Census-Taking Characterization: Looking Deeper than Demographics

If you were a fan of Frasier, you may remember an episode called “Something About Dr. Mary,” in which Frasier’s radio show producer has to take a break and he temporarily hires in her place a woman named Mary, who’s fresh out of training. When Frasier’s and Mary’s personal styles clash—drastically—he’s hesitant to say anything to her. While he claims he’s being cautious so he doesn’t crush her dreams or spirit, Frasier’s dad puts it a little more simply: he won’t say anything because Mary is black.

And while Frasier is hoping to be appropriately sensitive, it’s like his brother, Niles, points out: “You’re not showing this woman any respect if you’re not as honest with her as you would be with someone else.”

Sometimes when we write about characters who look different than us, we can make a similar mistake in letting the desire to remain sensitive overshadow the need to create unabridged characters whose complexity reflects real life.

frasier and dr mary
Frasier and Dr. Mary, talking it out.
Demographic Factors Aren’t Everything

Here in reality, there are certainly times we’re extra aware of our own qualities related to gender, race, ethnicity, religion, and more. Namely, when it comes up. When we go out in the world beyond our homes and some circumstance turns a flashlight on demographics. When we’re in our homes listening to news coverage of events centering on those factors. And based on the severity or significance of the issue at hand, our heightened awareness may pivot into a lingering focus. In times of identifying with or feeling compassion toward a politically or socially maligned group, that lingering focus may transition into full-blown activism. But. Real people are not focused exclusively on their demographic elements.

There can be a tendency if you’re writing about someone outside your own race, ethnicity, gender, etc., to account for what you imagine to be the many ancillary elements of this other race, etc. And, therefore, to have your character ruminating on these features more than a flesh-and-blood person would. The upshot of this can be that you end up writing a one-dimensional character who poorly serves the heart of your story. The answer to this is, fortunately, quite simple: due your diligence with characterization.

Whether the character at hand is from Manitoba or Algeria or Alabama, you need to know much more than their place of birth, skin color, genetic heritage, gender, and religious affiliation. In other words, you need to be able to give better than a Census-taker’s description of your characters. It’s true that all these factors intermingle on a daily basis and can impact, sometimes heavily, the experience we have as individuals—but these factors also don’t add up to the totality of who any of us are.

When you know your characters at the level of primary motivation, meaningful relationships, talents, helpful habits, obstacles, and more, you’re able to then ask: How is this (fully realized) character impacted by demographic factors? Instead of: What sum do these demographic factors add up to? In its simplest form, this is a matter of approaching characterization from the inside out, and it works much better than the reverse at ensuring your characters come across as complex, true-to-life human beings.

Follow Geena Davis’s Advice

In a guest column for Pret-A-Reporter, actress Geena Davis offered a couple solutions for combating sexism in movies, and her first piece of advice can also apply to novels and short stories.

She wrote:

“Go through the projects you’re already working on and change a bunch of the characters’ first names to women’s names. With one stroke you’ve created some colorful unstereotypical female characters that might turn out to be even more interesting now that they’ve had a gender switch.”

This same concept can be effectively used across other demographic lines as well. If you want to make sure you do justice to the personalities of those different from you in some visible way, start by imagining a cast of characters of your own race, nationality, religion, etc. This may make it easier to develop characters with variegated interests and quirks, characters who represent full mosaics.

If you take this approach, you may well need to make some adjustments, when you’re finished or along the way, but it will be worth the effort if you wind up with fresh characters who are faithful to the motley personalities, personal philosophies, goals, and relationship styles that exist within any so-called group.

If you’re a modern US media consumer, you’re most likely accustomed to seeing the greatest variety (of personalities, of looks, of jobs offered and undertaken) among white men. As diversity increases in Hollywood and its satellite media hubs, so does the variety we’re accustomed to witnessing within any given demographic sampling, but as things stand, this is the one sampling we’re likely to be most accustomed to seeing on the screen. And we can use that familiarity in our writing.

If you’re stuck on a certain character—getting her unique narrative voice to come through clearly, breaking through to his intensely personal motivation that runs deeper than culture—try mentally ushering in some characteristics of a figure from mainstream culture. This likely won’t give you your full end result, but it could help you start to access the individualistic possibilities within the character.

  • What if the red-haired teenage girl you’re writing had the speech style, mannerisms, and artistic/flamboyant wardrobe of David Bowie?
  • What if the black runway model you’re writing was prone to the keen pattern-finding and grandiloquent monologues of Sherlock Holmes?
  • What if the Iranian shopkeeper and father of two in your story exuded Matthew McConaughey’s beach-bum chic and lolling, laid-back convivial speech patterns?
  • What if the British Indian woman and owner of a jewelry startup caught people off-guard with her rambling, flirtatious, soupy speech stylings, reminiscent of Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow?
  • What if the Mexican teen-genius with the astonishing memory had the animal-loving innocent affability of Hagrid from Harry Potter?

This list could go on and on. And if such a shortcut is fully unnecessary for you—all the better. The main point to keep in mind is that every character you write should be more than the sum of their visible qualities and various group identifications. You will show more respect for any other culture, nationality, race, gender, etc., by acknowledging the vast variety of individuals present across the demographic spectrum than by focusing on demographic factors alone.

An experienced book editor can help you determine whether your characters are coming across as fully formed and help ensure that the finished product of your writing is as respectful and realistic as you want it to be. If you’re seeking an editor for your novel, short story, or collection, please contact me via the form on this site or by email at hannahseason@gmail.com.

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