It has been a little more than 18 years since my husband proposed to me in perhaps the least romantic way possible. But that’s not the story.

We are gamers and science fiction fans, which, as anyone who knows that segment of the population will attest, tend to be WOKE. And most of our friends were indeed Woke (the few exceptions were ex-Marines) and young. This means chaotic lifestyles, lots of partner switching, lots of atypical pairings – or triadings, if that’s a word. I knew three different MMF relationships, and there were always sleeping-around dramas going on somewhere.

In other words, our crowd were not the most maritally stable of people.

My now-husband and I had been a couple for about six years at the point he joined the military, and neither of us had partaken in the drama. Yet, when he went off to boot camp, I knew that would either be the end of our relationship or I’d be getting a marriage proposal. And so I told our friend Shawn.

“It won’t be a proposal,” he said. Shawn was never one to soften a blow.

“Why do you say that?”

“Because you’re gamers. Gamers just don’t do that.”

I dropped the subject, and a few weeks later went to my now-husband’s boot camp graduation. As soon as we were alone together, he popped the question, and I elatedly accepted. The next day, I called Shawn (among other people) and told him.

“Well, I’ll be damned.” He chuckled. “I’m happy for you. But I guess I have to build another box.”

“Box?”

“Yeah, Clark doesn’t fit in my old box anymore.”

And therein is the crux. Boxes? Who puts people in boxes?

Well, racists do, because they think all black people are alike in certain ways. And sexists. And homophobes. Lots of people, and it’s never a good thing. It leads to individuals being treated unfairly because they have been forced into a box that does not fit them.

In today’s woke society, progressives, however, are the worst transgressors. “Basket of deplorables.” “Toxic masculinity.” “Fascists.” (Seriously, have they ever looked up what that word means?) “Teabagger.” These are boxes they put other people in, and once you’re in the box, it takes something pretty amazing to get you out of the box.

Those of us on the right side of things are not innocent of this: libtards, snowflakes, pajama boys, soy boys. In our defense, we did not start this (looking at you, Hillary.)

Regardless, it’s lazy and it’s evil. It reduces human beings to items that need to be categorized – something that communism and identity politics excel at, but that we classical liberals and conservatives should never do. It erases the individual and replaces him with a cardboard figure.

This is bad enough in general culture. But lately, it has infected mainstream entertainment industries. Need a bad guy? Make him a redneck deplorable. Want a woman to be a victim? She was in a relationship with a toxic male. No effort is ever made to explore why this sort of bad guy is bad (as opposed to, say, Darth Vader, who does not sin by believing the wrong political things.) Instead, they are cardboard stock characters.

This leads to terrible writing, even for bestselling writers like Stephen King.

And this is one place where we can do better. As writers, editors, and consumers of fiction, we should never accept “boxed” characters, any more than we should categorize people in boxes. We should, rather, always examine why a person is who they are. Perhaps she changed when she went to Bryn Mawr, or he became woke when his black friend’s life was ruined when he was put in jail for possessing a small amount of marijuana. Perhaps it’s the only political view she was ever exposed to, having grown up in middle-class Connecticut.

No matter the reason, the writer should know it. And the writer should read through his work, searching out instances when important characters have been pulled out of boxes, or unimportant characters have been lazily extracted from stock boxes. Just as every human being is an individual, every character should be individualized.

 

A Caveat

This does not mean you need to exhaustively individualize every single character in order to avoid boxes. In Janet Burroway’s classic work “Writing Fiction” (second edition), she cites a passage in Virginia Woolf’s  that shows how to create unimportant characters without stereotyping them.

“The crush was terrific for the time of day. Lords, Ascot, Hurlingham, what was it? she wondered, for the street was blocked. The British middle classes sitting sideways on the tops of omnibuses with parcels and umbrellas, yes, even furs on a day like this, were, she thought, more ridiculous, more unlike anything there has ever been than one could conceive; and the Queen herself held up; the Queen herself unable to pass. Clarissa was suspended on one side of Brook Street; Sir John Buckhurst, the old Judge on the other, with the car between them (Sir John had laid down the law for years and liked a well-dressed woman) when the chauffeur, leaning ever so slightly, said or showed something to the policeman, who saluted and raised his arm and jerked his head and moved the omnibus to the side and the car passed through.”

The whole range of British class and class consciousness is conveyed in this brief passage through the use of significant detail. Clarissa’s wry attitude toward the British middle classes is given credence by the fussiness of “parcels ands umbrellas” and the pretension of “furs on a day like this.” The judge’s aristocratic hauteur is carried in the clichés he would use, “laid down the law” and “liked a well-dressed woman. ” That the Queen’s chauffeur is described as leaning “ever so slightly” shows his consciousness of his own position’s superiority to that of the policeman, who “saluted” him but then exercises his own brand of authority as he “jerked his head” to order the traffic about. Only the Queen is characterized by no detail of object or action, and that she is not emphasizes her royal remoteness: “the Queen herself . . . the Queen herself.

Do you see what Woolf did? It was in what she did NOT say about these background characters that was important – little to no physical description, no dialog, the tiniest bit of action and interaction. This is how to do it.

By the way, I highly recommend Burroway’s book for any writer. It’s in its tenth edition now, and just as good as it ever was.

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Photo by ActuaLitté