Tweak Those Boring, Stereotypical White Dude Characters
Before you label me as some white power weirdo, give me a couple lines.
Or, if you think I’m using “white dudes” as a slur, give me a couple lines.
I see a lot of people who look like me in books, on TV, and in movies.
They look like me, but as soon as they open their mouths or take any sort of action, I see bundles of cliches packaged in white dude bodies. Characters that are tired and boring.
I’m not offended by these characters. I’m not claiming that they’ve harmed me. I don’t think my life is worse when these characters are brought into existence. I’m also not claiming that their real-life inspirations don’t exist.
To be honest, this is as much a column about twisting some boring, cliched characters of any race as it is a column about white dudes. It’s just that I see a lot of these characters in white dude bods, and I think it’s probably because so many writers have seen a white dude as a default, blank-slate human to which a wide range of traits can be applied. There’s a mistaken idea that a straight, white, male character can almost serve as a blank canvas for any number of human qualities without any pesky heritage, experience, family issues, or general humanity getting in the way. There’s no baggage in making a white dude into just about anything. And yet there seems to be a narrow field of white dudes who emerge over and over.
I want you to know that if you’ve written one of these dudes, are writing one, or will, I’m not mad at you. That’s not why I’m here today. I want to question the overwhelming presence of these characters in fiction, and if you’re writing one of them, give you some options to make the character more interesting, new, or real. You can choose to take or leave those options.
You might notice the options I give for twisting a character in this column aren’t along the lines of “Make them NOT white dudes.” This isn’t because I think you should just write more white dudes. It’s A) Because I think you can come up with that on your own, and B) Because I don't think that answer is going to serve you well. Why? Most of the reasons are outlined quite well in this column by Andrea J. Johnson (points 1, 2, 7, and 12, especially).
Oh, and I’m not talking to any particular groups of writers here. People who identify as white dudes write stereotypical white dudes all the time. Meanwhile, S.E. Hinton wrote some of the best white dudes ever. Go figure.
There are spots where I’ll use TV and movie examples because those are more universal. Books are very specific to readers, but you’ll recognize some of these big screen dudes from the books you’ve read.
I think we’re good on novels featuring a midlife crisis white dude English professor at an upper-crust-y school.
I’m sure this is an appealing character to a lot of writers as a lot of writers are living this life (or live adjacent to it). And sure, this character appeals to the readers of “literary” fiction because most of them have gone through an English class or two at a university, and the world of this character is familiar to them.
There’s a lot of us white dudes out there. Very few of us become college professors, mathematically speaking, even fewer of us work at Harvard, and although most of us do go through some type of midlife crisis, for most of us that crisis isn’t made manifest when we’re “seduced” by a 20 year-old woman who smokes American Spirits and teaches us life lessons. Most of us don’t really understand tenure tracks and don’t give a fuck.
I’m yawning just thinking about this character.
You bring a plumber into a room, and they’re going to see the room differently than someone who isn’t a plumber. You bring in a carpenter, and that carpenter sees the same room differently than the plumber. A painter sees it differently than a carpenter.
An English professor will look at the world like an English professor. Which means an English professor is a boring person to have in the world of your book, books and literature being the normal realm of English professors. An English professor’s perspective doesn’t add another dimension to a narrative, regardless of whether that perspective is from within the book or outside of it. Set up an English professor to pull his own faucet handles, now we're talking. Put him at the center of a meandering, true-to-life book, and you've given me nothing.
If your professor is a professor of ANYTHING else, math, finance, science, nursing, whatever, then they become multi-dimensional. They see the world differently, and especially see the world of constructed narrative differently.
Captain Dumb Dad
A term coined by Jesse Thorn to describe Phil Dunphy from Modern Family. This is an upper-middle-class white guy with a hot wife, idealized family, and who seems to have bumbled his way to middle-age without enough brains to pour piss out of a boot with directions written on the bottom. This character almost always comes in service of comedy.
I’ll also add into this category The Single Dad Who Has No Idea How To Raise A Daughter.
Captain Dumb Dad is a snooze. If the character progresses, we don’t really care. If he regresses, it just feels like sliding naturally to where he should be, like water settling at the lowest point. Really stupid water.
We, the reader, all become Frank Grimes, who correctly pointed out that Homer Simpson has no business having the life he does.
Add ANY consistent secondary trait other than “his heart’s in the right place.” A dumb dad who is malicious is interesting. A dumb dad who is aware he’s not all that smart is heartbreaking. Really, adding any secondary emotional dimension to this guy and seeing it through to a logical conclusion takes the character somewhere new.
CEO With A Pistol
Too many crime-y, heist-y plots end with a CEO who, as his plan collapses, grabs a gun, a briefcase full of cash, and climbs a rope ladder onto a helicopter.
People, how many times have you heard of this happening in real life? Which real-life CEO has grabbed up a gun and started spraying as dollar bills flew around him in the helicopter-whipped air?
Is Mark Zuckerberg going to grab a gun at some point? Or is it more likely that he'll just continue to ruin our lives legally via technology? Look at the Fyre Festival guy. He seems like a prime candidate to run off with a briefcase full of money. What did he do when he got busted? He posted bail and started scamming people with fake Taylor Swift meet-and-greet tickets.
I get it, we’re not in love with the billionaire CEO right now. But you can make him more interesting.
In The Office, Michael Scott is the worst person in his improv class because his characters are always reaching for a gun. Likewise, it’s tempting for authors to reach for guns via their characters. RESIST! This is a bad instinct.
Twist this cliche by having your evil billionaire reach for something besides a weapon when the chips are down. Learn the lesson of Rosebud, give your character an object to reach for that tells us something about him.
The Southern Racist Dummy
Giving a character a southern background is a bad shortcut to making that character A) Racist and/or B) Stupid. It’s a bad shortcut we see over and over.
I’m doing some Googling right now, and while I’m not going to name a bunch of racist people here for any of a thousand reasons, in places of birth for some decidedly racist folks I see New York, Boston, Minnesota, England, and even Canada. My home of Colorado has a neighborhood named after a former mayor of Denver, who was a big wheel in the KKK. In the 2013 book Dataclysm, the writer claims that Google search inquiries for the N-word were in equal measure in rural areas and big cities.
Point being, let’s not pretend like racism is anywhere near the exclusive territory of southern white dudes.
If a character being from the south doesn’t lend them anything other than their racism, if racism is the primary character trait of your southerner, then we’ve seen it. Same goes for stupidity.
Ask yourself: Am I trying to depict a southerner, or am I writing a hillbilly/redneck/person of rural upbringing? Because those aren’t the same thing. People from eastern Oregon grew up rural, but they don’t have southern accents. People from Kansas City are midwesterners. People from Nebraska ain’t southern. People from Mobile and people from Memphis might seem the same to you, but to people who actually live in those places, it’s totally different. If your character is meant to be from Arkansas, it’s a safe bet he doesn’t care for people thinking he’s a Louisiana boy, and he would be more than happy to educate you on the differences.
If you’re going to write a racist, write a racist. If you're going to write a dunderhead, write a dunderhead. But ask yourself, do they need to be southern? And if so, why? What does being from the south mean for your character other than idiocy and/or racism? What about him is distinctly southern, specific to where he’s from? I’m a lot more accepting of a half-assed depiction of a southerner in fiction if you at least tell me he’s got strong opinions on whether or not sugar has any business being in cornbread.
The Captain of the Football Team Asshole Jock
Classic Flash Thompson. Kicking sand in a nerd’s face. Stuffing a nerd in a locker. Good-looking, the right clothes, with his best girl on his arm. He’s got it all! Until the inevitable fall. Because this is fiction, and in fiction people get what they deserve.
This has to be one of the white guy tropes that has most outlasted its time. It’s still happening! They pulled this shit in the new Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark movie. It’s maddening.
My personal theory is that those of us who are artsy and end up writing fiction are a little bitter about high school. Which is fine, but for the most part, the popular kids didn’t hate you (or me). They just didn’t notice you (or me).
If you re-watch the first season of Stranger Things, you feel differently about Steve Harrington. He seems like kind of a dick when he confronts Jonathan, but look at it from his perspective: Jonathan was taking pictures of Steve and his girlfriend, when they’re about to have sex, from the bushes outside the house. Steve doesn’t physically attack Jonathan. He calls him out, mocks him, and breaks his camera. I don’t know if I feel like this is bullying so much as it’s fitting, maybe even taking it pretty easy on Jonathan.
The Steve's of the world don’t want to waste their time picking on the Jonathan's of the world. They’ll stand up for themselves, but they’d just as soon never bother with the Jonathan's at all. They don’t wake up excited to ruin a Jonathan’s day. They mostly don’t think about a Jonathan ever.
Who makes a better school-age antagonist for your character than the most popular kid in school? Or, can the most popular kid in school become an antagonist for an unexpected reason? Is he a total brainiac and constantly hounding our hero to get something done for a group project? Is he our hero’s boss at Pizza Hut? Does the antagonist have to be the person with bigger social clout? Does he have to be physically intimidating?
Even a small high school has hundreds of kids in it. We’ve seen plenty of captains of plenty of football teams. Give someone else a chance to be a jerk.
The Gamer Who Needs to Grow Up
Putting an Xbox controller into the hands of a white dude in his 30’s is narrative shortcut for, “This guy needs to stop being a slacker and start being a grownup.” Usually, this means being a better person in his romantic relationship, and oftentimes it means being a father as well. Put down the controller, pick up a baby!
Folks, the days of the controller denoting a slacker are over. MOST white dudes in their 30’s and 40’s play video games, regardless of whether they’re successful business leaders, great fathers, or stoner losers. The people who say they never touch video games are just trying to make a moral point. They’re like the English teacher I had who always proudly told classes that he kept his TV in the closet so he had to haul it out and plug it in every time he wanted to watch it. Dude, give it a rest.
I think we’ve thoroughly explored the slacker white guy who has some growing up to do. This form of bildungsroman has been done to death, and even though you get a couple laughs out of it, we're all set, thanks.
The real issue with this character is that he tends to reinforce the idea that productive members of society get 9-5 jobs, marry, and...well, produce. It’s certainly one way to live, but c’mon, we’re fiction writers. We can show people other models of living. That's one of the best things we do!
How can this character be an example for a different model of living?
What if our hero, rather than having a lack of momentum, is purposefully going back and doing things that made him happy as a young person?
What if our hero appears to be a gamer slacker, but in reality is among the hundreds (thousands?) of people making a living from gaming, a living that his parents and people around him can't identify with, respect, or really understand?
What if our hero found out he’s distantly related to Hitler, in which case not procreating and not having much impact on society would be, in its own way, heroic?
Okay, once you start bringing in Hitler, you've gone off the rails. Scratch that one.
My point is, we are in no need of another narrative that once again confirms the typical path of an adult by applying a course correction to a slacker. We are in desperate need of other paths.
The Guy Who Just Needs to Learn How to be Smooth
Prime example: Hitch starring Will Smith.
Could Will Smith teach me something about happiness? Sorry, happyness? Probably. But c’mon, this character, this average white guy who supposedly needs to learn to be less like himself and more like Will Smith when he’s middle-aged? That shit’s tired.
By the time a character is in his 40s, he’s accepted that he’s not smooth, if that’s the case. I know that I’m not smooth, and any attempt to deny that fact is just pathetic. Sure, some guys in the 40s think they're smooth. And either they're correct or they're so out of if that they would never think to hire Will Smith because, as far as they're concerned, they're smoother than the Skippy peanut butter that comes in the light blue jar.
The other red flag on this one, if you’re writing this white guy, there’s a pretty good chance you’re writing one of Spike Lee’s “Magical Negroes” too. Which, you know, we can also do without.
This character is ALWAYS used to send us the same tired message: Be yourself!
You have your entire, real life to be yourself. Don't be yourself in your fiction, too.
And what are the stakes for this character, really? So he takes some advice, applies it badly, and embarrasses himself in front of a woman. So what? That's what dating is, humiliation until it's not.
Raise the stakes, and stop this character from being himself. What would be the weirdest thing you could imagine your dad doing right now? Becoming very serious about putting out a hip-hop record and selling it HARD on Facebook? Taking a shitload of selfies and trying to become an Instagram influencer? Think about the person in your life who could be smoother, and think about what they could do that you would find shocking, maybe even a little repellent. Go there.
The Swooping-In Rapist
It happens all the time in fiction. If a woman is detained in any way, it’s just about a guarantee someone will attempt to molest her. Some guard, someone set to watch her, SOMEONE will throw a leer her way at the very least. Meanwhile, we’re all squirming in the theater, watching some shitty action movie and thinking, “No, movie, you didn’t earn a rape subplot. Not THIS movie! Just stop!”
A guy in your typical fictional narrative could be a volunteer at a cat shelter, stopping by to check on preemie kittens, and the second he walks in and discovers a woman tied up in the kitten adoption room, he’s tearing his belt off and slobbering, driven mad. If everything I knew about the world came from thriller/action plots, I would have to assume that 90% of henchmen are rapists, and the other 10% just haven’t gotten the opportunity yet.
If you want to make a bad guy out of a guard or henchman or whatever, that’s do-able, and maybe you should think of a different way to go about it. How can this captor be threatening without rape? Can the tension exist without the immediate threat of having someone’s pants torn off? It’s a little bit like the idea of reaching for the gun we talked about earlier. Don’t reach for rape as a tension-heightening tool. Come up with something else.
Surely I haven't hit them all. Have I hit yours? Who's left?
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