6

enter image description here

After feedback on character design for my visual novel, my grizzled Noir Detective is drifting into an Old Jazz Musician. There's a reason I post the artwork: what has gone unmentioned in this feedback is that he's African American.

My first impression of this feedback was that this is a prejudice: White man in a hat = cop/detective. Black man in a hat = some kind of musical entertainer. (I didn't test a control group with a white man in a hat to be sure.)

But when I heard it again, rather than get defensive, my second thought was (since it's out there) I should let these comments inform what kind of character I'm creating. It wasn't what I'd intended, but sure, why not? This is what feedback is for, right?


My rationalization went something like this:

Old Noir Detective = Old Jazz Man

Same gender, same generation, same country, same economic tier

Associates with floozies and gangsters and other low-lifes

Looked down on by authority, presumed guilt, underdog

Has an implied history and seen some weird sh*t, knows some people are just bad.

Has a defining hobby or quirk. (Didn't consider this before, and seems like an improvement)

Carries a gun (nope, but also feel this is an improvement)

Cynical, potentially self-destructive, bitter, Heart-on-sleeve (um…, not really but could be, I guess?)

Hired to fix people's problems. Conveniently has an office where people make an appointment to have their problems fixed. (That would be a big nope.)


For about 10min I started redesigning the whole story to involve musical metaphors, and his esoteric knowledge shifted from books to music. In some ways the differences were cosmetic or superficial, and in some ways there wasn't any difference at all. Seemed like a win, just do the same story with a music twist.

I like the idea of an accidental detective. I like the musical aesthetics, and honestly think the visual potential is as strong, maybe even stronger (in a visual novel words will be scarce, ambience is everything). Unfortunately my story begins with a client bringing her problem to his office, but I can massage the plot to contrive a more likely introduction.

What I don't like is I started to feel like I was making a shuck n' jive character. Although no one admitted it (and I didn't push it), the origin was likely a racial stereotype, and making him a "jazz musician" feels more like a skin color than an archetype. I doubt I'd ever need to explain how a white guy is in a room telling everyone their business with authority – but a jazz musician? I also doubt I'd ever hear that an old white man in a hat must be here to entertain the guests. There's some real baggage here. I could ignore it, but I'm trying to be aware of it.

I'm still trying to make this work, but I feel I've erased any authority he would have. Miss Marple is just a little old lady that people dismiss, at the same time I don't find her to be especially empowering or positive as a character (she's barely a character, imho she's just a nosey lady who goes on vacation and people die). Meanwhile I actually find the toughguy detective tropes to be kind of a joke, there is no reason a skidrow noir detective would be hobnobbing with millionaires, he would be treated like a servant not flirted at by the boss's horny wife. I had a moment of wondering how that scene would play out. It wouldn't, and probably not for the noir detective either.

I thought I had hit on a clever cross-over archetype that would allow me to cherrypick the best of a genre. Now I'm struggling to make him seem like something more than a stereotype. The idea of using an archetype is to get to the plot faster. I want to tap into reader expectations so I don't need to start from scratch and they will not question his details, but I seem to have triggered my own stereotype alert system and the more I try to make it work the less I'm convinced.

To put this question into sentence format, how do I tap into archetypes while avoiding stereotypes, and also how do you get around people inserting an unintended stereotype on what you thought was a clever archetype twist?

  • What about subverting the stereotype by playing with the archetype? E.g., an African-American noir detective or a white old jazz musician (of which many exist in real life)? – Todd Wilcox Jul 17 '18 at 19:05
  • The first was my intent (African American Noir Detective), the Jazz Musician is what people saw. – wetcircuit Jul 17 '18 at 19:06
  • 1
    Once the character starts investigating and tells another character that they are a PI, your subversion of the stereotype will be complete and it won't matter what readers originally assumed. – Todd Wilcox Jul 17 '18 at 19:09
  • I'm a bit confused by the OP. Are you meaning that you posted an image of this character and someone assumed he was a musician? Or that, after relfection you're opting to make him a musician? Could you clarify the context? – user49466 Jul 17 '18 at 23:20
  • 1
    @user49466, I showed several people a character design for a black noir detective. Several (who knew the topic was a noir detective) said he was a jazz musician. It happened a few times, so I thought maybe it was a good inspiration, but then realized it wasn't a compliment (although they did not realize they were saying something culturally racist): ie that man is black ergo he is not a detective he is a jazz musician. – wetcircuit Jul 17 '18 at 23:28
5

An archetype is a role. A stereotype is a bundle of characteristics.

Thus the wizard (wise man, not necessarily magical) is an archetype character because he plays a specific role in the hero's journey (providing information, gifts, admonishment, or encouragement).

A common set of characteristics can be assigned to an archetype. Thus the stereotype of a wizard (from Merlin, to Gandalf, to Dumbledore) is an old man with a white beard and a tall pointy hat and questionable personal hygiene.

The stereotype is a quick way to suggest to the reader that a character embodies the archetype. It make it less work for the writer to have the reader recognize the archetype. But a more inventive writer may want to divorce the archetype (which, remember, is a role) from the stereotype. To do this, they have to show that the character performs the role of the archetype through their actions rather than through their appearance. (Yoda, for instance, does not look or sound at all like a wizard. His wizard archetype status is established entirely through his actions.)

So, to tap into archetypes while avoiding stereotypes, establish the archetype through their actions rather than their appearance or other characteristics.

  • omgomgomg yes this is some real insight that I am going to have to revisit again and again. – wetcircuit Jul 18 '18 at 21:29
  • LOLOL "questionable personal hygiene", I love you <3 – wetcircuit Jul 18 '18 at 21:32
7

Okay, not that I am the Representative For All Black People Of The Internet, but my personal take is that it's the purple.

I think people go to their experience. Noir detective is far enough removed that most people wouldn't look at hardly any image and that jump to mind first. I've stared at the image a few ways and I think that if it were a white dude, the char might still read the same way. However, when I envision him in a gray suit, the perspective changes. There's something a bit more...showy(?) about the purple that I think is producing the feedback.

You could write him as a musician, but something feels a bit off about that pairing, and I don't know if it suits your vision or themes.

Just my two cents.

  • I would say a Khacky trench coat would go a long way from changing that difference. Noir Detectives are more introverted so they don't default to the standing out kind of clothing that would describe any article of clothing using purple (you can keep the stripe in the hat). – hszmv Jul 18 '18 at 15:00
  • +1 You are probably 100% correct. tbh I am not looking to make him more "bland" by draining all color since it is a visual novel and set in a fantastical world… art decisions still in-progress but it's set in the loud-clothing 1970s, not depression era 1930s (it's why he is in his 60s).... Dick Tracy wore a banana-yellow zootsuit for 70yrs LOL, so if a little color derails it for readers I am going to accept the "jazz musician" feedback with a grain of salt. – wetcircuit Jul 18 '18 at 16:42
5

Just break the stereotype, hard.

Perhaps don't make him a professional jazz musician, make him a popular, highly skilled amateur that likes to hang out at jazz clubs, and can pitch in when needed. Perhaps with an instrument one doesn't carry, like pianist; he can spell the pianist for breaks (and they know it). Or he does carry his horn just in case.

Instead, make his profession something more intellectual; an engineer, or a history or sociology professor at a college. He wears his "jazz hat" when he's out clubbing with his jazz friends.

If you make him outgoing, hyper-observant, etc, he may very well meet his "client" when he sees her/him at the club. Say he intervenes to save her against some jerk, thus proving he can take care of himself.

The idea of using an archetype is to get to the plot faster. I want to tap into reader expectations so I don't need to start from scratch and they will not question his details,

That's not a good reason to use an archetype. Just don't worry about explaining things so quickly! Start in the middle of things, don't explain his character, single lines can give clues to the character's situation. e.g. you don't have to tell anybody he's a college professor, just somebody asks him if he'd be available the next night (because somebody else is out) and he replies "I wish I could, but I have to teach an early class the next day." Done.

Invent micro-scenes and dialogue to reveal his character, do not use exposition. Readers are very smart about inferring things from scenes and social interactions without being "told", trust them. Ditch the stereotype altogether, and give us a good accidental detective.

  • 2
    Lots of great advice as usual with your answers. The jazz club where he sits in can easily replace an office where he hangs his "public shingle" (where people come to him with their problems) even if he's not a professional musician. And again it's more interesting. Ok, you make it seem logical and possible. – wetcircuit Jul 17 '18 at 21:00
  • 3
    You could, if it comes up, make his father the pro, somebody he admired, and taught him to play, but his dad didn't want him in the same hard-scrabble life. So he did a stint as a cop, went to college, whatever. But ... "These clubs make me feel close to my dad. Sat right here when I was five, watched him play that piano so fast it should have caught fire. I wanted to be that man." :-) Imagination runs away with me... – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Jul 17 '18 at 21:12
4

When I think of archetypes, I think of universals like "The Mother," "The Father," "The Goddess," or "The Priest." I think what you're talking about, rather, are "stock characters", familiar character types that are used in many different stories by many different authors. Different cultures have their own stock characters, and so do different genres.

Stock characters are not always bad to use. Gilbert & Sullivan musicals, which I love, are almost entirely peopled with stock characters, as are Agatha Christie novels. The problem that you're dealing with here, however, is the fact that the overwhelming majority of the black stock characters in American popular culture are burdened with quite a lot of unwanted racial and racist stereotypes, and tend to call forth deeply problematic reactions from the audience.

Unfortunately there's no quick and easy way around this. As I see it, your (legitimate) choices are (a) to not use a stock character at all --that is, to create an original, non-stereotyped, multi-dimensional character -- (b) to (as @Amadeus suggests) subvert or drastically alter the stereotypes, or (c) to directly wrestle with the racial issues (the most difficult option, and one probably best embarked upon with ample help from someone who knows the black experience from the inside). In any of these cases, you might also want to stop and take the time to ponder your own motivations, and why this character appeals to you in the first place. It might also be worth tweaking your character design a bit so it doesn't so easily match people's preconceptions.

  • "Stock characters" yes, that is what I mean. Thank you. I'm not qualified to write (c), and my original intent was a different kind of noir detective: (a) or probably (b), but you are right, I got caught looking for that stock "jazz musician" to inform his character and then wasn't at all happy with that cultural baggage…. – wetcircuit Jul 17 '18 at 22:15
3

As mentioned and I discussed in a comment, I think your problem is that you have a few good things going for you, but there could be some corrections that could work. First, as someone who wears hats frequently and as an afficionado of sorts of the Fedora Detective look, I can tell you the first flaw is in the face. Basically, Fedoras tend to compliment narrow faces better than round faces. That isn't to say you can't have a baby-faced (lose the beard and I can take off 40 years on my age guesstimate) but it's associated with musicians across racial lines (I would think Blues Brothers if he was white).

Also discussed, Noir characters tend to be monochrome... really, that stripe of purple in the hat should be the character's only color aside from Black, Tan/Khacky or Grey. Of those, I would see a Tan as the Noir detective more than the others, but they are doable. Fedora should be Black regardless (except the stripe... reds are good, but Purple looks fine). Noir detectives aren't flamboyant. Jazz musicians are.

As for the marriage of Jazz and Noir, it's been done. It's too great things that go great together. A slow jazz/blues sound, a rainy street, and a neon sign that is on the last legs of life are the typical noir street. I would say a great stereotype break is that he is a detective that appreciates the sound, but doesn't play his own music would be a break. Perhaps he never learned... perhaps he aspired to learn... perhaps he suffered a crippling injury and couldn't play his instrument well (becareful with this).

Personally, if I had to write this story, he would have been a kid who was going down a path to a criminal... until the local music shop owner saw something that made him take the young boy in under his wing. He taught the kid some of the basics of music and shared a love of jazz... but then was murdered and the case was never solved... that incident inspired the kid to become a PI (racist police hiring practices at the time meant he couldn't join the cops?) and his overarching mission is to solve the case of the murder of the one person in life who believed he was worth saving. It's a little cliche, but Noir loves it's cliche.

  • Good hat tips! :D – wetcircuit Jul 18 '18 at 16:30
2

I may possibly not understand the question but allowing any of the bugs to become features seems like it might be good food for thought.

Identify something that is a hangup in your experience thus far. Convert it into something clever.

Example: He's not really an old jazz musician. But because he looks like one, and because that gets him into the places he needs to get into in order to overhear the shady lowlifes talking about no-goodnicks, he picks up the sax (of course) and joins a group.

Answer: I don't think you can avoid stereotypes, but I think you can wink at the reader while invoking the stereotype. Sanderson does this (with cliche) in his Wax and Wayne trilogy with tea-drinking. The butler brings the selections of teas, goes on at length about how typical it is to drink tea, (in all these sorts of books), and then expounds upon the many under-appreciated qualities of tea. At the end of the diatribe, I think, OK. Tea drinking rightfully belongs in this book, cliche be damned.

1

Let me preface this by saying I have a slightly warped sense of... well everything really.

You want to tap into the archetype of the savvy aging musician without stereotyping the old, hatted black guy then have an old, white, bald and proud muso. He's the same character but he bears no, physical, resemblance to the stereotype you want to avoid.

  • He also has nothing in common with the original character design. You took my Black Noir Detective and made him a white musician. How does that help? – wetcircuit Jul 17 '18 at 19:25
  • @wetcircuit From my reading of the character I only changed his skin colour you'd already made the rest of the changes, if you didn't mean to convey that I apologise, but I can only answer the question as I see it. – Ash Jul 17 '18 at 19:34
  • Did you "see" the picture? – wetcircuit Jul 17 '18 at 20:51
  • @wetcircuit Yes and then I read the question and you say in the question that you were already rewriting the rest of the character, my description is the character as rewritten in your question minus the hat, and with pale skin. – Ash Jul 19 '18 at 7:02

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.