This will be a two-part exploration on writing diverse characters. This first part focuses more on the need for such characters and how we should approach them as audience members. The second part will dig into how I address this as a writer and game designer, including how this approach helps me to write “for” rather than “about.”
Tanya DePass of I Need Diverse Games reminded us just yesterday of the tired and stupid argument against diversity that there is somehow a zero-sum game of aspirational hero characters in movies, games, comics, etc. That somehow making more A-list properties with characters that are women, or black, or gay, or (heaven forbid) all of the above will take heroes away from straight white males.
Tanya’s post dismantles this complaint pretty handily, so I don’t need to add anything to that. But there’s another side of this that I want to address:
What does it mean to aspire?
We fill our eyes and our brains with heroes…why? It is because they represent something we hope for ourselves. They are what we wish we could be.
When we say that representation matters, this is what we’re talking about. Because so much of our media, our entertainment, our culture leaves out huge swaths of the population – it fails to offer them aspirational heroes that look like them or have similar life experiences. Instead we give them another straight white male hero and expect them to aspire to be that. I Need Diverse Games is built around the idea of giving more people heroes to which they can aspire. It’s only fair.
BUT – and here’s the thing that I really want to talk about – every single one of those heroes is one that straight white males can aspire to as well.
The literature we read, the movies we watch, the games we play – these are tools of empathy. They transport us to another place, time, and even reality, but more importantly they transport us into other people. An entire game series has been built around a literal manifestation of this principle. Why, then, is it so hard to imagine ourselves aspiring to be a hero who happens to be a different race, gender, religion, or sexuality than we are?
Kamala Khan is a contemporary hero. Her world is our world (plus superheroes). Many of her problems are identical or parallel to the things most teenagers go through. So it shouldn’t be difficult to imagine ourselves as her, no matter who WE are, right?
But the problem is that our culture does not praise being a woman, or brown, or Muslim. So those of us who do not share those identities are taught to see Kamala as a step down. Why would I aspire to that when my own social position as a straight white male is already stronger?
In essence, the complaint that Tanya deconstructs in her most recent post is a recognition that titles like Ms. Marvel are beginning to praise and celebrate people who are not straight white males. And while the idea that straight white males will no longer be represented is completely preposterous, it’s not out of the question that straight white males will no longer be praised and celebrated above others. (I would consider that a valid goal.)
However, this is not the loss that these naysayers want us to fear. Rather, it is a gain.
I am a straight white male, and I am a better person when I imagine myself as Kamala Khan. I am a better person when I imagine myself as Luke Cage, or Tracer, or Rey. I am a better person when I imagine myself as the characters from Sense8. This is because they are all aspirational heroes. They are amazing people to be – why wouldn’t I want to imagine myself as them?
And, when I let myself be transported into those characters, I broaden my own experiences through theirs. I can never know fully what it is like to live any other life besides my own, but the power of literature and media lets me expand my frame of understanding just a little bit more every time.
And to those who would try to tell me that they just want to escape with books and games and movies I ask – is this not the greatest escape of all? If you love underdog stories, how could you not love the story of a hero from a marginalized background or fighting against the world? If you love wish fulfillment, what greater wish fulfillment is there than “Bulletproof Love” or wielding a lightsaber?
If we as an audience put the story first, then all characters are available to us. Diversity in media becomes an expansion of our possibilities rather than a reduction of our power. As a society, and as individuals, we are made more because we welcome more.