One Step to Better Writing and More Diversity

by Jami Gold on June 5, 2014

in Writing Stuff

Multicolored handprint with text: How Better Writing Can Lead to More Diversity

Well, so far I’ve survived the discussion about diversity in literature from last time. I guess I’m a glutton for punishment because I want to touch on one concern that popped up in several online conversations: a worry that focusing on diversity might harm storytelling quality.

Like the campaign #WeNeedDiverseBooks says, we all should want to encourage diversity in books for countless reasons, ranging from a larger variety of stories, motivations, and conflicts to improving our empathy, appreciation, and understanding. In my mind, however, the main reason to include diversity in books is because diversity is normal in life and therefore should be normal in books (unless our worldbuilding requires otherwise).

But… None of that means we should value diversity over storytelling.

This push for diversity is not about needing to cram diversity into a story just to meet a quota. This isn’t about making a statement. This isn’t about pushing an agenda or making “issue” books. This isn’t a political issue. This isn’t about being able to check a box for diversity.

This is about being a better writer.

Know Your Writing Tics

Part of what we learn on our path to becoming better writers is our writing tics. Do our characters shrug too often? Do we use big words to impress when a normal word would be more appropriate? Do we use the same descriptions over and over?

I tend to binge-read authors, inhaling several books from a single author in a row. That means I notice tons of writing tics.

One author describes every one of her heroines’ waist and hips and every one of her heroes’ eyes and voice the same way—exact words and phrases. Another author’s heroes all swear the same way despite very different backgrounds.

This isn’t meant to shame those authors because we all have writing tics. But writing tics are like clichés. Or by-the-numbers tropes. Or stereotypes. Or assumptions.

They’re lazy and we can do better. However, we often won’t notice them until someone points them out. So I’m pointing one out for us all. *smile*

“Default” Characters Are a Writing Tic

One type of writing tic that many authors share is the “default” character. As Roni Loren said in her post about writing diverse characters, the first step in adding diversity is not having “a ‘default’ that everyone who walks onto the page is white, straight, and middle-class until proven otherwise.”

If we need a cop to appear as a minor character and our mind assumes this cop is a white male, that’s lazy. That style of writing is just as lazy as writing a formulaic story with no twists. Or as choosing the first plot twist that pops into our head.

Too often, the reason that plot twist pops into our head is because it’s been done a bajillion times before. Ever heard the writing advice to discard your first idea for any scenario? That might be a bit extreme, but this is the same problem on the character level.

Now, that’s not to say that our cop shouldn’t be a white male. The problem isn’t with the “lack” of diversity. The problem is with the assumption, the laziness.

The fastest, easiest way to create more diverse stories is not to force diverse characters into our writing. That way lies either stilted writing (best case scenario) or unjustified holier-than-thou attitudes. (There are probably even worse case scenarios, but I’d rather not think of those.)

Instead, the fastest, easiest way to create more diverse stories is to start with a blank slateDon’t have a “default” character. Or if one pops into our head, stop and ask ourselves if that’s really the voice we’re hearing.

Don’t take the shortcut. Overcome that writing tic. *smile*

Organic Characters, Not Quotas or Forcing

While I understand the idealism and goals behind quotas in real life, due to human nature, quotas in reality more often seem to give people an excuse to disrespect others and claim that someone doesn’t really deserve whatever they have—and that disrespect doesn’t do anyone any good. So I’m certainly not one who’s going to argue for anything in our writing that is similarly “artificial.”

I have never approached a character or a story with the “goal” of adding diversity. I never “try” to make a diverse character. I don’t force anything.

In fact, I write by the seat of my pants, so I write organically. I mean it when I say I don’t force anything. If it doesn’t feel natural, I don’t do it—characters included.

Yet, as I mentioned last time, my stories do contain diverse characters. Many of them, in fact. How did I manage that?

How to Include Diverse Characters in Our Stories

All I did to include diversity in my stories was ditch the writing tic of using default characters. Whenever a character—from my protagonists to the nameless, just-above-a-spear-carrier minor characters—appears on the page, I stop and listen.

  1. I first ask myself if this character that popped into my head feels three-dimensional, like they’re real and natural, or does the character feel like a “stock” or “default” character?
    (In my talk-to-myself brain, the latter often comes out as me asking, “Hi, welcome to my story. Who are you?” and I get a zombie-like “Uhhh” in response.)
  2. If it’s the latter, I shove them away, and I listen more until I hear a voice that feels real.
  3. Then I let them tell me who they are. *smile*

Note: There is no wrong answer because there’s no quota.

It’s perfectly okay if our answers lead us to a straight, white, non-disabled, middle-class male. They exist! They’re quite common in fact! *smile*

The point isn’t to avoid or force any type of character. The point is that we took the step to make sure. Even if our character creation process doesn’t follow my slightly insane, organic process, we can still make sure that we didn’t just make assumptions or blindly accept the stock character sent by our brain’s Central Casting.

And we should do this with our good guys and our bad guys. Negative stereotypes often show up in villains, and that kind of diversity doesn’t help if it’s done just as thoughtlessly.

Good Writing Is Done with Purpose

Anything we include in our writing, from the setting details to the foreshadowing, should be done with purpose. That’s different from being done with a purpose.

Going into our writing with a purpose might mean we have too much of an agenda or issue we’re trying to push. Agents frequently bemoan on Twitter about such stories because the storytelling usually sucks. Prioritizing agenda over storytelling isn’t going to be successful.

Writing with purpose means that we’re being conscious of our choices. We mention these details and not those details for a reason. These details matter to the story. Those details don’t, so it would be distracting to include them.

That’s why this simple step of ensuring we’re avoiding “default” characters is important for us to become better writers. We’re being conscious of our choices, whether the character turns out to be diverse or not.

Couldn’t We Just Not Describe Our Characters at All?

Some might argue for the approach of leaving characters un-described and letting readers fill in the blanks. There are pros and cons for that approach.

We can leave minor characters un-described. Minor characters might not even get names, so a lack of description would be a similar choice.

However, for major characters, something (maybe not visual) should hint at their diverse element (if one exists) or they’re going to be whitewashed by many readers. Yes, we could say that would be the reader’s problem and not ours, but that also wouldn’t necessarily be true to the character to not have their diversity affect them or their experience in any way—ever.

Being a diverse character would usually affect them in some way. Disabled characters might struggle with an aspect of daily life, ethnic characters might struggle with other characters’ assumptions (or maybe they’re so used to being treated differently, it stands out when they’re not), differently oriented characters might face unwanted flirtation, etc.

Those issues don’t need to be a plot point or a big deal, and the diverse element doesn’t need to be told, but showing a mention in some way is probably necessary to be true to the character. Pretending that diversity doesn’t affect a major character in action, behavior, interactions, senses, etc.—ever—is a form of whitewashing (unless the story is set on a different world with different social issues).

So, Is a “Blank Slate” the “Right” Way to Approach Diversity?

That question implies that there’s a “wrong” way to approach diversity. I’d call using stereotypes a “wrong” way, but beyond negative applications like that, I’m not sure there is a wrong way. It’s certainly not wrong for us to include diverse characters as normal elements of our stories, even if we’re not diverse ourselves.

I’m a white author, so I might not be the right person to write stories about diversity, like where tackling complex diversity questions, goals, motivations, conflicts, and themes are the main point of the story. However, it would be disingenuous to pretend that diverse characters don’t exist in my story worlds—they take place on Earth after all.

Most of the time, when non-diverse authors are slammed for writing diverse characters, it’s because the author wrote a character according to a stereotype or as an “other” (like an uber-insightful, near-magical elderly black woman whose only purpose in the story is to make the protagonist “better”). Neither of those situations treat the diverse characters as three-dimensional. They’re important only for their diverse aspects and not treated as a “real” person.

My point here is to ensure that we’re treating all characters, diverse or not, as characters first. When we write diverse characters, we want to make sure that they’re not just that diverse element.

Rather, the categories a character might fit into are just one element affecting the character and the story. Our characters’ diverse elements (or lack thereof) might affect the character and story just as much—or just as little—as their personality traits, job, age, where they live, etc.

If we’re viewing our characters as whole, three-dimensional beings, we’re more likely to portray them in unique, non-stereotypical ways. “Default” characters, “stock” characters, “ideal” diverse characters, and stereotypes are all different forms of clichés. And they’re all lazy writing.

Listening to our characters’ unique voices, goals, and motivations avoids all of those issues. If we don’t even try, we’re going to miss out on great characters–and so will our readers. And maybe that’s the best argument of all for why we should start with a blank slate for our characters. *smile*

Have you noticed your brain defaulting to certain character assumptions? Do you try to start with a blank slate? If so, has that naturally led to increased diversity among your characters? Do you think there are “right” or “wrong” ways to include diversity in our stories?

Pin It
38 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Jennifer Rose June 5, 2014 at 10:08 am

Great post. It’s quite the balance to want to have diversity in a book (where appropriate), and at the same time not want to force anything.

Characters just tend to pop into my head when I’m writing and I write them as they show up. A couple times, I’ve changed a character to a female, but usually I just keep them as my imagination creates them. 🙂

Reply

Jami Gold June 5, 2014 at 10:25 am

Hi Jennifer,

For some of us, this issue might be more of a writing tic than for others (and as I mentioned, our worldbuilding aspects might play heavily into this as well), but we won’t know for sure until we ask ourselves the question a couple of times and see if our answer changes. If our character does change, that’s probably a good clue that we should ask ourselves that question every time.

I’m currently editing one of my older stories, and although one of my characters showed up diverse “as is,” some of the other minor characters feel flat to me, and I suspect it’s because I made assumptions. So during my editing process I’ll be asking the question and listening for their true voice.

In my later stories, I got better at automating this process, so I probably won’t need to make changes. Being teachable is good. LOL! Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Tamara LeBlanc June 5, 2014 at 11:17 am

Many, MANY ahhhaaa moments in reading this excellent post!
I am going to take your advice and watch my default characters. In fact I had come up with a secondary character for my next (a friend to my hero) who I realized is a cliche. He will be examined and rebuilt.
Also, I totally agree with your comments concerning adding diversity for diversities sake. That’s never a good idea.
Sooo brilliant with this topic!
Have a great weekend,
Tamara

Reply

Jami Gold June 5, 2014 at 1:14 pm

Hi Tamara,

I just overheard a preteen white boy complain that nerd characters are never black. When kids notice, we have no excuses. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Tamara LeBlanc June 10, 2014 at 7:33 am

Ha! Steve Urkel, nuff said 🙂

Reply

Jami Gold June 10, 2014 at 9:40 am

Hi Tamara,

LOL! True–but I suspect Steve Urkel was a bit before this preteen’s time. 🙂

Reply

M June 5, 2014 at 12:39 pm

Hey Jami – great follow-up post to your last one. I especially appreciated:

“My point here is to ensure that we’re treating all characters, diverse or not, as characters first.”

THIS. So much of this, and it’s applicable to any character you “don’t know how to write”. I see topics almost every week in writing forums posted by people who don’t know how to write the opposite gender – the answer is easy! Make their personality whatever you want it to be! There’s no formula for writing a specific gender or background or WHATEVER – characters are all PEOPLE. So thanks for that 😀

As far as how to write diversity into your books, I like your idea of starting with a blank slate, but I think it can be hard to do – and easy to carry on even if you have unintentionally “stocked” your story with a non-diverse cast. I think it’s good to check: is this character “typical” to my mind/according to most people I know? If I need a “judge” or “doctor” and I conjure an image of an old white dude, then… can’t I do better? Why NOT make them women? Why NOT make them Sri Lankan? I think that a certain amount of “forcing” to get diverse characters into a story is sometimes necessary and always awesome.

There’s a movie I love called “Salt” that stars Angelina Jolie (stay with me). Her character in the film is fantastic; she plays a totally capable American intelligence agent – without the sexy boots or love affair or the usual tropes that haunt female characters in that kind of role. Even though she’s surrounded by a cast of male characters, they ALL listen to her. They all have respect for her (and she doesn’t need to be a hardass). The reason: the film was originally written to star a man (at least, so I’ve heard). She’s great because she was written as whatever the writers perceived as the best possible character for that role – and at the last second, the actor was switched. We can do the same in writing!

Wrote a grizzled explorer? Bam: make her a woman. Wrote a do-gooder cop? Cool: make him Muslim. Sometimes it’s easier to “add diversity” than it is to dream it up in the first place – after all, we are *all* affected by what we see and hear, and a lot of that is white-washed media.

I read a quote recently from an African-American woman who said that that if an author didn’t explicitly say that a character *wasn’t* white, she automatically assumed the character *was* white – because that’s what all (most?) fiction portrayed. We, as writers, need to take steps to change that, and if it requires a little bit of force, then so what? We’ll likely find some amazing characteres we weren’t even looking for in the first place! 🙂

Reply

Jami Gold June 5, 2014 at 2:29 pm

Hi M,

Yes! If we as an authorial whole can manage to write aliens with tentacles, we really have no excuse to not be able to write any kind of human the character demands. 😉

As for your point about how sometimes we might need to get more specific with our questions to find our characters, I don’t necessarily disagree, although I strongly dislike any appearance of “force” when it comes to art. My character creation process works for me, and that organic process naturally leads to more diversity. But everyone’s process works differently, so other authors’ processes might include “forcing” themselves to at least ask the question of whether there’s a reason their character couldn’t be x, y, or z. (And again, there would be no wrong answer to that. An author needs to be allowed to answer “because I don’t want to write that kind of character.”)

I loved Salt too. 🙂 And yes, sometimes the switcheroo can work for our characters as well.

If we change them post-drafting–and they’re a major character–we might need to ask whether or not other story elements need to change. Not changing their personality or any other trait specific to them (or else we’re probably falling to stereotypes), but asking whether or not other characters would still react to them the same, would the small talk between coworkers be the same, etc. There’s no right or wrong answer, as you pointed out with Salt, any character can be respected, talk about baseball, etc., but it might be a good question to ask to make sure because we wouldn’t want to just (I hate even typing this word, but it’s the only appropriate description) “black-face” a character.

Thanks for sharing your tips and thanks for the comment! 🙂

Reply

Carradee June 5, 2014 at 4:37 pm

My leads tend to be (1) smart (2) brunettes (3) on the small side of average who (4) look younger than they are. Or at least two of the above four traits.

A lot of it’s because that’s me, and it’s something I have a lot of familiarity with. But, being aware of it, I do make sure to think about things and leave options open…but even then, usually, the cover that ends up fitting the character is still Caucasian. So that’s kinda frustrating, because if the cover’s going to show something, I want the story innards to match it.

But despite those commonalities, not all my leads fall in those categories. I have a novel in editing, hopefully to be released soon, that features a not-that-bright giant redhead. (She actually is part giant.) I have a sweet paranormal romance on submission where most of the characters are Indian.

I don’t pretend that it makes up for the commonalities I’m prone to, but I at least attempt to vary it up.

Reply

Jami Gold June 5, 2014 at 5:26 pm

Hi Carradee,

Yes, as I tried to emphasize, none of this is about forcing us to write things that don’t fit. Courtney Milan (a genius!) recently did a post bemoaning the difficulties of dealing with cover art and any kind of diversity. So if we don’t “feel” a character, we might just get resentful about the various challenges, and that wouldn’t do any good either. 🙁

Even if we never write a diverse main or POV character, we could, as you said, leave ourselves open to diversity in other ways if we want, with minor or non-POV characters. And this isn’t about guilt or trying to “make up for” anything, because–remember?–no quotas. 😉 It’s just one technique we can use to make sure we’re OPEN to diverse characters. Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Serena Yung June 5, 2014 at 4:48 pm

😀 I’m glad we share the same philosophy, Jami. I also think we should never force diversity, and we should listen to our characters as PEOPLE, as THEMSELVES. So my character is a lesbian not because I’m purposefully looking for a different sexual orientation to make my story feel more “diverse”, but simply because THIS PARTICULAR CHARACTER happens to be a lesbian. Seriously, I had absolutely no idea what sexual orientation this character had until I saw how she reacts emotionally and psychologically to her female best friend’s presence. 🙂 So, as you said, none of this is DELIBERATE. This is my character speaking, not Serena speaking.

And haha, your method is not at all insane! At least you still call it character creation. For me, as I’ve mentioned before, I see it as character discovery! I assume from the start that character are real, pre-existing people from other universes, lol. (I support the multiverse theory in physics. 😀 Our characters just feel so real that I wouldn’t believe it if people told me they weren’t real, lol.)

About the stock characters coming first to mind, I think we talked about this before, but what comes to my mind first are usually SERENA cliches rather than story cliches, lol. So my characters aren’t the “classic archetypes”; rather, they often share at least one similarity with me, and thus they are “Serena archetypes”, lol. However, even though they are similar to me in some way or more, there will always be SOME things about them that are different from me, so they aren’t completely Serena archetypes either, haha. And as the story progresses, the characters just become more and more full, complex, and rich. So I agree with your point on letting your characters grow organically–except according to my “character discovery” belief, the character and his or her personality already exists, and the story only gradually REVEALS his or her personality, haha.

Reply

Jami Gold June 5, 2014 at 5:43 pm

Hi Serena,

LOL! I knew you’d understand my brand of insanity. 😉 (And as you can tell from my “brain talk”–“Hi! Who are you?”–the term “character discovery” works for me too.)

Yep, I understand about the “us” cliches. I used to worry about that, but starting with a blank slate got me over that concern too. For me, the blank slate is really about shutting up all the distractions and listening to my muse/subconscious. Trying to guess what he wants doesn’t go well. 😀 Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Serena Yung June 5, 2014 at 8:07 pm

Haha the “us” cliches! Mmm it’s good to think about the blank slate even with respect to our “us cliches”. I used to worry somewhat that the same sorts of characters come up because they reflect prominent personalities that I have, but now I don’t worry that much, because 1) they are different from me in many other ways; 2) it’s okay if the person REALLY IS like that; I can’t FORCE them to not resemble me at all; and 3) if I look closely, these “me cliches” change over time. E.g. When I was younger, I had more introverts, but ever since coming to college, I’ve had lots of very extroverted, popular, and often very bubbly protagonists, lol. Also, I’ve learned to LIKE these “me cliches” because I think it’s quite nice to see what my life obsessions/ life phase personalities are. I find it entertaining to see this introvert –> extrovert phase, I love how I’m getting more characters who enjoy thinking about moral dilemmas, etc. So these “me cliches” help me in my “self-discovery” process in my writing, which I think is a good thing. When I look at my heroes in romance, they often reflect things I would desire in my ideal mate too, lol. E.g. they’re all nonsexist and even quite feminist, very egalitarian, and either feminine or androgynous (never all masculine, lol.) And when I see my characters holding some of my beliefs, I go, “Oh!” That means I must be very interested in that belief in this current phase of my life!

So yeah. My characters reflecting the current phases of my life doesn’t seem so bad to me anymore. My phases of life will keep changing and evolving anyway; it’ll never stop. Also, even though my characters reflect those phases of my life and me, they are at the same time their own person. And how do I know that? Well it’s just because when I read their dialogues and interactions, I get the impression that they are real people, their own person. They feel ALIVE. I love how my hero is quite talkative (more talkative than I expected) and he enjoys rebutting people when they argue against him–he keeps wanting to have the last word if possible, lol! In how persistent he is in these rebuttals, debates, and playing Devil’s Advocate, I FEEL that he is so alive, if you see what I mean. 😀 Yeah I feel that my characters are most alive during dialogue times.

Reply

Jami Gold June 5, 2014 at 9:34 pm

Hi Serena,

What a great way to think about it! And if you’re able to separate enough from the “me” cliches to make them unique individuals, there’s nothing wrong with reflecting aspects of your life either. After all, if you aren’t going to write “your” story, who would? 😉 Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Serena Yung June 6, 2014 at 7:58 am

Exactly! And I find it’s actually impossible to keep them pure cliche, because they very naturally become their own individual selves! If one wants them to be pure cliche, one would have to MAKE them so, and any making and forcing would make the characters fake and not themselves anymore, lol.

Reply

Jami Gold June 6, 2014 at 10:16 am

Hi Serena,

LOL! I understand. 🙂

Reply

Linda Maye Adams June 6, 2014 at 3:27 am

I agree on the balance. It should feel like the natural makeup of the setting. I once read a story for critique where the writer was trying to do like Star Trek. The story read like she had a checklist: Asian? Check. Hispanic? Check. It didn’t even feel natural, because I wanted to author to build that part of the world by asking who would enlist in the military for space travel. I was in the Army. We saw lots of blacks (because not everyone was African American); some Puerto Ricans, and almost no Native Americans or Asians. But around where I live, it’s common to see people in wheelchairs or with service dogs because the Federal government is the largest employer of the disabled. Having knowledge of the makeup of the area provides tools to bring in that extra complexity of your setting.

Do I have a default? Actually, no. I do nearly always have a woman protagonist, but that’s a conscious decision because there’s too many books with a default male character. I’m always making deliberate choices of what characters populate my stories.

Reply

Jami Gold June 6, 2014 at 10:15 am

Hi Linda,

Ugh. There’s a reason I emphasized “natural,” “no quotas,” and “no checkboxes.” Yes, research and a certain amount of realism (says the woman who writes paranormal 😉 ) is necessary.

But as I just ranted on Facebook, unless we’re going to ONLY write stories where ALL the characters are like us, our age, our background, our location, our economic situation, etc., we’re already including diversity. The only question we have to ask ourselves is what diversity we want to include.

The point of this post is exactly as you said: Make sure our choices (whatever those choices are) are deliberate and not just lazy. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Glynis Jolly June 6, 2014 at 3:34 pm

Often I have to reach back into my memories to find that emotion I want my character to display. It isn’t always my own emotional response that I use either. I’m rather blah on how I express my emotions most of the time so I use what I see others expressing. For example, I clam up when I’m angry. I don’t necessarily want my character to do that so I’ll remember a time when my cousin expressed her anger. She quite flamboyant about it.

Reply

Jami Gold June 6, 2014 at 4:32 pm

Hi Glynis,

Great example! As authors, we’re constantly having to pull from outside of ourselves to better our writing. This issue is just one facet of the same challenge. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Matthew Brown June 7, 2014 at 12:00 pm

I wasn’t expecting a follow up post. Very cool. I’ve got to hand it to you right off, it takes some serious bones to start this conversation in the first place, let alone keep it going.

I greatly appreciate your statement that there should be no quotas, no press for political correctness, etc. The reason that some, including myself, can be so immediately concerned that this push for diversity is misguided is the way it is worded. It’s the word need. We need diversity in books. That suggests a determination to include diversity for its own sake, because it’s needed. That may not be what’s intended, but it is certainly what many people will hear. I don’t just mean that authors who don’t want to be told what to write will hear that. I mean that a lot people who will pursue the idea of diversity in literature will become focused on that ideal to detriment of others. And that is harmful. Admittedly, it’s not harmful to me. It is to the person who allows it to taint their viewpoint. It’s easy to say that the desire for diversity isn’t about making a statement or that it isn’t a political issue. For you and for anyone who approaches it responsibly, you’re right. For a lot of people though, it is or can become those things. That kind of perspective can do a lot of harm to the original idea. That has to be said.

That isn’t the reason I wanted to comment though. I think in my comment on your earlier post, I might have misstated something. If I’m one of the people who seems to suggest that not describing characters is a good approach to including diversity, then let me rephrase that. I did say that I leave some characters, even major characters undescribed physically. One possible result of that is the character doesn’t have to be white. He can be any number of things. That is not why I leave the character undescribed. To do it for that reason would be ridiculous. I’m not going to use sleight of hand to include diversity. In the book I took the example from, Nick is the central character, and not much about his appearance is ever described. The books he reads, the movies he enjoys, even the shoes he wears are important to his characterization. The lack of physical detail is a sort of reverse mask that focuses the reader on other details. If that allows someone to see him as something other than white, and that suits their view, cool. If that’s impossible, then so be it. That wasn’t the point. I do like to imagine some reader somewhere viewing Nick as hispanic, inuit, or eurasian (if we can we still say eurasian). I’m not worried about it though.

I did want to clarify my purpose though, because I don’t think that deliberately excluding diverse characterization is a valid approach to including diversity for anyone who is concerned with it.

I still believe that a character who is not described, deliberately or not, does not have to be white. That assumption is a greater problem than any other. I don’t know how to solve that. All I can say is that I genuinely do not make that assumption. I don’t see a character as white just because it’s left to the imagination. As I’ve said before, I’m not even concerned with diversity in books, so if I don’t make that assumption, then I don’t see any legitimacy to anyone else’s assumption.

One last thing that I want to mention must be prefaced. Consider this something similar to a surgeon general’s warning. The rest of this comment does not contain any hostility or righteous indignation. There may be low levels of irritation and even a somewhat smug sense of irony, but no real anger.

I find the term whitewashed to be vaguely offensive. I have since I first heard it. I understand that it isn’t intended to be offensive, but that doesn’t always matter. I wasn’t certain why it was that it bothered me until reading your reply to a comment above. You hated even typing the phrase black-face. Hm. Whitewashed is acceptable. Black-face is not. The use of the phrase whitewashed wouldn’t bother if it weren’t so casually tossed around. That might actually be a bit hypocritical of me since I’m the kind of guy who will say anything. Oh well. I spent the morning screaming at my computer screen while trying to put together a new blog, so I hope none of that bled over here.

Reply

Jami Gold June 7, 2014 at 5:07 pm

Hi Matthew,

That’s a good point about the word “need,” as in “we need diverse books.” I hadn’t thought of it that way before and I can appreciate that perspective.

As I mentioned on Facebook yesterday, to me (and yes, I recognize that others have different perspectives), I see diversity as being able to include ANY type of characters different from ourselves: age, income, gender, living conditions, family situation, etc. They all require imagination and empathy to “get right.” So the fact that I include males and characters of various ages, etc. is all part of diversity. We get to choose which diverse elements we want to include, but it seems ridiculous (to me) that some say “no” to diversity, when really they mean only certain kinds of diversity.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts about the idea of leaving characters un-described. I’ve seen that idea proposed by many in various forums, so my inclusion of that topic in this post wasn’t meant as a response to you specifically, but more as just making sure everyone had the opportunity to think it through. 😉

I agree that we might want to leave characters un-described for various reasons, not related to “slight of hand” for diversity. So by no means is that a “bad technique” across the board. 🙂

As for the term whitewashed… Hmm, I see your point, but as the term is still legitimately used in painting, it doesn’t have the strict negative connotation of “black-face.” To me, there’s no “good” way to mean “blace-face,” and that limitation doesn’t exist for “whitewashed.”

“Whitewashed” existed as a term long before any racial connotation, and usually doesn’t refer to race at all. When it does refer to race, I’ve always thought of it as referring to race because of the painting context. I understand that others might have different thoughts, but that’s why–to me–the term isn’t offensive. I hope that makes sense. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Matthew Brown June 7, 2014 at 6:38 pm

I really didn’t assume you were responding to me in particular about nondescription. I had to bring it back up all the same because my previous comment, when I reread it, didn’t seem to say what I intended.

The whitewashed thing really isn’t important. I was swatting flies, was all.

Thanks.

Reply

Jami Gold June 7, 2014 at 7:27 pm

Hi Matthew,

Understood. 🙂 And no worries! I always appreciate other perspectives. 🙂

Reply

Bel June 7, 2014 at 10:53 pm

I’d like to thank you first of all for your blog posts, which I find interesting and informative, and sometimes thought-provoking. This is definitely a sensitive topic, but I applaud the fact that you’re tackling it, and regard that as part of a new openness in discussing these matters that’s currently sweeping through the Western world. The swing of the pendulum, perhaps? Some of your commenters have made insightful remarks, too.

I live in the UK, and we have a regular TV drama called Midsomer Murders that’s very popular and has been going for years. OK, this is about screenwriting as opposed to writing fiction, but a few years ago a controversy blew up regarding the fact that ethnic minorities never appeared in the show. The producer (or whoever was in charge) explained that minorities weren’t included as they simply wouldn’t fit in.

Midsomer Murders is an almost tongue-in-cheek murder-mystery drama. It mainly centres around rather eccentric, often old-fashioned, typical middle- or upper-class English characters living in picturesque villages – perhaps even “Lord of the Manor” types in their stately piles – and all regularly bumping each other off to prevent rivals winning the local bell-ringing contest, or the prize for Best Begonias at the annual horticultural show.

As the debate raged, it was pointed out (and rightly, I think) that it would be very difficult to include ethnic minorities as the MCs. If they played the victim, well obviously they would have been targeted because of their ethnicity. On the other hand, if they were the murderer then that would represent negative racial stereotyping. Definitely a dilemma there! More recent episodes of the show do now include ethnic minority characters. I haven’t seen them all but, in the ones I *have* seen, although some suspicion fell on the ethnic minority characters, they were never actually the perpetrators of the crime.

However … more recently I read about an author named Yvette Someone-or-other whose novel had been nominated for one of the Booker-type prizes (and I do apologise in advance if I have misremembered or misinterpreted any of the details). The novel centred around a murder mystery set in the North London area where the writer had grown up.

The author’s literary agent asked her one day whether she realised that there were no white characters in her novel. The author said she did a double-take as it had honestly never occurred to her. Strange, you might think, that a story set in London wouldn’t involve any white characters, especially when written by an author who had been born and bred there.

But, you see, the writer’s parents had emigrated here from a Caribbean island, and she herself was black. She explained that the lack of white characters was simply down to the fact that she relates best to people from her own background and culture. When you take into account that she is a native Londoner, it just goes to show how powerful these cultural links are and that, even though folk might spend a lot of time around each other, people generally do stick to their own kind.

I’d like to emphasise that I don’t feel remotely offended by the fact that this novel did not feature any white characters, despite being set in London! I wouldn’t dream of trying to tell this lady that she “should” have made sure to include whites for the sake of diversity. I very much doubt that, either as a novelist or screenwriter, I would be able to sufficiently “get inside the head” of an ethnic minority person in order to make that character seem authentic and I believe that (as I think at least one of your other commenters on this subject has pointed out) using expressions such as “ought to” or “should” in this kind of context is not very helpful.

One of the major points I wanted to make is that, although the lack of ethnic diversity in Midsomer Murders caused controversy, I doubt that the above-mentioned author got slagged off for not including characters of a different ethnicity from her own – however, if white authors or screenwriters said something similar, it would probably be a different story! 🙂

Reply

Jami Gold June 8, 2014 at 12:42 am

Hi Bel,

Thank you so much for sharing those examples! I’m afraid I’m rather limited in understanding how these issues play out in other countries, so I greatly appreciate the insights. 🙂

I’ve heard some non-white authors state that they still assume all un-described characters are white. So maybe people’s assumptions aren’t based simply on their own situation, but on the diversity mixture of their surroundings. If they’ve often felt like an outsider, perhaps that carries over to their reading? I don’t know the answer, but there are interesting questions yet to explore in this conversation.

I agree about the unhelpfulness of “ought to” or “should.” I can’t imagine ever “confronting” an author about the ethnicity of their characters. If I was editing a story where I thought an author was open to changes along those lines and the story seemed unrealistic as is, I might point out the current situation. Maybe. But I’m so much against the idea of “force” or “unnatural” that I wouldn’t want any author to feel obligated to include characters they didn’t think fit the story.

So yes, this is definitely a touchy subject. That’s why I’d much rather authors simply ensure that they’re not falling back on lazy ideas. No matter how it manifests, lazy or un-thought-through ideas can harm our stories. And if we get more diverse characters out of that simple step, that’s a great bonus. 🙂 Thanks for the comment and thanks for sharing!

Reply

Serena Yung June 17, 2014 at 11:31 am

Just to add to this discussion, I do have a habit that I should maybe change: when I see a male author write a female character doing something I don’t think a “real life” female would do, I would go: what kind of woman would do that???

But I guess it’s okay if I think that what that female character did is not a reflection on all females; it’s only a reflection of this female character herself. It’s just this particular PERSON. And there are all sorts of people in the world, so I shouldn’t be too surprised by anything that I “don’t think ‘real’ girls would do”, haha.

Reply

Jami Gold June 17, 2014 at 11:34 am

Hi Serena,

That’s a great point! Rather than “what kind of woman would do that?” maybe the question should be “is this in character for her?” 🙂 I’ve probably been known to make that judgment as well–LOL! Thanks for sharing that insight!

Reply

Serena Yung June 17, 2014 at 1:16 pm

“Rather than “what kind of woman would do that?” maybe the question should be “is this in character for her?””

Ooh good idea! I should think about this next time I encounter a male-authored female character who I think is being…”un-female”, lol.

Reply

Jami Gold June 17, 2014 at 1:18 pm

Hi Serena,

Yes, it takes all kinds, right? 😉

Reply

Tamyara Brown June 18, 2014 at 4:28 pm

Great post and a always I am walking away with an armful of knowledge. Diversity at its finest.

Reply

Jami Gold June 18, 2014 at 4:31 pm

Hi Tamyara,

I vaguely remember a TV PSA from years ago: “Knowledge is power.” Maybe that goes for creating more powerful stories too. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Cheryl Head April 12, 2016 at 8:56 am

Excellent work, Jami. I appreciate how you have tackled the issues of diversity in writing. You’ve done a great job of articulating techniques, providing good resources and doling out heaping spoons of food for thought.

With Admiration,

Reply

What do you think?

38 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Previous post:

Next post: