Tuesday, September 19, 2017
Storyteller’s Rulebook: Unfortunately, You Have to Motivate the Racism
But it’s definitely not a flaw you would admit to in a job interview, which are the types of flaws I usually recommend. It’s not a flaw we would ever want to identify with in the first half of your story.
If your character is racist, it’s important not to overdo it. In one book, the racist hero met a kindergarten class of kids from the other race and treated them as if they were subhuman. That’s not how racism works. Even the worst racist is swayed by an adorable kid from the other race.
If your hero is going to be a believable racist, they should probably think of themselves as anti-racist, as most racists do. Let them hang themselves when they try to explain that they’re not racist.
Here’s the biggest problem with having a racist hero (or a racist anti-hero): If we’re going to empathize with and believe in the reality of this hero, then you have to show some reason for the racism, even as you totally condemn the flaw. The racist has to have a point, albeit a warped and wrong-headed one.
One of my classmates was writing a show about anti-immigrant militiamen on the San Diego-Tijuana border. Her anti-heroes were just flat-out racists with no legitimate arguments on their side. The writer knew the show wasn’t working. I suggested that she move the show to the El Paso-Juarez border, with much more extreme violence and drugs on the other side. That way, her heroes would have a more rational reason to fear what might come in over the border. But then, once she had established that that they might have a point, she could and should indict them as racists using their semi-legitimate fears as an excuse to condemn a whole race.
Racists often have reasons. Maybe they or someone they know was mugged by a member of the other race. Maybe their job guarantees that they only ever see the other race at their worst. As a writer, you can’t be afraid to show those reasons, and then condemn the lazy thinking that caused the character to wrongly generalize to blanket racism.
This relates back to this post. As a person, you can just look at another person and say “That person is racist for no reason,” but as a writer, you can’t say that. You have to say “That person is racist for a bad reason,” and you have to know and show the bad reason.