Left Behind Fridays Writing Seminar: It Doesn’t Matter If You Try To Make Your Token Minority Characters “Credits To Their People”, Your Essential Bigotry Will Still Shine Through

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The names of the two primary Jewish characters in Left Behind (at least so far) are Chaim Rosenzweig and Tsion ben-Judah.  Both are perfectly legitimate Hebrew male names.

Know what would be some other examples of perfectly legitimate Hebrew male names?  How about Aaron, Benjamin, Daniel, David, Isaac, Jacob and Joshua?  But LaHaye and Jenkins would not use those names, because they aren’t “Jewish” enough.

(Chaim also falls victim to L&J’s bizarre habit of trying to tell us something about the character with their name, however unlikely that makes the name itself: the maverick reporter is Cameron “Buck” Williams, the Southern sexpot is Hattie Durham, and the botanist’s name translates to “Life Rosetwig”.)

And that can’t be allowed, because Chaim and Tsion’s purpose in this story is to be Jewish.  Part of the reason for this is that L&J’s apocalypse timeline demands that Israel, and the Jews therein, do certain things at certain times.  Only slightly less important, Chaim and Tsion are there to insulate Lahaye and Jenkins from criticism.  They know that they’re going to have a lot of Jewish characters do a lot of bad things, and still more go to Hell because of their stubborn refusal to accept the obvious truth of Christianity, and they don’t want to be accused of anti-Semitism.  So they create two Jewish characters who are Credits To Their People.  They can’t be anti-Semitic if they have two characters who are Credits To Their People, can they?

(Spoiler: yes, they can.)

In other words, Chaim and Tsion are tokens, and near-perfect examples of why tokens don’t work.

Fred Clark goes into great detail about this in NRA: Chaim Is One Of My Jewish Characters, but I think I can sum it up quickly here, then expand it so you can see the applications to other cases of tokenism.

The first problem you run into with tokens is that they’re not there as an organic part of the story.  They’re not real characters.  They’re representatives of Their People.  That means that you’re probably not going to treat them like real characters.  You’ll give them absurd names that amount to Jew von JewGuy, to maximize their “Their People”-ness.  Because they’re in your story as representatives of Their People, they’ll know all of Their People, anywhere, ever, even if that means that a botanist is a former student to a Torah scholar, and both are on personal terms with Biblical Prophets.

Another problem is that you’ll be afraid to let the character show any flaws.  These characters are in your story to be Credits To Their People!  You can’t show them being foolish or weak, because that will destroy the positive portrayal of Their People that you’re trying to create!  When Tsion Ben-Judah’s family is murdered, he can’t shout at God like Job, argue like Abraham or even ask that the cup be put aside like Jesus Himself.  If he’s going to be the Tribulation Force’s personal Jew For Jesus, then his total faith has to be a Credit To His People.

The final problem, and perhaps the most serious, is that your real feelings about your token’s people tend to leak out anyway.  After all, if someone is a Credit To Their People, doesn’t that mean that most of the rest of Their People aren’t as good as they are?

The worst example of this I’ve ever even heard of is in the passage discussed over at Slacktivist.  Tsion Ben-Judah is a Torah scholar, and a book or so ago he announced that his studies had led him to conclude that Jesus was the Messiah and that Lahaye and Jenkins’s brand of American Fundamentalist Christianity is right.

Okay, so he doesn’t say that last part out loud.

Since then, he’s been on the run.  Not because the Israeli government is demanding their grant money back because his “conclusions” for a several-year study were taken verbatim from a Chick Tract, but because they’re trying to kill him.  Why?  Because that’s just what Jews do to out-and-proud Christians if they have the chance.

L&J don’t state this outright.  That’s because it doesn’t even occur to them that they have to.  They take it for granted, and assume that their audience will as well: Jews hate Christians and will kill any apostates among their own who convert to Christianity.  The only exception are Credits To Their Race like Chaim and Tsion, and they prove their Credit-ness by converting.

Don’t get cocky.  Have you written stories with Strong Female Characters where all the other female characters were weak, invisible, or just plain not there?  Have you written black or Hispanic characters who were Credits To Their Race…while all of the rest of Their Race are criminals, layabouts, menials and victims?  Then you’re not doing a heck of a lot better.

So what’s the answer?  Just don’t include any “tokens”?  Make all of your characters white males?

(Insert your own group in here; I’m writing as a white male, L&J are white males, and historically, we’re the ones who’ve been the worst about this because we set up the world to allow us to be.)

That’s an…extreme solution to the problem.  “Write what you know” is always good advice, and writing nothing may be better than a stereotype masquerading as a character (though some would argue the opposite, that token representation is better than nothing).  The problem is that the world is not made up entirely of white males.

There are three steps to avoiding tokenism:

1)     Don’t make white males (or whatever) your generic human being.  The world is full of cops, doctors, lawyers, fire fighters, businesspeople, shop owners, etc. that your characters have to interact with.  Don’t make it so that all of them are white males unless there’s a specific, plot-important reason for them to be otherwise.  Switch a few pronouns and adjectives here and there.  Soon, you’ll find that you have enough women, people of color, etc. that no one has to represent all of Their People.  A word of caution: don’t limit your “background” characters to stereotypical roles.  Don’t make all of your Muslim characters taxi drivers and kebab-cart owners.

2)     Character first, category second.  Don’t start by thinking “I want to include a strong, African-American lesbian who…”  That’s token thinking.  Instead, create your strong, brave, funny, goofy, cowardly, hard-hearted, etc., character, and then start adding adjectives and pronouns.  If you’ve followed rule 1, you’ll find that there’s a surprising variety of characters to bestow those traits upon.  Now, if you’ve followed rules 1 and 2, you’re already out of the Token trap.  You’ll have a lot of different characters running around, just doing their thing, not defined by Their People.  That’s good.  But there’s a way to make it better:

3)     Research.  Yes, research again.  Research always.  Get to know people outside of Your People, if only online.  Blogs are a great source of insight into people who live different lives than you.  This is part of the reason I read Slacktivist: the insight Fred has given me into the Evangelical Christian subculture in the United States is priceless.    You see, while people aren’t defined by Their People, their life and experiences have been shaped by belonging to that People.  While treating Other People as “just like me” is better than turning them into caricatures, it’s also not right.  Ideally, you would be able to portray them as they actually are.  Be careful though; if you don’t watch your step, it’s easy to fall back into caricature.

I wish I could say that I follow these rules all the time myself, but in the end, I’m just another sinner.  I was born and raised in a society where I’m the generic person, and it’s easy to fall back into that if I’m not careful.

I do take some comfort that my tokens were never so much of a Credit To Their People that they implicated the rest of Their People in blood libel.

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