One thought I failed to cram into my ramblings on culture and character last week is another hypothesis that was cooking up in my brain about how to avoid shallow stereotyping. I mean, if that’s your goal. It’s not lost on me that people might read these posts and then look at the presentation of the McCarty clan and feel that I might not quite be practicing what I preach. Fair enough. For the most part, they’re there as “mooks“, and I’ve admitted as much in a past blog. I may advocate for certain methods of producing good characters, but if that seems hypocritical to anyone I’d just have to point out I never advocated that every character in a story must be deep and meaningful. It’s perfectly possible to me to have that theoretical homeless woman in Bangladesh I mentioned last time be someone who just asks the hero for some spare money or food in passing, and is then forgotten by the story beyond the purpose of defining the hero by their reaction to that request.
Mind you, overthinking writers might later revisit that moment and decide to follow her branch of the story instead, at which point she might not seem so shallow anymore. Grant Morrison once did something like that with a random mook in The Invisibles who was gunned down without a second thought by the protagonist King Mob; in a later issue, Morrison went back and told that guy’s story up until the moment some bizarre, remorseless freak in a mask shot him dead, which is doubly twisted when you consider Morrison is on record that King Mob represented his idealized self-insert. Basically, Morrison intentionally painted his own Mary Sue as a monster and a “faceless” security guard’s death as a tragic loss, just by the simple experiment of moving the audience’s viewpoint. Pretty fascinating, isn’t it? Well, all right, it’s fascinating to me. I’m an overthinking writer.
Let’s get back to the spectre of stereotyping, though, and that thought I had. Assuming I’m intending to have some level of focus on a character of a different culture (and yes, I think this applies whether the culture in question is real or fictional), the thought is to establish a “baseline” or standard and then determine how the individual character deviates from that. That’s what we should already be doing with whatever characters are part of our default culture, right? Now mind you I don’t think I’ve ever run into a perfect representation of baseline American culture, because what is that, really? Mom and apple pie and cheeseburgers and baseball? Is the standard or norm in this case just another word for stereotype, and that’s why we need to figure out how an individual character doesn’t connect with it?
Then there’s that opposite potential problem when a character deviates too much. I’ve lost count of the roleplaying character concepts over the years that basically boil down to “I’m a/n <insert exotic race here>, but I reject all their culture and I’m outcast from my people so it’s basically just an excuse for me to be a moody loner archetype, which would have worked just as well if I were human but humans are boring.”
By the way, the moment you find yourself making a character into an alien because “humans are boring”? Delete and try again. I’m not going to judge much because I went through that phase myself, but it’s a toxic thought to start from, don’t you think? I know familiarity breeds contempt, but for the sake of your writing, step back and find people interesting again, or it won’t matter how many half-Drow half-Dragon half-Vampires you pump into your tale, it’s going to feel ultimately empty. Not to mention you’ll have been making characters whose origins are mathematically questionable.
Somewhere in between “completely represents their culture” and “completely rejects their culture” is, I think, everyone on this Earth. Platonic ideals are possible in fiction, so we could potentially have a character who is “America” who fights his arch-nemesis, uhm… “UnAmerica”? But outside of propaganda or parodies, that doesn’t sound particularly interesting. Yes, there is a Captain America, and he’s one of my favorite comic book characters of all time, but that’s because he possesses an individual identity and nuance that lets him be compelling even when he’s not dressed up like the Stars & Stripes and punching Nazis. There are humanistic deviations from I AM A WALKING FLAG. This is important.
Now, maybe my hypothesis has a fatal flaw in that it can be next to impossible to establish the standards of a real-world culture, even for one you grew up in, but if a writer’s at least thinking about it (and in the case of a different culture, doing their research), I feel like that’s on the right track. If it’s an imaginary culture you made up yourself, then you’re the one determining those baseline values and it perhaps becomes a more useful exercise, but you potentially have even more work in front of you unless you’re doing something like “the dwarves in my fantasy world have a culture akin to the Three Kingdoms period of ancient China”. In which case you might be right back around to having to research the cultural norms of the Three Kingdoms period.
And don’t forget subcultures, either. Suzie is a Repop, but exactly how much does she have in common with those giggling girls in the Safe Zones? Enough they apparently see her as a kindred spirit, but I doubt she’d find much to say to them at a party.
Whew. Complicated. But people are complicated, they only seem simple in passing. If my story is touching on them in passing, fine, I’ll keep it simple. I’ll stick to the archetypes and standards. Otherwise, I’m going to roll up my sleeves and figure out just how deviant they’re going to be.