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?
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’. Continue reading “Main Characters and Diversity In Storytelling”
We Bare Bears is a Cartoon Network show for kids which has a very high rating on IMDb. This is a sure sign it also appeals heavily to the users of IMDb, i.e. youngish men. In short, We Bare Bears has achieved a dual audience, and is therefore in the same league as Spongebob Squarepants, Silver Fang, Gravity Falls and Adventure Time.
If you have trouble following Gilmore girls due to its fast-paced dialogue, steer clear of We Bare Bears. Though designed for an even younger audience, the fast-paced nature of this Cartoon Network series is testament to how much modern young viewers can cope with. Or perhaps they don’t. Perhaps the fast-paced jokes are fast precisely because they are designed for the show’s large cohort of adult fans. We Bare Bears is an animated off-shoot of the similarly named The Three Bare Bears* by Daniel Chong. I think this was a better name. For some reason I find it hard to remember We Bare Bears — I keep thinking it’s Three Bare Bears, even before I knew it originally was.
*I find once you know both titles, it’s even more difficult to remember either title. I wonder who came up with the title, or if anyone else finds it hard to remember?
CHARACTERS IN WE BARE BEARS
CHARACTER ENSEMBLE: THREE OUTCAST DUDES
The three guys who are outcasts is not a brand new idea. Take another kids’ cartoon series Ed, Edd and Eddy which aired from the late 1990s and notice the similarities:
Ed, Edd n Eddy follows the lives of “the Eds,” three preteen boys who all share variations of the name Ed, but differ greatly in their personalities: Ed is the strong, dull-witted dogsbody of the group; Edd, better known as Double D, is an inventor, neat freak, and the most intelligent of the Eds; and Eddy is a devious, quick-tempered, bitter con artist, and self-appointed leader of the Eds. The three devise plans to scam the cul-de-sac kids out of their money, which they want to use to buy jawbreakers. However, problems always ensue, and the Eds’ schemes usually end in failure and humiliation.
The cul-de-sac kids do not include the Eds as part of their group, making the trio outcasts.
Previously I delved deep into how jokes can be broken into categories, using a taxonomy proposed by the writer of The Onion. Today I will talk about an implicit rule of comedy to do with gender and also race: White dudes are the Every Person. Any ‘extra’ identity muddies the joke. This rule is less talked about, but is starting to be acknowledged. Next, it needs to change.
The creator of Bojack Horseman, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, explains for us all why gender diversity is such a tough hurdle, and why the subjects of comedy are still — despite an increasingly woke population — white and male:
In one of the episodes from the first season (I think it’s 109), our storyboard artists drew a gag where a big droopy dog is standing on a street corner next to a businessman and the wind from a passing car blows the dog’s tongue and slobber onto the man’s face. When Lisa designed the characters she made both the dog and the businessperson women.
My first gut reaction to the designs was, “This feels weird.” I said to Lisa, “I feel like these characters should be guys.” She said, “Why?” I thought about it for a little bit, realized I didn’t have a good reason, and went back to her and said, “You’re right, let’s make them ladies.”
I am embarrassed to admit this conversation has happened between Lisa and me multiple times, about multiple characters.
The thinking comes from a place that the cleanest version of a joke has as few pieces as possible. For the dog joke, you have the thing where the tongue slobbers all over the businessperson, but if you also have a thing where both of them ladies, then that’s an additional thing and it muddies up the joke. The audience will think, “Why are those characters female? Is that part of the joke?” The underlying assumption there is that the default mode for any character is male, so to make the characters female is an additional detail on top of that. In case I’m not being a hundred percent clear, this thinking is stupid and wrong and self-perpetuating unless you actively work against it, and I’m proud to say I mostly don’t think this way anymore. Sometimes I still do, because this kind of stuff is baked into us by years of consuming media, but usually I’m able (with some help) to take a step back and not think this way, and one of the things I love about working with Lisa is she challenges these instincts in me.
Bob-Waksberg goes on to say that this thinking is everywhere.
White Dude As Default In Children’s Stories
It is also everywhere in children’s literature. In fact, it may be at its worst in stories for children. Bob-Waksberg even brings up The Lego Movie as his prime example — a big budget film which is first and foremost designed to draw in a young audience, with a large adult audience as bonus.
The LEGO Movie was my favorite movie of 2014, but it strikes me that the main character was male, because I feel like in our current culture, he HAD to be. The whole point of Emmett is that he’s the most boring average person in the world. It’s impossible to imagine a female character playing that role, because according to our pop culture, if she’s female she’s already SOMEthing, because she’s not male. The baseline is male. The average person is male.
But I have heard interviews with various comedy writers whose default position is this: My books are not gendered. This boy could be anyone. Even academics will argue that Winnie-the-Pooh is gender free. (Winnie-the-Pooh is sex free, but cannot be gender free because we have not settled upon a gender free pronoun in English as it’s widely used.)
It is remarkably rare to find a writer who will acknowledge the reason for why their main character is white and male. It is even more rare to find a writer/illustrator acknowledge that even though their character is an animal, that animal is obviously coded as white.
That’s why the creator of Bojack Horseman is so unusual. He is talking about a specifically comedy example of an implicit rule of writing, but writers have long called this “The One Big Lie Of Storytelling“. According to this rule, audiences can’t cope with too much new stuff in a single story. It is a particularly cynical view of audiences, but not without basis. (And in case I need to clarify, I do not subscribe to this rule. But I have heard it. I have heard it round the traps, and I know that writers subscribe to it.)
White Dude As Default In Speculative Fiction
Alongside comedy, the genres of fantasy and sci-fi suffer badly because of this thinking. That’s because if the audience sees anything other than a patriarchy they must work extra hard to work out what’s going on. If speculative fiction is about the real world, only highlighted by dint of its being transplanted to an alien setting, both writer and audience must work very hard because:
a. They’re already working hard to form a mind-picture of this new world
b. Even just imagining an alternative political set-up in this real world of ours is beyond the imagination of most.
That’s why Game of Thrones is a white patriarchy, and why almost every big, popular fantasy series is also a white patriarchy, where dragons are a thing, where time travel is a thing, but where only one kind of oppressive system of politics works. We recognise this political structure immediately, because it’s all around us in our everyday lives. Because it’s all around us, it is invisible within our stories. This lets us sink into the fantasy of the rest of it.
(When I say ‘the audience’, I mean the popular, ticket-buying audience who cite ‘entertainment’ as the main reason for engaging with story. That’s all of us at least some of the time. For most people it’s us almost all of the time. We don’t want to work too hard for our stories.)
This rule of storytelling needs to change, and I’m glad to see young, woke writers with a decent platform, like Raphael Bob-Waksberg, talking about it. I hope he keeps talking about it.
For those of us working in children’s literature world, little kids have not yet learned to question jokes about female characters. Humans are not born harbouring gender stereotypes. The place to start changing this expectation of male as default in storytelling is with picture books. Writers: don’t assume that simply by making your characters animals you are suddenly free from all gender and racial constraints.
Antipsychotics (used in the treatment of schizophrenia and mania)
Anti-depressants (tricyclics, SSRIs, MAOIs etc.)
Stimulants (used in the treatment of AD/HD)
Mental health remains highly stigmatized. While adults who need blood thinners, cholesterol-lowering medication and insulin can take their drugs without fear of judgement, making the decision to drug your child with psychotropic drugs is considered controversial.
What does this all have to do with children’s literature? Surely writers are steering clear of the topic. When was the last time you read a best-seller that said anything at all about your child’s AD/HD medication, for instance.
The Incorrect, Dominant Ideology Of AD/HD Drugs In Children’s Literature
Goes something like this:
When children are given AD/HD drugs they lose their creativity along with the very thing that makes them kids. ADHD drugs, if anything, *enhance* creativity by allowing the child some much-wanted brakes on the frontal cortex. The mistaken idea that ADHD drugs take away the wonderful things about ADHD kids mean that, especially in this country (Australia), ADHD drugs are less likely to end up where they’re needed.
There’s also this idea that AD/HD is what can happen to any of us if we’re not careful to exercise our brains, for example by reading long books. Here’s an example of that assumption, this time from an interview (with Ray Bradbury) in The Paris Review:
Why do you think you prefer short stories to novels? Is it an issue of patience? They call it attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder these days.
In fact AD/HD is a matter of different brain wiring. No one is correctly calling ‘short attention span’ attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. This idea goes completely unchallenged in The Paris Review literary magazine.
The wholesome fictional child eats natural, home-cooked, home-grown food, with eggs collected by hand-raised hens. The wholesome fictional child is naturally exuberant and energetic and should never be given chemicals in a capsule to dampen their wonderfully childlike spirit.
Related to that:
Children are naturally energetic. Many AD/HD children move a lot. Therefore, AD/HD children are the epitome of childlike and should be allowed to continue as they are.
An unchallenged assumption:
AD/HD children are always happy to be AD/HD and would not change a single thing about themselves, including the option to put some chemically induced brakes on their oftentimes embarrassing and humiliating impulsivity.
Commentary On Psychotropic Drugs In Dog Man by Dav Pilkey (2016)
“Add more women” is an easy, moderate position to take in the conversation on gender in games. It’s our “get out and vote”: a political stance with no action, no consequence, no real politics. It ignores the totality of sexism in the industry: from the online harassment of female gamers,harassment in gaming spaces, the wage gap that devalues them as producers, and the language that dismisses them as consumers. These can’t be solved by simply “adding women.” Adding more women without rethinking their position in the culture or valuing how they may change it does no more than reduce them to quota-fulfilling body parts. Add breasts and stir.
When talk of diversity expands beyond race it still ends up looking very much like a checklist of compartmentalized identities. Can we get a child in a wheelchair? Check. Can the doctor be African American, and a woman? Check and check. … For adults I often describe the difference between diversity and inclusion as the difference between entering a room and seeing folks who look like you, and entering a room and feeling like you belong. … For children, it’s the difference between opening a book and seeing someone who looks like you – understanding that this is the character your meant to feel connected to because of that one visually represented thing you have in common – and falling into a story as you are.
“Mothers in the books were more likely than fathers to perform almost every nurturing behavior, including verbal and physical expressions of love, encouraging, praising and listening,” the researchers write. Similarly, mothers outperformed fathers on every care-giving behavior.
Mothers often appear at the beginnings of hero tales. They preside over the home which the hero leaves when he sets out on his quest, remaining there when he has gone. Sometimes they reappear at the end of the story to welcome him home. These mothers are invariably good, nurturing, sometimes almost saintly. They are the presiding spirits of the domestic sphere…The stereotype of the gentle mother content with her role in the home is, of course, not restricted to hero tales. It is widespread in advertising and it abounds in children’s literature of all kinds, functioning as a powerful tool of social conditioning. In 1992 a random selection of 282 children’s picture books published since 1970 revealed that 62 per cent of the mothers in these books were depicted in a purely homemaking role, with another 29 per cent in an indeterminate role. Only 9 per cent were shown in professional or professional/home-making roles, despite the fact that 1986 Bureau of Statistics figures showed that almost half the married mothers in Australia were employed. Interestingly, 36 percent of the home-making woemn in these books were depicted wearing aprons. Earlier studies had shown this badge of domestic servitude to be rampant in children’s picture books and while this study revealed some lessening of the phenomenon it was still quietly flourishing.
– Deconstructing The Hero by Marjery Hourihan, referencing The image of mothers in contemporary children’s picture books by Gillian Tunstall
I was called a misogynist because I was reducing women to mothers. ‘Reducing women to mothers’ – now there is possibly the most anti-women statement I’ve heard.
Back to picture books, I was already aware of these issues when I wrote and illustrated Midnight Feast, and it was a deliberate decision to have Roya and Afya’s father involved in the bedtime routine. As the evening of the Midnight Feast progresses, it was a deliberate decision on my part to have the mother step down. While the father suggests party games, the mother reads her own book and talks on the phone. I ended up mindful of the fact that as the mother, this character would be judged more harshly unless she reappeared at bedtime the following night, saying ‘Goodnight’ alongside the father.
I still look at Midnight Feast and see a gendered society in action: It is the father who asks the mother about food, assuming that women are responsible for the household catering. In the morning, it is the father who is dressed in a dress-shirt and tie, presumably off to a middle-class job.
I considered reversing that, too. And now I’d like to explain why I didn’t: Because in the limited space of a picturebook, illustrators need to rely on certain stereotypes, or risk confusing the reader. The father’s necktie is designed to represent middle-class employment. This is important to the storyline because the message is that hunger may eventually affect even the middle classes of rich countries. Sometimes women wear uniforms to work — there’s no doubt I could have had the mother hungry, asking the father for food. I could have had the mother dressed in a work uniform with the father making the sandwiches for his daughters. And I’m looking forward to the day when I can do this without even thinking of it as a transgressive act against gender norms.
Small steps in the transgressive direction. I think we should all aim for that.
Baruch Hochman (1985) emphasizes the importance of historical and social context in our understanding of character. This is extremely important for children’s literature, since young readers may not be aware of the changing values presented through characters. For instance, child abandonment and abuse were acceptable before, but not today. We cannot judge a parent beating his children in a Victorian novel by the same measure we would judge a parent nowadays. The societal norms encoded in such adjectives as “nice,” “virtuous,” “well-mannered,” or even “pretty” differ considerably over time and from culture to culture. However, we do not always have the knowledge of exactly what these qualities denoted to their bearers. Again, this is especially important for children’s literature, since young readers may lack not only knowledge but also interest in this aspect. Therefore, they can easily fall victim to racist, sexist, and other prejudices.
– The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature, Maria Nikolajeva