Friday, June 13, 2014

"Realistic" characters

I've seen loads of media criticism where we talk about fictional representation of certain groups, or lack thereof. Women in video games. People of color in movies. Queer people in books. Atheists on TV. It's an issue that affects all minority groups in all fictional media. People within those groups would like to see more representation, as well as better representation.

"Better" does not necessarily mean more positive. For instance, east Asians are often stereotyped as very intelligent and studious, which is a problem when Asian Americans can't live up to that. Such stereotypical characters are also often one-dimensional and lopsided. No, "better" does not mean more positive, it usually means more realistic. Realistic, meaning that they have a mix of good and bad qualities, and don't easily fit into standard types.

This is what I think about when I set about writing a novel. Realistic fiction no less, meaning that there are no fantastical or futuristic elements. So far my initial impression is that something is askew with this attitude towards representation, and that rigidly asking for realisticness* doesn't quite work. Realistic characters in realistic settings don't make for the most interesting stories.

*I'm avoiding the word "realism" because "realism" doesn't mean true to reality, it means dark and gritty.

Here's the basic problem. I imagine some realistic characters, and have them interact with each other. To determine the outcome, I think about what these people would do if they were really in that situation. 90% of the time, they don't have any conflict, or if they have a conflict they immediately resolve it, because they are mature and reasonable people. They also waste lots of time on boring things like introducing themselves and arranging times to meet. You can make that sort of thing interesting, but it's a major constraint.

This probably seems like a stupid problem that only I would ever have, but as a baby fiction writer I am allowed to have stupid problems, and write about them.

It seems to me that many other writers have this problem as well, whether they think about it or not. One of the reasons I don't like comedy shows is that they're generally filled with complete jerks, complete idiots, or complete liars, because that's the only way writers can think to generate conflict and comedy. But then, the ubiquity of unrealistic characters in popular TV probably reflects the fact that most viewers just don't care. Maybe it's just a problem with me, that I have these pet peeves which severely constrain storytelling.

Still, I think the media critics are correct, and that it's important to represent groups of people in non-stereotyped ways. But maybe the characters don't need to be realistic at all, they just need to avoid stereotypes. For instance, it's okay for a bisexual character to be a complete caricature, just as long as it isn't the standard caricature of someone who is fickle, infidelitous, and hypersexual. Mix it up by assigning the bisexual person the caricature that we typically assign to a scientist character! Or something like that. Not sure if this actually works.

My other idea is that representations should come in pairs or more. For instance, instead of having one token black character, have two. Make them foils to each other. That way, they can't both conform to the same stereotype.


miller said...

People read fiction to get what they don't have in their real lives. Our lives are full of "realistic" characters, and, as you note, mature realistic characters avoid conflict, and realistic characters who like conflict usually annoy us. Finding and writing interestingly about conflicts in everyday life requires both genius and highly-developed skill.

Hence, a lot of new (and experienced!) writers either choose realistic forms (character sketches, mood pieces, poetry) where conflict is less important, or choose non-realistic genres (sf, fantasy, adventure, historical, mystery, crime, military) where conflict is more direct.

miller said...

I'm not sure it is true, in general, that we read fiction to get what we don't have in real life. Part of my desire for realisticness comes from the stuff I like to read--more realistic and literary fiction, or slice of life. For instance, I really liked Kazuo Ishiguro, who just zooms in on ordinary social interactions, managing to make it highly evocative and ironic. I think part of the appeal is that it enhances my enjoyment of real life by developing a more artistic view of it.

However, this may be a particularly difficult kind of fiction to emulate.

miller said...

I should certainly have said that people typically read fiction to ...

But yes, there are other kinds of fiction readers; my extremely literary-minded ex-wife reads fiction to get into other people's heads, a goal I'm almost completely disinterested in.

And you are correct, Ishiguro's fiction is exceptionally difficult. Still, the only way to do something difficult is to suck at it and get better.