Writing Diverse Characters

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Over the past several weeks, there’s been an ongoing conversation about diversity in children’s literature, thanks in part to a BookCon panel of literary luminaries comprising all white men, which is particularly egregious in a female dominated field. At the beginning of this month, that discussion moved to Twitter under the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks:

As a writer of South Asian descent, I’ve thought a lot about diversity in literature. Growing up, I read almost no books in which characters looked like me, and when they did, they were usually trying to reconcile their Indian and American heritages. I didn’t like these books. Sure, they were a necessary step in multicultural literature, but to me, they were irrelevant. The presented a false dichotomy; my identity was much more complicated than two traits. Even worse: these books bored me. I liked adventures and mysteries, fantasy and science fiction. I had more in common with Meg Murry, who tessered to other planets, than with these characters who were supposed to represent me.

Later, when I began to write, I felt like I HAD to write about “multicultural” characters. (I’m struggling with vocabulary here — I don’t like the phrase “person of color” — UGH — and multicultural is similarly problematic — might as well say “other,” which assumes that there’s a default.) Because of my family background, it was my duty to try to fill in some underrepresented voices. But there’s nothing worse than writing out of a sense of obligation for the writer, the reader, and the story itself.

I believe that all writers should be able to write about any character or setting. That’s the work of writing: to have the empathy to create life and meaning from words. Women and men should be able to write point of view characters that don’t match their gender. A second generation South Asian American woman should be able to write a white male character, and the reverse should also be possible.

But there is a caveat.

Dominant voices, such as those of white men in the West, have historically silenced other perspectives and had their own privileged. Because of this, it’s especially important for those with dominant voices to be careful and respectful when portraying underrepresented ones. This goes for men writing women, whites writing non-whites, straight people writing gay characters, the wealthy writing about the poor — and so on. There simply aren’t enough visible examples of underrepresented voices to balance mistakes and misrepresentations, especially when made by those with authority.

The following are a few tips for writing underrepresented voices, although they could apply to writing any character:

1. Do your research. Google is your friend. The library is your friend. Wikipedia is often a false friend, but the references are usually a decent starting point. Learn about the people you’re writing about. What would your character eat for dinner? Which holidays does she celebrate? What does he wear around the house? This kind of research is basic and the bare minimum for creating a character whose background differs from yours.

2. Talk to the people you’re writing about. Oftentimes when researching, you won’t know which questions to ask, and conversations can reveal unexpected details that make characters feel authentic. People inside a community can explain stereotypes, common beliefs, and misconceptions. This is an important step in understanding both boundaries and worldview.

3. Read books by the people you’re writing about. First, you’ll get a sense of voice. Second, you’ll start to understand range and see where there’s commonality across background and sensibility and where artistic choice and individual experience come into play. See what has already been written and think about how your work fits into this larger body of work. Are you adding to it? Casting it in a new light? Are you repeating something that has already been done, and if so, why?

4. Have multiple readers vet your text. This is the best way to prevent inauthentic writing. Readers from within a group can flag anything that doesn’t ring true. It’s important to have multiple readers, however, to account for individual experience. If multiple people say something sounds wrong, you know you need to edit. Your readers don’t have to be writers, of course, but as with good critique partners, you want people who will read critically and give constructive feedback.

I no longer worry about my obligations as a writer from an underrepresented group because I realized that whatever I write, whether contemporary, realistic fiction or genre fiction, I populate it with diverse characters. They don’t have to share my background in order to be shaped by my worldview: that diversity makes the world rich and creates opportunities for misunderstanding, conflict, learning, and growth — essentials for any compelling story.

One Response to "Writing Diverse Characters"
  1. The problem is that even if one does all this, writes something that is fine by a dozen or even two dozen people of the ethnicity and culture you have a character in your book, you – as a white author – invariably will be accused of appropriation and just as invariably will have reviewers attack you for “getting it wrong”. The accusations will be vague, or even wildly incorrect, but you may not even point this out, because it would be the height of inappropriate to do so.

    This has happened to me, to other equally diligent authors wanting to be diverse, and – you will laugh – even to non-white friends writing about their own ethnic group, so often and so regularly, that it has completely ceased to be funny.

    I have since decided that the accusation of not being diverse enough is easier to deal with, than the false accusations by people who’re obviously enraged that a white author dares include characters of their ethnic group. That is because these people and reviews attract similar such reviewers like carrion flies, and drag a book down before it even has a chance. It always ends in a minor dog pile.

    So now I’ve ceased mentioning the ethnic background of someone, I’ve ceased giving anyone names which could be interpreted to be anything but bland European standard, and I actively go out of my way to keep from including an ethnicity other than my own.

    That may be the opposite of what everyone says they want, but it sure is easier to live with and it is less harmful to my paycheck. Because that’s the other end of that stick, people are no masochists and they commonly need to eat and pay their rent.

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