Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Labeling Characters

Not long ago I was on Twitter, and the topic of conversation during a #GayYA chat was on labels. Are they good, are they bad, and whether you or your characters chose to use them. And it got me thinking. Labels affect more than just gay teens, so I wanted to open this up to discussion.

What are labels in fiction? Labels in fiction reflect labels in real life. Things that may not necessarily be negative, but define you in a very specific way. There is a difference between descriptors and labels. A descriptor is a very general way of describing someone. A label has a little different connotation. It usually comes with background stigmas or expectations from society.

To explain it a little better, a descriptor could be referring to another as a "redhead." This is general, and there's not much hidden meaning beneath the surface. But change that for a label such as "ginger" and you've got a different story. Calling someone a ginger is not necessarily a negative thing, but in the last 5-10 years there has been a growing stigma for people with red hair and freckles. Calling someone a ginger could have negative connotations depending on context. Though most uses of the word "ginger" to teens are used in jest, there's still a shift in the meaning of that word. Being called a redhead is not necessarily the same as being called a ginger.

All descriptors can be labels, but labels have a bit more specificity and background connotations to them, so we’ll focus on those for now.

What does it mean for an author or character to use labels? When an author uses labels in fiction, we see it used in narration, as opposed to if a character used it in dialogue. Both have subtle differences, but both do one thing: they set the reader's expectations. Not necessarily a bad thing, right? After all, sometimes it’s better not to beat around the book (Heh, keeping that typo.) about a character's ethnicity or gender identity or sexuality. Sometimes it's better to come out and say, "I'm Kenyan" or "He's Asian" or she's "Gayer than a fruitcake." It's a quick and easy way to establish a part of your character in the reader's mind.

Besides, sometimes there's no point to ignoring labels. Sometimes instead of saying "She had mocha skin and black hair" try "She's black." After all, how many ways can you describe a person's skin color before it gets dull? No, really, let's find out...

Using labels is often a good way of reclaiming them too. Instead of ignoring a label that most people may not understand, use it. Show them what it really means. For example, when you have a transgender character, it can work well to use labels. Show who your character is, show them that this is a transgendered person, and there's no reason they shouldn't understand this person.

When we have characters using labels in dialogue, we tend to get a lot of reclaiming. I remember one flamingly gay character who often called himself "Queer" or a "fairy" ect, ect. He used derogatory labels to reclaim them, because that was the kind of character he was. How characters use the labels, why they use the labels, even their avoidance to some labels really gives an insight into how the character views himself and those around him.

There's nothing wrong with using labels in dialogue and narrative. Sometimes, by using a label other people avoid, you can make a bold statement with only one word. But this is not always the case. Labels are not always sunshine and joy. To be honest, I don't use labels unless absolutely necessary. In Shell, I only openly mentioned that one of my characters was gay once, and it was only to gauge the reaction of another character to that word. (This was actually edited out during agent revisions.) I find labels very limiting. On the one hand, yes, great, you have an instant picture in the reader's mind. Unfortunately, people's definitions and ideas of labels are always different. I'm going to bet that many who read my point of redhead vs gingers didn't know that ginger could be a negative label. This is partly due to the evolution of language in different areas, slang, and of course, different age/wealth demographics.

In real life and in fiction, sometimes people have a hard time seeing past the label. Introducing a character who is schizophrenic, for example, could change a reader's entire perception on them. For many, schizophrenic is synonymous with crazy. Yes, in one way we can change or "reclaim" the meaning of that word in the reader's mind. But sometimes, I find that authors stray from simply reclaiming a word to making a point about people with schizophrenia or mental health in general. And trying to have a point or moral to the story will definitely turn readers off.

Is labeling necessary? After all, as writers, aren't we taught to show, rather than tell? Isn't telling readers that a character is gay or African or bipolar less effective than showing them? If you can easily show your readers who your character is rather than telling them, that will make for a more enjoyable read.

Can't figure out how to do it? Well, if you have a gay character, show the relationship. Show them with a member of the same sex. Show your readers an ethnic background. Perhaps your MC is Mexican and his mother is traditional? Mental illnesses, I'm half-and-half on. Is it necessary that your MC know that he has this illness? If not, keep the behavior, but drop the label. See if your readers catch that something's amiss. It could lead to interesting discussions of your character's psyche, instead of having readers write off the issues since it’s been “established.”

Whether you're for labels or against them, write how you want to. No editor or agent is going to tell you to add or take out labels unless it's absolutely necessary. Whether you choose to use them or not is dependent on your writing style and the type of story you're telling.

Of course, these are just my thoughts on labels used in everyday life. But what about not-so-nice terms? How would your character facing a derogatory label change your story? How about if your character used the derogatory label?

Leave me your thoughts to devour. Tasty, tasty thoughts.



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