“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
While there are a number of reasons why I think that this is terrible advice to give a writer of fiction, the most egregious of them is that it fosters a perceived need for what might be termed “identity justification.”
When a storyteller is guided by the Chekhov’s Gun principle the audience knows that everything is there for a reason. Not simply physical items like the gun in the example, but also items relating to character development. In an action movie, for example, if a character talks about his background as a heavy equipment operator you can bet that before the closing credits roll that character is going to jump into a bulldozer and use it to drive through the wall of the villain’s secret lair.
Otherwise, that line of dialogue wouldn’t be there. The writer has hung a metaphorical bulldozer on the wall, and it’s going to have to go off, at least according to conventional wisdom. If you see kids playing a video game and shooting aliens in the first scene, they are going to end up capturing ray guns and shooting real aliens later on. (cf. Mars Attacks.)
If a character is shown to be a cowboy, he’s got to end up doing some kind of “cowboy thing”–using a lariat, riding a bull, even just having a bullet stopped by his ridiculously large silver belt buckle. Chekhov’s Gun implies that a cowboy has to have some reason that is important to the plot in order to be a cowboy.
Now. Why is a character a woman?
Think about it.
Obviously, if a character is a woman, she has to do “woman things”, right? Not that I expect that writers think of it quite like that, but there is that mindset. Woman characters are there to do woman things, gay characters are there to do gay things, Black characters are there to do Black things.
This attitude is summed up by a comment I read regarding homosexual characters in fiction, someone remarked that if a gay character’s relationship was not a part of the plotline, then why make the character gay? Other posters quickly condemned that comment as homophobic, but I think that is missing the point.
The point, to my mind, is that the principle of Chekhov’s Gun leads writers to believe that what is significant about a character–or a setting, or a prop–has to be significant in terms of the plot.
Combine that with the push for diversity for its own sake, and you end up with every police drama on television having a tough, no nonsense single mother on staff whose daughter (you notice that the kids are almost never sons) is threatened once a season.
Then you have the clever, inventive Black detective from the ghetto who has to confront a high school pal who is now a big time drug dealer once a season.
And you have the Asian detective (who can be either a man or a woman, for some reason female Asians don’t count as the token woman, only as the token Asian) who must instruct everyone else in the intricacies of the Yakuza or the Tongs once a season.
Now, of course, we get to have the gay character (not a detective, that’s too macho–the gay character must be a fragile fainting flower like a Victorian lady) who has to be rescued from nasty homophobes once a season.
On the plus side, that’s a quarter of the shows that the writers don’t have to come up with an idea for, I suppose.
But this is what I mean by identity justification. It’s subtle and it’s pernicious and it leads not to diversity in any meaningful sense, but tokenism.
Because those characters that the writer sees as “mainstream” don’t need justification. It’s Chekhov’s Gun, not Chekhov’s Calender. Nobody says that if a character has a picture of his mother on the wall in chapter one that he has to dress up like Norman Bates by chapter three. It is only the atypical that has to have some direct impact on the story.
Someone who looks and thinks like the author can just be. If a character is different from the author, that character has to be different for a reason. And that means that including characters who are different from the author involves twisting the plot in order to give them identity specific functions in the story.
The alternative, of course, is to jettison the entire concept of removing everything that has no relevance to the story. Because people aren’t who they are for a reason, they just are who they are. Characters should be more than just plot devices, and that means that they have a lot of parts that have no relevance to the story, but those parts make our readers care what happens in the story.