Privilige and How it Affects Your Characters

23 Aug

I’ve been reading a lot about privilige lately, and I’ve always gotten that there are various kinds of privilige:  white privilige, class privilige, male privilige, heterosexual privilige.

But the concept of privilige is so much more wide-spread than that.

There are all sorts of little ways in which we judge people, and all of these involve privilige, sometimes they are tied into bigger chunks of privilige.  And sometimes it’s just this one little thing, and because you can’t tie it into a larger idea of privilige, you classify this person as less because of it.  There are all sorts of things that fall into this category.  Using a credit card at the store, writing a check, how to hug somebody properly.

And I know that if everyone in the world read my post, many of them would be saying:  “What do you mean ‘hugging somebody properly’?  You just hug them.  How could you not know how to hug someone?”  But hugging is a learned behavior.  You learned how to hug people during some period of time (if you have learned how to), likely when you were growing up.

And so when you go to hug your 21-year-old roommate, or girlfriend, or cousin, or friend, and they pull back, or are a limp fish, or manufacture some excuse not to hug you, just consider: maybe they don’t hate you, maybe they aren’t secretly angy, maybe they don’t not care about you, maybe they aren’t planning to break up with you, stop being friends, or whatever else.  Maybe they just didn’t grow up in a household where they learned how to hug.  Or maybe the reason they’ve never been in physical contact with you is because due to something in their life, they associate physical contact with negative feelings or treatment.

The same thing goes for writing a check, or making an appointment with a doctor, or anything else.  Maybe they didn’t get a bank account when they were sixteen to keep their birthday money, or their trustfund.  Maybe they don’t know how to call a doctor because they didn’t have money for medical care.  This person is probably already feeling awkward, or scared, or like shit, because they know they don’t know how to do this thing.  And they know how people are going to react.  I’m sure most people have seen this happen.  “How do you not know how to use a computer?”  “Anybody knows the “A” button means “yes”.  “How can you not work a dish-washer?”  “Dude, how hard is it to order a drink at the bar?”  “What?  You can’t read?  Are you stupid or something?”  “You can’t ride a horse?  What the fuck have you been doing with your life?”

Some of these things we already associate with privilige.  Some of them we feel are bigger problems, and desverve more sympathy.  But what they have in common is they are all learned behaviors.  Do you know why this person doesn’t know how to do that thing?  Because they didn’t have someone to teach them how.  You know how to do it because someone taught you, or you learned yourself.  But even if you did learn yourself, guess what?  This person is going through exactly what you went through:  watching other people do this thing while trying not to be too obvious, covering up the fact that they don’t know how and hoping they won’t be found out, feeling like shit because how dumb must they be to not be able to do something everyone else seems to know how to do, and knowing that if they are found out, that’s exactly the question other people are going to ask about them.

Now, I’m only here to preach at you a little bit.  I do actually have a writing-related point to this.  When you’re trying to figure out how a character would act in a given situation, or what they might reasonably know how to do, consider:  What skills would they be in a position to learn?  Did they cook the dinner in their house as a kid?  Did they have spending money?  Are they familiar with physical forms of affection?  If their parents don’t trust them with money, there’s a good chance they won’t know how to write a check or use a credit card.

Perhaps more relevant: How might they react to what other people can do?  What do they see as common life skills?  What do they see as a common reaction to a situation?  Someone who butchers their own animals for meat might see being scared of blood as weak and a personal failing.  Someone with rich parents and a trust fund might be surprised to find a friend doesn’t know how to pay with a credit card, or order in a fancy restaurant.  Someone with an old hand-me-down for a car might be curl their lip at a rich kid who needs a mechanic to check their oil.

All of those are pretty obvious examples.  But your characters will have specific set of prejudices and abilties, based on their background and social group and living situation.  And if these factors don’t match up with what your character actually knows or can do, I’m going to be very suspicious.  The same for if they are mysteriously blind to various forms of privilige when they shouldn’t be, or aware of them when their background doesn’t explain why.  And I’m going to wonder if maybe you as the author are blind to this privilige.  I’m unlikely to judge you personally for this, but I’m not going to have any sympathy when someone else calls you out.  Because as a writer, this is something I expect you to know.  Writers research all kinds of things during the course of writing a book, and privilige in all its forms is something you damn well better be aware of if you want to portray the real world accurately and fairly.


Posted by on August 23, 2011 in atsiko, Authors, Character, Privilege, Writing


Tags: , , ,

8 responses to “Privilige and How it Affects Your Characters

  1. Juliette Wade

    September 25, 2011 at 8:46 PM

    Nice article, Atsiko. I really enjoyed it.

    • atsiko

      September 26, 2011 at 1:39 AM

      I’m glad you liked it. 🙂

      I’m running way too many credit hours this semester, so I don’t get to post very often. I think it improves the overall quality of my individual posts, but I feel like the blog as a whole is suffering from lack of content.

  2. fuzzymango

    October 23, 2011 at 1:39 PM

    This is really an excellent point as well as an excellent post. I’ll definitely be keeping this in mind during NaNo this November!

    • atsiko

      October 24, 2011 at 8:24 AM

      I wish I’d waited to write it until I discovered my french toast privilige. Would have been an awesome example. 🙂

      I was a bit worried some people might feel the post trivializes the more serious forms of privilige, such as racial, class, or gender privilige. I think it’s a good analogy for lots of situations and behaviors, but those three categories are pretty much in a class of their own. But so far it seems I was worried about nothing.

  3. Francois

    October 25, 2011 at 8:28 AM

    I had this same issue when developing my WIP, something you touched upon very well. What happens when you take a “person of priveledge,” in the case of my WIP a princess of incredible authority and means, and throw her into the wilderness without her retainers and comforts of court? I found it to be a pretty darned good way to drive character development. Old habits are hard to break and sometimes asking for help is the hardest thing to do.

    • atsiko

      October 25, 2011 at 2:45 PM

      Definitely. I see a lot of riches to rags stories, especiallly ones where the mc is on the run, and they seem startling skilled in pretending to be porr. I don’t buy it. Change takes time, and a llot of it.

  4. A Kirkland

    June 11, 2013 at 5:54 PM

    Fantastic advice and input for writers just starting out, helped me a lot. I’ll be sure to mention you and this new learning curve in my blog! Many thanks!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: