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.
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.