Some folks call it the avatar, others call it the cipher, and others still call it the straight man, but whatever you call it, almost every story has a character the audience is supposed to identify with. This character is intended to be a point of reference for the audience, a touchstone that pulls them into the world the story is trying to create. These characters have something familiar about them that makes the reader, viewer, or listener feel connected to them, and it acts as an invitation to traverse the realm of the tale for the audience.
When it is done wrong, the audience feels disconnected and disinterested in the subject matter. Even when the story is based in the real world, if there is not a guide for the audience, they often do not feel compelled to begin the journey. When it is done right, however, the audience might not even notice that it happened.
Take The Divine Comedy, for instance. There are technically two avatars introduced in Inferno. The first is Dante. He is a simple man, one who the reader can readily dive into. He is just a guy who is in love. This is a key point in avatar-hood. The avatar intended for the audience must be plain enough that the audience can easily see themselves in this character’s place. In Inferno, Dante can be anyone. Anyone can put themselves in his shoes and jump into his adventure.
The second avatar is Virgil. His role is slightly more complicated. He is the avatar for the avatar. He is the character that the original avatar aspires to emulate. Virgil is laid back, and courageous, but not TOO courageous. He is still human enough for Dante to see the man he would like to be in Virgil.
Another example of this would be the main trio in the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise. The avatar for the audience, depending on which particular film we are discussing, would be Will Turner or Elizabeth Swan. These are the two people the audience most readily sees themselves in. They are fun, and go on wild adventures, but in the beginning, they are plain folk living simple lives. Granted Elizabeth comes from a well-off family, but her personality is that of a an average Jane, while Will makes a living as a blacksmith, just a good old blue collar worker by today’s standards.
In their case, Jack is THEIR avatar. He is wild and zany, and even though on the surface they despise him, each of them secretly wishes they could do what he does and go on his adventures. His swashbuckling ways are their invitation into the life they wish to lead, while he still displays a level of humanity that keeps him grounded to their reality. He has flaws and makes mistakes, and he is normal enough that they feel comfortable enough following him across the sea on three separate occasions, much like the audience does with Will and Elizabeth.
And while the role of the guide characters like Jack and Virgil warrant their own discussion, for now, we will simply acknowledge their function as the avatar for our avatars.
Now, there is a very specific aspect of these avatars that comes up again and again, especially in recent years, and that is the element of representation. Much of Western storytelling revolves around white males. Obviously this is not always the case, but it is true often enough that the people who are not tall, white, handsome men can feel somewhat disconnected from these tales.
That is not to say that people cannot connect to characters who don’t look like them. Anyone can imagine themselves as anyone else; that is the power of imagination. However, especially when it comes to children, humans look for people they can identify with. In storytelling, that manifests itself in people looking for characters who more easily fit with what they see in the mirror.
Take Disney Princesses, for example. Many of them are white women…mostly because those tales come from fairy tales from western Europe. So, naturally, these women would be melanin deficient. Those that do not fit that profile stand out in our minds, though. Mulan (we can discuss her princesshood some other time; stick with me here), Jasmine, and Tianna. What do these characters bring to the table, and why are they necessary?
Mulan is an example of a girl who, for the sake of family, breaks tradition and takes on a “man’s job” in a “man’s” world, and shows little girls everywhere that they can rise to the occasion just as well as any boy. Her story is set in Ancient China, and her character is Chinese. This showcases an avatar who has strength, character development, and equality as a woman of color. It does these things without Race being her defining trait, and while a it does put her gender under the spotlight, it does so in a way that empowers her. The other characters in the movie come to respect her, and when they discover she is a woman, they eventually come around to realizing that her gender was not what made her a good soldier, it was her inner strength. Happy feels all around.
Jasmine gets more complicated, as she falls into the damsel in distress category, much like many of the other Disney princesses do. She is still an avatar character, but mostly because Disney pushes their princess line like crazy. She has brief moments of independence and personal identity, but the majority of the character development in that tale is about how Aladdin is going to A. trick her into falling in love with him, and then B. save her from the big bad scary man. So…if your identity character is a woman, I guess my point is aim for Mulan over Jasmine.
I will go further into Tianna and how she fits into this archetype, as well as several others, in a future installment. Truth be told, I have not watched that movie enough to speak from a place of authority, and until I rectify this, I’m going to keep my foolish mouth shut on the matter.
In one last comparison, I would like to bring to your attention yet another Disney flagship property, the Star Wars franchise. Specifically, I think it is important to note how differently the films and the animated series have been handled thus far. In the primary nine films, women and people of color are either nonexistent or largely mishandled. Princess/General Leia Organa is a great example…but that’s about where the list ends. In the original three films, she is one of almost zero female characters, and is the only one with any character development. As for POC, the originals have only one minority represented (and Lando Calrissian is a certified badass, let me tell you.)
But Josh, you say, Star Wars is set in space and has aliens everywhere! Are you telling me that those characters don’t matter? To that I politely invite you to shut your cakehole, as I have yet to meet a furry dog person who looks to Star Wars as the only representation of his people in cinema. Let’s be real; the original trilogy is scarce in its use of minorities. Is this a problem? No, not really. The stories work, the characters are well developed, and overall, when the avatars are on screen, everyone can identify with them.
Let’s fast forward to the sequel trilogy. We have Rey and Finn. By the numbers, this should cover our bases. We have a female lead and a person of color in identifying roles. Cool. However, these characters are often TOO bland to fulfill their roles as avatars. They have too few identifying qualities. Remember, we identify with Will and Elizabeth in PotC because they feel like real people. They have real jobs, they have personalities, and yet they are juuuuust adventurous enough to pull us along on their journey. There is nothing inviting us to follow Finn or Rey. Rey is just “strong female lead number one,” whereas her counterpart in the original trilogy was strong, but also had fears and was given a logical arc. Finn, while he was set up in his first appearance as someone new to this world and would have been perfect as our avatar, was never developed beyond that simple, foolish man he was in the beginning. He didn’t take us anywhere, he never made us feel anything.
And this is not to say I hate the sequel trilogy. I rather enjoyed them. But if we do not study the mistakes of the past, we are doomed to repeat them. In this day and age, I must clarify this point, as fanbases can be…intense…about the things they do and do not like.
Shift gears to the various animated series, specifically The Clone Wars. There we have a wide cast of characters, from all walks of life, various genders and races, and different ages. What makes the use of these characters so much better than how minorities are used in the live action films is that here, they are fully fleshed out characters. They were not made out to be women or people of color just for the heck of it. Those things play into who they are. Their gender is used both as an asset and as a hurdle, depending on the situation. Race and class distinctions are used as points of discussion. Slavery, inequality, and other such topics are addressed organically, and the audience has insight into those things because these characters come from a place of experience.
Ahsoka is a female person of color (I know we had the alien discussion earlier, but it is actually utilized here; stay on topic), who in various arcs gives us a glimpse into how women are treated in this universe, or how class and race affect everyday life. Anakin was a slave, so when slavery is encountered, you see the memories and the fury rise up in him, and you feel it alongside him.
You see, what I’ve been trying to say this whole time is this: these aspects of character need not be on display or heavy handed. When characters are treated like people, and are written naturally, these things simply become a part of who they are. They do not become the character’s whole person. When we see white guys saving the day, we are not fixated on the fact that he is a white guy; we see a character who brings us along on his adventure, and we feel we can connect with him. For some of us, we can identify because, hey, he looks kinda like me. When we have characters like Ahsoka or Mulan or Will and Elizabeth, we do not see race or gender first; we see compelling characters who invite us to come along on amazing journeys. And, for a portion of the audience, part of that compulsion is, hey, they look like me.
Representation should not be a hot button issue. It’s just good character writing. Having a character your audience can identify with is essential to good storytelling. Those identifiable aspects can, and should, be wide ranging. The audience can grasp onto their motivation, their background, their lifestyle, or what they look like and where they come from…because, at the end of the day, when we read that book or watch that movie, deep down, we think…damn, that should be me.