On Writing Black Sidekicks and Fleshing Out Supporting Characters, a guest post by Ben Philippe
If you grew up on television like I did, and happened to be black, like I was, you always noticed yourself on the screen. The ongoing conversations about diversity and representation in children’s entertainment happening today were never about ‘absence’ in my experience. Black characters were, if nothing else, always present in teenaged stories.
If representation amounted to seeing or yourself in the background or walking down a school hallway behind the main characters clutching books to your chest and nodding to their woes, then I was very much visible. YA literature will likewise never run out of faces in the crowd that are broadly described as “dark-skinned with a toothy grin.” (You might think there’s literally no other way of smiling.)
It took a few years for me to realize that these characters were hollow glass figures. They had no interiority, no depth. Everything about them lived on the surface of their skins and if they taught me anything, it was to see myself in the white leads instead, an ability for which I’m now grateful. You learn to define yourself through character traits and personality rather than their physical appearance. You might say that that should be a given of fiction, but how many books have you put down or walked past simply because of the assumptions made about the face on the cover? It often goes beyond not having been grabbed by a cover to underlying assumptions that “there couldn’t possibly be anything for me here.”
Learning to see past that is, in my opinion, its own reading muscle. Someone really should come up with an adage. Don’t judge a book by its something, something…
Whether it was intentional or by design, all my YA protagonists thus far have come from that batch of easily dismissed archetypes. Norris Kaplan, the protagonist of my first book, was the new foreign kid in town. I imagine that in a different book, he would be his white friend Liam’s sidekick and I shamelessly enjoyed reversing that polarity.
Nearly two years later, the same can now be said for Henri, the protagonist of CHARMING AS A VERB. Henri is the tall popular Black guy and a bit of an academic jock who, at a glance, could narratively max out as “the best friend of the white basketball player.” You know the archetype… the walking set of catchphrases that stands slightly behind the real love protagonist at the party and exists to provide the occasional fist bump. That was the stick figure I was working against in writing Henri’s easy charm and ability to get along with everyone. Henri is both effortlessly charming and open while being staunchly private. His family is poor, his apartment is small, and his dreams are as big as any of his Manhattan classmates — though, they perhaps may not be his own…
Two YA novels in, I might say that my philosophy is that there is no such thing as “a side character.” In giving primacy to a Henri or a Norris, you inevitably push other characters to the background. (Limited number of pages and all.) There is a true joy for me in playing with that distance on the page.
I like writing in the limited first-person perspective or the close third perspective because they turn those limitations in access to surrounding characters’ inner lives into something both the reader and protagonist must navigate together.
In truth, ‘Show; Don’t Tell’ is a universal bit of screenwriting wisdom that doesn’t always translate to prose fiction for me. Sometimes, the joy is in deciphering what was told but not shown, or what might have been mispresented by one character to another. I like my protagonists to occasionally turn the corner and realize that their “supporting characters” are in the midst of their own messy lives or one step ahead of them and one regard or another. I like writing in the limited first-person perspective or the close third perspective because they turn those limitations in access to surrounding characters’ inner lives into something both the reader and protagonist must navigate together.
These characters do not simply exist for the protagonist to bounce clever dialogue on or to advance the plot… To me, they have their feelings and thoughts which might throw the protagonist for a loop and I live for these moments where the tiny village of the story I’m writing is now alive with activity, conflict, and lives that are happening off-screen.
One of my greatest joys as a writer is reaching a scene in which a real argument or conversation can naturally take place. Things have been withheld between characters; mistakes and lies have been uncovered. In these moments, you, the reader, realize that these supporting and previously passive characters continued to live their lives away from the page and it’s a delightful jolt. To an only child, which I very much was, it is sort of like coming home to find that all your toys have been playing without you all day and it’s a pretty great feeling.
Meet Ben Philippe
Ben Philippe is a New York–based writer and screenwriter, born in Haiti and raised in Montreal, Canada. He has a Bachelor of Arts from Columbia University and an MFA in fiction and screenwriting from the Michener Center for Writers in Austin, Texas. He also teaches screenwriting at Columbia University. He is the author of Field Guide to the North American Teenager. He can be found online at www.benphilippe.com.
Some of Ben’s favorite indie bookstores include:
About Charming as a Verb
From the award-winning author of The Field Guide to the North American Teenager comes a whip-smart and layered romantic comedy. Perfect for fans of Nicola Yoon and Jenny Han.
Henri “Halti” Haltiwanger can charm just about anyone. He is a star debater and popular student at the prestigious FATE academy, the dutiful first-generation Haitian son, and the trusted dog walker for his wealthy New York City neighbors. But his easy smiles mask a burning ambition to attend his dream college, Columbia University.
There is only one person who seems immune to Henri’s charms: his “intense” classmate and neighbor Corinne Troy. When she uncovers Henri’s less-than-honest dog-walking scheme, she blackmails him into helping her change her image at school. Henri agrees, seeing a potential upside for himself.
Soon what started as a mutual hustle turns into something more surprising than either of them ever bargained for. . . .
This is a sharply funny and insightful novel about the countless hustles we have to keep from doing the hardest thing: being ourselves.
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 10/13/2020
Age Range: 13 – 17 Years
Filed under: Uncategorized
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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