William Mason Jones was kind enough to stop by the DWASF writing workshop to deliver a workshop on Whitewashing in Hollywood. Enjoy!
@DWASF Afrofuturism writing workshop–Whitewashing in Hollywood with William Mason Jones Jr.
Posted by K. Ceres Wright on Saturday, October 22, 2016
Having trouble coming up with characters, or even plots, for your next book? Try an archetype. What is an archetype, you ask? It’s a pattern or model of an idea or image, or a recurring symbol in literature or art. In literature, for example, there is the hero/heroine, trickster, or mentor. But in this media-laden existence that is American pop culture, it may be easier to categorize your favorite book, TV, movie, or comic book characters. Oh, and don’t forget real persons. Remember reality? Start a book by picking a few of these archetypes, discover their motivations (plot driver) and add the details along the way.
Brilliant Doctor/Lawyer with Flaws:
Dr. Susan Calvin of Isaac Asimov’s Robot Series books is a gifted robot psychologist who is physically plain and socially challenged. She feels more comfortable among robots than people and has a tendency to isolate herself in her lab, yet susses out the most baffling cases of robot behavior.
Dr. Gregory House of the TV show, House, experiences constant leg pain for which he overdoses on Vicodine. He continually manipulates his employees and friends to prove his worldviews while solving medical mysteries.
Attorney Keegan Deane of the TV show, Rake, is a criminal defense lawyer that expertly handles the most challenging cases while battling his own sex and gambling addictions.
Not Too Smart, but Instinctual
Cat of the TV show, Red Dwarf, is a humanoid evolved from a cat over the course of 3 million years. He is superficial, interested mainly in his hair and clothing, but can smell danger from miles away.
Leela of the TV show, Dr. Who, is a “primitive” warrior descended from a planetary survey team from Earth who becomes the Doctor’s companion. She wears animal skins and carries weapons, and has a highly evolved sense of danger.
Melody Valentine of the comic book/TV show/movie, Josie and the Pussycats, is portrayed as the “ditsy blonde,” but has a sharp instinct for figuring out people and their real agendas.
Collector of Broken People/Things
Olivia Pope of the TV show, Scandal, employs a team of “gladiators,” all of whom she rescued from dire circumstances and who help her to “fix” the mistakes their clients make. It takes a while for her to realize how broken she is, as well.
Michael Stone of the TV show, Hustle (UK), leads a team of con men, or grifters, who seek to steal money from the arrogant and dishonest. They hold to the honor code of not cheating the honest, but have no qualms about stiffing their favorite bar owner.
The Island of Misfit Toys proves that the collector doesn’t have to be a person. In the TV movie, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, all the unwanted toys are gathered on the Island until the King can find a home for them. When Santa comes to rescue them, they realize that one doesn’t have to be “normal” to be accepted.
Ichabod Crane of the TV show, Sleepy Hollow, has been sleeping for more than 200 years and awakens in modern-day New York. He must use his knowledge of the past to help defeat an enemy who threatens the future.
John Blackthorne of the book, Shogun, is an English pilot who lands in feudal Japan (1600s). Japan’s customs are alien to him, and he must use his wits to learn Japanese language, customs, and etiquette without getting himself and his men killed.
Marty McFly of the movie, Back to the Future, is accidentally sent back in time to the 1950s, meets his future parents, but becomes the focus of his mother’s romantic interest. He must manipulate circumstances to get his parents to fall in love and make it back to the 80s.
Storm of the comic book/movie, X-Men, served as a team member for years before being promoted to team leader after Cyclops left when Jean Grey died. Storm is hesitant about assuming leadership, but soon proves herself many times over as a capable leader.
Aragorn of the book/movie, The Lord of the Rings (trilogy), is heir to the kingdom of Arnor/Gondor and whose identity is hidden after his father was killed by orcs. After he comes of age, he purposefully does not seek to assume the title of king, as it would divide the land, which needs to unite in order to defeat Sauron.
Albert Windsor of England becomes King George VI after his brother, Edward, abdicates in order to marry a divorcee, Wallis Simpson. King George sobs at the prospect of becoming king, but manages to increase the popularity of the monarchy during troubled times.
Do you see a pattern or common threads among the characters within the above categories? You can begin with simplified personality traits, or your own archetypes, as you write, and then flesh them out once you discover their own hidden agendas, motivations, quirks, and flaws. Use their inner desires to drive the plot, and antagonists’ counter-desires to provide roadblocks. Before you know it, you’ll be hurtling toward finishing your book…and wondering what other capers these characters can get up to.
Change is the nature of our society. Nothing stays the same. New combinations of things under the sun are broken down and reformed every day, only to be remade the next day.
In genre fiction, more stories featuring diverse characters and cultural elements are finding their way into the mainstream. Old and worn are the traditional European-based sword and sorcery tales. Diverse readers crave to see characters that reflect their appearance, mores, and culture.
As far as fantasy is concerned, change is coming in YA fantasy, because I think younger people are more willing to entertain change. They’re growing up in a more diverse culture and open to seeing that diversity reflected in their media.
A major problem is that years ago, children were not usually taught history from the person of color’s point of view. I was grown before I knew about Alessandro de’Medici, the Duke of Florence; Saint Maurice of Switzerland; or Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. By the time yesteryear’s kids grew up, they believed they knew exactly what shaped Western culture, and when they found out that yes, Blacks and Asians and women and others besides white males also played prominent roles in history, it upset their world view. And people are loathe to change. They don’t like it.
I think that diverse books will allow readers with different abilities, backgrounds, and cultures, to see themselves reflected in the books they read. And diverse authors may encourage readers to aspire to become writers of diverse books themselves. I know some writers may be hesitant to write about other cultures for fear of offending someone, but if they intend to become serious writers, they will have to learn how to research other cultures and incorporate that knowledge, in some way, into their writing. For example, don’t assume that the same standards of beauty cut across all cultures. I have a cousin who’s 6’3” and model thin, and felt she was discriminated against in the Bahamas because she was not overweight. I watched a documentary of an African man who wanted his wife to weigh 200 pounds for their wedding, so she sat in a hut and drank goat’s milk for weeks.
The incorporation of research makes for richer prose. If you’re worried about offending someone of a particular group, get on the Internet and ask someone to read some of your work and offer advice. Read the works of other writers of color, or women, or those who are differently abled to get a sense of what works and what doesn’t. Also, read Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward.
I know it’s all about money in the world of publishing. But a recent Pew study showed that the most likely reader was a college-educated Black woman. I think there needs to be a paradigm shift across the industry, from the CEO, to the acquisitions editor, to the copy editor, to the book store owner. New audiences may require new marketing methods, but as I said before, change is the nature of our society.
One way to help bring about positive change surrounding diversity in fantasy is for editors of anthologies and magazines to solicit stories from diverse authors to let readers know about the existence of writers from different cultures and backgrounds. I think the traditional publishers aren’t taking risks as they would during flush economic times, so people looking for something different are starting to turn to small, independent, and self-publishers.
And if you want some recommendations, try Abengoni: First Calling, by Charles Saunders, who has been writing diverse fantasy since the seventies. There’s also The Constant Tower by Carole McDonnell, Changa’s Safari by Milton Davis, Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective by Valjeanne Jeffers, Taurus Moon: Magic and Mayhem by D. K. Gaston, Ghosts of Koa by Colby R. Rice, Sacrifices by Alan D. Jones, the Scythe by Balogun Ojetade, Sineaters by Kai Leakes, the Seedbearing Prince by Davaun Sanders, and The Brothers Jetstream: Leviathan by Zig Zag Claybourne.
Publishers need encouragement to develop and distribute diverse books. If you find a diverse book you like, call or write the publisher and let them know you appreciate their efforts, and tell them you’ll purchase more books like that.
And even though more diverse characters and cultural aspects may populate speculative fiction books, the important elements of keeping the reader engaged and delivering on expectations will remain constant. As Barbara Deming once said, “The longer we listen to one another—with real attention—the more commonality we will find in all our lives.”