How To Ensure the ‘Right’ Kind of Representation in Writing
The past decade has brought in much change in the way that stories on paper and screen are viewed in terms of the characters that they portray. Audiences and readers demand diversity in the narratives that are penned down and for good reason. Much of early literature has casually focused on characters that are of dominant identities with characters belonging to minority identities existing solely as crutches to drive the storylines of the other characters forward. The last couple of years have been transformative in adopting these interests, wherein readers have been privy to more diverse characters and experiences portrayed in fiction. However, with several diverse characters seeming only tokens of representation, the question of what really makes representation the “right” kind has been begged to be asked. Before one can get into answering it though, it is necessary that one understands why representation is important in the first place.
Why is Representation Important?
If what fiction entails is a reflection of society, then it must be held accountable for what it considers as important to be focused on. Minority communities have long been oppressed in society in more ways than one. This affects not only their position within the social sphere but also the way in which they view themselves, which often tends to coincide with the way that they are viewed by the dominant communities and with several stereotypes that have developed over the decades. The reason why representation is important is so that positive and real experiences and narratives of minorities are highlighted and that too, by those who themselves live these identities in real life.
Representation plays an especially important role in encouraging children of minority communities in the way that they perceive themselves as they grow up and to find characters that they can relate to and positively grow with. However, when something like representation, which also demands diversity, becomes solely a pursuit for ushering in corporate profits and hushing the readers’ or audiences’ demands by doing just the bare minimum, it affects the core purpose of why representation is required in the first place. Disney’s animated Mulan, while bringing up representation at a time when it was quite scarce and making several people happy to be seeing their culture on screen, also failed in representing it correctly due to the portrayal of several Chinese stereotypes. It brought up the fact that just any representation is not enough, it has to be the kind that caters to the true purposes of why representation is required in the first place.
So really, if the primary purpose of representation is to highlight narratives of the minority and to actually hear of them and their culture from them and not from an outsider, then how does one achieve this? What is it that makes any representation as having been done the ‘right’ way?
Simply having a minority character in the story is not enough when one is trying to cater to being more diverse in one’s story. There are things that must be done further to help establish authenticity and credibility to the attempt at bringing in representation. This can be achieved by ensuring the following:
- Give your character a voice. An indicator of token representation is when minority characters do not exist outside of furthering the protagonist or other non-minority characters’ story. These characters require their own nuances and cannot only be one-dimensional. Simply having a minority character is not enough, readers should also be hearing from them within the story. What motives do these characters hold? What is their role in the story? Where do they come from and where are they going? Questions like these help establish a story arc that is real and not simply superficial.
- Normalize it. If your character’s relevance to the story lies in their minority identity, then it’s happening the wrong way. Your characters need more than just their identity that attaches them to the story – they must be of actual use to the plot and not simply a slot to fill. An easy example of something like this is the conversations around fat characters in fiction and how their storylines tend to revolve around their bodies. It’s not that a fat character’s story arc can never rely on the issues of body acceptance; they can, except not always and when they are, they must be done thoroughly and in a way that captures the complexities of such a topic. The character can be a black Muslim woman and never have to reference or confront any traumatic experiences of their identity throughout the story.
Of course, a story can revolve solely around dissecting a character’s minority identity and the experiences that come with them. However, one must ensure that their experiences capture the truth of the complexities and realities of those narratives.
- It’s not either/or. Your character need not only be one thing; more often minority identities can intersect. This intersection makes your characters more authentic and further adds to the narrative that you wish to bring out. So, if a character is gay and that is their only defining trait around which their profile revolves, then you’re doing it wrong. They can be gay and black, for instance; and they can be discriminated against for one part of their identity and not the other. If you’re portraying a bi-racial couple, one of them need not be necessarily white and both partners can be POC of different cultures. Tokenization often arises as a result of reducing a character to one essential identity so you need to make sure that that’s not what’s happening to your characters.
- Understand who can tell a story. If you aren’t someone who belongs to or has an idea of the experiences of a particular identity, then you must sensibly deal with wanting to write a character of that identity. A black woman’s experiences can never truly be highlighted when perceived through the eyes of a white woman. In cases like these, it’s best to leave writing such narratives to people who actually embody these experiences. However, when truly wanting to bring such characters to life, you must make sure to consult people of the relevant community, do some thorough research, and even take scholarly help to make sure that you’re constructing the character’s narrative rightly and using the right vocabulary to do so.
Ensuring that you’re doing justice to the diversity that you’re bringing to your story need not only be limited to valuing the above-mentioned factors. There are several ways by which you can see to it that the representation you encourage in your story is not for the sake of it. Ultimately, when you take on the task of ensuring a more diverse character list, make sure that your sentiments lie in the right place and that you portray the experiences of these characters in a way that does not reduce them to being one-dimensional.