Monday, 10 October 2011

Why More of Your Characters Should Be Sexist

Sometimes our characters are racist, sexist, or elitist - but not for the reason we think.

In our day and age, racism, sexism, and religious discrimination are some of the most alienating faults a person can have. People often believe that there's enough hatred in the world without a skin-deep differences adding to the mix of prejudice.

But is it so skin-deep?

Imagine a world where you are in an isolated group of people, all of whom share your skin color. That's all you know. Then, from out of nowhere, a stranger appears of a different color.

Maybe your first instinct is fear. More likely, it's surprise. It could be awe, it could be anger. But there's one thought that probably dominates. Us vs. Them.

The difference feels huge. It's also skin-deep.

Here's where I'm going with this: when we, as fallible human beings, see a particular fault in an individual, we want to separate ourselves from it. Faults are ugly, we don't want them. And more importantly, we never want to be accused of having them.

So what do we do?

We look at the individual with that fault and try to separate ourselves from him as much as possible.

If I am white, and I see a black person with a fault, and I never want to admit that I may have that fault, what will I attribute it to? I'll attribute the fault to the one aspect of the person that I will never have. His skin color. Or his gender.

Hence, racism. Sexism. Elitism. Prejudice.

"That woman is ignorant. I don't want to be ignorant, and I'd never say something like she just said. It must be because she's a woman." Thinks. Justifies. "I've never heard another man say that. It must be because she's female."

See how easy it is?

Wrong, yes. Ignorant, yes. Natural, yes.

Why does your character hate the group of people he hates? A lot of us have at least one group of people we generalize and dislike. For me, it's people who buy brand new playstations. (ha, jk... mostly.) Is it because he's trying to distance himself from a fault of theirs?

And will he ever learn that playstation buyers are normal people too?



The Golden Eagle said...

I love your point. It's one of the reasons I find myself frustrated with some characters--they just don't seem to have any prejudices or negative opinions about people, which practically everyone does.

Lisa Gail Green said...

I studied this in college, and you hit on something very important. It's human nature to try and boost ourselves. And one way to do that is to put down the "other" group. They've done studies on young children where they separate by eye color for example. It's why prejudice is so hard to fight. But it's not impossible. IMHO anyway. :D

Mark Noce said...

Very deep questions in this post:) Oddly enough it's sometimes a matter of degree...i.e. Thomas Jefferson was way ahead of his time intellectually, but by our standards he's a slave-owner with illegitimate kids. Food for thought:)

Carrie Butler said...

Kudos for taking on such a complex topic, Bethany. :) Characters lacking human faults can definitely appear flat.

Lynda R Young said...

Love this post. Playstation buyers are strange and unusual..they should be buying xboxes ;)

L.G.Smith said...

Showing a character's prejudices is a great way to add some tension and conflict. And it's a realistic flaw that most people have to some degree. People shouldn't be afraid to give their characters some ugly thoughts once in awhile. And it's great if part of their character arc is overcoming their prejudices.

Anonymous said...

We are natural judging creatures. How we handle our judgements shows our character. Great post on a sensitive topic.

Janet Johnson said...

It's so easy to edit out HUMAN traits when we let our fears of touching a taboo topic censor us.

Great thoughts on this. :)

Jennifer Hillier said...

This is a great post. My favorite characters are always the ones who closely mimic real people, and as humans, we are always flawed.

Missed Periods said...

It would be so hard to empathize with a racist or sexist character-even if it's a more honest depiction of human nature. Are you suggesting this for the protagonist?

Book Republik Blog said...

Great post and I must agree that realistic characters are flawed. I disagree with the previous comment about empathy. Prejudice can be a a second dimension of a character which is not presented in their first dimension. The flaw makes them real, their willingness to restrain the flaw on the surface brings empathy.