so forth. There are many, many examples, and the trope is as old as storytelling itself.

Despite wide awareness of this trope, male writers who get a disproportionate amount of funding for bringing their stories to a popular audience seem completely oblivious to how they’re still using women and PoC in this way.

In 2016 we were assailed with Nocturnal Animals. Jake Gyllenhaal’s character undergoes a character arc while his wife and daughter are not only raped and murdered, but posed artfully dead on the screen for the audience to enjoy aesthetically. This review has said what I need not repeat here. In any case, this is what director and producer Tom Ford meant the film to be about:

“What spoke to me about it was that it’s really about finding people in your life that mean something,” he says. “And our culture has become so throwaway. Everything’s disposable. People are disposable. I think people have become a bit lazy with personal relationships. So this is a cautionary tale about what can happen when you do throw people away.”

Screen Daily

There you have it, straight from the horse’s mouth. The film is about disposability of ‘people’, in general. With not the slightest awareness that his women in fridges trope does… absolutely nothing new, whatsoever. It is painful to hear his film hailed as an original masterpiece.

In 2017 Netflix offered up Godless. Writer Scott Frank says on record that he accidentally created a feminist Western:

It is a feminist Western but I don’t know that was my intention when I started writing it. I was trying to write about characters that hadn’t been written about.

Uproxx

Here’s the thing, though. White men in Hollywood don’t tend to be very good at ‘accidentally’ writing feminist stories. The history of anti-feminist storytelling is far too influential in our collective subconscious, and writers must make an active effort to research deep into the history of story and of oppression, immersing themselves in feminist thought and spend at least one decade of deep thinking before attempting such a thing. As far as Scott Frank’s concerned, the inclusion of rounded female characters is enough to make a feminist film. Yet every female character is either raped on screen or has been raped in her backstory. When the women are killed, it’s in service of the character arc and self-revelation of a young white male character. This thread sums up the main problems with this series if you want a short read. Pair with this longer review: Godless is not the feminist Western you were looking for, which is a very generously titled critique.

The Revenant includes a rape scene which made me want to stop watching Hollywood films forever. It was especially hard for indigenous women to watch. The following reviewer correctly points out the character function of the one and only onscreen (raped, indigenous) woman:

What is The Revenant saying when all is said and done? What is it trying to communicate to audiences?

The closest I can find is the brutal nature of masculinity. Tom Hardy’s Fitzgerald makes numerous remarks on boys and men and where the difference between them lies. But to really make that point you need a contrast. And what is the best thing to contrast with masculinity: femininity. So lets ask the pertinent question: how are women portrayed within the film? The reality of the film would have you believe there are next to no women on the frontier, despite the fact that the two most famous frontiersman in American history had been partially guided by a woman.

Legion of Leia

Who comes close to death without actually dying?

This is probably your main character.

If it’s a guy and he is killed, he’s probably your main character’s sidekick.

Who comes to the rescue?

If a character is the helper/mentor archetype, they are probably not a main character. Fairytales featuring a fairy godmother are not about the character arc of the fairy godmother.

In Monster House we have a trio of three kids, but the girl only turns up to help the boys. In ParaNorman a non-empathetic feminist girl does all the boring research work. I call this the Hermione Trope. While these girls often have their own mini character arcs (e.g. don’t be so uptight), their main function is the helper. This has real life consequences for how we view the role of girls (little mothers and secretaries) and also for how boys see trying hard at school (girly and undesirable).

Be very careful about loose use of the phrase ‘female driven’ narrative, because too often it means women and girls are doing all the organising for the men and boys.

 

Who comes up with the plans?

This is an especially important question for writers of children’s literature, because it’s too easy to have adult helpers swoop in and save the day. The children have to come up with their own plans to solve the story worthy problem.

The character who makes the plans is usually — but not always — your ‘main character’. When the writer has created a particularly apathetic, depressive type of character they will often need a dynamic, active side-character to spur the main character into action, though this is always hard to do because the audience is attracted to active characters over passive ones.

 

Who is telling whose story?

Morgan Freeman has been the storyteller in a lot of films. But whose story is he telling? He’s often telling the story of a white guy. Take Shawshank Redemption as an example. In Million Dollar Baby he narrates the character arc of Clint Eastwood’s character.

Sometimes when a character tells the story of another character, it’s the storyteller themselves who learns something via the very telling of it. In fact, that is often the main point of first person storyteller narrators. First person narrators are undergoing a transformation by telling the story. So it’s not enough to ask ‘Who changes the most?’ Because a story can be overwhelmingly about Character A, but because Character B is telling the story, they get the opportunity to reflect and end up having the biggest epiphany.

In narratology terms, hypodiegetic and metadiegetic narrators are the stars of their own story levels.

Bear in mind that because there is a history of white men undergoing the character arcs, if your storyteller character is a woman telling a story about a man, or a black character telling a story about a white character, you need to be asking the hard questions.

 

We all need to be asking the hard questions.

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