Characters Classified: Segmenting Populations in Your Writing

Last weekend, I was sitting around with a bunch of friends at my 3-year-old god-daughter’s birthday party talking about some interesting aspects of YA and Dystopian literature. I mean, what else would you expect to do at a Star Wars themed birthday party complete with signs that display the like of “Use the forks, Luke.”?

Dystopian and YA literature are such interesting beasts. The stories and lessons held within are mottled and fascinating on so many levels. And they have real-world applicability! A friend of mine sent me a meme recently that read something to the effect of: Why are people surprised that children are leading the uprising? In all of the Dystopian literature we’ve been feeding them, it’s the teenagers who have saved the world. And it’s so true. I know people get tired of YA teen heroes and heroines. As a writer I get tired of them too. It’s tough going through all that teenage angst and then reconquering the world at the same time.

Anyway, the conversation I had on Sunday was more focused on character archetypes. In Harry Potter, you have four houses: Gryffindor, Slytherine, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff. In Divergent, you have five factions: Dauntless, Erudie, Amity, Abnegation and Candor.  There are lots of books out there that divide people into groups based on various categories or personality traits. While the characters in Divergent can switch factions at a certain age, the witches and wizards in HP get sorted by a hat. A friend suggested (from an article that he had read) that all of the main characters of HP represent the three other houses and that the people who get into Gryffindor are the ones who are brave enough to ask for it. This really got my mind spinning, especially when I began to categorize the Ravenclaws in the same way as I thought about the Erudites.

In thinking about the characters of Ron, Harry and Hermione, I think you can really see the other houses in their personalities and this was another point my friend made at the dinner table. The Divergent characters, however, see these traits in themselves and pick their own house (or they fail when they make their own selection during their training period and are cast out).

But what’s the overall point of categorizing characters in this way and what does it say about society and about literature in general?

As humans, we automatically categorize things. We have exhibited our dominance and control over the world by naming things (even in the Bible – and I’m not a religious person myself – it talks about Adam naming the plants and animals and sort of asserting his dominion over the earth by this action). This has extended into our understanding of ourselves and seeps into our literature as well.

As things get chaotic, or even just as things change, we seek out ways to control the situation, or to at least give us the illusion of control. In the setting of a Dystopian or Post-apocalyptic novel, we are inserting our characters into situations where they have lost control and what is up has become down. Those in power do what they can to control or curb the chaos by ordering people and segmenting them into groups. This tactic also hearkens back to a Holocaust mindset. The powerful control the weak and categorize people into groups and then siphon off the undesirables. Now, HP doesn’t go this far because it’s not a Dystopian or Post-apocalyptic story, although you do get the idea of undesirables with the whole “mudblood” plotline. But, it does latch onto the idea of grouping people by their characteristics or personality traits. In this scenario though, it’s to their advantage. Grouping people by their best skills makes sense. HP is less about the underdog and more about the underestimated.  In some respects, these two are one in the same, but in other ways, they’re not.

Categorizing things within a story is meant to exhibit the loss of freedom. Before, you could be who or whatever you wanted. But now, you are held within a narrow set of criteria and your value and your life depend greatly on where you are placed. Also, having such restrictions placed on you at a young age is terrifying. Granted, we do the same thing here in the real world. Graduate from high school kid and decide right then and there what you are going to do for the rest of your life. No wonder so many of us go through that rebellious ‘I’m never going to be like you’ stage in our late teens and early twenties.

Writers continue to discover different ways to categorize and restrict their characters. From the silver and red-blooded people of the Red Queen series by Victoria Aveyard or the much more adult When She Woke by Hillary Jordan where people are dyed the color of their crimes and released back into society, we have all come up with ingenious ways to categorize people and create challenging juxtapositions and points of tension.

Categorizing people and then pitting them against each other is a very simple construct that allows us to create tension and build understanding in a foreign world for our reader with not too much effort. This effective writing mechanism remains dynamic in spite of its popularity and encourages writers to find new ways to one-up each other in their storytelling.