Originally published April 29, 2015
IN A PREVIOUS installment we looked at Steve, a trope that is rapidly becoming a cliche in AAA video games, and why diversity is necessary. However, in adding diversity there is a trap — one that should be avoided where possible.
The token minority character.
As a storyteller, token characters drive me nuts. It’s a sort of lazy shortcut to diversity, one where the colour of a character’s skin becomes a defining attribute, and not for any sensible reason. But how can you tell if you’re dealing with a token character?
It all comes down to context — more specifically, to knowing when the colour of a character’s skin should and should not matter. And to demonstrate, we need to hop into the world of television, with two shows that had a main character who was a visible minority.
Once upon a time, the BBC produced a show called Merlin. It was a pretty good show, with a more modern take on the Arthurian legends. As Guinevere, they cast Angel Coulby, a talented black actress.
Around the time that Merlin came to an end, the BBC produced another show, Copper, set in New York towards the end of the Civil War. As the doctor the protagonists rely upon, they cast Ato Essandoh, a talented black actor.
Both of these shows had a black character. One of them, however, was a token minority. If you guessed Guinevere from Merlin, you are correct.
Again, it’s all about context, and, for that matter, execution. A black Guinevere is a great idea. Guinevere in the Arthurian legends is supposed to be beautiful and exotic, and making the character a visible minority is a wonderful way to accomplish that. Have her affections competed for, have her treated like an exotic prize for the taking to the point that it becomes uncomfortable to watch (and even more uncomfortable for Guinevere to experience) as she tries to make herself into something more than a trophy, and you’ve got great, compelling drama.
Unfortunately, that’s not what the series did.
The series made her a simple servant, treated like everybody else. In a time and place where visible minorities would not have been common, and people would have at least done a double-take at a woman with dark skin, there was not a second glance to be had. The fact that Guinevere was black should have meant something in that series, but it did not. So, despite the fact that Angel Coulby was superb in the role and made it her own, her character came across as a token minority — you could have swapped her out with a white (or Indian, or Chinese, etc.) actress and it wouldn’t have made any difference to the storytelling.
Copper is an entirely different matter.
Doctor Matthew Freeman in Copper is a black man who escaped slavery in the south. The fact that he is black means everything in the context of the story. The protagonists trust him and know that his forensic findings can be relied upon, but they must also hide the source of those findings — after all, if their superiors knew that information or evidence had come from a black man, it would never be trusted. This gives us an opportunity to see the racism of the time first-hand, through the eyes of characters we have come to know and identify with. Freeman may be the only black main character in the cast, but he is not a token character by any stretch of the most fertile imagination.
As I said, it comes down to context — should the presence of a visible minority mean something in the story? If the answer is “yes,” but the character could be swapped out with a non-minority without changing anything, you’ve got a token minority. On the other hand, if the answer is “no,” but the fact that somebody is black, Indian, Arabic, etc., suddenly means a lot to the story when it really shouldn’t, you once again have a token character.
Diversity is a good thing — avoid the token character trap when there is a minority character, and you have done it right. And that does make the story better.