Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Dear New Novelist: Push Down, Lift Up

I had someone recently ask my thoughts on what to do about a villain. They said it's more believable and socially acceptable for the devious, calculating villain to be a white male, but more progressive to have the racial and gender identity fit the character instead of shoving them into the white male block, even if they're the one facing the fall at the end. Should they be true to their story and character, they asked me, or should they make it fit the easiest hole to fill. This is what I told them.

Dear New Novelist, it's about balancing the scales. If you're going to push down on a type of person that exists in real life, you need to raise up someone of the same type. If you've got a bad orc, you don't need a good orc to counter it. Orcs aren't real. But if you've got a black villain, you sure as hell better have a black hero on an equal level. By equal level, I mean you can't balance out your black Big Bad with the black bartender who overheard an important tip. The villain has considerably more weight to the story. It doesn't balance out equally. You need someone on the level of the hero, the #1 companion, and/or the mentor to balance out how much you're pushing down on the villain.

For example, consider the absolutely amazing Black Panther movie (minor spoilers ahead). There are only two important white characters: Ulysses Klaue and Everett Ross. Imagine, for a moment, if there was only Klaue. A whole movie, and the only white character is a villain. Not THE villain, but A villain. How would that feel? Some white people might not bat an eye, while others would wonder, "Is this a statement about my race as invaders and villains? Do the makers of this think I'm a bad guy just because of my skin?" Probably wouldn't have been, but it would FEEL like it, because that's the only representative of our race in the movie. But he wasn't. There was also Ross. Not the most important character, wasn't much of a good guy in the last movie he was in, but this is his redemption arc. He gets to be a hero. Not THE hero, but A hero. Exactly equal to the other white man. One was pushed down, one was raised up. Perfectly balanced, and it made the movie stronger for it.

Your novel is the exact same. People of many races and genders are going to be reading your book, new novelist, and they'll be looking for themselves in it. If they only see themselves being pushed down, some will wonder, "Is this what the author thinks of me?" Your intent doesn't matter. You can't go to every single person and tell them, "No, I don't think that way, I swear." You have to show it in action in your story. If you're going to push down, balance the scales.

1 comment:

  1. That is great advice, Maggie. I agree! And I feel personally invested in this topic since I'm half black and half white, and ALL sorts of issues like this come up in my life constantly. Authors definitely shouldn't feel like it's verboten to have "ethnic people" as villains because it's no longer PC, especially if it's an important fit for those particular characters (and not just done on a whim). So I agree that having the balance, like you said, goes a long way toward "equal reporting" and having perspectives on both sides! BTW, Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther stole the show for my husband and me. He was riveting! :)