Thursday, February 25, 2016

Thank You, Captain Planet -- Writers Respond to Politically Correct Character Casting

When I first heard the politically correct combining of various races and genders in a preset, paint-by-numbers exercise as "Captain Planet" casting, I nearly snorted Diet Coke onto the shoulders of the con-goer sitting in front of me.

I always hated Captain Planet as a kid, perhaps for that very reason. It seemed so... forced.

But rather than assuming I speak for every writer, I took the hard questions to a group of authors who know all about these things.

What responsibility (if any) does an author have for portraying a variety of cultures/races/genders in a given work?

Michael Baron: The first responsibility is to entertain. A good writer uses his imagination to put himself into the heads of many people. I use whatever characters are appropriate to the story. Anyone who reads my fiction knows I incorporate many diverse types. But not for the sake of diversity. For the sake verisimilitude.

Chuck Dixon: A writer has no responsibility to anyone about anything.

Adam L. Garcia: I believe the author responsibility is to tell a good story and should focus on that first, but should do so in a way that treats the characters equally, regardless of race/gender/culture.

Beau Smith: Writing a compelling story with characters that have something to say, Likability is a key that so many times goes neglected. Without an emotional investment, readers won't care about the situation, or the conflict.

Gordon Dymowski: Let's be absolutely clear – we live in a multicultural world. An author has an absolute responsibility to portray a variety of cultures, races, and genders within a story. Cliched complaints like being "politically correct" or "being inclusive" are merely forms of intellectual laziness, substituting catchphrases for honest, open dialogue. And for those who think that a writer should reflect their reader's politics, sorry people - writers don't serve any political agenda but their own.

Crafting a diverse range of characters even in a traditional pulp milieu can be done...and it actually has been done within New Pulp. Barry Reese's Lazarus Gray stories are an excellent example:  one of the characters is a gay person of color, and Barry's writing imbues the character with dignity and honesty while acknowledging that the time in which those stories takes place was not welcoming of diversity. (And let's not forget Black Pulp and Asian Pulp from Pro Se Productions) So yes, a writer should work hard to be as multicultural as possible within the context of their story and setting.

John Morgan 'Bat' Neal:
Well it doesn’t hurt to be mindful of it but it also isn’t something you want to force.  Like many things it should organic to what you are writing.  Many things have a reason to have the people populating the story that is being told.   But it can work to toss in something that contrasts with the commonality of the people and places that are the main part of the story.  Take Dracula for example.  Stoker told a timeless tale of an invading alien coming into a set society. Dracula was as different from the main English characters as he could be.  But he at least shared that uniquely European notion of nobility.  Stoker could have stopped there but he also added Quincey Morris.  A tall Texan.  A character that provided further contrast and relief and helped make the novel one of the best of all time.   So it pays to throw in a bit of spice.  That spice can come from different races, cultures, sexes, and sexual orientations.    In summation, I think the main responsibility of a writer is to write something good and entertaining.  Once that is achieved they can see about being socially responsible. 

Anna Grace Carpenter: I have a responsibility to write a convincing story that feels real, even when it's not. Different stories will involve different elements to feel "real", but lack of diversity has more and more taken on an aspect of unreality for me. (It was less so when I was younger and in a more limited social setting. As an adult I interact with all types of folks on a regular basis and recognize that is more the reality of most of the world.)

B. Clay Moore: Unless directly commissioned to address specific cultural, gender-related, or racially relevant themes, a writer's responsibility is to be true to himself (or herself), period. He has no "responsibility" to please anyone, or not to offend anyone. Once the work exists, it's open to whatever interpretation people want to lend it, and the author is open to whatever criticism may come. But there is no "responsibility" to anything beyond the story.

Logan Masterson: The writer bears whatever responsibility he or she accepts. We can write silly stories and sad stories and meaningful stories.

I choose to write what I hope is meaningful fiction. It's not all inclusive. Ravencroft Springs is about a white guy. But Canticle of Ordrass: Wheel of the Year is about a girl fleeing religious persecution only to confront racism and ignorance. All the MCs are women. It's a challenge for me to write, which is one of the better things about it, and I think it makes me better.

As makers of art, we are the front line in the culture war. Stories like ours become films. They become TV shows and graphic novels. They enter the zeitgeist.Our stories can change peoples' minds, and the world itself, if only in tiny ways. But we're all tiny, and pebbles make ripples.

Ultimately, are you obligated to be inclusive and exploratory in your work? No, but I am.

Lance Stahlberg: Responsibility? None. The author's job is to tell a story. It's not our job to appeal to the sensibilities of every possible reader. That way lies madness. You can't win with the politically correct. Don't even try.

Now, if you're trying to be realistic, then you are going to want to portray the variety of races that a reader would expect to find in your setting. If you're in a modern day major city, it might be weird if you don't run across any blacks or hispanics with a speaking role. Unless your plot takes place entirely within the Irish mob. Or a small Midwestern town. Then a random non-white character might feel like a token.

If you try to force something in, it will feel forced and your reader will be jarred out of the story. So the bottom line when it comes to ethnicity, IMHO, is be representative of your setting, but don't feel obligated.

Gender is a little different. Women are no longer relegated to damsels in distress or love interests. If you have a big cast of characters, but don't have any females outside of those two roles, readers will notice.

The Bechdel Test isn't half bad as a guide. But again, don't feel obligated. If your plot plot does not allow for the occasion for two female characters to meet, don't make them. Don't force anything into your work just to appease a reviewer at Same as above, trying to make the politically correct happy is not your job. Telling a story that feels real and engages your target audience is.

Percival Constantine: It depends on the setting. I'm planning a series set in modern Japan which is very homogenous. So there won't be a lot of multiculturalism in that book. But if I'm writing something in Chicago, only having white guys would be unrealistic.

Ron Earl Phillips: As has been said, you shouldn't ever write to appease some cultural ideal. It is your world you are building, and so the situations are yours to create. But if your story is set in a specific reality, then it has to adhere to those rules set in that reality.

Robert Krog: I was never a fan of Captain Planet either for precisely the reason that it was so forced.  I don’t believe that a writer has any set obligation to meet quotas of that sort or even to write stories addressing such issues.  That being said, great works of literature that persist and are retold over many generations do address socially relevant issues such as equality, tolerance, and love of humanity.  I do believe that stories should tell the truth in as much as the writer knows the truth. I don’t mean the facts, necessarily, but the truth.  The truth is that people come in two sexes and from many cultures and ethnic backgrounds.  It’s bound to come up some time.  So have at it, but don’t force it. 

Also, be careful about being preachy.  It’s one thing to have a preachy character.  Those people exist.  It’s another to break readers out of the story by being a preachy author.  Sermons and stories are hard to weave together convincingly.  That is to say, it’s fairly easy to work a story into a sermon or a sermon into a story, but it’s also easy to confuse the two completely and lose either or both.  Most readers, these days, I think, do not want a story to turn into a sermon.  Some do, I suppose.  Most, I think, do not.  I’d avoid it.

What advice do you have for building an ensemble cast without resorting to a paint by numbers, politically correct cliche? 

Gordon Dymowski: The greatest lesson I learned in writing the “other” came from graduate school, when I was learning to be a counselor. One key  idea was that some counselors tend to stereotype certain groups by symptoms and/or beliefs (like “Asian-Americans are less likely to be alcoholic” or “Hispanic men rely on machismo), rather than seeing how specific cultures affect them. (It's also key to realize that there's no such thing as “Asian” or “Hispanic” culture – there's Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Mexican, Puerto Rican….in short, it's about learning the intricacies of each culture and reflecting those differences). Same with gender/sexuality - learning about the nuances and other's experiences allows me to be more empathetic towards them, and portray them as human beings first and traits later.

When I write a person of color (or gender/sexuality/other characteristic that is not me), I really try to understand that person emotionally, and how their culture affected them. When I was writing “When Angels Fall” for DREAMERS SYNDROME: NEW WORLD NAVIGATION, Jessica (the female lead) was originally a faded Southern beauty queen, chock full of the usual cliches and stereotypes. (In other words, the story sucked because of that poor writing). Remembering past work with local quinceanera shops in my neighborhood, I decided that might be a great way to make the character interesting, and that a cultural influence might strengthen Jessica's character. Integrating that aspect made Jessicar a more interesting character to write, granting her added dimensions which I hadn't considered when thinking about her.

(It also helps me as an author to step outside my comfort zone, and experience other cultures while learning about different groups of people. Actually realize that when you're writing a person of a different gender/sexuality/race, you're writing a person/character first who happens to be influenced by their experiences/culture. Writing stereotypes or falling on the typical cliched tropes hurts both the writers and the writing. As that same grad school professor once advised, eating at Taco Bell does not count as “engaging in Mexican culture.” 

Percival Constantine: Start with character. Always with character. I think about actors and actresses who would fit my characters so that can help.

Ron Earl Phillips:
I write stories set in rural America. Very homogeneous, and often times starkly black and/or white. And depending on how I want to serve the story, the use of outsiders would be distracting unless it were a stranger in a strange land type story. Serve the story first, then yourself, and then the reader.

Lance Stahlberg: Sean cited Captain Planet as an example of a paint by numbers cast. That is a great illustration of how putting the message first kills your story. That painfully lame cartoon never even attempted to be entertaining. It was only trying to push an agenda.

The example I always think of is Power Rangers. I mean, the white girl was pink, the Asian girl was yellow (!!!), and the black guy was in the black costume. Really??

In your writing, especially pulp writing, the story is king. So if you have, say, a Muslim character thrown in whose only apparent purpose is to be Muslim, your story sucks. If the fact that they are Muslim works within the framework of your story and is part of what makes them interesting, that's one thing. But if you do it just so you can puff out your chest and announce how diverse your cast is, you are not doing your story, your readers, or the Muslim community any favors.

Really, my advice is to just not overthink it. If your story calls for an culturally diverse cast, go for it. If you find that your lineup needs more variety to the point where you are afraid your readers will get them confused because they all look and sound alike, then yeah, it makes sense. But the minute you say "this story needs a _________", walk away from the keyboard and take a deep breath. It's your story, not the PC police's.

John Morgan 'Bat' Neal:
Just be mindful of it.  If you can’t see that you are being cliché or PC then perhaps you shouldn’t be trying to make an ensemble cast and go with what you know until you can see it.  But I think most if not all can if they try harder.  The best advice I can give is make the character.  And then see who they are, and usually that will lead to different races, cultures and orientations if that is what and who they are.  When I created the PostModern Pioneers I did not set out to make them all what they ended up being.  That came as they were being former.  “Bird” Portamayne for instance could have easily been White or Hispanic or whatever.  But as I was writing him it was clear to me he was a middle aged black man. 

And sometimes avoiding clichés is just as bad as pushing them.  Because sometimes clichés are based in a reality.  The character of “Granny” Roh is an Asian computer whiz. That is as cliché is cliché can get these days.  But it just never occurred to me to avoid that as that is what she was.  And it is what it is. 

Robert Krog: If your story includes people of diverse backgrounds, write those diverse characters based on people you actually know, not on stereotypes.  Most folks are not stereotypes.  They may spend a fair amount of time spouting ideology, grievances and talking points, but they do have lives outside of those things, for the most part. The sad truth is that some people are exactly like the stereotypes.  The glad truth is that most aren’t.  Recognizing that all members of the human race have certain common concerns regardless will go a long way toward making characters believable and real. 

It’s a bad idea, generally speaking, to start out writing a story to make a political point.  It’s much better to start out with (a) true-to-life character(s) and then put that/those character(s) into a situation involving socio-political issues relevant to racial/cultural/gender interaction. 

Incidentally, it usually helps not have characters self-consciously preface what they say or do with, “As a fat, white, middle-aged male, I think…” Or, “As a short, skinny, Polynesian woman brought up in Brooklyn, I always…”  There are some folks who shove their identity into the conversation every time they have the chance, of course.  Most people do what they do and say what they say without that.

Adam L. Garcia:
Just simply make them complicated, human characters first, their culture, race, sexuality comes second.. Just like you would do with any other character. Focus on the content of the character and then reflect how their background would influence them

Chuck Dixon: Figure out what your characters want. Build a three dimensional character. If your character is only about their "diversity" then they're boring stereotypes and far more insulting to the minority you're trying to represent than not including them would be.

Beau Smith: Again, likable characters. Everything else is secondary, gender, sex, race, whatever.

Anna Grace Carpenter: In order to try and get a broader group of characters, I ask myself what might prevent folks from multiple cultures living together. Then I figure out what sorts of things might cause them to live together. I don't look for token representation (one of every category) but attempt to create a group that indicates there is diversity, even beyond the characters I'm writing about.

B. Clay Moore: Build a cast naturally, and ask yourself if you're truly representing the environment in which you've set your story. Personally, I feel it's important to represent diversity even if the story doesn't demand it. I just think a diverse cast adds depth to the world I'm creating, and I understand that there's an audience out there actively seeking cultural and racial representations they can relate to. There's absolutely no harm in gender-switching or race-switching a character whose identity isn't wrapped up in being a white dude. But in doing so, consider how their relationship to their environment changes with the switch, if at all.

Logan Masterson: There has to be a convergence though, of meaning, market and entertainment. The market wants diversity. Diversity is definitely meaningful, and has plenty of room for fun.

And in a time where even what we consider diverse is still changing, it's an important area to explore. It wasn't that long ago that Irish and Italian people weren't "white." People of color weren't always thought of as people at all.

How can multi-cultural casting help your stories become better? How can it hurt them?

Chuck Dixon: Introducing multi-cultural-ism into a story for its own sake is idiotic pandering.

Adam L. Garcia: It represents modern society, and opens the story to readers of all kinds. It only hurts if you portray other cultures in a cliche negative fashion.

Lance Stahlberg: A monochrome cast has the potential to be really boring. And as I mentioned before, having too many characters who look and talk basically the same can get really confusing. I like to create as many different ways to refer to my characters possible, so that I don't have to fall back on the same words over and over again in my dialogue tags or when describing an action scene. One easy way to address both pitfalls is to vary up racial backgrounds.

But depending on the setting and the situation, throwing in characters of color might come across as a lame attempt at political correctness. In the real world, people of the same cultural and ethnic background tend to congregate. Not always, but a lot. It doesn't make them racist. It's just a fact of life that we never used to question. Same goes with a group of guys not necessarily having a female in their midst at all times and vice versa.

So if your story is about a crew in the Italian Mafia, or a bunch of rich kids in a suburban high school, or a farming community in rural Illinois -- or for that matter if it's set in east or west Baltimore, or the south side of Chicago, or Chinatown -- then you are not necessarily looking for ethnic diversity among the main characters. There are other ways to make characters unique without relying on race.

It's worth repeating: Don't overthink it. The story comes first.

Percival Constantine: As Adam said, it reflects modern society. But know why you're doing it. And know the cultures you're depicting. Living in Japan, I've seen lots of stories about Japanese characters that get it incredibly, insultingly wrong. Many western writers seem to assume Japanese history consists of three periods—the samurai era, WW2, and modern Japan. So you get things like samurai walking around with katana in stories set centuries before those things were even invented.

Robert Krog: The real world often involves people of different ethnicities brought up in different cultures meeting and doing things together.  We meet, trade, cooperate, fight, enslave, intermarry, etc.  Given this circumstance, stories involving such people interacting in such ways will tell truths about humanity.  But then, insular or isolated societies and peoples have also existed and still do exist. Stories of such isolated people can also tell truths about humanity.  I suggest, of course, that one should not write about what one doesn’t know.  If you haven’t a clue about a certain culture, and research isn’t helping, stop your story until you do if the culture in question is pivotal to story.  Not knowing your subject matter can kill your story. 

If your story doesn’t really need a particular character of a particular cultural or ethnic background and you force it in anyway for whatever purpose, it will probably show to the detriment of the story.  Readers will notice and probably not like it.  If the character’s particular ethnicity or culture is nice background color, that’s good and adds flavor to the work as a whole.  If it becomes an unnecessary or forced plot point, readers may notice and resent it.  Of course, the cultural meeting/clash may be vitally important to the plot and socially relevant at the moment and maybe even a timeless theme. That’s great. Go for it.  Know your stuff though.  Get it right.  You don’t want your protagonist who is an African American gangsta type to bravely face his fate with his shirt tucked in.  I believe sagging pants are the M.O. there.  He’ll rush out the door, facing down The Man with one hand holding his Glock sideways and the other holding his pants up.  That’s the stereotype, of course, but if you don’t know that, you can’t address it one way or another, and it sure will show if you don’t. 

Anna Grace Carpenter: Multi-cultural casting provides the opportunity both for more story conflict and deeper empathy and, for me, gives me a chance to explore real life issues without necessarily writing about "real life" circumstances. Lack of research into those issues and how they play out across different cultures can come across as patronizing or simply ignorant and weaken the story by falling into stereotypes.

B. Clay Moore: As I said above, it adds depth to the world you've created, and opens the door for a variety of perspectives. It only hurts a story if you're obviously pandering to an audience, or if you're a shitty writer who leans on stereotypes and broad tropes. In that case, though, your book is probably going to suck with or without a diverse cast. After all, part of being a good writer is being able to convincingly sell the reader on the believability of a variety of character types, regardless of gender, sexual orientation or race.

As a straight white male writer, I fully understand that I won't get "credit" for the diversity of my cast, but it's still important to me not to present the universe only in shades of pasty pale.

Beau Smith: If it is a part of the real story and not forced upon you by a non-writer, editor, marketing, then it's fine, but what comes out of my imagination is what I've made up to be entertaining to hopefully more folks than myself.

Gordon Dymowski: Multicultural casting only hurts if I either do it to fulfill someone else's political agenda or if I choose to rely on outmoded tropes (the streetwise African-American male, the Asian tech expert, etc). Writing about certain time periods provides a great opportunity to write about other cultures with sensitivity and insight within a very oppressive, less enlightened historical context.

Think that writing for diverse, different perspectives is a challenge....well, let me provide a great example of such writing being done right: the television show Leverage provides a showcase where every role is played and written with a mind towards diversity/inclusion, but not at the expense of the overall narrative. If you think it's merely too much work….maybe you should consider not being a writer. (Also, for those who complain that such writing is "politically correct"....the 1990s just called; they want their overused catchphrases back).

John Morgan 'Bat' Neal: It can hurt if it’s just used as a device without any real story telling reason or purpose other than to be PC or inclusive.   Two of my projects have female leads.  Both lead a team of very varied individuals of various colors, sexes, sizes, and personalities.  But none of them were created with some agenda in mind of some meaningful message.  The only thing done on purpose was them all being different.  That is the hook that gets me.  And it comes from being a fan of Doc Savage’s Famous Five, and the Fantastic Four, and The Legion of Superheroes, and all the other things I love that had rich varied casts of all sorts of different folks.  That to me provides some of the richest story telling possible.