June Butler looks back at Lucy V. Hay’s 2018 book which gave writers the tools to create three dimensional, authentic characters… Who just happen to be diverse.
Every now and then, an author writes on a topic that is so relevant and perfectly timed, it begs the question as to why this was not considered before. In 2018, Lucy V. Hay truly hit the nail on the head with her book titled Writing Diverse Characters for Fiction, TV or Film and explored the subject thoroughly.
There are diverse chapters in the book but they all gravitate towards a common goal, which is to shake the writer out of their torpor, banish stumbling blocks, and encourage active character creation that captures the imagination. Hay does not shy away from subject matter that might have been interrogated before – topics such as ‘tropes’ and ‘clichés’ – knowing the difference between the two and understanding instances of where they might be used to best effect, is a comparison that Hay is well able to make. Hay insists that ‘tropes are tools’ and instead of being viewed as pejorative, they should be seen as a type of shorthand aimed at assisting with character introduction to audiences – Hay goes on to cite The Simpsons as an example of much-used character tropes; Mayor Quimby, an opportunistic and corrupt politician; Otto as a pot-smoking eternal hippy; Chief Wiggam, a gun-toting hapless law-keeper. There are very few characters in the Simpsons that do not feature easily recognisable trope-like references.
Hay then introduces the topic of Alison Bechdel who came up with a test when introducing key female characters in scripts and screenplays – in her 1985 comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, Bechdel insisted that there should be two key female roles in each work of fiction who talk to each other without mentioning either a man or a boy. In some cases, Bechdel inserts the stipulation that the women be named. Bechdel credits the origin of this test to a friend, Liz Wallace, and to the writings of Virginia Woolf. In her 1929 essay, A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf made the point;
All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple [….] without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that…
Bechdel’s test is used to highlight how women exist within stories and it is also used to indicate gender inequality in fictional narrative. In 2011, Sweden went one step further by applying a Bechdel rating to all films released in the country for that year.
Hay says it best when discussing historical narratives and indeed, the advice could also be applied to more contemporary settings; “There are diverse, untold stories all throughout history ripe for the picking to inspire you. Discount nothing”.
Writing Diverse Characters for Fiction is essential reading for anyone who wants to create inspiring drama with characters that feel true to the story they are telling – characters that develop and grow as the narrative progresses. Lucy V Hay’s book will assist writers find their way through a sometimes bewildering maze of directives from other authors – readers will find invaluable advice on its pages.