Why Representation in Fiction and in Life Matters

June 4, 2015

On Monday I talked about whether it matters if fictional characters are “realistic.” The gist of the argument was that realism, for me, is rooted more in whether a character is written in a consistent way than in whether the character seems like someone likely to exist in the real world. I can more or less get behind any character as long as that character’s actions, decisions, etc. feel justified in the context of the story even if that character seems kinda ridiculous.

In making that argument I looked specifically at a female protagonist, Miriam Black from Chuck Wendig‘s novel Blackbirds and its sequels, and addressed the criticism that Miriam acted and spoke in a fashion that some readers thought was unrealistic. Some felt Miriam Black and her story came across too much as “a woman written by a man,” and the experience was therefore inauthentic to them. I still say that’s a valid critique even if my experience was different.

Whether those reviewers intended it or not, that criticism made me think about what it means for people to feel represented, to see both fictional characters and real people with whom they identify on a personal level in culture. With fiction in particular, I’m talking about fully realized, well-rounded characters with strengths and flaws and agency, the ability to affect and change the world around them and drive the plot of their stories and not be dragged along by it.

Let’s be clear here. I have zero real experience with feeling un- or even under-represented. I’m a college-educated, straight, white guy in my 30s. I am part of the target audience for nearly everything. Books, movies, comics, TV shows, music and more are created by and for people with whom I share much in common. Not exclusively of course, but it’s still predominantly true. I don’t see this as anything debatable. It’s a statement of simple fact. Is there really any other reason that the Entourage movie exists?

But even as representation of different types of people in pop culture — different genders, races, religions, etc — is improving at least a little, the experience of most people is still nothing like mine. I don’t have a solution to propose here, but I do think this kind of representation is important and I want to draw on my own experience to share why I think that’s true.

There Goes My Hero

The first childhood hero I remember having was Joe Carter. He was an outfielder for the Cleveland Indians, and I still have a vague memory of receiving a photo of him in some swag bag I got as a member of the Cleveland Indians Fan Club. He was one of their best players from the mid-80s until he was traded to the San Diego Padres in 1990, and though that trade ultimately worked out well for Cleveland, it was my first introduction to what a fickle lover professional sports is. HOW DARE YOU TRADE MY FAVORITE PLAYER! DON’T YOU KNOW WHO I AM?

It’s extra painful when your favorite player goes on to do this, though I remember being happy for him at the time. Cleveland fans learn to be happy when their favorite players go on to great success elsewhere.

I honestly don’t know why I liked Joe Carter at first other than him being pretty good. Pretty good was about as much as you could hope for as an Indians fan in the 80s. I was too young to know anything about him as a person or even about whether I particularly liked how he played or some other abstract characteristic. Could be his photo showed up in that fan club stuff and my tiny brain just latched onto him like a baby bird in a nest.*

But when Mark Price became a star point guard for the Cleveland Cavaliers, my fandom became something different. It would be inaccurate to say I was a significantly bigger fan of his than other athletes I liked, but I felt differently about him than I had others. For the first time, I saw a professional athlete with whom I identified much more personally. He was the first pro athlete I looked at and thought, “I could be like him.”

Like Mark. If I Could Be like Mark. I Wanna Be, Wanna Be, like Mark.**

Turning out like this seemed much more likely than turning out like, say, Shaq.

Turning out like this seemed much more likely than turning out like, say, Shaq.

Unlike any other athlete in my consciousness before, this short white guy looked like someone I could at least theoretically grow into. Because classifying people and looking for familiarity comes so naturally to humans, my brain saw Mark Price and processed, “hey, I’m probably going to end up not very tall, and I’ve already got the white guy thing down. We’re practically twinsies!”

I didn’t reach this conclusion in any concrete, conscious way. I didn’t make a list of his attributes to see how many were like me. There was no Venn diagram. I don’t recall ever thinking about the fact that he was short and white or anything like that at all. It was simple instinct.

Why does this matter? It doesn’t. Just wanted to talk about how cool and good Mark Price was. He made SO MANY free throws! And three pointers, too!

Kidding. It does matter. It matters because a kid who loved sports and was too young to know that cheering for Cleveland teams is a terrible way to live saw a guy with whom he could identify. It was a form of encouragement just because he existed.

Gotta Represent

I did not end up much like Mark Price, but that does nothing to diminish that it was meaningful to have him to cheer for as a kid. It’s a subtle message, but a real one. I also don’t mean to suggest that athletes are “role models.” Maybe it’s a nice bonus if they turn out that way, but I think it’s dumb to expect that of them. I don’t think they owe us that.

Still, seeing people like yourself in positions of success is powerful as a kid, and it matters well beyond sports. It matters in politics, education and business. And it matters in storytelling, too. It’s not about a kid reading Harry Potter and believing he could literally grow up to become a powerful wizard but about the experience of imagining yourself as that character. Not only is it more fun that way, but it also encourages you to think differently about what’s possible in your world.

Every kid should have their Mark Price or Harry Potter (or Katniss Everdeen or Nick Fury or whatever).*** Those kids aren’t  going to grow up to be a wizard or to overthrow an oppressive government or lead a team of superheroes, but they might begin to think about what it means to face challenges and overcome them. Or to learn what it is to value your friends and fight for something bigger than yourself. Or maybe they’ll want to tell their own stories someday, as I did when I read books, watched movies and played video games.

It’s worthwhile for storytellers to understand that how they render their characters has an effect on the audience. It shapes not only how they enjoy the story but how they think about the world around them. This is not an argument for pandering to an audience. Write the characters and stories that you want as long as you’re also prepared for how people will react to them. That’s part of the freedom and challenge of being a creator.

For me? I think part of being a good writer is getting better at creating characters with whom I share little in common. I may not always get it right, but there’s value in the effort.

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*I do know this. Cory Snyder was another Indians outfielder at the time, and I was never much of a fan of his for partly unfair reasons. My only memories of him were that he seemed to strike out in every clutch situation. Maybe I only liked Joe Carter better for the completely justifiable reason of “not being Cory Snyder.”

**Remember this commercial? Just swap in “Mark,” and it’s way better for a Cavs fan.

***These characters are just examples. You may or may not think they’re good ones.

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