You Are The Hero

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion of the importance of having diverse characters in fiction, so that everyone has someone to identify with. It is possible, nay, easy, to make this discussion sound really, really stupid.

“I can identify with an immortal, magic-wielding elf in an entirely fictional world, but only if it shares my skin colour and genital configuration!”

Of course, the discussion is not stupid, and the fact that it can made to sound stupid really easily suggests that something important is being missed. In particular, it is not important that characters in fiction are “like you”, in general. What matters, I suggest, is that the characters share features that are central to your sense of your own identity. People have trouble identifying with a character who is not something that they take to be fundamental to their sense of self.

I’ll use myself as an example. When reading the Lord of the Rings, I do not identify with either Boromir or Aragorn, despite the fact that they are the only human beings in the Fellowship. This is because “human” is not a fundamental part of my sense of self; apart from anything else, I am never required to define myself against others who are not human. This seems to be quite general, in that there has been no call for a purge of non-human characters from genre fiction. There is, essentially, no-one who finds a lack of humanity to be an obstacle to identification.

On the other hand, when reading Harry Potter, I do not identify with Harry; I identify with Hermione. Hermione is, essentially, me. There is a scene in the first film, in the potions class, where she is exactly me. Yes, I am male, and not remotely as pretty as Emma Watson (although I can probably stand up to book-Hermione), but neither of those features is particularly important to my sense of identity. I am perfectly happy with being a man (I’m definitely cis), but I have no problem imagining being female. This is not true of all men, however, and it would appear that a lot of women cannot easily imagine themselves being male.

That is not to say that I can identify with anyone. I can’t identify with characters who solve problems through physical force rather than mental power. I identify with Gandalf and Hermione, I play elves but can’t imagine playing dwarves or half-orcs, and I was the Line Editor for Ars Magica, a game that sidelines physical force, for 14 years. The primacy of the mental is a central part of my self-conception, so give me a choice between a straight, white, male barbarian and a queer, black, female sorceress, and I’ll identify with the sorceress. She’s the character who is like me in the only sense that really matters to me.

If we rephrase the initial idea with this in mind, it does not sound stupid at all.

“I can identify with any character, as long as they share the features I regard as essential to my identity!”

This, incidentally, is why nobody gets annoyed about the absence of redheads in all the Star Wars films, as far as I can recall. It is not something that people tend to regard as central to their identity (and if they do, it isn’t something they mention). It’s also why “black Hermione” is a bigger issue than “blue-eyed Harry”; race is often regarded as central to someone’s identity, eye colour almost never.

This might lead us to ask why race, gender, and sexuality are so important to so many people, but only if we have been completely failing to pay any attention to modern Western (particularly US) society. However, they are not the only important features, as I noted in my case, and they are not always important. For example, take a look at Japanese anime. Look at Studio Ghibli films, and note the lack of any consistent differentiation between characters who are supposed to be Japanese, and characters who are supposed to be Western. The “Rose of Versailles”, a classic anime from 40 or so years ago that is currently being rebroadcast, has no Japanese characters at all, because it is set in 18th century France (and the main character is a woman who presents as male). “The Mysterious Cities of Gold”, another thirty-year-old anime, has European characters for the European audience, because it was a co-production, but no Japanese characters for the Japanese audience. As far as anime goes, it looks as though racial difference is no barrier at all to identification for most Japanese people.

When it comes to other important features, I suspect that my preference for intellectual characters is rather idiosyncratic, but there is another big category that is often central to people’s self-conception.

Religion.

For a lot of people, their religion is central to their view of themselves and the world, and they cannot imagine themselves as having another religion, or even imagine a world where their religion, or an analogue, is not true. Again, I speak from personal experience here; back in my teens I had a problem with anything I couldn’t read as Christian or a Christian analogue. I’ve also seen it from the other side; there are people who have a deep problem with the fact that paganism is, in an important sense, fundamentally wrong in Ars Magica (but the Mythic Europe analogue of Christianity, called “Christianity”, is right). These people cannot get into something that violates their worldview.

This is not, I think, any kind of bigotry or narrow-mindedness, any more than women’s problems in sympathising with male characters, or my problems in sympathising with physical characters. It’s not even necessarily impossible for those people to play games without an analogue for their religion; it is just more effort. In fact, I still face a similar situation, in that I find it very difficult to get into worlds where, by design, the actions of my character cannot significantly improve the world. (Horror games, or anything with Cthulhu in it, basically.) I generally play them differently, or make changes. This is more fundamental than a simple preference. I can’t easily see myself in such a world. The idea that I can do something to make the world a better place is, it would seem, a fundamental part of my self-conception. (There is evidence that unjustified optimism makes people more successful, which is good, because I need all the help I can get.)

It seems obvious that we do not want to write games that some people cannot imagine playing, but there is also an obvious problem here. An individual story cannot have a main character that everyone can identify with. Even if we stick to the “standard” categories (male/female, asian/black/hispanic/native american/white, straight/gay/bi, cis/trans), there are 60 possible combinations. You really can’t have more than half-a-dozen central characters in one story, and even in RPGs, where you can have larger casts of NPCs, 60 is going to be more than you have in almost any book, and many entire game lines. And that only gives you one of each, of whom a fair number need to be antagonists, which means that a lot of people are only going to be offered villains to identify with. Even the ones who get a hero only get a single token character. If we add “intellectual/physical/social” as another axis, we need 180 characters, which may be beyond the realistic limits of any roleplaying game, especially as they all need to be central.

The problem is even worse for religions and world views, because it goes beyond issues of practicality. It is simply not possible to write a game of nihilistic horror that provides characters I can identify with. It is not possible to write a world in which Christianity has no true analogue and make it accessible to Christians for whom Christianity is central. On the other hand, if Christianity has a true analogue, then many forms of paganism do not, and some people strongly identify with those. Further, a game that conservative Muslims will find accessible and inclusive must not include positive portrayals of queer characters.

The idea that you can write an “inclusive” game, one that does not exclude anyone, is an illusion. It is not logically possible, and in purely practical terms it is difficult to even get close. When you design your world, or write your novel, you have to choose an audience. A conservative Muslim audience will want something very different from Seattle liberals. You could also choose yourself as the audience, and from a purely creative point of view, that choice has a lot going for it. People outside your audience might not like the game. They might find that the game excludes them. They might even complain about it. Conservative US Christians have a long tradition of complaining about games that did not adopt a Christian worldview. They claimed that they led to devil worship, and tried to get them banned.

This is something that creators should recognise, and actively oppose. If a particular game excludes you, find one that doesn’t. Write your own, if necessary. (This is entirely practical for RPGs, unlike Hollywood movies.) The hobby as a whole should have games for everyone, so it is a problem if no games include women, people of colour, or queer characters. However, no individual game needs to do so. Someone may take the commercial decision to try to appeal to as many people as possible, and offend as few people as possible, but that approach has rarely been consistent with the creation of art worth the effort. (Also, I would note that the so-called SJWs are not doing that; they are creating games in full knowledge that they offend and alienate substantial groups of people, and doing so because they have an artistic and ethical vision that demands it. That approach has a track record of producing great art.)

Once again, this comes down to the need for more diversity among the creators of RPGs, novels, and films. That will naturally lead to diverse games, books, and movies, even though individual works might draw from a limited palette. I really should write something about how I think we can go about increasing that diversity.