Chekhov’s Gun, Identity & The Other

“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.”

—Anton Chekhov

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.


About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle.
This entry was posted in On Promotion, On Publishing, On Writing, Poetry, Who I am and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Chekhov’s Gun, Identity & The Other

  1. That’s a good counter argument to Chekhov’s gun comment. I guess the counter counter argument might be the need to avoid a lot of hanging threads. But a gun isn’t a gay. ‘Gay’ is simply an aspect of someone, like being red haired or kind. Which is a long way of saying, I agree, Misha.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      Thank you. And to clarify, I am not saying that a person’s identity, racial or sexual or anything else, is comparable to prop, just that it seems to be treated by a lot of writers as if it were a prop.

      • Dr. Mauser says:

        And strangely, if you don’t explicitly call out the character as gay, the SJW’s will ascribe all kinds of bad intentions on your part because they ASSUME he’s a straight white male. (They really need to check the source of their irritation.)

      • MishaBurnett says:

        Oh, yes, I remember reading an article about that subject, that writers are responsible for what readers assume about their work.

  2. ‘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.’

    This is something I’ve had trouble with in regard to my own fiction: I have a few short stories with a female protagonist, and some readers have told me that she isn’t a woman because she ‘doesn’t act like a woman.’ *shakes head* Apparently I was supposed to show Alandra doing all sorts of ‘feminine’ things (whatever that means) and having to deal with the struggles of ‘being a woman in a man’s profession’ (she’s a sort of private detective) even though the stories are science fiction set several centuries in the future and gender equality in that setting is an accepted fact.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      Gender is a part of what people who they are, but it’s not the only or the most important part. A detective is going to think like a detective first, and a woman or a man second. It’s not as if your character is going to think, “Well, they are shooting at me and since I have a vagina, I suppose I should shoot back.”

      • I made Alandra a redhead because it mattered for the plot… Race (well, technically species) was important in the creation of this character, but not gender.

  3. sknicholls says:

    “Because people aren’t who they are for a reason, they just are who they are.”

    The diversity we have in society should be reflected in its literature, without question. In my real world, almost everything is “normal”. Why should my writing reflect anything different?

    • MishaBurnett says:

      That’s basically how I feel. I do believe that a lot of writers feel pressure to make characters conform to a particular “diversity template”, however. It’s the difference between creating a Gay Character and then trying to make a Gay Plot for him, and deciding that the a particular character feels gay to you and writing him that way.

  4. Dr. Mauser says:

    Chekov was a Playwright, was he not? I think in plays and movies, where you have very limited time to tell the story (and often a limited budget for sets and props) it might be good advice to pare it down to only the essentials. This is not true for a novel.

  5. njmagas says:

    I agree that if an author chooses a certain ethnicity, gender or sexuality for a character, especially for a main character, that decision ought to play a part in the story, though I disagree that it necessarily has to be a stereotypical caricature of that group. The decision to include a minority character as opposed to a default straight white guy can stem from a number of intentions by the author, that don’t involve driving the plot.

    The rule of Chekhov’s Gun doesn’t so much say “If you include a gay character in act one he has to do something gay by act five” so much as it says, “if you introduce a gay character in act one, he shouldn’t just disappear from the story without having any relevance at all.” Chekhov never said the gun on the wall had to kill anyone. His advice leans more toward, “if you care enough about this item to use words describing it, then make it count toward something.”

    • Dr. Mauser says:

      The poisonous idea here is that usage of the word “Default”.

      I have a novelette on Amazon, and while it is pretty obvious the protagonist is male and heterosexual, I never made any mention of his race (nor really of his appearance at all), because that would distract from the actual nature of his character (he was bigoted against aliens). As an exercise for the reader, imagine the reaction if instead I had explicitly mentioned the character was White (“Well of course he’s a Bigot, he’s White!”). Compare that to what you would think if I had declared him Black, or Asian.

      The notion of “Default” in this situation is a problem with the reader, not the author. And those who choose “Defaults” specifically to get upset about them have serious problems that I imagine the Authors wish they’d get some help getting over.

      My recent fantasy story (embargoed until the results of the Baen fantasy story contest are out) has a female lead. One can assume she’s Caucasian because her hair is mentioned as blonde, but no mention at all is made of her sexuality, because it’s not important to the story. She might even be asexual based on her history.

      On the third hand, I wrote a horror story with a black female Oceanographer (In the ’70’s no less!) and there race was important since she found herself captured by the ghosts of the crew of a sunken slave ship her ancestress had escaped.

      In any case, where it’s mentioned, it’s important to the story, and where it’s not, it’s unimportant. At least it’s unimportant to the story, it might be important to people who are unhappy unless they can say a character is gay like themselves rather than being able to accept the characters as who they are.

      Hell, in that novellette, you’re not supposed to identify with the MC. He’s an asshole, and he’s trapped in an improvised cell with an alien who is a monster to her people, and it all goes awry from what any of the parties involved wanted to have happen.

      • njmagas says:

        I’ll grant that ‘default’ is problematic wording. Perhaps typical is better.

        But I agree. I don’t tend to identify my characters one way or another unless it’s necessary to the story. I have a trans character in my current WIP, but her gender preference isn’t necessary to her plot, so it’s never mentioned. I know her characteristics, which helps me write her as fully as I can, but it’s superfluous information to the reader.

      • Dr. Mauser says:

        (Foo on WordPress, replying to you requires the replies widget because it only nests a few comments deep.)

        The problem is the movement that insists that you a) identify your character (and you’re found wanting if you “default”) b) make it an important point of the story, if not the entire central factor in the plot.

        Why? Because Diversity, and stop questioning your betters.

        I refer, of course to the whole stink about how we should “End Binary Gender in SFF.”

        The rational argument that you and I make about it not being necessary to the plot all the time doesn’t fly with these people. They see White People everywhere, they see Het People everywhere, they see “CIS-Gendered” people everywhere, and they don’t like it. Stories in Science Fiction and Fantasy should be about this miniscule minority all the time because they think that unimportant details about the characters unrelated to the plot ARE the most important thing in the world. They don’t want to read about people different from themselves, they don’t want diversity. Well, they SAY they do, but to them, Diversity means they want to read about people JUST LIKE THEM. And to hell with the plot, they want fiction with a message, and that message is that THEY are good and special and normal and everyone should like them.

        And then they wonder why the SFF market is crashing when they get it. That’s not Science fiction, that’s affirmation, demanded from everyone else.

        And it’s really not all that new and innovative. All those wonderful alternative gender and alternate sexuality topics were written to death about in the “New Wave” of the 60’s and 70’s. But modern authors are being held hostage to these critics’ willful illiteracy. For God’s sake, Damien Walters, read some John Varley! Steel Beach has characters change genders and more like they change their clothes. And that was 1992. It’s not new. It’s been done. It’s not as inventive and progressive as they think.

      • njmagas says:

        There’s a good argument for both sides of the issue, I think. On the one side, I believe it is important to have diversity in literature (as as reader and writer of sci-fi and fantasy, let’s just stick with that). For one thing, it includes a wider range of readers into the circle, and for another, it helps dispel the implicit undertones that minority narratives don’t matter. We need diversity in characters because there is diversity in humanity, and I don’t think it’s pandering to or necessarily damaging to the cultural dominant to include those.

        On the other hand, I do have an issue with a minority trait being the sole basis of a character or premise. I am, for example, bi-sexual, but I don’t make that my defining trait and it bothers me to see minority characters stunted by something that should make them unique and invigorating in the genre.

        Ideally, minority characters and plot should work together to create something new and exciting. Forced writing will always be forced.

        To summarize, I support diversity in writing. I want to read new narratives and see the world in ways I haven’t before, but I don’t want characters or stories to be based on a single defining trait. I don’t want a cis-gendered character to base all his actions and decisions on how many ladies he can get out of the deal, and I don’t want an ethnic character to constantly refer back to their ethnicity (unless it has a relevance to the plot). Humans are more complex than their individual parts.

        I’ve read some amazing stories in the past year that showcase narratives outside of what is typical in fantasy and science fiction. They’ve woven the ethnicity or sexuality of the character so neatly into the plot that the result is seamlessly good story telling.

        I’ve also read some truly horrifying attempts at diversity, where every paragraph has to refer back in some way to the exotic nature of the setting or the character.

      • Dr. Mauser says:

        That’s very well stated, and I can accept that. Now if only the lockstep diversity fanatics who are driving the issue could be so sensible. Thanks to them, we get a lot of those horrible examples you mention foisted upon us, and on the opposite side, because of their obnoxiousness, other authors are digging in their heels at being forced to write the same.

        The sad thing is, the Big Five publishers seem to have quaffed the same Kool-aid, not seeing (or not caring) how it has damaged the market.

      • njmagas says:

        As long as good books are being made that keep me from yawning over the same tired stories, I don’t care how they get published. 🙂

  6. Millie Ho says:

    These are valid points, but I always take Chekhov’s Gun at face value.

    In writing, each word should contribute to one of two things: the plot or character development. Chekhov’s gun could simply be a plotting device without implications for identity. I think the stereotyping of certain demographics has more to do with mainstream media rather than the device itself.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      If you include character development as part of “story” in Chekhov’s quote then I have much fewer difficulties with the concept–I had been assuming the he meant “story” as just plot.

      I still don’t entirely buy it–a lot of my writing is basically decorative, I play with language and ideas without any real purpose in mind beyond having fun.

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