I’d like to start a discussion about changing attributes of fictional characters, which has cropped up a lot recently in cases like black Hermione in the stage production of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”, Jodie Whittaker as the next Doctor in the TV series, calls for a female James Bond… the list goes on: Myles Morales, Thor Girl, Ghostbusters, etc., etc. (Isn’t it interesting how it’s predominantly a “nerd culture” problem, although that’s not what I’m going to be talking about.)

I tend not to wade into internet arguments, because I have friends that straddle both sides of the fence, and I like to always keep an open mind. But this one’s been around long enough that I’m comfortable taking a position on it. Maybe I’m going to cop a lot of flak for it, but it’s been a while since I’ve put up a decent, meaty post, so it’s probably about time.

I guess it shouldn’t come as any surprise that people only seem to be able to take a binary view of the matter – either it’s OK to update any character with different attributes (because it’s all just make-believe, right?), or it’s not, because to change anything messes with some kind of mystical sacred bond between creator and creation (or rather, then ownership that the consumer feels towards both of them because they spent their hard earned on it).

Of course, the rational position is never so clear-cut and lies somewhere in between, so let’s try and pull together some things that we can use to make a call on whether or not a character should be changed.

The Everyman

The first concept I’d like to present is the Everyman (with apologies for the gendered nature of the term, but that’s yet another whole kettle of fish). This trope describes how authors and writers get us, as readers and viewers, to relate to their stories. It’s when we find a character so relatable that we can put ourselves into their shoes, and be them or be like them. Therefore, the protagonist of a story becomes a conduit for engaging with the narrative plot and setting, via empathy from the reader. Books remain popular in spite of TV and movies because consuming the written word requires imagination, and people imagine themselves in the role of the protagonist.

Some are more obvious than others: I still remember a conversation I once had with a former colleague after I first finished reading Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card. He asked me whether I noticed anything about the main character. Remembering details is not one of my strong points, so I told him I had no idea. “Ender is never physically described,” he replied. Now I never verified this claim, but taken at face value, the character becomes an avatar that the reader can project themselves into, so that the author could emotionally hook them into the morality tale inside an epic space opera.

However, an everyman is not every man (or woman, or child). Naturally, there must be some attributes that make the character unique, or special, in service of the plot. Ender Wiggin was a small child. His being a child was an essential component of the story that Card was trying to tell, because of the innocence that children possess. Gender, less so. And ethnicity, not at all. But it should be easy to see that as more plot-essential attributes are added, the less relatable a character becomes. This is why there are very few (successful) speculative fiction novels about aliens set in alien worlds with no parallels with our own.

Another example that hits close to home for me, as a Transformers fan, is the Michael Bay live-action movie franchise. These movies are universally panned by fans and critics alike, and yet in spite of that, they have been extremely commercially successful. During the production of the first movie, Stephen Spielberg (one of the producers) told the screenwriters that “a boy and his car” should be the focus of the story.

Now this may seem like an odd choice for a franchise about huge transforming robots, but as a successful filmmaker Spielberg probably has some insight that the rest of us don’t. This is just my guess, but I reckon that at some point the special effects budget dictated that they couldn’t give the robots enough screen time to make them relatable, so therefore a human cast was brought onboard to do the emotional heavy-lifting. The fans’ crushing disappointment then, was most likely in no small part due to having to shoulder the role of… well, Shia Labeouf, when they were expecting to emulate their heroes, the Autobots – who in the sequels, were themselves cast into horrible, unrelatable stereotypes.


That last point leads nicely into the other concept I believe to be relevant: representation. This is the question of “who wants to be that character?”

We obviously relate most to those who are most like us, whether that’s our physical attributes, socio-political (or even literal) environment, or emotional state. So there more like us a character is, the more engaged we’re likely to be. That’s all very well and good for books, where, as I said before, it allows some imagination on the part of the reader. The problem lies in visual media, i.e. comics, theatre, TV and films, where creators have no option but to make certain choices about what a character looks like. Hence we get Asa Butterfield as Ender, for instance. He could have been any race, but Hollywood cast a white boy because of their deeply entrenched capitalist status quo that maintains whites represent the “largest market share”[1].

It should be apparent how alienating this decision is to people of other races. That’s not to say it’s wrong. The singular nature of race means that no matter which one is chosen, the rest are then excluded. The mistake is in thinking that these choices somehow become an essential part of the character. With each attribute that is added to the “core essence”, the group of people who identify with the character becomes smaller, but the degree of identification becomes stronger, and therein lies one of the key reasons why some people insist characters can only be a certain way. Taken to its logical conclusion, this also flips our earlier question on its head, turning it from “who wants to be that character?” into “who does the character want to be?”

That’s why diversity in representation is needed, so that everybody gets a chance to see themselves portrayed in print or on screen, which will grow the market rather than shrink it.

Hopefully all this gives us some guidance as to whether changes to a character are justified: let’s take a look at the cases mentioned at the beginning of this essay:

  • Black Hermione: does the character’s race have any plot implications whatsoever? Nope. Next!
  • Female Doctor Who: this is an interesting one. The Doctor isn’t actually an everyman – that’s the role of the companion. The character serves as a lens for us to observe the human condition. Given the topicality of gender roles, it is entirely appropriate because the character is nothing more than a plot device in spite of being eponymous (kinda like Zelda in The Legend of Zelda videogames).
  • Female James Bond: this is an example of “limited appeal”. Bond was specifically concocted as a suave, sophisticated alpha-male archetype that men wanted to be, and women wanted to be with (back in those sexist, misogynist days). Given Bond’s anachronisms, he should be retired, not replaced. So that’s a firm “no”.

Do you agree?


[1] It should be noted that international earnings are starting to exceed US domestic earnings, putting paid to this theory; see: Why U.S. Audiences Matter Less To Film Box Office Success