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He is one of two supporting characters that die in my screenplay.

My wife says I shouldn’t make him black if he’s going to die.

Would it be politically incorrect?

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    To clarify : Is he the only minority character in your story? If there are others then it's not a case of Black dude dies first. – Babika Babaka Nov 23 '17 at 12:49
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    In which country? In what kind of culture? Political correctness isn't universal. – isanae Nov 23 '17 at 17:14
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    Does the ethnicity of the character play into the story? If not, why is it specified at all? If so, then your question is a good one. One recent work that plays on the audiences biases but also on ethnic tropes in film making is Get Out, the movie by Jordan Peele. If you haven’t seen it, it may give you some perspective and insight into this area of story telling. – Todd Wilcox Nov 24 '17 at 1:40
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    The black-dudes-die-first thing's so overplayed that it's become a running gag in satires like the Scary Movie series, Family Guy, etc.. So, some readers are likely to associate it with satire/humor; whether or not that's a good thing'd seem to depend on your story. – Nat Nov 24 '17 at 11:34
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    @MarcusMeier Could you add more information about your story? The answer to your question as it is is a simple "No". – Babika Babaka Nov 25 '17 at 17:58

11 Answers 11

84

Killing a minority character isn't a problem in itself. The problem is that western media (particularly film) has a long tradition of killing of minority characters and leaving white protagonists to complete the plot. It is a habit that is rooted in racism, and not one that you want to add weight to without due consideration.

Now, if this character's ethnicity is an important part of their character, and their death is an important part of the plot then by all means continue. Just last week I read a story by Seanan McGuire (the story itself will remain nameless to avoid spoilers) where the first death was a minority character, and McGuire is extremely conscious of minority representation. But the character's minority status played an important part in shaping the part of her character that got her killed, and the story would not have worked quite right any other way.

On the other hand if the ethnicities of your characters are less deeply imbedded in their personalities then try switching them around a bit, and see what happens.


In Summary: Even if a plotting/character decision which is made completely isolated from any racist impulses it can still add weight to external racist trends. If you can avoid inadvertently supplementing racism this way without sacrificing your story, then definitely do so.

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    So, as I see it, there are several issues here. 1) Writers deciding to kill off a character because of their race. The nastiest case. “We can kill off this character because no one cares about group X.” 2) Writers deciding to slot a character into a role because of their race, a role that makes them more likely to be killed off for other reasons. “Our protagonist has to be white for audience sympathy, so let’s make their best friend black. Ooops, we have to kill someone, guess we’ll kill off the ancillary character.” 3) Unconscious bias of various sorts. – Obie 2.0 Nov 27 '17 at 11:39
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    While someone can rule out 1) and 2) if they’re principled, it’s a little difficult to rule out 3). But that said, it seems like a bad idea to just not let any minority characters die (especially given that the majority of the US, to say nothing of the planet, is actually a minority), even in dangerous situations, except when it serves a story purpose. And it would seem a little weird to me to say that any minority character who dies should only die because of their group membership. – Obie 2.0 Nov 27 '17 at 11:48
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    My opinion (which might be a little silly) is that, in cases where (a) the character’s race, gender, etc. are not terribly pertinent to a story idea, (b) you choose your main character’s traits fairly (i.e. randomly), and (c) you choose which supporting characters die fairly, there shouldn’t be any issue. The big problem these days is a failure of the second condition (because people make main characters white, male, cisgender), and to some extent a failure of the second (probably due mainly to unconscious prejudices, e.g. thinking that a character is less important because of their race). – Obie 2.0 Nov 27 '17 at 11:57
33

There are two simple rules when it comes to writing which trump all else:

  1. Always write for the reader (or in this case viewer).
  2. Never let anything get in the way of your writing.

The second rule is what we are dealing with. This rule follows the theory that you should never compromise your writing - even a little - to achieve some other goal. You write the best you can, and you don't let anything get in the way of it.

If your story is best served by killing off a black character, and if changing that character's skin color would harm the story even a little bit, you don't change it. Period. That holds true if the character is black, white, Asian, Caucasian, gay, straight, man, woman, or any other so called 'group'.

Now, will people take offense to it? Certainly. No matter what you do, someone somewhere will take offense to it. That's called writing for the general public. It is literally impossible to do something everyone agrees with. Especially these days.

Don't let those people dictate the quality of your writing. Write for the people who can see past the political haze they surround themselves with, and appreciate the story you are writing, for what it is. Unless you are writing a political story. Then you might need to consider things differently.

Now I understand where you are coming from. With the news the way its going, anyone can make literally anything be racist. You don't want people to miss your story because they're searching for a way to accuse you of being racist.

This is a gray area. You have to determine what community will be reading (or viewing) your screenplay. Are those people likely to see it for what it is? Or are they likely to be so obsessed with today's politics that they latch onto the word 'black' like an over-sized piranha and search desperately for anything they can interpret as racist overtones?

If the majority of your readers are politically-minded, then yes, it might be a good idea to change skin color. You have to balance lessening the power of your story against alienating your readers. If, however, your readers are not necessarily politically-minded, then simply write the strongest story you can.

That's really all there is to it. Best of luck in your endeavors!

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    It's nice to see an answer that doesn't accept political correctness as paramount to all areas of life. Would you mind specifying what you mean by "politically minded"? FWIW I've also answered this question but with a different approach, highlighting statistics and then ideology, perhaps you'd like to offer a critique. – Willem Nov 26 '17 at 16:43
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    It's nice to know I'm not alone. :) When I say 'politically minded' I mean someone who revolves - to some extent - around politics. They are a central part of their life. Those people are likely to see political issues in many aspects of their life, even if those issues are not there. I'm not necessarily talking about, say, the people who sit on their couch and shake their heads at the TV. I'm talking about the people who make YouTube videos, write articles, or even join the ever-popular protest for or against the current political situation. – Thomas Myron Nov 27 '17 at 1:01
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    "appreciate the story you are writing, for what it is. Unless you are writing a political story" ... there's a relevant quotation from George Orwell: "every writer, especially every novelist, has a ‘message’, whether he admits it or not, and the minutest details of his work are influenced by it. All art is propaganda. Neither Dickens himself nor the majority of Victorian novelists would have thought of denying this." I would say people can't avoid writing politics; by writing how they think life is, could, and should be, they are expressing political thought. – inappropriateCode Nov 27 '17 at 9:29
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    @ThomasMyron I think the reality is that politics exists wherever groups of humans exist, rather than simply being limited to government procedures. That's the gist of the idea. Politics is about power dynamics, so if you say about the power of love; well that idea is about how people should be able to love each other regardless. That's highly political, as it actively rejects other ideas: marriage for duty to family, tribe, class, race, state, religion... if you see what I mean. That's not imposing politics upon the concept, it's that most things are incidentally political. – inappropriateCode Nov 28 '17 at 10:50
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    @inappropriateCode An interesting way to look at it. I see what you're getting at, and I think you're probably right, but I still believe that the majority of people would not consider 'the power of love' to be inherently political. Whether or not it actually is tied to politics, I don't believe they would put it on a level of politics with 'black lives matter'. So while you are likely right, I believe the majority of readers don't see it that way, at least not on a first evaluation. Hence my differentiation in my answer still works. Does that makes sense? – Thomas Myron Nov 28 '17 at 15:52
9

I had the same dilemma recently with one of my older stories (i.e. 6-7 years old), which is in need of redrafting. One of the supporting characters, a black woman, dies halfway through; this is a pivotal moment in the plot, as it drives the (white male) protagonist to make a decision that drives the rest of the story.

I considered swapping some of the characters' races around, but the conclusion I've come to - and my answer to your question - is that it's perfectly fine as long as:

  1. The character's death has some importance to the plot, and isn't just a case of "I added this minority character purely for the sake of diversity, and now I don't know what to do with them, so I guess I'll just kill them off"
  2. You're not perpetuating any stereotypes. As Arcanist Lupus noted in his answer, Black Dude Dies First is considered quite problematic. If I understand what you wrote, there are two characters who die in your screenplay; in this case, you can easily avert Black Dude Dies First by having the black character die second (which is also what I did in my story).

I'd also like to note that if this character is the only black person in your story, and you change them to be white, there are those who would consider that even worse.

7

Why is the character black?

This Wiki contains a chart, based on the US Census bureau and self-identified race, that shows 72.4% of Americans identify as White alone, and 12.6% of Americans identify as Black (or African American) alone. 4.8% identify as being of Asian descent. (In the US Census, one can check any race and then separately self-identify as Hispanic or Latino American. 16.3% do that.)

Only 1/8 of the population is black, Since most racism (by far) in the USA is against blacks, it is a pretty fair assumption by anyone (of any race) that feels this is wrong to assume that the author did not choose to kill a black first by accident, but because they are racist, overtly, covertly, consciously or unconsciously.

In fiction you don't get a jury trial, the audience decides whether they will endorse, ignore or vilify your work, and we make those decisions the way we make all decisions: We play the odds as if they were determinative.

Since the odds are 87.4% that the first character killed would not be black, the odds are that making them arbitrarily black is indicative of racial bias. I hate racism, so why should I spend my money on something I am pretty certain will benefit a racist, not only directly but by increasing their fame and acceptance in the world, perhaps as a role model?

The only caveat you get is if the skin color is determinative to the plot (e.g. my black character was killed by racists) or their race was historically inviolable; i.e. no other race could plausibly play the role. For example, you cannot write a story about American slavery without bringing up race. The same is true of modern racism or racial violence, the biography of a person harmed greatly by racism. Similarly, a WW II kamikaze pilot is going to be (and appear to be) Japanese, the leader of China is going to appear to be Chinese.

What these caveats tell you is that the only way to avoid a charge of racism in the writing is if you have a damn good racial reason the first person killed is black and not white. That is the political climate now (2017) and one I agree with very strongly.

Those reasons do not include bravery in battle, self-sacrifice, criminality, or anything that could have equally been done by a white man: You are still writing against odds.

There are very few plausible fictional reasons a black person is more likely to be killed first. The story can be about a black family or a black neighborhood where non-blacks are a distinct minority. But if blacks are a small minority of characters, then about the only plausible fictional reason is overt black racism. In that case, for a first-killed black person, racism against blacks better be your fictional reason for killing them first, and that racism can't be a one-off excuse in the story, it has to be central to the story. (For example, you can't cheat by making a walk-on bank robber character happen to be a murderous racist that is never seen again after the murder.)

That doesn't mean blacks (or other races) cannot be represented in your film.

Note that I stress fictional reason: Unlike real life, the audience is always aware that a human author thought up and wrote every line of the book or script. Those sensitive to racism against blacks (and the majority of Americans are) do not assume fictional deaths are randomly determined, they know these are intentionally determined by writers and others involved in the publication or production process. So IRL, the first person killed by a flood might indeed be a black man, even if they were the only black in the county. IRL we don't think floods are racist. But if that happens in a movie we know it was an intentional choice, and cannot help but think it was made by an author or casting director that values black lives less than white lives.

Of course both blacks and whites can be killed; if in your fiction a bomb goes off in a grocery store or law office, chances are about 1 in 8 of the victims are black. But when it comes to prominent deaths (the first killed, or only person killed in a crowd, or only soldier killed in a squad), much of the audience is not going to question why that was a white, but will question why they were black. This is not "reverse racism", it is about whether it fits the odds (as presented in the fiction) and the fact that the audience knows it was an authorial choice.

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    Would you apply your logic in other situations too? For example: First to solve the riddle, First to win the race, The person that the main character falls in love with... By your logic it is very improbable for a black person to appear in those situations, so there is probably some racial bias present in the author, right? – Honza Brabec Nov 23 '17 at 15:57
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    @HonzaBrabec You are incorrectly summarizing my logic. The question to be answered is whether blacks and those concerned by racism against blacks will regard the role as reinforcing or implicitly endorsing racism against blacks. First to solve a riddle would not. First across the finish line might. Falling in love would not. IF the role reinforces racism or racist stereotypes and IF the choice of the character's race seems an arbitrary authorial choice (i.e. the character could just as easily have been White), THEN we ask, Why Black?, and the most probable answer is racial bias. – Amadeus Nov 23 '17 at 16:26
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    @Willem As a professional statistician, I don't think so; a higher mortality rate is not because they are black, but because racism against blacks creates economic stressors that make them desperate enough to engage in risky behavior to escape their otherwise doomed economic plight. Like illegal activities in territorial gangs. When blacks are divorced from this 'economic desperation' effect, their homicide rate is on par with whites. As one of TWO supporting characters, the OPs black character is very unlikely to be killed in the hood crosssfire or trying to escape poverty by way of the gun. – Amadeus Nov 26 '17 at 19:19
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    I have a hard time with this argument, but I find myself having a hard time voicing why. But I shall try anyway: When we ask "is it statistically likely that any black person is present at all", we may, especially in small casts, end up with "all white" again, which is possibly even MORE broken than over-representation of blacks. So, why is he black? Because there are black people. It seems to be the best way to avoid racism is to write an actual, fully fleshed out, character. Make him a PERSON, not just someone who's there ans then randomly dies. That's where the art of writing is! – Layna Nov 27 '17 at 12:06
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    @Layna - True! Although, as I see it, the issue isn’t that some small casts may be entirely white - it’s that most small casts (and many large ones) are entirely or disproportionately white. When you look at something like Chicago PD, it’s hard to imagine that the characters were selected randomly with knowledge of the composition of the IRL Chicago police department. Or in many of the Star Wars movies - if anything, if most planets are like Earth, the GFFA should be majority-non-white - but that’s not reflected in the films. – Obie 2.0 Nov 27 '17 at 12:19
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Some phenomena we see are statistical in nature, and racism is one of them. It isn't a single event, it is a tendency. There is a reason why it is so closely related to stereotyping.

Black people die in real life. One black guy dying in a story of fiction is just an isolated event, and not racist in itself. For me, it doesn't even matter if his race is integral to the story - killing the black guy is no meaner than killing the white guy or the Martian alien or whomever else you have introduced.

If you worry about racism in your stories, go through them all and look at all the black guys together. Do they die more often than the white guys, or do they eat fried chicken all the time, or are half of them basketball gods? Also, do they on average have less character depth and more single-track personalities than characters of a group you identify with? Do they get to be the cool guy or the protagonist as long as they also show beliefs and tastes congruent with those of a more socially dominant group? E.g. do you have both black protagonists and black minor villains, but the black protagonists just happen to play polo and mock Bob Marley for being a stoner, and the minor villains are all junkies who love hiphop?

If your writing has any of the featuers in the above paragraph, you might want to rethink how you handle characters and race. And by the way, positive stereotyping is also stereotyping. Avoid it for both literaty and social reasons.

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    Do you not think some stereotypical (and in a sense, characteristic) properties mixed with atypical properties produce the most "human" effect? In a way saying, "Yes, this person belongs to this group, and has some of the properties common to that group, but they are also a unique individual which diverges from that stereotype in X, Y, and Z"? – Willem Nov 26 '17 at 16:46
4

Unless racial issues are part of the plot, simply don't assign any race to any character whatsoever.

If pressed, say that each character is full-blooded Fictionese, but that you are agreeable to casting non-Fictionese actors to play the roles.

2

It's a trope to kill of the black character first and perhaps that's racist of the writers in some cases (and satirical, or realistic, in others), but it's not unrealistic to have your American black characters die of murder more often.

According to the FBI, 3.021 white people vs. 2.451 black people were murdered in 2014, so it would be realistic in the case of murders to have approximately 3 white people be murdered for ever 2.5 black person, if you "correctly" represent US black people at around 1/8th of your cast.

So: a bit more white people "should" die in absolute numbers, when you have a setting in the US and blacks are represented at around 1/8th of the cast. If you have two deaths it's most plausible for one black person and one white person to die. That would slightly over-represent black people as homicide-victims, so you could choose to let them die last to "compensate" for that.

If you have higher black representation e.g. 50%, they would have to have a much higher share of victimhood to match reality. In the case of 50% black representation, assuming 1/8th black representation in the US population and the 2014 FBI homicide numbers: 15% white victims and 85% black victims, or 500% more black than white homicide deaths.

Here's the stats I used:

https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2014/crime-in-the-u.s.-2014/tables/expanded-homicide-data/expanded_homicide_data_table_6_murder_race_and_sex_of_vicitm_by_race_and_sex_of_offender_2014.xls

Make sure not to over-represent white people as murderers and murder victims, or you're a disgusting racist who's oppressing white people. If you're white and you do that it's even worse, that means you're self-hating and an "uncle Tyler", a Kit-Kat White.

... I'm kidding, but I'm also serious. It's the identity politics viewpoint. I think it's an unproductive and divisive oversimplification, one which is all too popular in "our" mainstream media. It seeks to reduce the true diversity of race, ethnicity, culture and religion to one big "melting pot", a divided and identity-less mass to be controlled through money and media.

I think you should not let statistics and political correctness influence your artistic decisions.

This is your work. This is your art. Make it yours.

You live in a free country: act like it! Be free and empower yourself.

If you bow to postmodern/neo-Marxist ideology, that reduces life to victimhood and oppression, you've already lost. You'll never completely satisfy that ideology; there is no "diverse enough". Nothing short of the complete destruction of the majority... and there's always a new majority.

P.S.: Although I think my back-of-the-envelope calculations are steady, suggestions for other data (or: interpretations of) are welcome, this isn't my doctoral thesis. To the author: if I'm mistaken in your locality let me know, it's a blind guess and I could add a section tailored to you.

  • I am made to understand that the trope was deliberately employed in the show Andromeda, with the character himself being named in memory an acquaintance who had died young. – EvilSnack Nov 25 '17 at 17:19
  • @EvilSnack indeed the trope is used deliberately, as a statement re: black mortality in your case, though I've seen it used satirically more often. I think the "it's all racism" viewpoint is a politically/ideologically motivated oversimplification. – Willem Nov 26 '17 at 16:19
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    If you really want the murders in your story to match statistics, then no one should be murdered unless you have at least tens of thousands of characters. It's also worth noting that the statistics will change dramatically if your characters are normal people and not drug dealers. – reirab Nov 26 '17 at 23:43
  • @reirab I agree, but I think that also means that the "blacks are only 1/8th but die a lot, that's racist" argument is fallacious. If your setting is black ghetto, "black people" should be dropping like flies. If it's in a trailer park, it "should" be white people. It's very, very context-dependent what would be "unrealistic in a racist way" in a given setting, and I think it ultimately is subjective. Go ahead and boycott if you don't like the portrayals of groups in a movie, but I think it would be horrible if this became the law where I live. "Hate speech" law that would be. – Willem Nov 26 '17 at 23:55
2

The problem here isn't primarily either racism or political correctness, it's lazy and unoriginal storytelling. Especially for both writers and readers who lack much significant personal experience with people of a different race, giving a character a different skin color can be a shorthand way to add some "exotic flavor" to a story, while at the same signaling people to not become too emotionally invested. Like the old episodes of Star Trek where a new character wearing a red uniform was unlikely to survive the episode, the doomed black character can easily killed off without upsetting the writer or reader overly much. He or she is color-coded from the start as peripheral and expendable.

Of course, it feels very different for the black reader who sees versions of himself (or, more rarely, herself) killed off over and over again in story after story. It can seem annoying at best, or like a premonition of doom at the worst, especially when reflected by real life events. This is a specific reflection of the general principle that it is difficult to write for an audience that you don't understand --which is why, for example, the acclaimed new show This is Us has roughly the same proportion of black writers as black characters.

In summary the question you should ask is not "should I kill off my black character," but rather, "why am I considering killing off my black character?" If the reason you made the character black is because you needed someone who would be memorable and interesting, but still entirely expendable, then you might want to rethink how much originality you're putting into this project.

1

I agree with several of the other answers that we should not contribute to the huge amount of racism we already have in western media and should try to counterbalance that.


That said, I have this hypothethical solution if someone wants to create truly gender/race/sexuality/etc-neutral media by avoiding their own biases. I'm talking about technically gender/race/etc neutral writing as opposed to public perception which is a complicated and entirely different matter.

When having written the script on some level of detail (might be a rough sketch or more detailed), just random roll the gender and race and sexuality and such of each and every character. Best if you do it by assigning weights of probabilities based on census results of your story's location.

  • So e.g. according to claims in another answer here USA black population being roughly 13%, then you wouldn't want 70% of your characters black (unless that's really what happens to come out of the random generation).

In my opinion this would technically absolve the writer of any possible racist/sexist/etc bias (really only in the case where all of the story was written before these characteristics were applied). In reality probably most readers would not even hear about this technique having been used and would develop opinions about the writing's racism/sexism/etc subjectively on their own. For those readers who would hear of this but desire proof - live-streaming the dice roll could potentially be used as a method of pre-committing to results before seeing them and proving that there indeed only one random rolling session.

Hope this helps someone. Criticism very welcome!

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Mark Baker Nov 25 '17 at 18:05
0

I'm a visible minority and I don't care about a person's race if they die or not.

I think people here are too obsessed with race.

  • 1
    Hello and welcome to Writers SE! Your answer should maybe be a comment instead, as it's more a statement of your opinion than an answer to the question asked. Read this page to learn more about this site. – Babika Babaka Nov 27 '17 at 11:24
-2

That's just like asking if it's wrong to kill off a white character, or an Asian character - it's no different. If it's part of the story, it is what it is. It's only racist if you are directly targeting that black character because they are black.

And hey, if your story is about a time when discrimination was really prevalent, which is not today contrary to popular belief, then that's fine too. Because it's a story.

A story is a story. Just do what you want. No one is going to kill you for writing a story, unless of course you are outright hating on them.

  • Welcome on Writers SE! Your answer looks like it needs a bit of formatting. This page may help you. Also, could you elaborate on what your answers add to the other answers already given ? You can also learn more on how this site works by reading this page. – Babika Babaka Nov 27 '17 at 11:21

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