Tuesday, August 31, 2010

(Insert Disenfranchised Minority here) Best Friend

I've been trying to get a grip on this trope for a while. Most of my WIPs do not have the semi-required gay or black best friend and I feel like I am shirking some societal responsibility. I can't do a legit MC from either perspective because honestly, I'm not that good. I'm not saying it can't be done, just that it takes a better writer. I'm whitebread through and through. I still like Third Eye Blind. There is no hope for me.

Still, I do have friends who are not white. Or straight. I like them. I respect them. So why don't these folks pop up in my MSs?

I had an epiphany yesterday. I saw an article on the internet about the "Black Best Friend." She is everywhere and always portrayed favorably. Her qualifications are: sassy, grounded, cooler than her white Main Character counterpart. She offers the words of wisdom that Ms. Whitey must embrace to achieve her goal of career and relationship fulfillment. The Gay Best Friend does the same thing but with more swishing and better fashion advise. Occasionally the best friend is Latina, but she is interchangeable with Black Best Friend. Earth Mother hip types who enjoy the spiritual gift of perceptive insight into humanity.

I think it's degrading. It is a shortcut purely for the development of the white character. The reader/audience knows that our hero is a good, non-prejudiced person because of the props in place, in this case a minority best friend. It's also code for the writers/producers to pat themselves on the back and say to the world: "I'm not a racist homophobe! I like you people!" I haven't thrown any of my real life non-white/alternative buddies into stories because I do not want to reduce them to props.

Now that I've put my finger on the source of my reticence, I feel better able to tackle it. For a while I thought I just disliked the cliche of it all but I have other cliches that crop up here and there, so that really wasn't it. When I look around at my own circle of friends I notice two things: each one is an individual, not a representative of a group. And I have more than one friend whose first language is not English, who not too long ago would have been denied membership to the Country Club based on race or religion, or whose marriage is not legally recognized by my state.

The trick to populating fiction with characters instead of cardboard cutouts of acceptable minority roles is to make the MC's circle of friends match reality. If her best friend is black it seems unlikely that this person would be her only black friend. People don't take applications for friends, assigning one slot to each minority and filling the rest of the positions with faces that look just like theirs. Ensemble casts in books and movies do. There is a reason they call it the "token" whatever friend.

Why can't our forward-thinking, enlightened MCs have a more checkered clique of homeys? In reality, people tend to be either very segregated or very desegregated. It's either all white folks at your dinner party or about half of them aren't. I'd like to see this revolutionary concept incorporated more widely. Maybe even an MC who is the token straight, white kid surrounded by "other" people good enough to overlook it and judge the individual by her merit. That I could pull off...I've been that guy. I'm bored and annoyed with the MC who is a kind enough person to look past differences and have A friend from another background. It's just a reinvention of the benevolent white protector who always gets to be the hero.


  1. Interesting. Maybe we needn't identify the race or sexual preference of our MCs unless it's necessary in context. The reader doesn't need to know Tom is gay, but may guess so if he lives with Bill. Abe Goldstein might be Jewish, but we don't have to point it out.

  2. I've been that guy

    Awesome, so throw some trans-gender peeps in the mix.

    I think you made some great points. In Fate's Guardian my MC (white mail) marries a black girl. However, the racial difference is not the main point in their relationship. He just happened to fall in love with her instead of a white girl.

    In Earth's End I am purposefully making many characters racially androgynous. I'll leave it up to the reader to paint the mental picture of the character. Unless an editor tells me to change it or it won't get published. Then I'll drink heavily until the moral dilemma sorts itself out.

  3. Steve and Rick: I think that is a great solution and I've wondered why more peopld don't do this. If someone's experience or background as an XYZ informs their decisions then maybe it matters. Otherwise, how about don't mention it?

    And raise your glass, Rick. Do you really need a moral dilemma to drink heavily?

  4. I have a Malaysian friend in my MS but that's cause it's based on my real friends ;p It wouldn't occur to me to add someone purely to be 'PC' last time I checked writing was all about your POV and not PC. You're doing fine :) and now that it's occurred to you you'll find one slipping in, in the right way.


  5. @ Nicole: Ha! Thanks for the words of encouragement. I'm not precisely what anyone would call PC anyway, and so far it has limited the way I've drawn my characters. I've been a bit reactionary, I guess, because I get so tired of seeing this used as a tool for character development instead of just reading books about people.

    I really think Stephen has it nailed. When describing characters in books, we get caucasian descriptions like hair and eye color, shape of the jaw or lips, height, weight, and the ever popular emoting eyeballs. Any other race is "asian girl" or "african american man." Maybe a "slight figure" or "athletic build," but that's about it.

    "Straight, glossy black hair ended in electric blue tips at her shoulders" hints at asian or Native American but doesn't let the writer cop out on the description. Or imply that racial heritage is especially important.

  6. Hmmm...I'm a black writer and I have mixed feelings on this.

    On one hand, POC (people of color) are NOT represented very much in mainstream literature, and when they are, they are often cast as the white MC's sidekick/"friend"/token. Infuriating, but unsurprising.

    However, if black writers just stick to writing "black stuff" (read: black characters) and white writers stick to writing "white stuff" (read: white characters) when will they ever meet? The publishing industry is segregated enough as it is! It assumes white readers are inherently racist and will not buy books with strong POC characters that are not just "dressing" for the white MC.

    Although I'm sick of tired racial stereotypes I'd rather see SOME POC than an all-out white-washed mess. Gawd, we have enough of that sh1t already. Because, let's face it, white authors get picked up much more than any: insert any non-white author here.

    SO if you are truly serious about this issue and the hypocrisy that comes with "inserting token characters" defy the stereotypes and write something that is multiculturally significant. Simply saying: "I'm gonna white-wash it cuz I'm not PC" is only ADDING to the problem.

    If you know the problem exists, FIX IT! And the only way to do that is for authors everywhere to start incorporating fair multicultural/GLBTQI MCs/characters that have actual ROLES and not just "dressing."

  7. I've been wondering where you went! I see you've been hard at work.

    I think that we write what we know. It's instinctive. How could I effectively portray a main character who had a very different life than me? I'm sure other cultures and races fill there stories with their cultures and races. Maybe my culture and race are the ones that collapse into stereotypes in those stories.

    I do agree that we should try not to give in to these stereotype/short cuts, however. Perhaps that also reflects what we should fight to do in life.

  8. The default skin color is white - unfortunately.

    If you don't mention the race of your character, I'm not sure if it defaults to white or to the race of your reader. I was reading a "black" book recently and automatically assumed the two characters were both black. My bad. One was white.

    I guess I'm suggesting reading books by authors of color to get a feel for how they describe characters. Expand your writing world through reading research.

  9. I'm sorry, are you telling me Third Eye Blind is no longer cool? *cries*

    (awesome post, btw)

  10. @ Vegetarian Cannibal: Thanks for commenting! I've no desire to "whitewash" my MSs but rather avoid creating the requisite roles for POC or LGBT characters. I want real people. I'm not even opposed to stereotypes, just not stereotypes in the expected roles.

    I'm from the Deep South so I know that rednecks exist in all forms, even socially enlightened forms. I know bona fide rednecks with PhDs. In stuff like physics and microbiology. It's not what you expect, but it's reality. That is what I want for all my characters. One of my best friends from high school is now JAG attorney. He plays rugby, drinks vodka and cranberry juice, and likes country music. Oh, and he's a black guy. It is not the first thing that needs to be mentioned in a description of him because it is not the most important. It's incidental, like the fact that I have freckles.

    That's what I would like to see more of. People, whose societal assignations are only a part of their physical package. Like short, green eyed, attractive.

  11. @ Jason: I totally agree that you have to write what you know. That is the biggest reason that I don't cotton to the notion that all writers should try to be more inclusive in their character representation. If you write about a culture that you have no experience with, by default you rely on stereotypes.

  12. @ Sarah: I think the default skin color is that of the reader. There have been lots of studies by churches that indicate that unless told or shown otherwise, believers in Christ identify Him as being of their race. Same is true in books. The reader is free to assign any race they like until they are told otherwise. Which is what I really liked about Stephen and Rick's approach.

    For LBGT issues it is different, but kind of the same. I don't need for an author to explicitly state that two adults of the same gender sharing a household for twenty years are homosexual. I can do the math. Just like if that couple lived on my block. I don't think it should be avoided, but I'm tired of seeing it exploited.

  13. @ Lydia: Sure, they're cool. If you're middle aged and white.

  14. I've been thinking about this. How often do you hear (in real life) people refer to someone as "my gay friend Tom?" I hear such things all the time. I have a friend who, as an infant, was evacuated from South Vietnam just as it was being overrun. Her story fascinates me. I refer to her (when I don't catch myself) as "my Vietnamese friend Nancy." My favorite college professor had a sex change. When I mention her for the first time to friends I invariably say "Toni, who used to be Tony."

    When we identify exotic traits in people we can't help but label them with those traits: "I'd like you to meet Maria. She's from Guatemala!" But where do you draw the line? We don't say, "I'd like you to meet Sam. His ancestors were captured in Africa and sold as slaves to a Georgia cotton plantation!"

    Sorry for being long-winded. The points you raise aren't merely academic.