by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
We have a difficult problem in the storytelling world. Writers are told to write what they know. However, most writers that have historically broken through to bring their stories to our screens are white males. As a result, we have had an overwhelming number of stories about them and their culture. Of course, the answer to this problem is to empower more writers who do not identify as white males into the market. Does this mean, however, that writers should only create lead characters that match their own gender identity and ethnicity? Few would see that as the path toward the best storytelling environment, either.
There have been numerous examples of films where a writer has co-opted someone else’s story for great profit and in turn, made a mess of that story, because the writer did not truly understand the culture or characters from that world. That said, there are a variety of ways to approach stories from outside of what we know effectively. Research and interviews from within the culture of the story is a good starting place. Working on the story with a co-writer from within that culture or gender identity is another strong approach. And of course, if you are a writer that resonates with the ethnicity or gender identity of your protagonist, let this serve as an encouragement for how badly we need to hear your stories. While there are a wide variety of roadblocks and pitfalls, there are a number of protagonists we don’t see enough of on screen. Here are four of them.
Professional People of Color
The TV landscape has improved in the past few years with shows like ABC’s Scandal and HBO’s Insecure, but the film world has been slower to embrace people of color in professional roles as protagonists. Athletes, entertainers, and crime figures have all been archetypes that minorities regularly are cast as, but rarely do we see minorities play doctors, lawyers, and teachers. Asian and Indian actors are even more rare in these roles than their African American colleagues and, of course, men far outnumber women in these positions as well. The world is full of men and women from every ethnicity serving in professional roles. More scripts would do well to reflect this, especially with their protagonists.
Parents and Grandparents
It’s no secret that Hollywood has a fascination with youthfulness. Stories about parenthood are often only used as B-stories that complicate the protagonist’s life, making what they really want to do more difficult or humorous. Being a parent is a key part of someone’s identity. Seeing mothers and fathers in new and fresh contexts remains a rarely tapped field of opportunity. Grandparents get even less on-screen time, usually being relegated to tired stereotypes. Even when older actors are centrally featured in a story, it is often to show how they too are youthful. Exceptions do exist and are welcome changes of pace. The upcoming Victoria and Abdul looks to be a promising example from Stephen Frears, the filmmaker that has made a career of telling stories of parents and grandparents, including The Queen and Philomena.
People of Faith
An overwhelming number of people in the world claim belief in a power higher than themselves. However, religious faith is often seen as a weakness in a character or the butt of a joke. While supporting characters in Grey’s Anatomy and The Leftovers have been vocal about their faith, protagonists who believe are often harder to find. Granted, the faith community has an entire genre where every protagonist is a person of faith. However, these films are usually poorly told stories that are only meant to exist in a small bubble of evangelical Christianity. A wide array of faiths exist in the world, yet on-screen protagonists seem to reflect so few of them.
Women Whose Sexuality or Relationship Status Does Not Define Them
The conversation around the sexualization of women in film and television has been going on for decades. Progress has been made, but the discussion has become more nuanced and complex as subjective ideas about how these issues are defined and executed fill the spectrum. Sexuality is an important part of who we are. Stories that explore this should be welcome. However, the paths that lead to exploitation and debasement are many. Even when sexuality is not explicitly in focus, a woman’s relationship to a man is often what defines her in many modern stories. The progress that we have experienced in this area can be somewhat attributed to female storytellers finally getting to tell their own stories. However, male storytellers should not overlook building wholeness into characters simply because women have pushed their way into the conversation. Moving stories forward into deeper realms of beauty and truth is the responsibility of everyone.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.