Despite being a single species—Homo sapiens—humanity is a diverse and eclectic group of individuals. And yet, so often, when writers develop characters for their stories, they tend to stick pretty close to the mirror.
Sure, few of us have likely committed murder or adultery. Perhaps a handful have fought in war or garnered celebrity status. And I am confident that none have visited another planet or lived in the time of dinosaurs.
Despite this diversity of action, however, the main characters of these stories continue to largely reflect what the writer sees when he or she looks into the mirror or scans his or her living room. And because the majority of working writers—at least in the West—are heterosexual white men, our stories are largely told from the heterosexual white male perspective.
I am a heterosexual white man, and for the longest time, my lead characters and the perspectives of the stories I wrote came out of that mirror. I know my glass house.
In the last couple of decades, there has been a move by women, by visible minorities (I hate that phrase) and by the LGBTQ community to create more stories from those perspectives. I think that is wonderful.
But it doesn’t have to stop there, particularly as it risks promoting the same problem, if from a previously underserved voice.
What if, instead, we all took the time to look beyond the mirror when developing our characters?
You don’t have to write a woman’s story to choose a woman as a lead character.
You don’t have to write a story about the gay community to choose an LGBTQ lead character.
You don’t have to write a story about race to choose a black, East-Asian or indigenous lead character.
You can already have a story clearly established in your head that fundamentally has nothing to do with those themes, and still make those choices for your lead characters.
We’re all looking for interesting characters. We want voices and thoughts with depth and texture.
And it is entirely possible to do that looking in the mirror.
But if that is all we do, we miss out on so many interesting voices and our texture risks becoming monotonous.
You have to ask yourself:
How, if at all, does the story change if my lead character is a woman—protagonist or antagonist? Even without becoming a women’s issue story, how does the choice of a woman influence action, themes, dialogue or plot?
What about a character of a different race or culture, reminding ourselves that there is heterogeneity within racial communities? Without falling into stereotypes or turning your concept into a race story, what impact does social experience bring to a character’s actions and reactions, dialogue and style?
That story is universal suggests there is a common thread that holds us all together in this world, a thread that intercalates our DNA.
But as much as our characters are about the Every Man—note the phrasing—characters are about nuance and individuality.
Looking beyond the mirror will necessitate some research to avoid the prejudices and erroneous beliefs to which we are all prone (see, I just judged everyone there).
But that is what writers and storytellers do.
We seek the truth of the moment or the situation in hopes that we skim but the surface of the greater truth.
And to do that, we must explore the whole of our universe, not just what we find in the mirror.
To learn more about developing better stories, check out:
So, What’s Your Story? (web site)
So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook)
Why screenwriters should embrace the Heroine’s journey (Ken Miyamoto, ScreenCraft)