It’s complicated: creating real characters
So Andrew and his husband Tristan are out from the city for a Sunday tour of boutique wineries and an organic produce market in their Prius – complete with its ‘meat is murder’, ‘Gun Free America’, ‘I’m with her’ stickers on the back. They are, naturally, keen supporters of the local Antifa and Andrew just joined Ravelry to show his support for any group that hates the man he calls ‘Drumph’ and racist homophobes who support him.
They have got a little lost and are on what their GPS said was a short cut – in the back-country. And Tristan, who is driving, chokes on an almond – which gets stuck in his throat. As he is clutching at his neck (instead of the steering-wheel) their Prius veers off the road, and rolls.
The big Ford Dually behind them screeches to a halt, and a big white guy jumps out and runs to the Prius – where the batteries have short-circuited and started a fire. He hauls both the stunned Andrew and Tristan out of the vehicle, and, seeing as Tristan is still choking, opens his airway and clears the obstruction. Then, because as the local volunteer fire-fighter, he has emergency response training, he does a quick assessment of both, applies a pressure bandage to the gash on Andrew’s arm, calls the emergency number on his mobile, and, seeing as he knows the responder, and they tell him the only Ambulance is 30 miles away responding to a cardiac call-out, and it is now sleeting, he puts them both into his truck. He contrives a towel roll to provide neck support for Andrew, and cuts an old beer carton into a splint for Tristan’s possible ankle fracture, and drives them to the nearest ER.
He’s a cattle-farmer, with a Trump ‘16 sticker on his vehicle and a rifle rack with a shotgun and one of those scary black rifles in it (he uses both for vermin and needs them on hand). He’s openly carrying, because he does.
Do Tristan and Andrew… punch him because he’s a ‘Nazi’?
Before we go any further into the writing aspect of this: I was conscripted to the Army at 17, and spent a couple of years as a medic. I’ve been involved in emergency response, and volunteer rescue of some sort ever since. These days I’m a part of our local volunteer ambulance service, and do about 12 shifts a month on call. I’m no hero, but I actually have responded to quite a lot of emergency situations where people needed help. Most of the time they’ve been people that I – and my fellow first responders – didn’t know from Adam. Sometimes there’s been more than a small element of risk involved. We keep being told NOT to take those risks.
You know: not once in the 40 years or so I’ve been doing this… have any of the people I’ve had the privilege of serving with EVER even considered who or what kind of person they were trying to help was. Even in the army, we gave priority to the worst injured. Not all of those were white or even on our side. That was our training, and I saw my fellow soldiers live and risk dying by that. And yeah, I’ve never seen anyone pay a blind piece of notice, when people may need their help, to that ‘don’t take risks’ stuff. Humans can be bloody amazingly brave and compassionate to total strangers, in extremis. Even to strangers, whom, out of that circumstance, they’d really dislike.
And… I’ve served with all sorts too. Yes, there are common characteristics, but the politics, religion, intelligence, interests – hell, diet, vary widely. You’re very unlikely to find Ark B type people, or extremists – either Antifa or Neo-Nazi – but either the conservative cattle-farmer or the somewhat left-leaning ecologist is indeed perfectly possible. I know and happily work with both.
The trouble with modern identity politics, which has bled heavily into the writing world is that – like the Andrew and Tristan characters (written as an example of this)– it is really about stereotypes. It’s the modern racism (which is also stereotyping on the basis skin-color). The underlying assumption of both is that the stereotype (real. Imaginary, or somewhere between) group defines the individual ABSOLUTELY. Not just one individual – ALL the individuals in that group.
Now of course all groups evolve stereotypes to describe them. It’s a kind of ‘shorthand’ humans use. Often there is a shred of reality in them – or perceptions of that reality. They’re not all bad, even.
And possibly somewhere in that group, the holotype exists. The similarity of others in that ‘group’ to that may be close, or they might be widely divergent.
But nothing says: ‘crap writing’ more than the stereotype with no differentiating characteristics at all.
Oh. Wait. Something does. Strawman stereotyping, with no differentiating characteristics at all. Cardboard cut-out bad men, who, for example, outside of the imagination of a NYC publishing bubble, don’t exist, and never did.
Now of course, there are people who desperately want to believe those strawman stereotypes, or at least have others believe anyone they don’t like is ‘literally Hitler’. But for huge numbers of readers… we — subconsciously at least — realize that isn’t ‘real’. The characters simply aren’t believable. Our suspension of disbelief is broken by it. That’s why Trad publishing is bleeding itself to death. Readers understand – usually from first-hand experience, that people are complicated, that groups (especially on superficial traits) do NOT absolutely define individuals. That, for example, victims (the official saints of modern PC) are just people, some good, some bad, mostly betwixt. Just because you’re the victim of discrimination doesn’t necessarily that you don’t practice the same, or that some people in your group don’t do something society considers horrible or even annoying.
If you can include that humanity into your characters, that variation, those individual traits, you’re doing it right.