In their book Writing The Other, Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward talk about how to avoid building characters that are mere stereotypes. This is especially tough for secondary characters, because we tend to see them only through the eyes of viewpoint characters, so we may only get a very shallow look at who they are:
Generally, a secondary character has one main character trait. However, a secondary character shouldn’t be that one trait exclusively. Neither should all the secondary character’s few illustrated traits point to the same ROAARS [Race, Orientation, Ability, Age, Religion, Sex] category. That makes a stereotype of even the most minor of “bit players.”
I took their workshop in June, and I’ve been thinking about this a lot since–especially in light of my own transition to Plain Dress. I’m getting used to people making assumptions about me because of the way I dress. I’m getting used to people staring, photographing me without my permission, and asking me about what my deal is, because my clothing is unusual. It’s a Marked State.
Nisi and Cynthia’s advice about writing secondary characters so their traits don’t all line up with stereotypes rings very true to me, in light of this experience. I’ve seen how laughably wrong people’s assumptions can be.
It is weird to me how many folks seem to rail against such a sensible suggestion–I’ve heard it called “PC bull” that “distracts from the story” over the wailing of “but stereotypes exist for a reason.”
Indeed, they do. That reason is confirmation bias.
If you only see me occasionally, or in transactional contexts, you’re going to notice that I’m a plain Quaker. I wear long sleeves. I cover my hair. I don’t drink alcohol. I make an effort to recognize the humanity in others, even when I’m having a bad day–not because I’m saintly but because I’m really, really not, and dressing the way I do can remind me of my commitment to being a good person when nothing else does. I can be stringent about my religious beliefs, and I’m not afraid to quote the bible if I think it’ll get someone off my case about not taking oaths or using honorifics. If you see me only through a mirror, dimly, it is easy to imagine that the parts of me occluded by the old glass line up in ways that you expect with the parts that show.
I know because I’ve watched people imagine this. I’ve watched them peer at me through their clouded glass and interact with the reflection their mind has made of me, instead of with the real me in front of them.
We are all accustomed to not knowing much about people we’ve just met. But the more marked your state, the less likely people are to know how little they know about you–their mind fills in the space behind the flaws in their glass so seamlessly that they forget the flaws are there at all. They’ll believe their picture of you is much more complete than it really is.
As we get to know people, the view through our glass naturally shifts–we see them from more than one angle, and in different lights. Through this process, we learn to see around the flaws in our glass to what’s actually there.
I have a motorcycle.
The plain clothes I wear are actually typical of men’s plain dress, not women’s, because women’s plain dress made me feel out of place in my skin.
I’m a computer programmer.
I’m bisexual, but that’s never been a crisis of faith for me. God made me this way, and God doesn’t make trash.
I’m trying to stop, but it’s an ingrained habit.
There’s not much of the bible I can quote without looking it up. And by ‘looking it up,’ I mean ‘with google,’ because I can’t remember where anything is in there.
This summer, I went to a science museum with some friends, including two other plain Quakers. I bought a plush space shuttle from the gift shop. Shortly after leaving, I realized the space shuttle looked like a penis (seriously, it does). I giggled about this, because I’m secretly twelve, and the others started giggling too. Another member of our party didn’t get what was so funny, so one of my plain compatriots explained the joke by, uh, gesturing with the toy.
A cab driver stopped at a red light nearby nearly died laughing. “You’re so bad!” he called, before driving away. We laughed. Even from a distance, the cab driver could tell the toy designers were having a laugh at the expense of unobservant shoppers.
Later, I realized that what made it so funny to the cab driver probably wasn’t the toy, or even the pantomime. It was that my friend was making a lewd joke while plain.
No one expects people in religious dress to make dick jokes.
Some of us do it anyway.
It would be easy to dismiss me as ‘an exception that proves the rule,’ but that’s confirmation bias as well. The saying doesn’t actually mean ‘prove’ as in ‘confirm.’ It means ‘prove’ as in ‘test, challenge–’ if you’ve found one exception, how many others might there be? If you’ve met one butch bisexual feminist Quaker biker with a pottymouth and a gutterbrain, how many other plain Quakers might be people you don’t expect? None of these traits are unique to me. For each one, I can name another Quaker who shares the trait.
We can’t always repair the flaws in the glass through which we see the world. These scratches, clouds, and nicks are borne of a lifetime of conditioning.
But when we’re aware of them, we can look around them–shift our view and actively look for the things confirmation bias would have us discard. It’s hard work, but rewarding. We live far more interesting lives if we interact with people face to face, instead of through a dim glass.
And you never know what kinds of jokes your glass obscures.