Writing diversity: not exactly a how-to, more of a think-about

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This is a tough subject. A meaty subject. A big ol’ gristly steak of a subject that takes a lot of chewing and will not be thoroughly digested within a single blog post, but let’s dig our teeth in, shall we?

As writers, our characters probably look, act, and live like people we’re used to. If you’re white and straight, your characters are probably white and straight, because that’s what you know, and writing someone black or gay or Muslim or in a wheelchair takes some extra thought.

But here’s a really cool thing: the world is a far more interesting place than just white and straight (and male, and Christian, and able-bodied, etc etc), and there should be stories to reflect that. Because all stories deserve to be told. As citizens of the earth we have a duty to represent more than just our limited bubbles.

Or do we? I’ve actually heard both arguments. With race for instance, I’ve heard some POC say, “PLEASE, white authors, write about somebody other than yourself.” But I’ve also heard POC say, “NO. White writers shouldn’t write POC because they can’t possibly understand what we’ve gone through and it’s an insult to act like they do.”

So I don’t know what the solution is. But let’s say you are writing a marginalized character. How do you go about it? This isn’t a how-to, because what the hell do I know, but let’s mull things over.

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It’s not as simple as throwing in someone named Parvati and calling it a day. Culture and background play a huge part in who we are. It affects how we grow up and how we’re treated, which determine what we’re like as a person. Growing up gay with immigrant parents from Beijing is not the same as growing up Catholic and Mexican with a prosthetic leg. It’s important to acknowledge those impacts in order to deepen the character and understand what made them who they are. Plus, it’s just plain respectful.

On the other hand though? Focusing too singularly on a character’s minority status can feel like the character has been reduced to nothing but that. Like, “Hey man, I may be a Hindu, but I’m not JUST a Hindu! I’m also a volcanologist who enjoys gardening and I have a weird phobia about Band-Aids.” We’re all human, and the distances between us are not so far. Empathize. While we may have different experiences, we share a lot of the same experiences too: heartache, joy, defeat… awkwardly falling over while trying to put on pants… None of us want to be viewed solely as “what” we are, but “who” we are.

Sometimes authors feel intimidated by diversity because they don’t want to portray someone inaccurately, or they’re resistant because that’s not what their story is “about.” But it doesn’t have to be “about” diversity in order to have a diverse cast, if you write your characters as humanly as you’d write any character. People are people.

REALLY, though? What we should really be doing is demanding for more diverse AUTHORS to be published. Because this is a systemic problem. Our bookcases shouldn’t be filled with only white male names. Marginalized authors will represent their experience best, and they deserve the right to tell their stories. (To get started on some reads, here’s a list of books by POC.)

As the title says, this post is a think-about, so please share your thoughts! Also check out this great article by Brandon Taylor, who expounds on the topic much better than I.

~ Noel

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18 thoughts on “Writing diversity: not exactly a how-to, more of a think-about

  1. Can’t say I don’t experience this worry myself at probably the most basic level, that of being a man writing a female protagonist and worrying about whether or not I’ve made her realistic enough. Most of all though I try to just make all of my characters human beings (except for those that aren’t).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, I can understand that worry. Female beta readers and critique groups could help a lot with that. But as long as you’re portraying her as humanly as you would portray anyone, then you’re probably on the right track. 🙂 One of the best ways to navigate this problem for writers in general is through volume and variety. If a writer has only one female character, the pressure is on. But if he has multiple of them, and they’re all different from each other, then no singular woman has to represent all of them – they can all just be their own person.

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  2. Great topic! I think your observation about writing with diversity not necessarily having to be about diversity is spot on. I should experiment more with my characters – especially as South Africa is such a melting pot of cultures!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, definitely! A story can have characters of all stripes without actually being ABOUT those stripes. I think too many people assume they must write “default” people, and anything outside of that default will be distracting or too “niche.” Two problems with that: 1, it assumes the straight white male story is the default story, which disregards a wealth of other human experiences. And 2, the more we get accustomed to diverse characters, the more natural they’ll seem in our stories. Not that I haven’t been guilty of writing characters close to my own demographic… But I would like to branch out.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I have friends of many ages, races, creeds, colors, walks of life. I know I cannot do them justice by trying to tell their story, but that doesn’t mean I can’t include them in my writing. I think if you are going to write about characters different from yourself, you should strive to portray them individually and honestly, not as just a composite of cookie-cutter beliefs and prejudices. Another excellent and thought-provoking post, Noel. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Joan! I’m glad you have such a variety of friends. Not only is it enriching for anyone’s life to have friends of many types, it’s especially helpful for writers! It’s far easier to avoid stereotypes in our work when we’ve gotten to know real-life individuals.

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  4. I’m gonna send a big “YES AMEN” to you, because you’ve nailed it!
    I had the same question about being white and how to write characters that aren’t ME. I reached out to a writing community about writing an Indian/Pakistani influenced character and got suggestions from people who fit that description already. They suggested reaching out to people you want to write about, and listen to their feedback with full interest, even if their response is less than “Everything’s perfect–we love you!” I wrote about it here: http://witandtravesty.com/write-more-better-diverse-characters/
    It makes me happy that this is becoming a thing and people are making moves towards diversity and improving the types of characters we create and the stories we tell. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Whitney! I like your point about listening to feedback with open ears, no matter what it is – that applies not just in writing but in life. It can be hard to take that sort of criticism, especially if it bumps against biases we didn’t know we had. Nobody wants to feel like they’ve been a harmful person. But acknowledging that criticism and adjusting ourselves is much better than denying we had a problem. I’ll check out your post right now. Thanks again for reading!

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  5. Brilliant, as always! It is so important to keep this in mind, and though it can be challenging it is worth it. I read an article about this recently as it pertains to the romance genre, I wish I could find the link as it expanded a bit on what you are saying and would be a great companion read.
    I also appreciate the link – I am always looking for new book recommendations 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I think about this a lot — especially the kind of contradictory, damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t aspects of writing diverse characters. Whether white authors should write non-white characters, for example, or whether it’s better to let non-white people tell their own stories… and whether to address the minority “experience” when writing those characters, or just let them exist as people. I’m working to find a balance between acknowledging the minority experience without letting that BECOME the character. Tricky stuff — but at the end of the day I decided I’d rather be criticized for trying than criticized for not trying.

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    • That’s exactly it – “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” Even after writing this post, I still felt conflicted. There are so many ways it could go awry, even when someone’s trying their best. But I like your point about being criticized for trying rather than not trying. As with everything in this life, we will be criticized no matter what we do, so we should do what we believe in.

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      • Yes, exactly! It’s actually such a relief to hear someone acknowledge this. I don’t want to be that asshole complaining about how DIFFICULT it is to write diversity into a novel, but I see writers criticized no matter how they handle it. So I can’t help thinking, IS there a “right” way to do it??? I don’t know if you watched Gilmore Girls back in the day, but I remember seeing two separate articles criticizing how Lane Kim’s (Korean-American) character was handled — for completely opposite reasons. One article said it was offensive that Lane completely embraced American culture and rejected Korean culture, and the other said she was too stereotypically Korean. Ahhhh

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, what’s scary is that it’s sometimes not just criticism, but total backlash. I can take criticism, but to have hate slung at me because of a mistake would be really upsetting, especially because I DO care very much about diversity. My post on this made my thoughts seem much simpler than they actually are. Truth is it’s really confusing.

        P.S. I love Gilmore Girls!

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