Featured Image: Netflix.com
Much of this article is a matter of opinion. If you wish to expand on anything or offer a contrasting viewpoint, feel free to leave a comment.
Last night I found myself curled up in bed watching “Orange Is the New Black”. As a writer, especially a writer of activist fiction, I am constantly exploring the depths of pop culture to find inspiration and to learn something new, about my art and about the world in general. Whilst I think we can all agree that watching OITNB is an educational experience at the best of times, yesterday I found myself drawn to one factor in particular.
Character development and subplots are vital to storytelling. You will find them everywhere, whether you are reading a novel or watching a TV show. To me, they are just as important as the main narrative. Think of storytelling as growing a tree: whilst your main plot may be the tree’s trunk – the backbone – the subplots are all branches which are vital to its natural growth and survival. When written well they will thrive, allowing your story tree to photosynthesise, but if not they have the potential to kill your entire narrative. Now, I could name a fair few withered story trees on my bookshelf, but for now I’d rather focus on the positives.
“Orange Is the New Black” will always be known for its diversity. Like “Sense8”, it is so advanced and ahead of its time that almost all of the bad critique that it receives can be put down to ignorance or mere misunderstanding of other cultures. For that reason, it has been one of my leading sources of inspiration for The Arcadia Project. I love writing about different cultures because, to put it simply, it is realistic. 21st Century storytelling needs to be all-inclusive, diverse and honest, and OITNB is a fine example to follow. Last night, however, it really got me thinking.
More specifically, it got me thinking about the character hierarchy. Not necessarily their power within the narrative itself, but the importance of the characters as a whole. Protagonists, sub-characters, antagonists etc. I was speaking to a very good friend of mine recently about how the protagonist needs to speak to the audience, that they need to be the most desirable to your target audience in order to maintain their attention. She claimed that the protagonist should reflect your purpose, i.e. if you are trying to represent a multicultural community, your protagonist should be of a different ethnicity. The thing is, though: I really don’t agree with that.
Just look at OITNB. Piper Chapman is set out to be the protagonist. Her story is the one that we as an audience are introduced to first, the story that, in theory, we should be the most interested by. And perhaps we are at first, but by choice? I don’t think so. The truth is, Piper is really annoying to me. She is a rich, attractive white girl whose only crime was a result of her love-induced blindness, and she somehow manages to get WORSE as the narrative progresses! She goes from privileged pretty girl to bisexual adulterer to wannabe Nazi, and then somehow BACK to just plain annoying. Honestly, the only thing going for her is her sexuality and her unexplained knowledge of Spanish, but she’s not exactly the most positive representation of an LGBT+ character. Alex Vause is better, but as a character she doesn’t necessarily scream diversity. So much for protagonists reflecting your purpose.
The identity of characters, particularly protagonists, is a matter which has always interested me as a writer. There are patterns, of course: horror movies often have young protagonists, whilst a more complex detective novel will likely have an older individual in the role of the lead crime-solver. Oh, and the antagonist will almost always be the protagonist’s binary opposite. The latter was explained by narrative theorist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who said that the conflict derived by characters on two different ends of the spectrum is key to any plot, no matter the form or genre. But there’s more to character development than conflict. As an indie author, audience and purpose are two factors which I will never overlook when I am creating my fictional worlds.
My target audience will determine the characteristics of my protagonist/s; this is vital in drawing much needed attention to your work, particularly when releasing promotional media. Think: if a teenage girl saw a poster with a strong-looking teenage girl in the centre, she’s going to relate to it a lot more than one showing a middle-aged man. Extending on this example, I would then juxtapose my teenage girl protagonist with an older male antagonist, possibly one with significant political power. You see where I’m going with this.
The sub-characters are more interesting. Instead of focusing on the narrative’s target audience, your sub-characters should be heavily influenced by your purpose. Looking back at OITNB, which has a purpose of educating its audience about political and social issues (focusing on but not limited to crime and punishment), we find such a diverse network of characters that we quickly overlook those deemed as “relatable”. That includes our privileged protagonist, Piper Chapman.
The meaning behind Piper’s undesirable personality goes deeper still, however. Netflix is a mainstream corporation, but more importantly it is a streaming service funded by its subscribers – the audience. Therefore, its content needs to appeal to a more mainstream audience, and unfortunately the best way to do that is to include a white protagonist. In response, Jenji Kohan and her team of writers and producers have used Piper to represent us: a member of mainstream society, ignorant to the lifestyles of different cultures. We find this so frustrating as viewers that, subconsciously, we WANT to learn about these other cultures because we don’t want to be as annoying as Piper Chapman. We are so much more interested in the subplots because they are educational; they provide us with such a clear insight as to how different communities live, whether that be LGBT+ communities, POC, or different genders. This is how the show meets its purpose. Contrarily, to the minority of OITNB’s audience who are culturally aware, we find Piper annoying because every one of us knows at least one person like that. Hell, all we have to do is log into Twitter.
This use of characters is so smart that I can’t help but take inspiration from it. Much like “Orange Is the New Black”, The Arcadia Project has such a heavy focus on different cultures, especially considering both the political and social issues faced by different communities as a result of their differences. With that in mind, let’s explore my characters:
Book 1 of The Arcadia Project, “Inauguration Day”, has two characters who I consider to be protagonists, both of whom fit into my target audience of female teenagers to young adults as determined by my initial survey. Whilst both are white, seventeen-year-old girls, their class and social status are completely contrasting. Emma Rustin is a girl in poverty, deemed a “minority” figure due to her sexuality, whilst Kiesza Isambard-Taylor is the daughter of the president, Dominik Isambard. Dominik, being the binary opposite of Emma due to his political power, is the novel’s antagonist: he is an older man who cheats his way into power, and then uses his presidency to incriminate anybody who isn’t a white, straight, all-American man. Sound familiar?
My sub-characters and the subplots surrounding them are all linked to my purpose of encouraging freedom of diversity, and to educate my audience about our multicultural world. As a result, I have created a dense network of characters, all highly diverse, who I will use to represent each community accurately. Much like in OITNB, these diverse characters will all work together to accentuate Kiesza’s ignorance, displaying her as the less desirable of the two protagonists until she eventually allows herself to be educated.