On a couple recent occasions, I’ve found myself, while very pointedly not sleeping, working through ideas for short stories or TV shows.
In each case, I’ve had a basic premise that seems interesting and like something I haven’t read or seen a dozen times before. So I start to mentally work through a very rough outline of how the story could progress and what sort of situations I would put the characters in.
As I thought about it, the story seemed to be going roughly nowhere. “Maybe this one’s just a dud,” I figured. Oh well, on to the next one. But with each one I realized the key problem holding the story back from realizing its full potential: Both main characters were white men.
Now, I am, of course, a white man and it’s always good advice to write what you know. I’ve been very careful about trying to write characters who aren’t that because I want to avoid doing more harm than good, not giving in to cliches or stereotypes, no matter how benign they might seem to me.
So I kept going down the new road that had been opened up by changing the gender, color or both of the protagonist in the stories. All of a sudden there were all sorts of possibilities for interesting scenarios and situations. Again, I was very conscious of not putting the characters in situations that would be offensive, writing the story just as I would for my original Generic White Guy and not doing much of anything to cater to the newly-assigned gender or race.
Neither of these stories is anywhere near finished. They’re barely at the “jot down the rough idea in Evernote for later mulling” stage. So there will be adjustments and changes made that will require much more conscious effort on my part to avoid stepping on any landmines. They got out of the gate, though, which is a better position than they were before.
If you’re feeling stuck with a fiction story of whatever kind you’re developing, take a couple days and consider how things might change – and be improved – by drastically shifting who the main character is. It can open up all sorts of new possibilities and give you the opportunity to tell a story that’s outside of what’s done before, opening your eyes a bit wider to the world around you at the same time.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.