What characteristics and traits are absolute or a character? What defines this character so uniquely that without this trait, this character will cease to be the character that you know and love?
This is a difficult question. Most people (and I think I can say this because I have followed several distinct subcultures throughout my life from Stargate to Star Trek to DC and Marvel comics) have their own unique sensibilities when it comes to determining what is essential to find characteristic of an individual. However, I think you can definitively say what is absolutely required and what absolutely not required.
The task is to strip away every superfluous detail about a character, leaving only the core.
Let’s examine two characters:
- A. Spider-Man
- B. Quinton Coldwater [THE MAGICIANS TRILOGY]
Example A. SPIDER-MAN
The sole defining characteristic of Spider-Man is “with great power must come great responsibility”. Everything else is extraneous. The fact that he is white is not essential to his character. The fact that he is male is not essential to his character. This has been proven over and over again with different iterations from the MC2 Spider-Girl, Mayday Parker, Miles Morales of the Ultimate Universe and, Ben Riley, a clone (though he’s definitely still white and male).
May Parker is the daughter of Peter Parker in an alternate future. Yet, she is still Spiderman in the sense that she follows his creed and has horrible luck, honestly. Miles Morales is half black half Hispanic. When we first meet him he’s all of 12 and yet he still has proven to be an outstanding Spider-Man. As for Ben Riley, he is my favorite Spider-Man, so I just wanted to throw in a mention of him.
Regarding Spider-Man’s essential characteristics, other than the spider powers and his sense of morality, virtually everything about Spiderman’s gender and appearance is negotiable. Beneath his mask, he could be anyone. In fact, Marvel regularly touts Peter Parker as the “everyman”.
Example B. QUINTEN COLDWATER
Despite being an intriguing character who goes through a series of interesting events, there is nothing specifically about Quinten that makes him framing him as a teenage WHITE BOY unique. Anyone could go through his experiences, literally. If you replace Quinten with a girl, nothing of the story would change. If you made him black and not white and non-American, nothing about the events in any way shape or form about The Magicians Trilogy would be in any significant way affected. The key characteristic of Quinten is that he is a TEENAGER. A disaffected, lonely teenager with misplaced ideas about what will make him happy.
That helps characters, as a rule. Despite being unique and identifiable, readers are able to identify with the character, placing themselves in his or her shoes.
None of this is to say that Quinten shouldn’t be white or that Peter Parker isn’t white. But, there are a lot of needlessly white people running around fiction, if for no other reason than their authors are. These characters, in the worlds and stories designed around them, are what they are. But that doesn’t mean they couldn’t easily have been something else entirely and had virtually no impact on the stories told.
Just keep that in mind the next time you read a book or complain that Johnny Storm is black.c