character selection self-advocacy

Oops, my protagonist is a token

The other day I heard a story in a workshop starring a “35 year old woman.” Of the thousands of characteristics or quirks the newbie storyteller could have given her, he chose gender and age and left it at that. It was trouble. There was no way to attach to this vague outline of a person and the whole room told him so. It was an easy mistake to make.

Don’t let your characters sound like perps in a police report.
The story would have been the same if the woman in it were 45 years old. It would have been the same starring a 35 year old man. There was nothing special to her. Your audience can’t care about a character without dimension—and gender, race, and age alone fall short. You’ll need more than the Census to build a protagonist the audience can care about.

Demographics have nothing to do with how characters behave.
Staff at organizations know the stats describing whom they serve in great detail. Seniors! Immigrants! African American youth! Low-income people! When staff start telling stories, they refer to those demographics as if they are the sum total of traits that define the players in their stories—but demographics aren’t enough.

Let’s say you are telling the story of a Latina who finds a mistake on a spreadsheet and saves her company millions. Is that a surprise? Is that expected? Is that typical? Who knows. Being a Latina doesn’t mean any of those things should happen. But if you tell a story of a Latina who happens to be a math whiz who triple checks her work compulsively…well now we can imagine a bit more about how this particular Latina would react. She is now becoming a real character. But wait…

Tokens are easy to spot because they could be substituted for something else. 
Does her being a Latina matter in this story setup? Nope. We could make her Irish and the story would be the same. Does her being a compulsive math whiz matter. Yep. Does the combo of being a Latina and a math whiz make her a more interesting character? Maybe—only if her cultural background comes into play. Somehow you must show how being a Latina math whiz is different from being an Irish math whiz. Otherwise, the story will stay in token territory.


Photo by Christopher Prentiss Michel

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