Creating Character and Inclusionary Writing

A writer faces the challenge of creating memorable, authentic characters every time she starts a new story or novel. Debates abound about how much physical description to include, from whose point of view, and the advantages of not including physical description which gives the reader’s imagination the task. Lynn Capehart, in her article for the October 2010 The Writer, “The importance of Inclusionary Writing,” reveals how some white writers inadvertently support racism by the way they describe non-white characters.

Capehart points out that white writers tend to label non-white characters, allowing the labels to serve as physical description by calling to mind a stereotype that goes with the label. In contrast, they describe white characters carefully and with nuance. What Capehart would like to see in all writing is the same kind of care and nuance used in describing all characters, white and non-white.  “Whether characters are constructed with more or less detail should be a function of their worth and weight on the page, not race,” Capehart wrote. I agree, and this needs to be applied to all writers, not only white writers.

Unfortunately, racism continues to live in American society despite progress in civil rights, the fight for equality and acceptance over the last 50 years, and our current President. Women also continue to endure sexism in American society despite progress in their fight for equality and acceptance as individuals. Society influences the writers who live in it, so I think American writers need to be especially vigilant. Fictional characters need to be seen as individual human beings by readers, and it is the challenge of writers to create them as unique individuals.

In imagining the world of the summer of 2048 for Perceval, I originally saw a dystopian America as having reverted back to racist ways. The primary location of the novel is Vienna, Austria, which in my experience has always been an international city, cosmopolitan, but also with a history of anti-Semitism. I had thought that I’d created my characters with care and as unique individuals until I read Capehart’s article. Now I want to read through the novel and pay special attention to the way I describe or don’t describe my characters.

The point of view of a character reveals his character to the reader.  Most of the novel is third person with a focus on Evan Quinn, the main character. Showing a character’s beliefs and attitudes should not necessarily be confused with what the writer believes. The trick is to see the character as an individual with his own beliefs and attitudes separate from the writer, and for the writer also to not impose his beliefs and attitudes on him. This is probably one of the most difficult aspects of character creation and takes time and many, many drafts to master. Evan has been influenced by American society from his birth in 2013 until the reader meets him in the novel. His parents influenced him, his friends, teachers, and the circumstances of his life influenced him.  How he thinks and behaves reflects all these influences as well as his desires and needs and his life experiences. So, creating a character is not only the character’s physical appearance, but also his thinking, his actions, his experiences and knowledge.

Recently, a prologue for Perceval came to me unbidden and with such force and vivid completeness in my mind, I realized that my imagination was signaling me that we needed to do another rewrite of the novel. I plan to expand the title, add the prologue and then review each chapter with an eye to character creation and description, as well as location and time. My writing work and my reading the last three years has added to my knowledge and experience, which I can now use in my work on the Perceval series.….




2 responses to “Creating Character and Inclusionary Writing

  1. There’s a bias between men and women in how they are described. An author, who tends to be rather repetitive in his descriptions of each character (i.e., exactly the same thing every single novel in the series) occasionally uses a description about a female character that I, personally, would write as “she folded her arms across her chest”. The author, a man, wrote it as “folded her arms across her breasts”. Or maybe it was ‘beneath’. The point being he specifically mentioned her breasts, rather than just her chest. Why? It wasn’t in any sexual context, and yes, apparently she has them. So, is are her breasts mentioned just because they are there and it’s a simplistic description of the action? Or are they mentioned because she’s a female and the author wants to draw attention to them/her gender? In the midst of the text, the word breasts just jumped out at me, bringing sex into the matter, where it really didn’t belong. A woman’s figure is quite often described (esp. her curves), whereas a man’s height is used. A man’s height is synonymous with power, a woman’s power is traditionally from her figure.

    I also find it interesting where film makers pick actors who aren’t the same color as the novel-source description. E.g., in Casino Royale (the recent one), Bond is white and the CIA operative who pops up is black. I doubt he was in the book (though I don’t recall). The re-make of the Manchurian candidate has the main character being black, who certainly wasn’t in the original. Yet, I simply cannot imagine a director re-casting James Bond with a black/asian/hispanic actor any more than I can imagine the character as a woman. Yet, his race would be truly irrelevant, wouldn’t it?

    • It would be interesting to see James Bond as anything but a white Brit suave male chauvinist pig (have I betrayed how I feel about that character? Hmmmm.). It bothers me much less when directors choose to cast someone other than what a screenwriter has described, although most screenwriters know it’s futile to offer physical description for characters because directors will cast whom they want. However, if the characters come from a novel or short story, or some other source material that specifically describes a character, then I would want to see a director come as close as he can to the original description. They don’t, but some do try.

      The article dealt only with the issue of race not gender, but much the same could be said of gender. A male author may get the psychological aspects of a female character but then fail with the description, making it overtly sexual without even realizing it — I’m sure most male authors don’t realize it. After all, aren’t males raised, at least in American society, to view females in sexual terms, as prospective mates or sexual partners? It’s a fairly recent thing, since the 1960’s, that women have insisted on being seen as far more than that. I suspect the males, at least quite a few of them, have yet to catch up, no matter how hard they try or intellectually understand the issue.

      Thanks for your excellent thoughts, as always.

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