“A person’s a person, no matter how small.”- Dr. Seuss
Last night, I watched this TED Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The Danger of a Single Story.” In her presentation, Adichie discussed the influences of what we read, hear, experience, and see, both in our everyday lives as well as in the media, on our perceptions of the world. I found the talk very influential from a writing standpoint. So many times, common stereotypes like those she discussed are found in books, and when an author decides to “break the mold,” people are often shocked to read something different than what they expected.
One quote that particularly resonated with me is:
“[My] professor told me that my characters were too much like him, an educated and middle-class man. My characters drove cars. They were not starving. Therefore they were not authentically African.” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I think it says a lot about the current state of American literature, because books often present us with a single, defining trait for each character. As I listened to the talk, I remembered an old Disney movie that I watched as a child, The Color of Friendship. It was the story of two young girls in the 1970s during Apartheid. Marni, from Dundi, South Africa, and Piper, from Washington D.C., meet through a student exchange program.
Because of the stories each of them had heard about the other country, they both had specific expectations for what they were walking into. Piper was African American, and expected a “traditional African,” to come and stay with her. That is to say, someone who wore a headscarf, listened to tribal music, etc. Essentially, she anticipated an encounter with the most widespread representation of Africans during that time period. Her dark-skinned friends from Africa did not dispute this expectation either.
Marni, on the other hand, was white, and from a relatively wealthy family. Her father worked as a police officer, and black people were considered to be of a lower class. When she heard that Piper’s father was a politician, she automatically assumed he would be white. Through the girls interactions, the movie does a wonderful job of illustrating how preconceived notions or “single stories” can influence our actions and thoughts.
This is especially important to remember as writers because we only have our words to help the reader along. Without sight, the actions, mannerisms, and dialogue of characters bear more weight in developing the personality. If we put a character on the page, we have to make sure that they have more purpose than just to thwart or help the main protagonist. And, for that matter, the main protagonist needs to do more than just move the story along. If we want our readers to truly be changed from our writing, then we must stay away from the “single story.” No person is a single aspect of their personality, and neither are our characters.
All of them are people, no matter how small their role, and people are not people without a few good stories to tell.
Next week, I will discuss how turn characters into people and share some of my favorite, essential questions to ask yourself whenever you write for someone new,
Challenge of the Week: What’s your favorite Dr. Seuss quote?