On -isms: A Character Game?

By | Thursday, December 10, 2015 Leave a Comment
One of the neat things about people-watching is catching these small nuances of character that make every person unique. The particular way they walk or stand or just hold themselves. Sometimes their actions can be very telling, or at least interesting, even just as a contrast to how you might do those same things yourself. I've heard that a number of creators use people-watching as a way to help develop their own characters in much the same way actors do.

But we don't always have the time or ability to view a single person for a long enough period to pick up on their personal ticks. Maybe we're on the way somewhere, or they're passing through quickly themselves, or whatever. We might get a brief mental snapshot of the individual, and any character judgements we might make would have to be based on some broad generalities. Often, these are stereotypes. Often based on ideas that are socialized through our family, friends, and media at large.

So here's a little game I play. As I'm walking around, I see these people that I'm only able to do a quick read of. The ones that, in passing, I'm going to rely on those broad generalities. But the thought process I run through is, "Now this person is [superficial characteristic] so I'm supposed to think they're [stereotype]."

"This person is Black and wearing a hoodie, so I'm supposed to think they're a thug."

"This person is overweight and their hair isn't perfectly coiffed, so I'm supposed to think they're a lazy slob."

"This person seems to be homeless, so I'm supposed to think they're an irresponsible drug-addict."

I'm doing two things in those statements. First, I'm consciously identifying what trait(s) stand out. In identifying them, I have to compare the person against what society tells me is "normal." And while I don't think through a full list of "normal" traits every time I do this, the culmination of running through this game repeatedly highlights what we're taught to believe a "normal" person looks like. It brings the idea that we are taught this visual very much to the forefront of my mind.

Second, the phrase "so I'm supposed to think" emphasizes that, in the absence of actually knowing the person in question, I've been taught that they are being pigeonholed into a role by someone other than myself. I'm not making my own value judgement; I'm relying on others to tell me how to think about this person irrespective of any actual evidence to their character.

"This person deviates from 'normal' and that deviation is bad."

So here's my ask of comic creators, artists in particular. When you draw some characters into your stories -- not primary characters, but more the background characters that you're using to flesh out your world -- as you draw each one, try running through that same game. "This person I'm drawing is [superficial quality], so I'm supposed to think they're [stereotype]."

This will do two different things, I think. First, it'll force you to consciously think about why you might be using a stereotype for a character. It's possible that it's perfectly appropriate, but then again, maybe it's not. But it gives you at least a moment's pause to consider it. Second, if you find yourself repeatedly saying your characters never have superficial characteristics that suggest a particular stereotype, maybe that's because you cast of characters isn't very diverse and you're only drawing what society has taught is "normal." Again, worth some consideration.
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