Home » Writing » Advice » re: Negative tropes, avoiding them, and why “it’s just one character” isn’t acceptable anymore

re: Negative tropes, avoiding them, and why “it’s just one character” isn’t acceptable anymore

In my last post I touched on toxicity in tropes and how writers are being held more accountable for awareness of these tropes. I specifically mentioned one known as “sacrificial negro” but there’s so many out there, and most are negative toward non-white characters. 

Writingwithcolor.tumblr.com is a source I have in tabs almost constantly when my white butt sits down to write non-white characters in my stories. It’s an account run by several people of wildly differing backgrounds who provide knowledge where they can and ask for opinions from appropriate sources where they can’t. Now, it’s the internet, and an account run by people so is it the end-all-be-all for your ‘can I write this?’ questions? No (which they are very specific about). But it’s a great source for learning about prominent tropes and stereotypes in the media that you may be naive to and even unintentionally guilty of yourself, like I did. 

Some are easy to spot once you know them: Scary Black Man. Sassy Black Woman. Asian and Nerdy. The Chief’s Daughter. Spicy Latina. On and on goes the list of boxes that non-white characters have been put into for years and years. 

Now, you (and me) might look at some of these and think “sassy” doesn’t sound bad; “nerdy” just means smart so it’s a compliment. “Spicy” is just another word for sassy. And you might think it’s a compliment to make your character sassy because it’s a fun trait that you admire. You might be like me and justify ‘a lot of my characters have sass, not just the non-white ones’ or ‘I envision this character as sassy and someone else shouldn’t tell me she can’t be’. And that’s where things get a little confusing. 

Because it’s not about your list of character traits having “sassy” on it, it’s when your trait list consists primarily or exclusively of “black” and “sassy”, and that’s the short straw many black women get in media. Tara (True Blood), Mercedes (Glee), Rose (Lost), Caroline Julian (Bones) are all examples of characters that can be boiled down to black and sassy. 

“Uhm excuse me Miss White Woman PC Police,” you might be saying, “Those characters have other traits, and even white characters can be boiled down to a couple of traits.” 

And you’d be so very right! Most characters can be boiled down to a few traits, it’s a system we as consumers use almost subconsciously all the time. The difference lies in the variation of traits, and that’s why ‘just my one little character’ is still damaging and why you could still be raked over the proverbial coals for it. 

If you were to take ten random white characters from media and boil them down to a few traits, you’d likely have a range of traits still. If you take ten non-white characters (of the same race) and boil them down, you’ll likely see the same few words scattered in various combinations across the board. And therein lies the problem. It’s not really about YOUR singular potentially two-dimensional character, it’s about you contributing to that skewed trait balance in the grand scheme of things. Your one character helps keep that balance skewed and keep non-white characters in these limited boxes. 

The biggest misconception I can see in people trying to defend their trope-y characters is that they’re being told not to write a character. Writers cry out that that’s just how they picture the character, they can’t and shouldn’t be forced to write a character one way or another way, we as writers shouldn’t be told how to write our characters by non-writers even if they’re readers!!

*roaring indignant writer sounds in the background* 

Simple solution: fix the real problem. Which is: the 2D nature of your character. You want a black female character with sass? Make her realistic, give her other traits, give her interests, give her ways of conversing other than quippy one-liners… y’know, make her a PERSON. Like you as a writer are supposed to do anyway. Critics aren’t telling us to never ever write things like sass, they’re just begging for us to write actual 3-dimensional PEOPLE. And they’re pointing out that if we can do it for white characters, we can do it for non-white characters, which can trigger defensiveness in writers that we’ll talk about next time. 

Until then, Later Writors! 

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