There’s a lot of discussion about the need for diversity in media, and as writers, we have an obligation to at least engage in that discussion. I like to think that most of us really like the idea of diversity in literature. I also like to think that most of us are painfully aware that there’s not nearly enough of it.
Luckily, we’re the ones who can change that. We’re the ones who write the books, right? We’ve got this. Sort of.
The idea of writing diverse characters can be pretty intimidating. What if you do it wrong? What if people accuse you of pandering? What if you can’t find a good way to fit them into your story?
Why should you write diverse characters?
- Fiction reflects reality, and without diversity, it can’t do that accurately. Our world is crazy diverse, so it’s pretty h*cking weird when our fiction doesn’t reflect that. Like, I love Friends, but the idea that, in a group of six New Yorkers, all six will be straight white people is just so…improbable.
- Fiction offers a vision of what the world could be. Even the most mundane settings (high school in a tiny town, anyone?) can produce powerful messages about inclusivity, diversity, and acceptance. We read in large part to escape our own world for a better (or at least more exciting) one, but how can a world that’s less diverse be better?
- Representation matters. You aren’t obliged to write in any particular way or about any particular thing. You never are. But every single one of us has had a moment when we saw someone like us in fiction and felt recognized. We all know how good it feels to see ourselves as heroes. And you can make that happen for someone else.
I want to write diverse characters, but…
- I’m afraid I’ll screw up and accidentally be really offensive and then everyone will hate me. Listen, I feel you. The thought of making an egregious mistake that will make the entire internet hate your guts is totally terrifying. But you can prevent yourself from making horrible mistakes if you just do your research. You won’t get everything perfectly right, but you also won’t get everything horrendously wrong, and that’s what’s more important. (Also: if you wait to write diverse characters until you’re 1000% sure that you’ll never screw them up, you’re never going to write them. It’s just that simple.)
- I’m worried that people will say that I’m pandering or trying too hard. If you’re writing diverse characters because you want to, and not because you’re trying to suck up to people, then you’re not pandering. Anyone who says otherwise is probably just trying to make you feel bad. Do it because you want to, and don’t let anyone make you feel bad about it. If you don’t think it’s a waste of time, it isn’t.
- My character just isn’t [whatever]. Sometimes, you just know that a character isn’t something. Isn’t Nigerian, isn’t pansexual, isn’t dyslexic—you just know, in your bones, that they aren’t those things. Okay. Fair enough. But could they maybe be Jewish? Or partially deaf? Or a first-generation immigrant? Diversity goes so far beyond race, gender, and sexual orientation. Physical and mental ability and health, age, religion, immigration status, income level, education, and trauma all factor into a person’s—or character’s—overall experience of the world. You have a dazzling array of options.
- I’m writing a lighthearted comedy and I don’t want to get into the ugly realities of oppression and marginalization. You don’t have to! Books that explore the ugly realities of oppression and marginalization are important, but you know what else is important? Books that offer a vision of a better reality. Books that can inspire us to see a better tomorrow. We all want to see ourselves in a lighthearted comedic character just as much as we want someone to understand just how awful systemic oppression can be. It’s called balance.
The idea of writing a cast of diverse characters can be incredibly intimidating, but I promise that that feeling eases with research. Do it carefully and respectfully and you will do it well.
What are some groups that you want to see more (good) representation of in literature? Personally, I would love to see more disabled/differently abled characters, especially in YA.