I love to binge stream TV shows. The latest show that I’ve been streaming on Netflix is Hell on Wheels. I’m really enjoying it. It is probably the most beautifully shot thing out there. It is just so damned cinematic that I can’t paint while I watch it, and I have to actually watch it with my eyeballs and all of my brain.
It is well written, has complex characters, and the best part about it? In a period of American history about an unforgiving place where everybody had to be an unflinching bad ass to get anything done, so everybody is an unflinching bad ass. It plays fast and loose with actual history, but I love the vibe anyway. It doesn’t shy away from otherwise good people doing things that were normal then that we would consider absolutely awful today.
My wife is ahead of me and has seen all the episodes. When I got to season 3 she warned me that we were the bad guys. For the record, we’re Mormons. My wife’s family goes back to ye olden days, of starving hand cart companies, extermination orders, and mill massacres. (for the other Mormons present, she is a descendant of Wilford Woodruff and Lorenzo Snow, so that’ll give you an idea about her family tree).
My only question to her was, do they portray us as pussies? Nope? Good to go. I can handle being the bad guy, but I can’t stand when TV screws up and portrays Mormons as some sort of pseudo-Quaker non-violent bunch of sissy victims. Mormons spent a lot of time getting our asses kicked, but we certainly weren’t babies about it.
So I just finished season 3, and my people have been portrayed as merciless, violent dicks. But then again to be fair in this show the Union, the Confederacy, white folks, black folks, rich folks, poor folks, the Irish, the Germans, the Indians, and Unitarian Congregationalist Abolitionists have also been portrayed as merciless, violent dicks. The hero has murdered a bunch of people and the absolute worst person ever is a psychotic Norwegian who might actually be the devil. So I’m like, cool, whatever. That’s kind of the theme of a show that has Hell in the title, you know?
Then MSNBC resident braniac Melissa Harris “Tampon Earings” Perry educated everybody that Star Wars was racist because Darth Vader was a black guy…
Wow. Okay then. Since it was James Earl Jones doing Scary Robot Voice for a mangled white dude, I always thought it was bigoted against cyborgs and the handicapped. And Jawas… Don’t get me started on friggin’ Jawas, man.
But these things got me to thinking about characters and how we writers make them up and portray them, and how something you do is going to offend somebody. So today I want to talk about that aspect of character creation.
Recently I got screeched at by some idiot SJW who was nitpicking his way through my books to demonstrate how I was racist (because anybody who disagrees with them must be). His straw grasping came down to how I had minority characters as antagonists. Sure, he had to hand wave away the minority characters who were heroes and the majority characters who were antagonists but as we’ll see, the perpetually offended are going to find something to whine about no matter what. But amongst that bleating was some variant of “Correia used someone from SPECIAL VICTIM GROUP X as a bad guy! How dare he? Doesn’t he realize how HURTFUL that is to members of SPECIAL VICTIM GROUP X?”
Hmmm… Let me turn on any given TV show and see how the “groups” I belong to are portrayed by most of Hollywood. Gun nuts are dumb hick Bubbas. Religious types are usually delusional lunatics. Then we’ve got greedy capitalist 1%ers crushing the poor and downtrodden. Don’t even get me started on blood thirsty military contractors and the Evil Military Industrial Complex!
So no, I have no idea how it feels for my “tribe” to be identified in a negative manner. Hang on. I just rolled my eyes so hard I may have physically injured myself.
The thing is, because none of the groups I identify with are the type to flip out and hold protests (mostly because all of them tend to vote Republican, and we have jobs) so those groups are safe for writers to portray in a negative light… And so they do. All the time. The problem with safe is that it can quickly become tired and boring.
You know what else is homogenous and approved? Oatmeal. Smart writers aren’t going to serve their fans bland, predictable oatmeal very often, because they know the fans will get bored and spend their entertainment dollars on something else that doesn’t treat them like they’re stupid.
Culture warriors are going to focus on establishing narratives. They know that politics is down the road from culture, so they’re going to insist on checklists, and only offending groups that it is acceptable to offend. Art and entertainment comes after the mission of the day.
Smart writers are going to focus on entertainment. They’re probably going to offend everybody at some point. But at least they won’t be boring while they do it.
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again, the unforgivable sin for writers is being boring. As a writer you can get away with damned near anything as long as you are entertaining a big enough audience.
There is a contingent of readers out there who exist only to nitpick and bitch. There aren’t that many of them, but they make up for it by being loud. Many authors are under the mistaken impression that you can make these readers happy. You can’t. At best you can appease them. Temporarily. But you will cross their invisible line sometime and they will get all sorts of outraged.
For example, no matter what you write, a Social Justice Warrior can be offended somehow. If you have a minority character as a hero. Token. Villain? Stereotype. If you don’t have a minority character? Racist. If you feature some minority characters? Cultural appropriation.
This comes up a lot with angry Twitter feminists who never tire of beating the long dead Portrayal-of-Women-in-Fiction horse. Trust me. That horse is nothing but red paste now. This particular type of Perpetual Offense is a cottage industry in video games today, usually from “journalists” who’ve apparently never actually played any video games.
If you give a female character any flaws, you’ll be attacked by angry feminists. Sure, all of us actual writer types realize that flawed characters are drastically more interesting that perfect characters, but the only allowable female character is STRONG WOMYN. Hell, even ACTION GIRL can get the author in trouble for “dude with boobs” or “solving problems in a stereotypical male fashion”. And if you describe her in any way that is traditionally attractive? You and your patriarchy are doomed.
Or if you fail to put the topic of the day into your book, you’ll be railed at for that. Sure, you didn’t write a book about Global Warming, so it didn’t come up, but for them it should have. But I’m sticking with characters today, and not things like SJWs whining how a book I wrote in 2007 didn’t address the concerns of Black Lives Matter in 2015.
Now to be fair this nitpicky outrage totally goes both ways, just far more often from the Social Justice side. I’ve occasionally been accused of “pandering” because I’ve written minority heroes and white male bad guys. That’s just the same asinine nonsense, only flipped around. Well, duh. I’ve written like fifteen books now so I’ve had damn near everyone and everything as a protagonist or antagonist at some point.
So writers can either walk on egg shells to avoid potentially giving offense to the perpetually offended, or we can just not give a shit, and keep writing books that make us happy.
What most of us soon realize is that it isn’t about our work at all (don’t assume they actually read it either) but rather they only care if you’re part of their tribe. If you aren’t with them then anything you write can be offensive somehow, and if you are part of their tribe you can sound like Heinrich Himmler and still get a pass. When the game is rigged so that they always win, why would you try to play their game?
Once you realize that you’re writing for you and your fans, and not a bunch of angry assholes with checklists, it is incredibly liberating.
Authors and aspiring authors, when you’re creating a character don’t worry about what the haters will say. Just make the character whatever you need them to be to fulfill the job in the story you gave them. Make them interesting. Give them whatever traits make sense to you, or that you find fun. That’s the most important thing of all, because if you are having fun writing it, that feeling is contagious and will come through in your writing, and your readers are more likely to have fun reading it.
I’ve often mentioned “checklist” writing. That’s where authors feel like their story has to check boxes off a list in order to appease people. I get this all the time from newer and aspiring writers, some variation of “don’t I have to have X” or “I’m not allowed to have Y!” It doesn’t matter. You could go down your character list checking boxes on an EEOC form, and somebody somewhere will still be outraged that your transsexual Muslim who identifies as a dinosaur, only featured in 7.4% of the book.
That whole Bechdel Test thing? Where they ask are there two females in a scene who talk about something other than a man? Okay, first off, you shouldn’t have to “test” your story for anything beyond is it readable and entertaining enough to sell it to somebody, but second WHO CARES? (well, a legion of Twitter feminists and gender studies professors obviously) Right off the bat most of the mega-selling romance genre fails the test, and most of those books are written by female authors for a female audience (and the romance genre makes serious bank compared to the rest of us).
There isn’t some arbitrary test that if you pass you’re good, and if you fail you’re sexist. Because you see what they call me, and I wrote Grimnoir, where the single most important, pivotal, critical, essential dialog scene in the entire trilogy was two young women talking about origami on top of a blimp. Test passed, and I’m the International Lord of Hate.
The real test for every scene should be asking yourself, is this scene good? Is this entertaining? Does this advance the story? Does this scene expand the characters or the universe? But that should be every scene, not just the one with two female characters in it.
Now, back to what started this train of thought today, having somebody from Group Whatever as antagonists, and how that’s so incredibly offensive… That’s just bullshit. The bad guys can often be the most awesome part of the book. Interesting antagonists can make or break a book. Star Wars wouldn’t have been a hit without Darth Vader. Lord Vader made Star Wars cool. James Earl Jones was the voice of Vader, because he has the most bad ass voice ever. This is CNN… Wow. How awesome do you have to be to make the lameness of CNN sound important?
Antagonists are vital. If you listen to the morons, all your antagonists would be the same. Everybody in the world who has watched Star Wars laughed at Melissa Harris Perry because of how profoundly ignorant she was, but that kind of half-cocked allegation happens constantly, only it’s usually just between some poor author/creator and a Twitter mob. If the Melissa Harris Perrys of the world had their way, every bad guy would be a thinly veiled Dick Cheney. That’s oatmeal. Screw oatmeal. I’m all about equal opportunity in my villainy.
So where is the real racism? Those of us who want to create memorable characters and entertaining stories, or those of us who want to deprive minorities of playing the most interesting parts?
In any book that isn’t navel gazing literati twaddle, or man versus nature, there is probably going to need to be some form of bad guy. Books need conflict. Antagonists equal conflict, and that’s a good thing. For the writers, your bad guys need to be great. They need to be so interesting that they potentially upstage your good guys. Hans Gruber versus John McClane. I’m rooting for McClane, but Hans steals every scene with his casual, clever, villainy (best Christmas movie ever, by the way).
But apparently Die Hard is racist against Germans (played by Englishmen). Go figure.
So if antagonists are so damned important, where to these Perpetually Outraged types get off saying that certain groups of people aren’t allowed to be the bad guys? That’s not fair. If they’d had their way, nobody would be dressing up as Boba Fett now because that would have been unfair stereotyping of Mandolorians.
You want to know one of the secrets of writing good villains? If you can take the story, flip it around, start telling it from the bad guy’s perspective, and their actions and motivations make perfect sense to the reader, then that makes for good villainy. The good guy is a matter of Point of View. Okubo Tokugawa knew he was doing horrible things and he still thought he was the hero in Hard Magic. His absolute conviction was also why he was one of the most popular characters I’ve ever written. The Chairman was like Darth Vader, only effective at more than choking coworkers at staff meetings. Hell, I wrote poetry for him to recite. But he wouldn’t have existed if I listened to the Perpetually Outraged because writing an Imperial Japanese bad guy was a racist stereotype (we’ll just ignore that unpleasantness in the Pacific in the ‘40s and things like Chinese severed head mountains).
When creating characters, give them features that make sense for your universe, make them more memorable, or interesting, or compelling, or something. Don’t just bust out your Mandatory Approved Diversity Checklist and say, oh I have to have one of these, and one of these, and two of these, except for the Bad Guy, who is obviously Dick Cheney from Blackwater. It’s a story. It isn’t a shopping list. Because checklist writing is lazy writing, and it often leads to cheesy, cardboard stereotype characters. Make them believable people, with wants, and needs, goals, desires, flaws, history, likes, dislikes, and personality. And if you make it so all of that stuff makes sense, then they’re aren’t going to be offensive, they’re going to be human.
Characters are about more than what stupid arbitrary narrow box the government makes you check on an EEOC form. I’m all in favor of Idris Elba as James Bond, and it has nothing at all about it being a “triumph of diversity” but rather because he’s a British dude who plays world weary bad ass better than anyone else I can think of. Watch Luther. Plus, Craig’s movies were a franchise reboot, as we saw in Skyfall Bond was his real name, but when he retires, they’ll continue to use his name as the code name for the next agent picked as 007. That fits the universe. And unlike Craig, in real life Elba can drive a stick.
That said, I don’t like the idea of the Rock as Jack Burton. Why? I love the Rock. I love Kurt Russell, but I don’t think Big Trouble in Little China should get a reboot with a new Jack. Instead, they should just write another story in the same universe, set it twenty years later, give the Rock his own unique character, and have old Jack Burton come back to dispense wisdom and bullets. I think that better fits that universe better.
Never assume that your characters—let alone your readers and fans—share the same hang ups as some angry blue haired land whale on Twitter. Just tell your story.
This is why I can watch my people be bad guys on a TV show and not get my panties in a twist. Is Hell on Wheels accurate with its Mormon antagonists? Let’s put it this way, the children’s hymn with Mr. Gunderson didn’t exist for another hundred years, and if we’d ever shot that many people Grant would have scourged us from the face of the Earth. And one plotline involving an imposter? Wouldn’t work. Too small of an interconnected community. But I’ll check my brain at the door and look at this as entertainment.
Were the Mormons interesting antagonists with understandable human motivations? The scene with the father giving up his son to be hanged? Dark, incredibly cruel, but it made sense. An angry father transferring his own failing onto another target? Flip it around and see if it makes sense if you tell their story. Yep, flawed, but understandable. They don’t need to be perfect angels, they just need to be believable humans for the rules established by the universe.
So the characters succeed at their job. Story told. Wow, that was a lot easier that getting all outraged about the part where my kid’s ancestors shot everybody in Cheyenne Wyoming.
The writers of Hell on Wheels get that their viewers don’t want oatmeal. They want conflict between flawed people, challenges overcome, and an occasional triumph. These people also showed Indian stickball-to-the-death so I can only imagine their hate mail looks a lot like mine. (though if one particular character did in fact get eaten by a bear, I’m going to be pissed).
Inevitably I get attacked by dipsticks who haven’t read my books about the imaginary bad think that Straw Larry put into my books. Normally my fans come to my rescue listing off all of the characters that don’t fit their narrative. That’s fun for the fans, but it is ultimately a waste of time, because authors can never sway the willfully ignorant.
The Perpetually Outraged offer advice the same way an abusive husband does, and both do it because they enjoy watching people cower. You brought it on yourself when you crossed their invisible line and unknowingly used a character in an unapproved way. It’s your fault they hit you. Maybe if you’re better next time they won’t have to.
The cool thing is, once you’ve pissed these people off, and they’ve done their best to ruin you, and they’ve called you racist, sexist, whatever-phobic, you’ll learn that the Perpetually Outraged are actually rather impotent. It used to be that this would scare away customers, but the times are changing. Most people are wise to their game and nobody likes them anymore. They’ve worn out their welcome.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to get back to work outlining this Julie Shackleford novel. Now there’s a Strong Woman who’d laugh at the cries of the Perpetually Outraged.