I wanted to discuss this as someone who supports diversity, someone who feels underrepresented in books and films and TV, and someone who is an author who writes with diversity in mind.
Everything I say is my own opinion and advice, said with good intentions…
The first thing to remember when writing diversity into your stories is that in this world (the real world that your readers are from), there are: white people, black people, Asian people, mixed people; short hair, long hair, thin hair, thick hair, afro hair, wavy hair, no hair, coloured hair, patchy hair; able-bodied, disabled, disfigured, mental illnesses, learning disorders, shortened life expectancies; big families, small families, no families; heterosexuals, homosexuals, asexuals, transgender people, fluid genders, no genders, queers, polyamorous relationships… The list literally can go on and on.
And so, when you are writing a world, remember that there are all kinds of people in these worlds. It’s just the norm! And so, it should never have to be something that you think about too much. Why would everyone in your world be white and straight? That’s just bad writing!
Remember that if you are not of a certain ethnic group or sexuality or body type yourself as an author, you may not be the best person to capture the livelihood of said group. This does not mean that you are not allowed to have characters from these groups in your books just because you don’t know their lifestyle. Of course not! Instead, think twice before having perhaps main characters as part of a group that you yourself doesn’t represent.
I only say this because it could come across as offensive if you fail to capture this person’s reality. This is most important in novels set in our world, with our cultures and values. If it’s a fantasy world where there’s green people as well as brown-skinned people, then go right ahead! Only very picky people will call you out on this.
When you do want to include someone of a different group to yourself, then be very careful not to have them as purely the “token diverse character,” where it is so obvious that you put them there to say “hey, I’m inclusive!” And be very careful not to use stereotypes. Like the Black character can’t be the loud, poor, slang-user of the group – this is offensive and an inaccurate representation of Black culture. Similarly, you can’t have a token gay character that is the sassy, hand-waving, effeminate one of the group – again, super offensive.
Explore your characters
Whenever you are creating a character, really think about who they are, what their backstory is, who their family is, and what they value and desire, and how they behave and why. All of these things are the basics of character creation, and when done properly, and authentically, the appearance of your character should also manifest. If you visualise them as white and straight and able-bodied, then go for it. Forcing your character to be something that didn’t naturally feel right will show in your work.
If you have a character, aside from the main character, who you are exploring but have no real image of yet, ask yourself, “what would make this character more real?” Because, as I said before, diversity is real; it’s a part of our world, and so you should naturally consider it when creating characters. Perhaps you start thinking, “ooo their backstory is that they were born into a family of rice farmers” and this leads you to believe that they could be Japanese. You don’t need to stress their Asian-ness or anything, because if you’re not Japanese it may seem inauthentic, but you can have a pretty great character of Japanese heritage who knows how to harvest rice (among many other things). Simple.
Don’t try to please everyone
At the end of the day, there’s probably no way to win over everyone. There’s always someone who will have something to say about your work, whether it is diverse or not. However, if you can truly and honestly say that your characters are real (a real representation of people as a whole), necessary, and authentic, then you have nothing to worry about.
For example, in my current work in progress, my main character is mixed race (like myself) and lives in a fantasy world. She becomes a pirate with a notorious group who have travelled the world. This means that those in the crew with her should be individuals from all over their world: people of all shapes, sizes, abilities, ethnicities, and creeds. Agree? And so, this means there is a lot of diversity within the pirates and the characters in the story because it makes sense for there to be; it is necessary and authentic.
However, a book about one family who lives in China will probably be about Chinese people only, right? Because China is a country with little natural diversity, and it’s about a Chinese family. This is OK. This is normal. No need to force it where it doesn’t belong!
Dear White people
I wish to speak to white, heterosexual authors now: breathe! I know that you may feel pressure or even attacked at times when it comes to diversity. As you know, you can mostly only write from an authentic place when it is something you’ve experienced. This is OK. Advocate for diversity, push for POC and Non-Cisgender, Non-Heterosexual authors to write their books and share their stories. Then, share their work, too. When writing your own, don’t feel guilty that you chose a white heroine.
The only time you need to feel guilty is if:
- You have a horde of characters in your book and 99% of them are white, straight, able-bodied, and male.
- You never, not even for a second, consider that you MC could be gay or bi or less gender-fixed than what you end up portraying them as. (I watched a wonderful video about how all of our characters should be considered bisexual at the beginning of our novels so that as we write, we the author don’t force them into relationships, instead, the character decides – and it’s pretty intriguing to see the results).
- The same goes for never considering that your character could be anything other than white, especially if it’s a fantasy world where you needn’t portray your character as adhering to any cultural identities of our world (thus you can’t be called out for not representing a cultural standard from our world).
- You don’t care for diversity as a concept; you don’t see it as needed; you turn your back on it; you don’t support the movement.
If you wish to write a book with a more diverse cast of characters, then good; go you! However, if you are choosing to represent characters who have an experience that you’ve never had, you really need to do your research, first. Speak to friends or people on the internet and get advice. Try to truly capture the experience in an authentic way, not on assumption or stereotypes or what you think you know. When in doubt, ask. When in real doubt, leave it out and let it go!
Remember, just because your image is represented in books (and other story formats) that doesn’t mean that someone else’s is, too. It’s sad that a child can turn to their mother and say, “no one in my books looks like me or feels what I feel.” This is why diversity is important, and you are a part of that, whether you like it or not.
*Check out my Black Character Design board on Pinterest for some inspiration on creating awesome Black characters!