Heroes Are Made, Not Born – Christopher Nuttall
Every so often, I come across an argument that, to borrow a line from Samuel Johnston, is ‘not worth the dignity of a rational response.’ Such arguments tend to be full of strawman arguments, pre-emptive accusations of Bad Thinking or Wrong Fun and generally are not worth the effort of countering their claims. And yet, the sheer prevalence of wrong-headed arguments demands an answer, if only to counter the strawman arguments and stereotypes that are otherwise used to taint people whose only crime is disagreeing with the elites.
One such article, in the New Statesman, had the depressing title of ‘What to do when you’re not the hero anymore.’ To summarise, the author believes there is a backlash against characters who are anything, but straight white males. That the mere prospect of a Black!Hermione Granger is enough to make fans outraged. (I haven’t heard many complaints.) That Rey is disliked by some aspects of the Star Wars fandom because she’s a woman. That forcing white men to identify with heroes who are not straight white males is regarded as an offence against the natural order.
It was depressingly easy to cut through the crap and see the flaw in the author’s arguments.
Following this logic, I must not like Will Smith. And yet, Men In Black and Men In Black III are among my favourite movies. When I watched Independence Day as a teenager, I wanted to be the jet fighter pilot; not the computer geek, or the president, or the slimy government official, or the UFO nut. And I must absolutely dislike Ben Sisko, even though he’s actually perhaps the most well-rounded captain in Star Trek. Mickey Smith wasn’t called the bravest human in Doctor Who for nothing, you know. Must I detest him?
While I’m at it, I shouldn’t enjoy reading Honour Harrington, which features a female starship captain.
But I do. Ergo, the author’s logic is flawed. And, in choosing to ascribe the worst possible motivations to the detractors, she undermines her own argument.
There are two aspects that should be considered. The first is that adapting source material is always a challenge. One has to please the fans, fans who will already have an impression of a character from the books. (And, in Hermione’s case, she was clearly depicted as white on the covers of Harry Potter 3 and 7.) JK Rowling supported the very white Emma Watson to play Hermione in the movies. It seems a little odd, to say the least, to change the character’s colour now.
Strange as it may seem, fans invest themselves in their fandoms. Fans come up with mental impressions of their characters that match what they’re told in the books – and, also, what they see in the movies. They find it hard to understand, therefore, why a character changes race and wonder, given the general tone of our PC era, if the actor was chosen for PC reasons as she doesn’t fit their mental impression of Hermione.
Let me reverse it for you. Peter Grant, the main character of the Rivers of London series (Ben Aaronovitch), is mixed-race. He’s described, several times, as a very dark man. Now, what if someone were to have him portrayed by David Tennant? It wouldn’t fit! Tennant is a great actor, but he just doesn’t look like anyone’s mental impression of Grant. Is it racist to insist on having Peter played by Will Smith or a slightly aged Noel Clarke?
Of course not. Nor is it racist to raise eyebrows at the casting of characters who don’t fit the established image. It’s merely human nature.
But there is a second point that should also be born in mind – the Mary Sue.
There are, in essence, two different Mary Sue tropes. The first is the self-insert, the story where the author goes to Hogwarts and befriends Harry (or is Harry.) The second is the character who is simply too good to be true.
Let me consider an example from Atlas Shrugged. Francisco d’Anconia is, without a doubt, a Mary Sue, Class II. Francisco is not just good, he’s super-good. Even as a child, he’s literally far more advanced and capable than Dagny, Eddie or James. Rand goes into raptures of prose describing his superhuman attributes, to the point where I wind up feeling sorry for James when he is effortlessly outclassed time and time again.
The problem with Francisco is two-fold. First, he is never seen to struggle, he is never seen to grow into a superhuman adult. Child-Francisco is just as precocious, smug and annoying as Adult-Francisco. Second, Francisco is effortlessly good at everything. He is, quite simply, too good to be true. Atlas Shrugged is not short on Mary Sue-like characters, but Francisco is far and away the worst offender.
Honour Harrington, by contrast, is not a Mary Sue. When we first meet her, she is in her early forties and taking over command of her second starship. We do not see her join the navy and rise in the ranks (at least not at that point), but there are strong reasons to ground her greatness in the real world. She does not test our suspension of disbelief to breaking point, unlike Francisco d’Anconia and his ilk, and she actually grows as a character over the series, while Francisco has literally nowhere to go. Indeed, as David Weber points out in this essay, Honour’s flaws are actually easy to discern if you bother to look.
The issue at hand is not the inclusion of characters who are not straight white males. The issue at hand is if those characters are real people or Mary Sues.
To paraphrase Robert Heinlein, don’t write [non-straight white male] characters, write characters who happen to be [non-straight white male].
If your character is good, you have to justify it. You don’t have to do much – you can tell everyone your character is a Navy SEAL, explaining his fighting skills, without having to go over his training in exhaustive detail – but you do have to do something. And your character needs to be human. They need to make mistakes, even if such mistakes are outside their competence zone (like Honour Harrington).
If your character is to be [non-straight white male], you cannot let that swallow up the plot. Nor can you afford allowing your character to become perfect, simply because they are a [non-straight white male]. One of the reasons Men In Black is such a good movie is because Agent J makes mistakes and learns from them, instead of being absolutely perfect in every way. Oscar Munroe of Pandora’s Star and its sequels is a great gay character because his homosexuality is merely mentioned in passing – it certainly isn’t a plot point.
There are two other problems that writers need to learn to avoid. The first is allowing one’s [non-straight white male] to shine at the expense of a [straight white male]. Movie-Hermione gains, at least in part, because she keeps stealing lines given (by Rowling) to Ron. I have a feeling that the proliferation of Ron The Death Eater fan fiction stories owes a great deal to Movie-Ron, who is (at best) the comic relief and (at worst) a cowardly jerk. One could quite reasonably ask why Movie-Harry is friends with Movie-Ron, when there are good reasons in the books, or why Movie-Hermione would marry him. Book-Ron is perhaps the most human of the trio; Book-Hermione is a person who has very clear and fundamental flaws. And yet Movie-Hermione is lessened by her effortless superiority over Ron (and by having her harder edges smoothed down).
The second is allowing one’s character to become insufferable, the sort of person whose presence is resented even when he’s needed. Francisco d’Anconia certainly fits into this mould, but so does Ia – the heroine of Theirs Not To Reason Why. Her skills do come with an explanation, unlike so many other characters, yet she is very much an insufferable character. She is simply unlikable.
Readers and viewers don’t want characters who look like them, I think. I don’t think there are many readers who care about such details. They want well-rounded characters, characters with their strengths and weaknesses, characters who rise above their flaws to become true heroes. Rico of Starship Troopers, Agent J of Men In Black, Princess Leia, Honour Harrington … they are true heroes, because they are human.
They’re not there because of diversity. They’re there because they’re heroes.
And ascribing the worst possible motives to fans who question a diversity character merely annoys people.