Here’s a question for everyone who writes, illustrates, and is in any way involved in the shaping of a child’s perspective: do you feel responsible for creating characters that dispel misconceptions and stereotypes? More and more, my answer is yes.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how societies treat women-specifically, how they mistreat women. There’s been so much sadness in the news lately and I’ve had trouble getting it off my mind. From the kidnapped Nigerian school girls to the millions of girls that are wed before their eighteenth birthdays. Domestic violence is the number one cause of injury to women in the United States. Maybe you knew that, but I was shocked by that statistic. Every nine seconds, a woman in the United States is assaulted and three women a day are murdered by their boyfriends or husbands. (Don’t even get me started on the sad penalty for Ray Rice’s recent activity.)
Just how do these statistics relate to writing or illustrating? The answer for me is: reality. I want to my characters to be honest and real- to be complex memorable, and diverse. We owe it to our readers to write and illustrate diverse and complex characters.
I have two daughters and a son and I desperately want for them to grow up in a world where they are respected and treated equitably- a world where they observe others being treated fairly-justly.
Now that my children are home from school for the summer, we have more time for movies and television. I am a person who really doesn’t watch television and rarely makes it to the movies. Now, I wonder if I’ve missed anything worth watching. The depiction of women in the movies is disappointing . I really don’t want my children absorbing these messages. More often than not, the women are promiscuous, stupid, mean, or strangely speechless. I am becoming that annoying mom who interrupts the movie to discuss stereotypes with my children and they (of course) find the intrusion irritating.
I know that this type of misrepresentation affects many segments of society and I wonder, what is our responsibility as writers to address these issues? Can and should we be part of a positive change? I’m big on equality and honesty for all. I’m not trying to censor anything. I’m totally against censoring literature. I just want to add a more realistic depiction of women. Real women. I have this overwhelming sense of responsibility to provide young readers relatable and positive female role models.
But, how do we create strong characters? While I have been thinking specifically of women- so many groups could stand to be represented more honestly in literature and the media.
How can writers and illustrators bring this depth of character into their work? I think that in order to be relatable, all characters need an interior life and complex relationships. To create characters that lack these two components is to provide only a superficial skeleton of a character.
Here are some things to keep in mind in order to create stronger characters:
- Don’t judge the characters. Instead, try to find out who they are and depict them truthfully with words and/or pictures.
- The interaction between characters creates another level of character traits that are often more telling than dialog or the lack there of.
- Less is more sometimes. I don’t want to eat any food that has more than five ingredients, that has ingredients I can’t pronounce, or that will stay fresh indefinitely. Writing is the same- Give readers a fresh perspective and avoid the same old junk food stereotypes that we are saturated with already.
- Keep character flaws fresh, believable, and interesting.
- Make your characters strong, but vulnerable- possibly in an unexpected way.
- Give readers something they don’t expect.
- Show your character’s motivation, goals, ability, personality, intelligence, and fears. Give them depth. Have them make a stand. Neutrality in conflict is oppression or submission. Neither are acceptable.
- Don’t make disenfranchised characters the wallflower, the wingman, or the doormat- unless you are doing so intentionally and with purpose. Nothing and no one is plain or simple.
- Give your characters choices and show their opinions.
- Remember that words and images are powerful. Our work needs to be crafted to portray our characters in the light that we choose. Each word and illustration must be used meaningfully.
With nothing more than our imagination, we create whole worlds. I want them to be worlds filled with strong and diverse characters.
Here’s to strong women-
May we know them-
May we be them-
May we raise them-
Happy writing and illustrating.