The Detective with a Funny Hat

There’s a trope, a meme almost, found among editors and publishers. A writer has a story featuring a brand-new detective, in a mystery that he claims is unlike anything ever written. He sits down in front of his fellow writers and relates the plot of what is otherwise a standard, cliché-ridden mystery story. Finally, the editor cuts him off.

“What’s different about this story?”

Everything,” he says, breathlessly.

“Are you sure? You have a family locked in a mansion for the weekend. They can’t go anywhere. The crime is a murder by poison a third of the way through, and everyone hates the victim. The red herring claims he didn’t do it but wished he had, and he becomes a red herring halfway through, right on schedule. And the real killer was actually ‘helping’ the detective solve the crime. That doesn’t necessarily make it a bad story, mind you, but what’s different about it?”

“What, are you blind? The detective is wearing a funny hat.”

This has become shorthand in some writing circles for character traits that are just pasted on like they were cut out of construction paper and glued to the guy at the last moment. These traits don’t actually affect anything in the story, but the author, and some readers, are convinced that everything is all that much more different because of the funny hat. Or suspenders. Or whatever is added in an attempt to make the protagonist stand out from the crowd.

This shows up in fantasy fiction as well. You can almost see the gears turning in the author’s mind…

I’m tired of reading about farmboy protagonists who save the world. My character is a farmgirl.

There are too many stories about magic swords. Mine is about a magic morningstar.

Elves are always magical. I’m going to make the Dwarfs magical instead.

All of these could of course make an entertaining story, but only if the story is driven by these traits. If your character is an ambidextrous transexual Finnish stamp collector with a propensity for eating Fluffernutter sandwiches whilst riding a neon-plaid Vespa, that’s fine… but only if the ambidextrousness or transexualness or stamp collecting or other traits somehow affect his character and/ or the story. Otherwise, you’ve done nothing but take a stock character, make a beard out of cotton balls and construction paper, strung it on his face, and called him a brand-new creation. This is great for a grade-school play, but not so much for professional writing. Rather than make your story stand out, it showcases lazy character development and plotting.

Why am I bringing this up? Besides having it brought to my attention in a post by Lisa Richardson at Way Too Fantasy, this idea of using superficial changes to substitute for characterization has been on my mind ever since I first started fleshing out my stories and reading books as a writer and not only a reader. In today’s world of inclusiveness and diversity, it is easy to decide you need to flip a coin and randomly make one of your characters white, or Chinese-American, or gay, or black, or on the Autism Spectrum, or anything else that you feel will make your story appeal to a wide audience. This is even worse than giving your protagonist a weird hat. This is nothing more than pandering to a perceived notion that, say, readers of a certain group will more readily read something featuring a protagonist like them, without bothering to see if your character truly conforms to that particular group. It’s easy to take a sheet of stereotypes, cut out a mask in such a way that it doesn’t look stereotypical at first, and paste it on a character that is exactly like you or your friends.

As brought up in an excellent post on the Karavansara blog, there is a lot of diversity in the world already, if you look past the surface. The idea of a lily-white medieval Europe is either the product of a racist and/ or social Darwinist mind, or is something written by a politically correct diversity crusader who is convinced that Europe = White = Evil. But from the Caliphate in Spain to the Greek and Eastern Mediterranean colonies in southern Italy to the Asiatic and Turkic tribes in Hungary and Ukraine and the Baltic countries, Europe was anything but homogenous. Hell, Germany alone was made up of about seventeen thousand different kingdoms, each with its own culture and legends and folklore.

There are many ways to make your world diverse. Start by having at least the setting conform to the real world, and not just a surface impression of it. At some level, every character is a minority of one. Find out what drives that minority and you’ll have the seeds of a great story.

3 thoughts on “The Detective with a Funny Hat”

  1. Hmmm, I sort of disagree that you have to have your world conform to the real one. Maybe in terms of how far people could travel in a day, how populations moved, etc. but not as far as *what* those populations are (unless you’re writing something more historical or really based off of Earth). Because for fantasy, you could write an entire world where the only humans present are black, or white, or Asian…. (Or for sci-fi, what if the Chinese perfected space travel and went and colonized another world?)

    I totally agree that you shouldn’t just tack on traits to tack them on for the sake of making something ‘different’. However, what is the standard ‘stock character’ then? Is that character white, or black, or what? What do you *start with* that you then tack on things to? It just seems to me, that in many cases, the default character is white. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that if the author is white and they’re writing what they know. But, then, going by this theory, the character’s ‘whiteness’ (or ethnicity—because there *are* different white ethnicities, something that tends to be ignored in most talks about diversity) must contribute to the story, otherwise you could have just made them black. Does that make sense?

    And if that isn’t what you meant by ‘stock character’ then I apologize for my presumptions, but that’s kind of what I read into it. 🙂

  2. You’re right… I should have said “Let your story reflect the diversity in the real world,” not conform to it.

    A lot of other commenters are saying that the ‘default’ character, at least for English fiction, is white. I would go a step further and say that they have the cultural traits from their own culture (since there is, indeed, no ‘white’ culture). I love Clive Barker’s stories, and he was an influence on me, but his American characters, particularly in The Great and Secret Show” are Brits with funny accents. It’s an easy trap to fall in… take a character that you’ve modelled after your neighbor in West Maintown, U.S.A., give him a Middle-East-sounding name, and declare that your story is diverse. Unlike the typical “funny hat” characterization, this type of forced diversity can be borderline offensive, and not only to the people who belong to the group in question.

    The world is an amazing, diverse place, and if you truly research your characters, you’ll be able to find cultural, religious, and ethnic differences aplenty to broaden your story’s horizons. Witness the amazing culture differences in The Malazan Book of the Fallen. It can be done.

    1. I guess my issue is that the ‘default’ is white. It seems like even for some PoC (I read a response to one of your tweets that attests to this) the default is white (if the race or ethnicity of the character is unspecified). And that’s my problem, because it seems to me that English fiction is more accessible to so many different types of people.

      “It’s an easy trap to fall in… take a character that you’ve modelled after your neighbor in West Maintown, U.S.A., give him a Middle-East-sounding name, and declare that your story is diverse.”

      Yes, that is a HUGE problem, and can be very offensive. You’re right, if you’re going to write about someone from a different culture, you have to do some research. This isn’t *just* true of American/English authors, but of everyone. I watch a lot of shows from overseas, particularly Korean dramas, and the one that I’m watching now starts out set in California and all the American characters are so ridiculously stereotypical and highly offensive that I cringe everytime a non-Korean actor comes on scene.

      If you’re going to do it, don’t do it just for the sake of saying you’re diverse. You have to commit and that means learning some stuff and being true to the character. Don’t be a lazy writer. 🙂

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