Though 2018 is just around the corner, it seems that our books are still too often plagued by a lack of diverse characters. Straight, White, Christian characters dominate the pages, and while these characters are valid and their stories should be told, they are not the only stories worth telling. Your story may be a work of fiction, but that does not mean it can’t reflect real life. And, just because you may not belong to a certain group doesn’t mean you can’t write characters who do.
The world is full of people of all different ethnicities, sexualities, and religions. Incorporating these aspects of identity into your writing can make the world and the characters you’ve created come alive. However, it is understandable that if you haven’t lived these experiences you may be wary of trying to write about them. Afterall, stereotyping can be almost as harmful as not including these characters to begin with. So, how do you write diverse characters in a way that depicts them not as caricatures but as fully fleshed out characters?
Here are some tips to help you include more diversity in your fiction:
1) First and foremost, do some research.
Most writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, will require you to do some form of research along the way, whether it’s figuring out if a certain plot point is plausible or determining the scientific name for a snail. Just like you would research how long it would take your character to fly from one country to another, you can research the culture and traditions that may relate to a character character. If your character is of a different race or religion than you’re familiar with, do your research before writing, and make sure it’s not a closed culture and that it welcomes a fictional portrayal. Once you have basic information, you can begin to create a more accurate and respectful portrayal of these people For example, the way intimate interactions are initiated can change depending on the sexuality of a character. Doing preliminary research will add a layer of authenticity to the characters that could be missing if you simply play off the stereotypes you’ve grown up with.
2) Talk to someone from the culture or community.
Going straight to the source can be even better than secondhand research. Chances are, no matter how homogenous your community may be, you know someone who’s a member of the ethnic community, religion, or area of the LGBT+ community you want to write about. Talking to them about their own experiences and gaining a firsthand perspective will provide you with insight that you can’t find from generic research. The experiences and feelings people in these communities experience are important to understand if you expect to create diverse characters for people to realistically identify with. Even if you don’t know someone personally, there are plenty of online forums for you to contact someone to gain the knowledge you need to provide your characters with realistic voices, motivations, and feelings.
3) Ask for criticism from someone from the culture or community.
Asking for feedback is a core aspect of the writing process. You want to know that your plot seems realistic, or as plausible as possible (if fantasy elements are at play), and you want to know that your characters feel genuine to your audience. We go to different sources for critiques on different things, and when it comes to creating a character from a culture or community that is rarely depicted in fiction (and that you don’t belong to), asking the opinion of someone from your target audience can do wonders for the final project. Even if you’ve completely missed the mark and written an unrealistic diverse character in your first draft, the person you’re looking to for help will be less offended and more willing to help you make the changes you need if you’re open to their criticism and want to make the character ring true to life, instead of just being a “token minority.”
4) Treat them like you would any other character.
Before your character is a person of color, before they are Jewish or Muslim, before they are somewhere on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum, they are a character. Just like any character you create, they have backstory, motivation, thoughts, feelings, and so many other aspects to them that are separate from whatever it is that makes them a “diverse” character. It is important to know how their ethnicity, religion, or sexuality can influence all of these, but it should never be the primary focus of the character. She is not a black character; she is a young woman, struggling with depression, trying to make it on her own in a new city who happens to be black. He is not a gay character; he is a middle-aged man dealing with a family crisis and dissatisfaction at work who happens to be gay. Their diversity is not who they are; it is a part of them, and you should never forget that when writing a diverse character.
These are just some ways that can make your writing more diverse and authentic. By acknowledging the need for more diverse characters in your writing, you’ve already taken the first step. Integrating these characters in realistic ways can make you a more well-rounded author and provide people who may identify with these characters a place to see themselves reflected in fiction, which is an often-neglected goal of Western storytelling.
Find GenZ books with diverse casts in our store.