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  • Writer's pictureKL Forslund

Casting Traps

This is a woke article about potential pitfalls in casting characters in your stories. There, that should chase away the jerks. Let’s get into a topic that’s been floating in my head for some time. What might you stumble into when filling your story with diverse people? Could those choices create sensitivity concerns? What the heck do you do about it?

The Disclaimer

You can write whatever the heck you want to. You will always offend someone. But you can take care to not be egregious about it, or at least aim your offense at bigots.

You may not be a bigot, but not see certain tropes that you absorbed over decades as having bigoted tones. It’s not fun having that pointed out later, so here we are, hoping to learn and spot them early.

 You don’t have to change your work, but you might want to think and adjust. Or not.

If you’d like someone to blame, there’s been four centuries of racism and domination by a demographic. They ruined it so what happens to gay, trans, black characters means more than moving the story along.

The Diverse Dilemma

If you’re like me, you’d like just about anybody who’s not a Nazi to read your story and find someone like them to root for. That’s a bit harder for some folks who’ve had the aforementioned four hundred years of not seeing themselves in stories. So you give your hero Captain Whitman a sidekick, the affable Bucky Blikman. And later you need to show the dangerous stakes and make our hero sad for awhile so Bucky dies.

Whoops. I was not subtle in those names. “Bucky” was a racist term for Black Men back in the day, and it should be obvious who was white or black in that example. Killing off the Black character to make the white character shine is a stereotype. Worse (and all too common) is the trope of making that death for more gruesome and on-camera than deaths of white characters.

My example was horribly contrived (sorry), and we all should have seen that coming as a bad idea. Now what if the issue is more subtle?

The Avoid List?

Let’s look at all the things we’ve learned to watch out for:

  • Token character amidst the white cast

  • Magical Negro

  • Fridging (Killing a female love interest)

  • Black Man Dies First

  • Minorities as servants

  • Gay couple dies

  • White Savior

  • Ebony & Ivory Romance is Killing Black Love

That last one is new. Having a mixed race couple is shorthand for “see, we’re not racist”, though once upon a time, it was the opposite. Nowadays, there are scarcer examples of healthy Black relationships.

The list could be longer. Which makes it even more likely that any place you put the non-white male character in your story to align with one of those negative tropes.

Some Ideas

If you squint, anything can look bad. So open your eyes. Make the characters you have more fully developed. The Magical Negro trope is a Black person who has no background and exists to help the white man. So beef that guy up. Define these characters so an actor would be excited to play them and a reader would get to know them.

Choose diversity when assigning important, leading roles. The core problem with token characters is they’re side characters meant to make the leads look good. When the leads are all white, that’s the racist pattern. Guess what happens when the leads are not mostly white?

When you kill someone off, make that character matter to the story, and to the survivors. Here’s the shocker: kill the white guy first. It’s not been overdone and you can get away with it for another four hundred years.

The Point

Someone may still point at one thing and claim it’s one of the negative tropes. But if you’ve been fair, respectful, and truly diverse in casting, then in the whole, you will not have been able to single out a minority group nor favor a dominant demographic (straight, able-bodied white folks).

I’m leaning toward a far lower ratio of white people in my stories. And I’m not the best candidate to tell stories specifically about being not-white. But, there’s plenty of room for me to learn and have those heroes do amazing things that aren’t about The Struggle. It turns out, everybody needs more of those stories, too.

Remember, diversity is about more than skin tone. Consider, gender/preference, disability, neuro-divergence as well. Writing is a chance to try on someone else’s hat and see them as a person.

Lastly, what you take from this article is up to you. If you’ve got something egregious, you can fix it. Something that MIGHT be problematic can be improved. Don’t lie awake worrying about an angry mob. Focus on making fully realized characters.

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