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X-RAY SPECS: Ethnicity in Character Descriptions

Robert Piluso explains how ethnicity and gender should be regarded as vitally important, formative factors in character design and in writing character descriptions.

Robert Piluso is a film critic (The Essential Sopranos Reader), screenwriter (CS Expo 2011 Winner Best Comedy Script) and professor at Chaffey College. Follow him on Twitter @RobertPiluso.

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Robert Piluso explains how ethnicity and gender should be regarded as vitally important, formative factors in character design and in writing character descriptions.

The solution for over a century of entrenched racism and sexism in American mainstream entertainment is not writing “any ethnicity” in your screenplay’s character introduction parenthetical.

Yes, this is becoming a thing. And it’s not right, though hearts may be in the right place.

In a recent casting call for a major motion picture, the list of characters to be cast read: “Any ethnicity, any ethnicity, any ethnicity” all down the line. In one sense, it’s great that any actor within the age-range and sex of the character could audition for the role, but in another sense, should ethnicity really be regarded as so interchangeable a factor in a character’s identity? It’s one thing to be “colorblind” (i.e. “any ethnicity”), and quite another to be sensitive to perceiving and protecting ethnic difference at the writing and casting phases.

I would rather not be color-blind; I would rather view my world, and people in it with me, in full color. Scholarship in the education field explores this new emphasis in understanding diversity, and it’s up to the entertainment industry, now, to catch up. (For starters, please see “Colorblindness: The New Racism?” by Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs ).

After all, recent protestations regarding the lack of diversity in 2015 Academy Award®-nominated major categories suggest that “colorblind” signifies “white default.” The director of Selma, Ava DuVernay, called for planned protests to be cancelled in order to “pursue instead a direct dialogue with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,” according to National Action Network director Najee Ali. Obviously something is amiss.

Rather, ethnicity and gender should be regarded as vitally important, formative factors in character design. We cannot expect this industry-wide problem of exclusion and omission to correct itself. It hasn’t. It won’t.

We as screenwriters can adopt a more inclusionary mindset at the writing phase.

Let the end to racism and sexism in mainstream entertainment begin with us.

Now, you may ask yourself, “I’m only one writer, with one set of sex, gender, and ethnic experiences—what can I do?”

My response to your eminently sensible question is two more questions:

"Can a writer only write characters of his or her own ethnicity, with authenticity?"

"Can a writer only write as his or her own sex and gender, even when writing characters of the opposite sex, or a different gender?"

These difficult questions cut at the heart of what motivates us to be writers in the first place. After all, if you were happy with just being “you” and seeing the world from your own eyes, then why be a writer and create fictional characters in fictional narratives? If one is a writer, it seems that one’s own identity does not suffice to content oneself. Rather, one must investigate and explore and imaginatively create other identities, and see the world from perspectives foreign to one’s own. Through so doing, the writer’s own consciousness expands. Through watching stories about new, different kinds of peoples in new, different kinds of situations, the audience’s capacity for sympathy expands, too. Without freedom of speech, for instance, none of this expansion of consciousness nor expansion of societal sympathy can happen.

We all have to get better at writing beyond our own ethnic and gendered experiences and perceptions before the entrenched problems of racism and sexism in mainstream entertainment can improve. We as screenwriters have to practice imaginative empathy—on the page, as in any room.

At the very least we have to try.

“For I am nothing, if not critical” (Othello, Act II, scene i)

From 1601 to 1602, William “White-As-White-Can-Be” Shakespeare wrote Othello, the Moor of Venice based off current events in London he was seeing, and not liking—local racism against an influx of Moorish immigrants (In Search of Shakespeare, Episode 3, PBS). Through the fictional construct of Othello, Shakespeare’s authorial choice was to look out from inside this ethnically different man at a fearful, hateful people and world set against him.

The character of Othello stands the test of time—not because Shakespeare was a white man writing a black character with any degree of accuracy, but because the play Othello, the Moor of Venice was a great story, well-told, about the timeless social problem of xenophobia and how people can start to deal with the problem by becoming aware that the problem exists in the first place. We do not need to live in a world where a proud patriot and honest, loving human being—of any skin-color, sex, gender, or socioeconomic background—spiritually degenerates and self-destructs. Guilty (Iago) and not guilty (Desdemona), alike—everybody loses. Love loses. Society loses.

That’s what makes a tragedy a “tragedy”—if not for human foibles, ingrained on the societal level, the personal tragedy would not occur because the tragedy could not occur within an enlightened society, made up of enlightened persons.


In recent decades, in response to the demand for greater access to the entertainment industry, studios, professional organizations, and production companies have been implementing programs to discover and develop new, diverse voices. I believe cultivating more perspectives is exactly what an industry in crisis for wont of originality needs in order to reinvent itself.

First, at the following link, courtesy of the fine folks at the NAACP, you will find numerous opportunities for historically under-represented minorities and women:

The deadlines to apply range throughout the year, so please familiarize yourself with these opportunities well in advance.

Second, you may click here, courtesy of the Writers Guild of America:

Third, I would call upon you, yes, upon our readers, to post below in the Comments section of this article additional opportunities, avenues, programs, and resources to increase awareness regarding greater equity and ethnic, sex, and gendered representation in screenwriting. If not now, then, when? If not here at Script Magazine, then where?

While the above important resources and links refer to screenwriters outside of the page, the main idea behind this article is to issue the call for each individual screenwriter—inside of the page—to step beyond himself or herself and write to include in your scripts specific characters conceived of specific ethnicity, specific socioeconomic background, and/or specific sexual orientation that is not comfortable nor familiar to you.

This is how you will grow as a writer, and as a human soul.

The end-result of diversity initiatives in screenwriting must not be segregation of content, of ideas, of peoples, authentic wholly to and of themselves—“separate, but equal”—for this would be a different tragedy, and one more tragedy too many.

We all need to try to see the world from different sets of eyes, sometimes. This is why we are writers, at all, isn’t it?

Don’t let your scripts be “color-blind”: be color-enlightened.

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