Thursday, February 06, 2014

Being a storyteller isn't always an easy thing, and here's one reason why...

I just happened onto the most interesting question. At least, from my point of view as a writer, I find it fascinating. Of course, it's controversial. All the best questions are.

The question is this: What country should fictional villains be from?

Perhaps it could also be asked as, What ethnic group should fictional villains be from, because the dilemma comes up in that form from time to time as well.

You know how it goes. Someone writes a book or makes a movie or an episode of a TV series, and someone gets bent out of shape because the bad guy is obviously from a specific nation or appears to be of a particular ethnic background, and someone starts shouting about stereotyping and bigotry. If the villain is specifically referred to as being from Mexico, some people get upset about that. Or the bad guy in a movie appears to be from an Arab background, other people start jumping up and down and accusing everyone involved of being both racist and prejudiced with regard to religion.

And, honestly, it isn't just nationality and ethnic groups. I've heard of cases where a fictional bad guy (person?) is a woman, and some people start complaining about sexism. Or the villain is referred to as or appears to be gay, and there are claims of homophobia.

See? This is a question that can get quite complicated. This is especially true because there is the potential for cries of "foul" no matter how you, as a writer or a filmmaker, identify your villain. Even the white guys can get mad, if you make a white male the bad guy. Talk about a no-win situation.

I wonder if there would be an outcry if the "bad guy" turned out to be a computer.

Oh,, wait. That happened. Remember "2001: A Space Odyssey"? I don't recall that anyone got that upset that HAL turned out to be homicidal, but I might just not be reading the right web sites.

I think the big problem here is that this dilemma is the Kobayashi Maru of writing/storytelling dilemmas. For those of you who are not "Star Trek" fans, Kobayashi Maru is a test of character given to Starfleet cadets. It posits what turns out to be essentially a no-win situation. Similarly, the writer cannot win in assigning a nationality or an ethnic background to their villain.

It isn't as big a dilemma for the writer. The writer can choose, if he or she wishes, to not write anything about the villain's nationality, ethnicity, or religion. Not so the filmmaker - whoever plays the villain will look like somebody, whether a specific background is intended or not.

I suppose that one can cut the knot of this question and say that this wouldn't be a problem if people would quit being so sensitive about things like this. Unfortunately, realistically, that isn't going to happen.

The realistic solution, I suppose, is to either stay away from as much identification of nationality or ethnicity as possible with regard to the villain, or else just make the villain whatever he or she must be to serve the story and just not worry about the inevitable fallout.

I know. I'm avoiding the real question, as originally stated. But that's part of the Kobayashi Maru. You can treat the issue as a no-win situation, or you can redefine the question.

I choose to redefine the question by saying that you don't have to search for a "safe" nationality for the villain. You can skirt the question, or you can just do what you're going to do with the understanding that someone might give you grief for it. Personally, I prefer telling the story without the villain having to be any specific nationality or ethnicity. But if you're writing a story in which that is integral to the plot, you can't do that. And in that case, you have to understand that there very well might be questions raised about why you made the storytelling choices you did, that you had to make your villain from such a specific background.

No, really. Does your villain really have to be black? Or white? Or Asian? Or European? Or male? Or female? Or gay? Or straight? Why?

And, honestly, if you can't take those questions, and if you don't have good answers for them, maybe you shouldn't be a writer.

1 comment:

C. L. Hanson said...

German. Fictional villains are always German. Bonus points if he's a mad scientist with a monocle.