Talking About Tropes is a series where I talk about storytelling tropes and my thoughts on them. I also talk about certain tropes related to my works and why I used them for that specific story. Today, I discuss diversity in media and how creators can handle it better.
A Discussion on Diversity in Media
I don’t usually post sensitive topics, but we’ll see how this goes. I’m an optimistic guy and I don’t like talking about political things, but sometimes, I need to get stuff off my chest. It was announced last week that there could be an all female Lord of the Flies adaptation in the works. While I am off-putting to this idea in general, it’s not for the reasons everyone thinks (less “eww, cooties” and more “Why can’t they just make this an original story?”) In that sense, I want to talk about diversity in fiction.
Now I want this to be up front so everyone is on the same page. I’m all in on diversity. I think it’s important for both fiction and everything else and I will stand by it 100 percent, even when I don’t do it myself. I’ll make stories with a diverse cast, but only when it makes sense. I have plenty of stories in the works with strong female characters and I want to include minority characters in future works. I’m always working to improve myself on subjects like this and always accept feedback on these kinds of things.
That said, I have an issue with another topic. I have nothing against diversity, I love it and will always support it. It’s forced diversity that I have an issue with. In other words, being diverse just for the sake of it.
What is Forced Diversity?
The term I use, Forced Diversity, is when a work changes already established characters just so they can claim they have a diverse cast. They take an already established canon, retcon characters to women or minority characters, and claim that they’re doing a good deed by being diverse. What you get is a body of work that feels like it’s making a statement rather than being a natural moment where the characters mesh well together. It may not seem like a big deal, but it misses the point on what diversity should be. Why they can’t just make an original IP and leave the old canon material alone is beyond me. I understand doing it where it makes sense, and I’m fine with taking creative liberties where it’s due, but I care a lot about following the original source material, and too much deviation is always a turn off for me. Having “It’s X, but with a woman,” isn’t being diverse to me and sends the wrong message on what we as a culture should aim towards.
That said, when a character is a different person in each adaptation, then it becomes less of an issue. There was some concept art of a female Link from the Legend of Zelda when Hyrule Warriors was in development. She was put in as a real character yet hasn’t appeared in a mainstream Zelda title, though the idea has been tossed around. In that sense, I’d be okay with it because they’re a different character anyway. But again, they can also leave Link alone and do something else with that character.
And that’s what this all boils down to. It would be easier to make a whole new work with a diverse cast than to take an already established cast and change them. The reverse can also happen, say taking a minority character and casting them with a white actor (the Hollywood adaptation of Ghost in the Shell was infamous for this). I think this presents a bigger issue with Hollywood and mainstream media in general that they don’t know how to handle such things.
I feel this also stems from the fact that diversity is playing such a big role in our society that media outlets have to include a diverse cast or face extreme scrutiny over a dominant male cast. To me, if the work is fantastic in spite of its cast, then I say go for it. But if they don’t include non-male characters, then they have to figure out how to incorporate a diverse cast, then, if they do it and mess up, then they get hate for it. It becomes this never-ending cycle of a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation.
The way I see it, everyone should aim for a diverse cast, but only when it makes sense. If you can’t include anything other than a white male, don’t force yourself to make a character that ends up as a lifeless placeholder that doesn’t mesh with the other characters. I’d rather have another non-white male character done right than see them as just another void in the cast. And that’s what I’m trying to get at. When I say mesh well, I’m saying that the character should work and not feel like they were included solely to be diverse. In other words, you’re doing the opposite because the creators feel like they have to rather than letting it happen naturally.
Doing it Right
It’s not enough just to have them. If they’re not interesting enough, then what’s the point? Yet I feel this is the bigger issue in regards to diversity. It’s not that these characters exist, it’s that so many of them just exist only to satisfy those who desire a more diverse cast. It creates this double-edged mentality that if you do or you don’t, you’re going to get backlash on how you make the characters. I’d rather creators stop worrying about it, and only make such a cast when absolutely necessary. Yes, diversity is important, but don’t shoot yourself in the foot over it.
One example of a series that does diversity right is a video game series called Overwatch. It has a wide range of characters from all different nationalities and backgrounds. They’re an elite super team that’s active all over the world, so you have the perfect opportunity to make a diverse cast because the setting is perfect for that. And all of the characters are well made and have incredible back stories. I love all of them, even the non-human ones like Winston and Bastion. And even if the game’s story is outside of the game itself, they focus on all of the characters whenever possible.
It can be done, but each character needs to be treated with respect and not be so stereotyped that they become nothing more than a prop. Diversity also means having several differing personalities so that no two characters act alike. Make a character a strong, beautiful woman alongside an ordinary one with glasses, or even one with a little meat on her. They don’t have to be perfect, but creators should put some thought into them rather than forcing them to exist.
Diversity =/= Political Correctness
On a final note, I also want to add something I do see from time to time that what I refer to as forced diversity, some would call it political correctness. Those two are not the same thing. Political correctness would imply that these people are doing what they’re doing to avoid offending anyone, even if said parties aren’t actually offended by it.
Replacing a canonically white character with a black man or a male character as a woman isn’t political correctness because no one was offended by the character in the first place. The Pokémon anime actually tried doing this by replacing Brock (a technically Asian character with slightly darker complexion) with Tracey, what the creators described as “an Anglo-Saxon character”. Once the creators realized the fans weren’t bothered by it, Brock came back (though he was eventually replaced many seasons later, though that was more of a cast change-up).
Either way, those two terms aren’t mutually exclusive, nor should they be. I don’t care for either term in their proper usage, but Diversity is another thing entirely. Diversity is good. It breathes life for cultures and fictional mediums that no one would bother with normally and I approve it every step of the way. Even if the work doesn’t include a truly diverse cast, as long as the work itself is good, then that’s fine by me.
To end this, we should work towards being diverse, but we should also get it right. I understand that’s a high bar to reach and not every single story is going to reach it. We should move away from gender and racial stereotypes and move towards treating each character, no matter what gender or race they are, as their own unique character with personality and a degree of likeability. Moving towards that, I think our society stands a better chance.
And I do realize I’m a straight white male discussing being diverse with non-straight-white-male characters, but that doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to have an opinion on it. If anything, my thoughts on this are a good thing, because it means I’m willing to improve. I’ll take whatever feedback I can, even now when I have many WIPs to release.
So those are my thoughts. I try to give my own personal thoughts on the subject and that’s simply what they are. You can agree and disagree with whatever you choose, but I want to be better with myself in regards to non-white male characters. Any help would greatly be appreciated. I’ll do what I can to build a diverse set of characters, even if it has to be down the line. I’m working as hard as I can on many characters and stories, so here’s to the future.
What are your thoughts? I understand this is a hot-button topic, especially in today’s political climate, but I’m open to some kind of good discussion. Let me know in the comments.
That’s all for today. Take care, and remember, the inn is always open.