This drives me nuts in a lot of modern writing: people make broad assumptions or believe old stereotypes that end up hurting their writing.
If your assumptions are based in stereotypes, then I’d say it will hamper your ability to write good fiction. And sadly, many people make assumptions all the time.
ASSUMPTIONS IN WRITING:
This may seem pretty obvious, but it’ll catch you off-guard. Many stereotypes and tropes that are so commonly absorbed you write it before you even think about it.
- Shooting a car’s gas tank will make it explode
- You can pull a grenade’s pin out with your teeth/grenades make very big explosions
- Computer hacking is near-instantaneous and is done by “Hollywood geeks” which are typically models with glasses and scruffy dudes in hoodies
- Nerdy dudes wear glasses and are super skinny
- Opposites attract/hookers with a heart of gold/the bad boy a woman can fix, etc.
Wait, did you think I was going to talk about racial stereotypes and use those for my examples first? Well, that was an assumption, too. See how easy they are to have and make?
Stereotypes like these are driven by writers trying to use shorthand and shortcuts. Worse, these stereotypes become so widely prevalent that they continually get reinforced in Hollywood casting.
This is one of the reasons why pieces that dip deeply into these kinds of shortcuts can garner a lot of flak from critics and audiences. Everyone wants to be entertained, but if the shortcuts you’re taking draw too much focus from the audience, you’re actually derailing the piece.
I’m not saying some of these can’t be done well, but many of them can be done very, very poorly. And now I am going to include racial assumptions in the mix, too. If you’re writing a book, do you feel the need to champion a particular type of person and design them in such a way as to paint them in a particular light? If so, you’ve just walked into a minefield where you will likely be making a lot of assumptions and playing into stereotypes; you just may swap one set for another.
For instance: “I want to make a strong, female character!”
Oh boy. This is the writing minefield of our time, because immediately your brain needs to make assumptions to figure out what “strong” is supposed to mean in relation to “female.” “Strong” means different things to different people. What typically happens when you play into this type of thinking is that you reach for an unconscious stereotype of what “strong” means to you, or what you WANT it to mean in this story. That’s how we end up characters that are caricatures of something else. Captain Marvel was a good example: trying to write a strong, female character here ended up with a hotshot who was virtually unchallenged by anything in the entire movie. The only person she cared about was an old buddy of hers and her daughter, but had no real internal struggle or strong motivation towards any particular goal.
Compare her to the gold standard, Ellen Ripley in Aliens: Ellen is extremely vulnerable and terrified of going back to face the xenomorph, and does so reluctantly. After a slew of marines die and her ward gets captured, she makes the decision to try to rescue the lone survivor of the colony; it doesn’t take a genius to put together that she’s developed a strong motherly bond AND is doing for Newt what no one was able to do for her: come to her rescue.
Ellen IS a strong character because she overcomes her inner fears and doubts as well as defeating her opponents using wit and guile. Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel was written to be strong, but ends up looking really weak, because there’s nothing to really latch onto or care about with her character. She’s never really in danger, she doesn’t have a personal flaw or fear to overcome, and the climax of the film is really just shooting fish in a barrel.
By “assuming” what a strong, female character should be, Captain Marvel becomes a cartoon cut out of a character who actually did struggle in the comics: she struggled with being taken seriously, with losing friends and mentors, with a rape, with losing her powers to Rogue, with alcoholism, and more; yet still showed up to be hero when danger came knocking.
In contrast, Ellen Ripley was just written as a character who had serious fears and issues that she made a choice to face again. By allowing the character to form a bond with Newt after having lost her own child due to age and time, we get one of the most kicks “strong” elements of writing you can ever have: “MOTHERHOOD.” Do NOT mess with Mama Bear!!! That’s a universal human understanding about females which is why it worked so well.
ASSUMPTIONS IN PERFORMING:
Robert Downey Jr. Tropic Thunder
“I’m the dude, playing the dude, disguised as another dude!”
I do need to make a sidebar here: actors perform what writers have written, but it can be just as dangerous for actors to make assumptions while crafting their performance as it is for writers putting ink on the page.
Let’s just jump right into this: as an actor, you don’t want to make assumptions about how “black,” “white,” “male,” “female,” “rich,” “poor,” “Kingly,” “desperate” (or really any descriptor) function. When you try to “play black,” you’re going to head right to stereotypes.
Characters need to be crafted and based in a certain level of realism.
You want to play with the character’s point of view, their experiences, and their actions, but don’t make assumptions about what these are arbitrarily.
Avery Brooks didn’t play “Ben Sisko” as a “black man,” he just played with how Ben was a father, a leader, a religious figure, and a Starfleet officer in regards to character’s history and the interactions that character has with other characters.
That’s “acting.” And Avery Brooks is an amazing actor!
Don’t assume. If you’re playing a blind man, don’t “play blind” and walk around with your hands out. Put a blindfold on for a while, talk to some blind people, read a book about how people who have been blinded adjust, etc. Do some research and work, and then play off of that.
Even though I’m mentioning this from the view of a performer, writers should take note as well. Nothing helps your writing more than experience and research.
ASSUMPTIONS YOU CAN MAKE AS A WISE WRITER OR PERFORMER:
One of the best examples is John Krasinski in “The Office,” putting his foot down about NOT having the character of Jim cheat on Pam by kissing Cathy.
Krasinki’s instincts told him this was a bad idea, and he fought the writer on it. He’s said in interviews it’s the only time he put his foot down during the filming of the show, and I agree 100% that he was right, and the writer was wrong.
The writer thought the writing for Jim to this point was leading the audience towards believing Jim could cheat on Pam with Cathy.
But John, with all the work, circumstances, and POV of “Jim” at the time, made the assumption that “Jim” wouldn’t actually cheat on Pam that way, considering the history and recent events of the two characters. This included all his time performing with Jenna Fischer, all the feedback he has gotten from fans, and his instincts about how the audience would react to Jim’s infidelity.
Now, this obviously became a debate and in terms of writing, it certainly would have added drama, but it wouldn’t have played well with the audience. John correctly assumed the audience would hate it, and I fully believe he was right. There comes a point where the actor playing the role should develop through their character work and time performing the role, a sense of what that character would or not do under particular circumstances. This is called, “justification”; I hotly debate this as a performer and a writer. Some people believe that whatever the writer writes, the actor must perform. They treat the script as if it were gospel from God himself, and think that performers should just accept it and find a way to justify internally whatever it is the writer had their characters do.
I don’t believe that. There is such a thing as “Bad Writing,” and writers can make very poor choices that anyone outside their own head could tell them is unjustifiable given the circumstances; it’s at these times a performer like Krasinski, who has career and future wrapped up in this role, needs to speak up. I’m not saying that actors should be constantly looking to change lines, but when there is this much on the line, they should speak up.
So there is a performance and writing note to be had here:
- Just because it adds more drama doesn’t mean it’s a good for the audience. Don’t assume that just because you’ve opened a door in your writing that you’ve hit all the right notes to ensure that the audience wants to go into through it.
- Just because you’re the actor and not the writer doesn’t mean the actor doesn’t have a say in how the character is performed; the character is a combination of the writing and the performance. Because it’s a collaborative art, sometimes you need to speak up about the assumptions people are making about the character, especially if you think they’re going the wrong way.
If only more writers were more willing to listen to their actors about the assumptions they are making.
And of course, the reverse can happen as well; an actor wanting to portray Hamlet as though he’s a character on the Holodeck of the U.S.S. Enterprise from Star Trek: The Next Generation when the entire production and cast are playing the setting straight is a probably going to stick out like a sore thumb. Not every instinct is a good one that should be pursued, and as a writer, director, or performer, you’re going to have to be ready to explain, justify, and defend your decisions with logic, reason, and passion.
So to wrap up: Research, experience, and humility are your best friends in the arts. Don’t assume; get the facts, get experience, and then start your crafting! The payoff in the work is always worth it! Audiences crave experiences that help them escape, and authenticity unlocks a lot of doors to the imagination!