The Danger of Political Correctness for Diverse Books

by Jami Gold on June 3, 2014

in For Readers, Writing Stuff

Magnetic desk toy with various colors of human figures with text: We Need Diverse Ideas

This is one of those posts that will probably get me in trouble, but I believe it’s an important conversation to have. I will attempt to avoid offending anyone, but that’s getting more difficult in our society (which is kind of my point). Wish me luck. *smile*

An online campaign on Tumblr and Twitter called #WeNeedDiverseBooks promotes the importance of books that portray characters of various orientations, cultures, nationalities, and abilities in children’s literature. Diverse books are important for adults too—not simply for the sake of diversity—but so that by sheer number of representations, any one type of character isn’t limited to a stereotype.

The truth is that we are all diverse. My life experience is not the same as any of you. And every one of you have different experiences from each other.

No one stereotypical character will ever represent us, no matter our color, nationality, abilities, or background. Yet stereotypes exist and will always exist.

That might sound like a depressing thought. We might think that if only we worked hard enough, shamed others enough, pushed enlightenment enough, that we might be able to avoid stereotypes.

The simple fact of the matter is that the human brain does not work that way. The human brain is lazy. *smile*

Categories Help Our Brains Process Information

Our senses bring in far more stimulation than we can process. How much do we pay attention to the color of our carpet in our home? We don’t. (Unless we hate it and are thinking of changing it.)

How much do we pay attention to the background noise of our refrigerator? We don’t. (Unless it’s making weird noises and we worry it’s about to break.)

How much do we pay attention to the weight of our clothes on our shoulders? We don’t. (Unless the fabric is scratchy and driving us crazy.)

Our brain ignores everything possible so it can function without being overwhelmed. Our brain constantly puts everything we see, hear, feel, taste, and smell into “ignore” or “this is different—pay attention” categories, and we only consciously notice the latter.

We put people we see or meet into categories too. We think young/old, male/female, tall/short, etc. We ask what people do for a living. We inquire whether we have friends, schools, neighborhoods in common.

This is not bad. This is normal and unavoidable.

In fact, brain research suggests that we can’t remember things unless we can “attach” that information to something we already know, like one of those magnetic sculpture desk toys except made of connected memories. Categories help us remember.

We will never be able to look at an unknown person and not have our brains seek to categorize them in some way. Because of that instinct to categorize, stereotypes—preformed branches for attaching similar new memories—will always exist.

The Danger of Political Correctness

Some might agree with me and then state that the problem comes when stereotypes are harmful. Great! But how do we define harmful?

Kristen Lamb wrote a MUST READ post about political correctness:

“These days, I find myself less prone to joke or make conversation with others of a different ethnicity or culture because, bluntly, it’s exhausting and I always seem to screw it up. I find myself hedging everything I say, backpedaling, and struggling to remember my proper and approved PC vocabulary.

We walk on eggshells to avoid “offending” someone. We no longer can make mistakes. We are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.”

I’ve seen people say the phrase “Oh, that’s so lame” is offensive to those who can’t walk. And then I’ve seen even more people—all of whom really can’t walk—say “Don’t be ridiculous. It’s just a phrase, not offensive.”

Multiply that by the hundreds or thousands of potentially problematic words or phrases, and we don’t know who to listen to or what to think.

  • Should we follow the lead of those actually with the experience (of which, as they are not a monolithic stereotype, might have differing opinions)?
  • Or should we avoid attracting attention from those without the experience, but who wait, all-too-eager, to call us out on some infraction like the thought police?

We can have the best intentions in the world and still screw up. Quite frankly, political correctness has too many rules, and no one will ever be able to remember them all, especially when various interested parties can’t even agree on whether there should be a rule about something. Being unaware of all of the rules, or being unable to keep them straight, shouldn’t earn us an *-ist label or prove that we’re “insensitive.”

Most people don’t mean to be insensitive or offensive. Yet the default response seems to be to attack or judge rather than to inform or give the benefit of the doubt.

As Kristen said, constantly walking on eggshells and fearing saying the wrong thing is nerve-racking. The result is that we’re less likely to relate with others of a different culture or ethnicity. That it seems easier to avoid others than it is to avoid making a mistake.

That avoidance of diversity out of fear is the real danger.

Stereotypes are most harmful when they prevent us from making new friends or being open to new ideas. That goes for people and books.

The Danger for Diverse Books

My friend Roni Loren wrote an insightful post about whether authors are scared to write diverse books. The (understandable) answer for too many is “Heck yeah, it’s too risky.”

In an in-person encounter, we could at least apologize or try to explain our intentions. In a book, we can’t even do that. If we get something “wrong”—which as I noted above, is nearly unavoidable—we’re going to offend someone and not be able to “take our words back.”

The result? If authors don’t want to take the risk, we’ll have fewer diverse books on the shelves.

Worse, those limited numbers will mean each book with a such-and-such type of character will seem more important or be more notable. Any stereotypical aspects will stand out more, rather than being drowned out by a flood of other representations of such-and-such type of character.

Fear of being judged “wrong” in the eyes of political correctness can make us more insulated—from both a variety of people and ideas. That is harmful for all of us.

Should We Write about Experiences We Don’t Share?

Some might think it a good thing if authors aren’t willing to take those risks with unfamiliar scenarios. They might think diverse books should come only from those with the appropriate experiences. While I understand the frustration when authors “get things wrong,” I disagree with that idea in general.

I’ve been to book signings where authors are giving away free books, and the lines for the non-white authors are almost always the shortest. We all “discriminate” in our book reading. (“I don’t like that genre.” “I don’t like stories with that trope.”) Subconsciously, even though they’re not racist, the attendees see those authors and categorize their books as something they couldn’t relate to.

Would we rather that insulation of people and ideas continue? Or would we rather prod people to broaden their experiences?

If it takes reading a diverse book from a white-bread author to show people that, yes, they can relate to stories with diverse protagonists, I say bring on the diverse books from any author who wants to take on the challenge.

Roni’s post shares several tips on how to do our best to “get it right,” starting with not having “a ‘default’ that everyone who walks onto the page is white, straight, and middle-class until proven otherwise.” I hope any author who tries to show diversity in an honest, non-stereotype-driven way is welcomed.

My Choice for Diversity

As I said at the start of this post, I believe we are all diverse because we all have experiences that no one else shares. We need diverse books because they help us explore and discover various beliefs, values, and experiences—and through that exposure, we’ll learn more about ourselves and how we can relate to others, no matter our various backgrounds.

No one looking at the color of my skin would guess that I grew up as a minority in my school (the only white girl for much of elementary). The stereotypical “white” experience doesn’t apply to me any more than the stereotype of xyz ethnicity applies to any real person. The same can be said for our characters.

Heck, I write paranormal. Some of my characters are dragons, unicorns, faeries, and the like. Am I not supposed to write those characters because I haven’t experienced what it’s like to be them? *grin*

Am I not supposed to write from my heroes’ point of view because I’m not male? That’s not how my genre works. We’re supposed to be able to use our imagination to write fiction.

I write those characters with the attitude of being true to the characters. I use the same criteria when writing my human characters, whether white, black, Asian-American, Native American, gay, straight, etc.

I write books with diverse characters and don’t worry about trying to capture everything “right” because I’m not writing about any such-and-such type of person. I’m writing about a specific character, and as long as I’ve stayed true to their specific experience, I’m avoiding stereotypes.

Will I receive negative reviews for my choices? Undoubtedly. My xyz character won’t be xyz enough. Or maybe they’ll be too xyz. Or I didn’t do a good job of capturing the xyz experience because I didn’t touch on abc.

Whatever. There’s no such thing as a universal xyz experience, so I’m not going to worry about it.

I’m writing my characters’ experiences, and while I would never knowingly write anything offensive, I’m most interested in staying true To. My. Characters. No one is going to like everything we write anyway, so worrying about whether someone might not like our characters because of diversity is a dead end.

We need to stand up to the fear of accidentally getting something politically incorrect. If we don’t, literature—and our lives—will become even more insulated from people and ideas different from our own. And that would be a real dead end.

Have you participated in the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign? Do you worry about accidentally being politically incorrect? Have you ever written diverse characters? Do you plan to? Do you think political correctness can cause damage to our willingness to explore diverse friendships and characters?

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79 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Karyne June 3, 2014 at 8:36 am

I think you’re 100% right. I wrote a much briefer blog post on the topic last month because I found the whole campaign confusing. It seemed like people were pushing for diversity over quality. I want agents and publishers to select books that are good, regardless of whether or not they’re diverse. If they happen to be diverse, so much the better! But I’d hate for political correctness to heavily influence the publishing industry.

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Jami Gold June 3, 2014 at 9:56 am

Hi Karyne,

I do support diverse books, but I don’t want books judged solely on the basis of how well they got xyz experience “right” because as I said, there isn’t a universal xyz experience. I don’t want authors of any size, shape, or color afraid to write diverse books due to the fear of being judged as “doing it wrong.” That fear will lead to fewer diverse books, not more.

Along the lines of what you said, the storytelling quality should take precedence–for the “judgment” (if any is actually needed)–of whether the story is true to the character. For example, my black character isn’t of African ancestry and isn’t American, so I wasn’t going to go PC and call him African-American. His experience isn’t supposed to match the experiences of the African-American community, so it would be ridiculous to judge his character on whether he seems like a “real” African-American person. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Sophia June 3, 2014 at 9:21 am

I go on tumblr; I have seen the most politically correct of the politically correct…The oversensitivity drives me crazy sometimes.

But.

That doesn’t mean they don’t have a point.

This makes it sound like the mild inconvenience of possibly being accused of insensitivity is far worse than actually being racist, sexist, etc.

And the whole justifying categories based on brain processes thing comes off as an excuse for not even trying to make an effort. Like potentially perpetuating problematic stereotypes that hurt people is far less of a problem than bothering to put some thought into it.

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Jami Gold June 3, 2014 at 10:22 am

Hi Sophia,

I agree with you…to a point. Online accusations for many situations (not just political correctness) have gotten more destructive. Instead of merely informing or stating disagreements, I’ve seen people go into “I will destroy you” mode. I’ve seen witch-hunts erupt over differing ideas, where people get their friends involved to “bring someone down.”

For authors, what we write is our career. If someone makes an accusation about us based on our writing, they can literally destroy our livelihood and our family’s income. And yes, I’ve seen it happen. That’s huge risk for authors to take.

But we need authors to be willing to take that risk or else we’ll have fewer diverse books. That would go backward and go against everything we want to accomplish in society.

So no, this isn’t about “mild inconvenience” or people not wanting to make an effort. I believe most people are making an effort, yet the response is to take offense anyway. I do everything I can to avoid offending anyone, but I’m sure it happens anyway because everyone’s line–everyone’s sensitivity–is someplace different.

My explanation of brain categories was in no way an excuse for not trying to make an effort. And quite frankly, the fact that you interpreted my words that way proves my point: People can misinterpret us despite our best efforts. 🙂

However, what I meant was that our brains–even if we value all people equally–will still stumble when (for example) we meet a transgendered person. Our brains aren’t going to throw out a male/female category that works for most of the population based on the exceptions. Our brains can certainly recover from that stumble and come up with a way to deal with the exceptions in a respectful way, but that initial struggle to categorize won’t go away.

As long as we’re not treating people in certain categories as inferior, categorization is not the problem. The problem comes in how we treat others, and words alone shouldn’t be the only factor when judging because of the “misinterpretation despite our best efforts” issue. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Daniel Swensen June 3, 2014 at 9:28 am

We couldn’t please everyone even if we don’t raise the apparently terrifying specter of political correctness. Not every book will be for every reader, and that’s as it should be. It would be a pretty bland world otherwise.

I think it’s important to remember that people just wanted to be treated with respect, regardless of who they are or where they come from. And people want to see themselves represented in fiction, as human beings with real emotions, not as caricatures or symbols. Accomplishing this as a writer is challenging, but I think even more so when we come from a place of fear and entitlement, comparing our critics to “thought police” and likening being criticized to an attack on our freedoms akin to Nazism, and claiming our own experiences and outlook as universal to all. I’m not saying you’ve done or said any of this, but I’ve certainly seen it done and said, more than I’d care to.

I don’t think treating people respectfully and with humanity is as terrifying as people think. And it is true that the best intentions can go wrong, and that issues like these can be complex, but I think it really comes down to respect, context, and a willingness to learn. For that reason, I think it’s important that we challenge our own perspectives as frequently as possible, no matter who we are and where we come from.

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Jami Gold June 3, 2014 at 10:35 am

Hi Daniel,

“Not every book will be for every reader, and that’s as it should be.”

Exactly! And that’s why I’ve decided not to worry about the fear. 🙂 I think it’s more important to increase the numbers of diverse books than to try to avoid the unavoidable fate of someone not liking our book.

I agree completely that the issue comes down to respect. And most people I know are willing to learn. Where I’ve seen the most problems are when the context leads to an assumption of a lack of respect, and that’s not necessarily the case.

Like you, I want my ideas challenged so I can ensure that I’m not making mistakes. And that’s exactly why we need more diverse books. But I’m afraid the fear of doing something wrong will hold us, as authors, back from the goal. And that’s not helping any of us, no matter what we think about political correctness. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Taurean Watkins June 3, 2014 at 10:01 am

Jami, I take take part in the movement the hash tag #WeNeedDiverseBooks, and did a video that I hope comes off as I mean it to: http://youtu.be/gBleB-Vr7EM

One thing I’m glad you noted was that diversity is not limited to ethnicity, and while the #WeNeedDeverseBooks moments spawned because of a kerfuffle around ethnicity, there’s more to it.

That said, I think I don’t think people on average that “lazy” in their thinking. I certainly understand why we compartmentalize and categorize to avoid overwhelm, but there’s a BIG difference between what you’re saying and just being willfully ignorant and snobbish.

As I’ve said before, we don’t inherit EVERYTHING from our family, some things are just “My Stuff” be it bad or good. I grew up with smokers, but I never became a smoker, and while not everyone can resist temptation to experiment, not everyone submits to pressure in all instances either.”

After all, when parents are alcoholics, that doesn’t instantly deem the kids will follow suit, whether they later drink as minors or after being legally old enough to do so. Now addiction is different than social ignorance, but you get my point.

That said, you can learn to rise above your programming. Matilda and James (Of “Giant Peach” fame) sure did, wouldn’t you say?” (I still feel Dahl could’ve stood to have some adults in his books who weren’t abusive and still have kids come out on top, but that’s my only nitpick with him…)

While I see truth in your statement-

“Yet stereotypes exist and will always exist. The simple fact of the matter is that the human brain does not work that way. The human brain is lazy.” I do feel STRONGLY that we shouldn’t put too harsh a line in the sand here.

I’m certainly with you on being true to your characters above all else.

I hadn’t thought of the “Writing outside your experience” in terms of my animal stories but there is truth for me in that, though I don’t write paranormal as you do.

I may not be what I’m writing about, but I personally freer writing about animals than humans because I can avoid directly confronting issues of human ethnicity, not just out of fear of “Stereotype Wars” but because this is what I read most of, and yet I can’t deny not having the play “The Race Game” was a part of it, too.

That said, I’m more than willing to fight gender bias because that by itself can be harmful, whatever the character’s ethnicity, and with all respect to what girls and women still deal with, this can be more fatal with boys and men because we still expect a certain standard for boys and men. I saw this “guilty until proven innocent” mentality play out growing up, and lived it some myself, and if you didn’t, you are lucky.

While we often lament absent fathers (especially in my ethnic background being African-American) but there can be a problem when the dads are there but are raising sons not “like them.” Some can respect that early on, some have to grow into it, but sadly others fight to “recondition” it, and even resign their boys for it, regardless of your sexual orientation, though that will add to it as well.

Sometimes, the moms can unknowingly feed into this gender bias, despite being feminists and seeking equality in their line of work, especially when it’s male-dominated, yet they expect their sons to be the opposite of what they strive for.

They may have highly progressive aspirations for their daughters and nieces, yet sometimes subconsciously feeding their sons and nephews the chauvinistic crap they despised so much themselves.

I remember listening to an episode of “Open Book” podcast from the BBC about how some authors who write for non-adult readers face this gender bias all the time, and mostly from mothers of sons, simply on the basis of there’s a girl on the cover, and thus not for my son!

Or will say something like “This book has a fairy, oh no, John you don’t do fairies.” And I’m like, “Hypocrite Much?” Is that what he thinks or what you (Mom) thinks?

You can listen to it here: http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/radio4/openbook/openbook_20131222-1630a.mp3

That’s the key point we should consider when we screen material for our kids.

If we want to raise empathetic and thoughtful kids, we need to model it whenever possible, and as I like to say, if you don’t trust your neighborhood, let kids be free to explore books, why else do you think dystopian had a boom in interest, and it wasn’t just “The Hunger Games” or even “The Giver” that benefited.

It’s hard enough for writers like me to write best books we can, and just as hard to get super tech savvy kids to enjoy books, print or otherwise, we shouldn’t make it harder by censoring content for arbitrary reasons.

It’s one thing to steer a kid away from a certain movie, book, or episode of a television program that involves a touchy subject for them, such as a school shooting and that same incident happened at their school, and another to ban something from their access “Just because.”

Now sometimes you may have to do that with really little kids for certain subjects (things like 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina), but beyond 5, I feel you need to be willing to answer for it.

How is that different than singling out someone for being simply “different from the norm.”

Admittedly, I don’t always flock to books about or by authors of my background, but that’s not because I have ethnic bias, but it is hard to find characters who but aren’t these idiotic pests or psycho pervs, and frankly many of my interests aren’t typical for my ethnic background, so I had to turn to other books that had it, regardless of the character or author’s ethnic background. A great book is a great book.

But that said, it would’ve been nice just to see more books about boys who liked to cook and had more interest in fashion, or liked something OTHER than sports or Star Wars, whether they were my ethnicity or not, and now they’re starting to emerge, but were nonexistent when I was growing up, or at least the few that did exist weren’t made available to me.

That’s probably part of why I love to seek out new books and authors more than perhaps other readers my age who strictly stick to a certain type of book they like.

Sure, I have my literary comforts, too, but I also HUNT for new voices, even before I wanted to be a writer, and before I learned to love books as entertainment it’s how I saw film and television and still do. (I’m still a bit ticked that the one movie I would’ve ran a marathon to see “Ernest and Celestine” was in limited release in NYC and California only, like they thought no one outside these areas would want to see it. Wrong!) I’ll certainly buy it when it’s available, but you get the point…)

See the trailer for yourself: http://www.hulu.com/watch/594541

Since I’m now an author I feel this need even more so because now know in a more intimate way how it feels to be the underdog in your field, I would want someone to give me a fair chance, I feel the same in the books I review on T.A.A. that are by debut or lesser known authors.
I still give fair and honest reviews, but I just want to be known for variety, and not be a snob to new voices.

Maybe I’m not as “Fierce” about the ethnic representation as many people in my community, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want it any less than those more “in your face” vocal, I just see the matter of diversity as not just about ethnicity, but also gender bias for boys and men as much as girls (but boys and men have fewer outlets to express their frustrations in healthy, sane ways) and kids not being given the chance to read and see beyond their world.

There’s a big difference between responsible “content screening” and “overprotective paranoia” that I fear parents and teachers forget sometimes, and while I’m not at all criticizing parents for doing what they feel is right for their kids, I’m simply saying to be thoughtful about how you do it and why.

Teachers have it harder in this respect because they have so many rules and regulations weighing on them, but parents are our children’s first teachers, and so it stands to reason we should be careful what we say and do in how we relate to “others not like us…”

Just because you had a bad experience with someone of a different mindset, doesn’t mean you should brainwash your kids against people of that mindset.

For all you know, your kid’s future BFF or even potential spouse could pass him or her by simply because the parent refused to accept them being friends, all because someone who had a similar background rubbed you the wrong way, and that’s not necessarily the same person.

When I say this, I’m assuming we’re talking about a decent person, whose flaws are not an inherent danger, but is from a certain background or believes something you don’t, be that a religion or parenting style that again, is not harmful to the kids involved.

This is why kids who grow up in strict homes rebel harder and worse on average than kids with parents who were perhaps too lenient and hands-off, at least with the latter, kids didn’t feel emotionally suffocating the way kids with very strict parents did.

I have a cousin who had a strict upbringing, but while it may have saved her from some dangers, it crippled her sense of self-worth and need for love, and in turn struggles to give it to her own kids, hard as she tries to not repeat her parents missteps with her.

This can be a BIG deal in children’s books and some YA, and I think it’s important for those who haven’t followed the early days of this movement to understand the context this movement first spawned from.

While diversity is a problem in general across all media, it’s especially dicey for books in the Children’s and YA markets, because we’re dealing with not only the kids and teens, but the parents and schools of those readers, and it’s easy for some of us “grown-ups” to forget, especially if we’re not parents ourselves or are own childhood/teen years were “Forever and a day” ago.

We can accept girls who have more masculine pursuits, but we still wince when boys aren’t sports fiends or like aggressive play.

That’s not something to be “lazy” about, Jami, and while I’m not a parent yet, I know this because I lived the hypocrisy myself and know others who did.

Thankfully, I got to a point where I don’t let some ignorant statement question my personal truth.

I remember yesterday a story on the Today show about a six year old transgender kid who while biologically born a girl identified being a boy and the parents guided that transition.

At the end, one of the takeaways relevant here was the acknowledgement that some kids , sometimes its a phase of experimentation, others
it’s something fundamental and deserves respect, serious discussion and thought.

In my case, I just simply identified with liking non-traditional things.
I’m glad my grandmother eventually accepted this, had I lived with more
“Traditional” male relatives I would’ve felt stymied and more a “freak” beyond what was typical for the average teen to start with.

I did once have serious talks with my grandmother about this. This was back in the 90s, long before we could say words like “Gay” without being an instant controversy, never mind the concept of switching gender, medically or otherwise.

But I soon realized (long before my teens, mind you) that I’m okay with being male, what I wasn’t okay with was being forced into a “boy” mold that wasn’t me. To me, that’s inherently different than what you’re talking about, Jami.

I liked playing house and tea party more than say “wrestling.” I still do, only now the tea is real, brewed loose leaf, and I can bake the cakes and cookies on top of that (LOL!)

I played with “Barbie” dolls (I never owned one, but they had them in playrooms at school) but I loved Legos, too.

Still have not seen the movie, but I’m sure I’ll get to it before the sequel comes out…

I wanted an “Easy Bake Oven” for Christmas instead of a baseball bat or (shivers) the gross boy alternative…

That’s one stereotype I do seriously wish was challenged if not abolished.

Some boys (and girls too) are into gross things and that’s fine, I just don’t like it to be assumption for the same legit reasons girls don’t have to like lace and horses, and can be assertive and take charge when given the chance and have positive role models.

Plus, there’s nuance here, too. Some girls may not like dolls but collect Hello Kitty stuff. They may primarily like to wear masculine clothes day to day, but might like to dress up for special occasions like a milestone birthday, proms, first serious date, etc.

When I watch movies, especially now that I’ll soon do movie reviews/recommendations on my site, I do dock off a point for what I feel is excessive grossness, but I wouldn’t withhold a fair score of the film overall if I thought it delivered on its core promise.

A scene or two I can live with, when it’s a key part to ALL the humor, that’s when I get annoyed…

That’s why I personally can’t watch “Shrek” after the first one, and that was PUSHING it for me, I did like it overall, but all the films after the first one I couldn’t stomach, especially in theaters.

I would still give it a good score and recommend it to those who enjoy the gross stuff far more than me (For the record, I didn’t like gross as a kid either, I just tolerated it better than I can now. It’s not me being the “Snooty Grown-up” here…)

Pink is my second favorite color after red, that by itself doesn’t make me a wimp.

I don’t think “Eliminating stereotypes” is the right way to think of this, never mind how probable that is or isn’t, I think looking past stereotypes is ALWAYS possible, even if it takes some work.

For same reasons you bring up about being the only “White” in your school culture, we can trivalize things that may seem trival from an adult perspective really aren’t for kids and teens, bullying is a often cited and tangible example.

No one likes to be bullied, but it’s also true that the bullying culture today goes further than it used to. How many “Columbine” like incidents occurred in 1942 versus the 1980s up to today?

But even when lives aren’t at stake in the mortal sense, emotional and social well being is, and we’re starting to take that more seriously, and while we still have these problems, we’re not hiding them under the proverbial rug like we used to.

Expanding our horizons doesn’t have to be “Politically Correct Busy Work.” It’s simply making a conscious choice to TRY to judge what’s in front of you, not what you perceive.

Sure, sometimes we’ll be wrong, but better that and learning from it, than be ignorant of the conflict all together.

I’m not disagreeing with you, Jami, just making the distinction between laziness and ignorance, they may play in the same space sometime, but they are NOT one in the same.

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Jami Gold June 3, 2014 at 11:32 am

Hi Taurean,

Oh yes, I agree that there’s a big difference between lazy and ignorant or snobbish. One means that we’re willing to retrain our brain and one doesn’t. One means that we’re willing to ensure that all categories in our brain are seen as worthy of respect and one doesn’t. 🙂

As I mentioned, categories aren’t the problem. It’s the lack of respect (or even worse treatment) of certain categories that creates the problem.

I think you’re spot on with how important adults are to this issue. For example, I wasn’t complaining about being a minority in my school, and I was never bullied by them. But I can understand how all of us, as adults, might have the “oh, how awful for you” reaction.

Honestly (and this goes against all those who claim there’s no such thing as color-blindness, but that’s how kids are until they’re “taught” differently), I didn’t notice the racial difference until an adult pointed it out to me my last year at that school. To me, the kids in my school were my friends. Period.

My best friend and I “competed” on being the smartest two in the class. Her family was much better off than mine, and her mom was a local celebrity. So as a child, my impression of African-Americans was: nice, friendly, smart, successful, role models, etc. I was devastated to learn from others (i.e., adults) that most didn’t have the same impression.

(There’s a reason I noticed the line-differential at the book signings I mentioned. 🙂 My reaction (other than being saddened by the sight) was “Woohoo! Short lines! I’m there.” LOL!)

As you said, the same goes for kids and books. I think most kids don’t look to categorize “girl” books or “boy” books until someone else points it out to them.

(And we’ve talked about how I don’t write stereotypical heroes. 🙂 So I love hearing about how you’ve found a way to be comfortable not fitting the stereotypes.)

It’s that subconscious stuff that can be the most dangerous, because it takes someone pointing it out, or being more aware, to notice. That’s why I’m so grateful for my background and for when someone informs me of an issue I need to be more sensitive to. We can learn to question ourselves and our assumptions.

That’s why I think it’s so important to have as many diverse books as possible. This isn’t a zero-sum game where a white author’s diverse book will keep an ethnic author’s diverse book off the shelf. As you pointed out with dystopian, when readers are interested in a book, they’ll often look for others along similar lines.

So the more diverse books we have, the more likely all diverse books are to find readers. And the less likely a certain type of character will be limited to stereotypes. And that means we’re all more likely to find characters and stories we relate to, no matter what stereotypes we do or don’t fit. 🙂

You know I love subtext. And simply by having diverse characters (no matter the authors), I hope we’re building the subtext for people to see beyond stereotypes. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Tamara LeBlanc June 3, 2014 at 10:21 am

Another fantastic post!
I haven’t participated in the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign. Hadn’t heard about it, but I will be searching the hashtag now that you brought it to my attention.
I have seen, however, first hand, the line differences at book signings between black and white authors. Can’t stand that. Two of my critique partners and very favorite people in world are black. And we’ve discussed the differences in the number of books on the shelves with black models, or a black author on the back cover…there are much fewer of those out than there are white. My crit partners are excellent authors. I don’t want the color of their skin or that of their characters to keep them from being as successful as the next author, mainly because people might be closed minded enough to think they can’t relate..
I have written diverse characters…I’ve written homosexual characters (which I plan on adding to another novel, though they are not the love interest or main character, they still hold pivotal roles in the story) And I’ve written in African American characters as well…again, not as main characters.
Does that mean I’m racist? I don’t think so, but now that I’m discussing it here with you, I wonder…what does it mean? Why haven’t I branched out and written a black hero or heroine?
It’s definitely something worth thinking about.
Thank you so much for your wisdom and for having the courage to write this post. it was awesome!
Tamara

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Jami Gold June 3, 2014 at 11:41 am

Hi Tamara,

Yes, I’ve worried about the cover of my black hero’s story being whitewashed. 🙁 I’d hate for that to happen, and I’m making plans for how to ensure it doesn’t.

As for myself, it’s not that I’ve tried to make diverse characters, and I certainly haven’t “guilted” myself into it. It’s just that, as Roni said, if we start our characters with a completely blank slate and not start with “default” assumptions, we’re more likely to hear diverse voices for our characters. 🙂

I’ve been rolling around ideas for my next story, and I couldn’t “hear” my heroine’s voice until I opened my thoughts to that blank slate idea. See if that helps! 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Taurean Watkins June 4, 2014 at 4:46 pm

To add another dimension to this, the reason I’ve never written about my ethnic background was simply what I chose to focus on didn’t
demand it.

When I say that, I mean that my story wasn’t hinging on a (human) character’s nationality. I once thought the major human character in my debut novel might be white, but is actually a European immigrant. I only learned that when I realized that my debut, GABRIEL was the first of further stories in the story’s world.

I know a lot of articles about series writing STRESS knowing key things before you even write the first book, but for some writers like myself, that isn’t always possible.

Especially when you’re going on a book by book basis, what I think some writers forget sometimes is that series don’t “sell” if they either-

A. Overstay their welcome.

and B. Are too “By The Numbers.”

There’s something to be said for growing a series organically.

That said, there was one book I wrote years prior to Gabriel that I intended to be a series because I knew I couldn’t tell full story in only one book. More that later…

While some readers may like to read the same thing over and over, I don’t, and I think the best series avoid that, especially if they’re limited series, meaning after the major arc ends, so does the series, or at least at that point in time.

Tamera Pierce has her world of Tortall, and by writing about it at different points in the world, she can avoid running beloved characters to the ground and still live in the world, and depending on far back or forward she goes can revamp the playing field of her setting.

With the exception of a couple comfort series of mine, most of my favorite series are limited, and are willing to let characters grow and evolve.

I think something writers forget (particularity if they don’t write in the children’s pre-YA market as I do) is it’s really tricky to pitch not just a series, but one where characters don’t stay the same age FOREVER! because it’s one way many books attain that increasingly ephemeral “timeless” factor any author would love to covet.

HP aside, it’s hard to both pitch a non-picture book story where characters aren’t stuck where you start them. That said, I’m not vilifying the practice, many stories work great this way, it’s just not the only way I see stories can be told for young readers in particular.
That’s all I’m saying.

Since I don’t write much YA (Where this is allowed at least until 18.5-ish) I have to fight this when people beta-read my work.

My personal stance on this is that despite all the outcry that says “Human nature is fixed and unchanging” is bogus. Too many things would NEVER have happened if this were an unbending “fact.”

That’s part of why I got a bit ticked at your “Brain Talk” Jami. But then you’ve actually studied psychology, I haven’t, but I still believe change and redemption is always possible, I can’t help that.

That’s often the only thing that kept any amount of sanity growing up.

If I ever have both the courage and the will to research a historical novel, it will feature at least ONE character who goes against the societal norms, and despite beings shunned by larger society, that character will still find happiness, however hard it may be to get it!

After all, history always had people going against what was considered “Acceptable” and these people weren’t always evil or homicidal. Period.

I might actually read more about WW2 if I learned of a story were after the war how the German culture changed after the war.

Sometimes I wonder how America’s view of the German people in general has changed since then, after all, there had to be some who saw where Hitler was going and didn’t like it, even if they didn’t speak it aloud, and yet it seemed the whole world saw as anything from Germany at the time of the war as dangerous.

How did future generations of agreements of German descent cope?

There was one story I first wrote (before Gabriel’s first draft) that had
the inkling of a diverse cast, and my MC was Japanese (I’m not, as my pic can show) Well actually, Japanese-Italian/American, mom’s native Japanese, dad’s native Italian, met in America while studying abroad, etc.

I still had my fantastical animals, but the humans weren’t backstage, and my MC was human. As are some of his friends, others, not so much human, but that goes without saying in my stories…(LOL)

But even though I haven’t actively written about those characters for YEARS (Once I wrote Gabriel, that became my major writerly obsession) I still think about them and learned more about them subconsciously while I did other things.

Now I’m ready to live in that world again, and I hope the characters will. I better know how I can access their cultural stuff now than before, it was too much based in what I’d read and seen at the time, not in a racist way, but a “I didn’t know enough yet” way. There are still things I don’t know, but I’ll just ask various people I know (who have a similar background) to go through it with me.

I at least know them enough in my heart that they aren’t stereotypes to me, and I HOPE that often told saying of “Writer feels X, the reader feels X, too” holds up where it counts overall in spite of what I may get wrong.

That said, I didn’t know until this year the full and rich cultural history one of my characters in that story was.

I knew her father’s side of the family was English but I didn’t know her mother’s was African (In AFRICA, African). Given my story’s timeline, this would’ve occurred during a time when inter-racial marriage was still a hot topic, to put it nicely, and plays into

The trick is having her explore it without it being her SOLE IDENTITY which I do agree is a problem.

Sometimes, I feel we put too much onerous on history, not because it’s irrelevant, but it limits our thinking that nothing (POSITIVE) can change in the present/future because of X event from the past.

It also blinds us to “Hidden Histories” of people who believed 80+ years ago what is now common sense today, yet was a “Radical” concept at the time, the rise and fall of our education status in the U.S. is a sadly poignant example of this.

There are some things we do now better (recognizing kids have differing learning styles, whether or not they’re autistic or have some other medical challenge), earlier detection of struggling students and intervening where and when appropriate.

But also things we’re dropping the ball on, students who aren’t severely autistic but still need help, such as myself and others have Aspergers or other forms of high-functioning autism, the demonic push for college that while necessary for many careers, aren’t for everyone, and few available programs and outreach for nontraditional students (students with limited formal education and/or unable to attend college for reasons BEYOND paying for it!) as far as America goes. I know some people in Canada who have more flexible options.

I could go on but I’ll stop here…

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Jami Gold June 4, 2014 at 5:38 pm

Hi Taurean,

Yes, as all my “be true to the character” advice attests, I’m very much into organic story development. 🙂 I don’t write stories ABOUT diversity. Rather, that’s just one element affecting the character and the story, just as much as any personality trait or job or character age or setting location, etc. can affect the character and the story.

And don’t worry, my “brain talk” wasn’t meant to imply that we’re unchanging or unable to find redemption. (My stories focus on change and redemption themes in fact. 🙂 ) Instead, I was merely talking about how the brain processes information by default, but as we learn and grow, we move the things we learn into new categories. The categories we put people or things in are NOT unchanging.

So our brain will always look to categorize things, but the labels or attitudes we hold for those categories can certainly change, and we can move information from one category to another quite easily. The general categorization PROCESS stays the same, but the specifics are very changeable. So all is not lost. 🙂

“they aren’t stereotypes to me, and I HOPE that often told saying of “Writer feels X, the reader feels X, too” holds up where it counts overall in spite of what I may get wrong.”

Well stated! This times 1000, highlighted, with blinky lights around it! 😀 Thanks for the comment!

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Carradee June 3, 2014 at 10:43 am

Categories Help Our Brains Process Information

*blinks* I want to research this, now. My memory actually functions in categories—well, I should say, it functions in categories when it works properly. I have some suppression issues. With reason. But…it’s still problematic, sometimes, because some people get ticked off when I have to process the answer through the categories, rather than give them the answer immediately. (A few of those “some people” are why I have memory suppression issues. But that’s kinda off-topic.)

I also have an excellent memory for data, especially if numbers aren’t involved. (I tend to transpose numbers.) But I’m also a generalist who knows at least the basics on a ton of topics, so I have a broad spectrum of categories into which to parse data.

Kinda sad thing I’ve realized this week is that I can often quickly spot manipulation and identify the type, but I have no mental categories for “drunk” or “intoxicated” or “drugged”. None. I know I’ve seen people drunk, or doped up on meds, and I’ve probably even seen people on drugs. At most, I might think, “She doesn’t need any more alcohol,” but my brain doesn’t jump to “She’s drunk.” Pretty much, someone else has to bring it up for the thought to even occur to me.

I’ve grown up around alcohol, with people drinking enough to be affected, but everything was always described as “relaxed”—or, at worst, “tipsy”. Among my parents and their friends, “drunk” is often redefined to mean “have no memory of events, come morning morning”.

I know that definition is wrong. I know it. But my mental categories are skewed, and I’m at a loss for how to fix them. I mean, I could go hang out at a bar or club and watch for others present to get drunk, but that seems a bit extreme. And in any event, my blasé reaction upon chatting with people who I later realize were drunk suggests that I’m more familiar with it than I realize.

When drinking, myself, I’ve never entirely lost coordination entirely, but I have been relaxed to the point that I had to concentrate in order to move in a coordinated fashion, (but I could if I wanted to). I have no idea if that qualifies as tipsy or drunk.

As for writing, I agree that letting the characters being true to themselves is the important thing. If we’re true to our characters and stories, that’s what matters—even if that sometimes means a particular story is in some way offensive, because it needs the overarching story arc in order to be properly understood.

And besides, part of the freedom of speech (and fiction) is to challenge thought, to encourage people to think. Was that not the purpose of such non-PC works as Animal Farm?

People are imperfect. That’s a fact of life. Even the PC movement has severe problems. (Example: if they don’t like something, they’re offended, but if a conservative dislikes something, they’re intolerant.)

Everyone has others who they offend, no matter how well they can get along with others. Someone will always be offended.

An author can sanitize their work in attempt to avoid giving offense, but they’ll still end up offending someone about something. So why not tell the story you’re trying to tell?

I considered PC-ness in my epic fantasy series, but in the end, my MCs all had to be some form of white. One can be tanned, but the others… Their heritage stems from places with minimal sunlight, at least much of the time, so the likelihood of high melanin surviving in the genetic pool is kinda low.

The most difficult part about that, for me, was the first book. Taken by itself, it could be considered racist and sexist—just about everyone’s white and in conventional gender roles. But the narrator of that book is living in a very small environment. That’s what’s there. In the end, I had to just write the first book how it was and trust that some people would like it enough to read on to the next books in the series, with different narrators, where the picture gets broader.

And fortunately, the narrator for book 2 starts to give a peek at a broader spectrum of people and roles. (That narrator herself actually kills several would-be assassins.) Book 3 is a different sort of “broad”—that narrator’s the “other woman” in a relationship. And now in book 4, the narrator takes the story places that shows the world isn’t nearly as homogenous as the narrator of book 1 thought.

Now, in regards to my dark urban fantasy series… (the Destiny Walker novels)…

Those are a bit troubling, in part because I’m stuck in the PoV of an abused (nearly) 16-year-old girl who’s technically property and whose 36-year-old owner is fond of her. Now, he 1. wants her to behave as a person and make her own choices, which she isn’t psychologically able to do (except for deciding she wants to, well, die), 2. is Christian and therefore theologically has to consider her his wife, 3. even though his branch of Christianity means he’s monogamous, 4. and he refuses to sleep with her, for many reasons, but he’s also attracted to her.

Now, why would a 36-year-old male be attracted to a 16-year-old girl? The narrator doesn’t know (yet?), so I can’t convey it all to the reader, but he has a lot of issues of his own. For instance, he was a teenage father, and his mother or sister (he doesn’t know which) murdered the mother and child, so his own father wouldn’t find out. And that’s just one of his many problems. He’s fond of Destiny despite her age, not because of it—it’s also despite the power imbalance, which actually disgusts him—but there’s no way to convey that, at this point.

Destiny has severe PTSD. To be accurate and respectful of what recovery’s actually like, I had to make book 2 more reactive than active. What, exactly, I’m trying to do with the relationship won’t be clear until book 5 or more. In the meantime, I could be read as encouraging power imbalances, etc., when the series will ultimately display how much such an actual power imbalance screws things up.

Things’ll work out eventually…but more because of who they are despite the brokenness. If the mess hadn’t happened to them, they might’ve ultimately ended up in a D/s relationship anyway. (If I can ever get far enough in the series to justify it, I may write an AU! story, myself, illustrating that.)

That said, there was a line in one book that was adjusted pre-publication because it could be interpreted as offensive. I adjusted the phrasing but kept the meaning. Some readers will find the meaning offensive, but it, in itself, is accurate to the character. The possible offensive misreading of the original line was not what the character had meant, so I changed it.

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Jami Gold June 3, 2014 at 12:54 pm

Hi Carradee,

Yes, ever since hearing about that brain theory, I can’t tell you how many times–when coming across something new–I’ve “heard” my brain think “Oh! That’s like such-and-such.” 🙂 And like you, I know a little about a lot of things, so my brain has oodles of categories. LOL!

And that goes back to my point that no matter our color, orientation, background, or abilities, everyone’s experience is going to be different. Our experiences create those categories, so my categories are unique to me.

As I said from the outset, we need diverse ideas to challenge us. And on some level, when people aren’t trying to be offensive, whether we get offended anyway or not is a choice. What people choose to be offended by is going to be unique as well, which is yet another reason why we can never avoid accidentally offending someone, no matter how much effort we put into the attempt.

The only way to avoid ever offending anyone is to avoid others (not to mention not writing for public consumption!). And that’s not healthy. 🙂

As authors, we have to write stories and characters and situations that make us uncomfortable all the time. We write antagonists who disrespect our protagonists and others. We write villains who kill, rape, etc. We write protagonists that aren’t perfect either. We have to allow the story–and the characters–lead us to where it needs to go. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Carradee June 3, 2014 at 5:48 pm

I actually just realized that one of my currently backburnered stories are kind of a case in point about diversity and stereotypes in a “writer oops” fashion.

It’s going to be a serial, see, and I’ve written the first episode. And I’ve set it up so, presumably, the guy’s going to like the girl. But the girl’s a character I’ve had rattling around in my head for a while, though I’ve not yet finished any stories where she’s a major character, and when I tried to figure out what she’d like about the guy, I came up with a blank page.

I finally realized she’s probably an aromantic asexual. That hadn’t occurred to me. She’s a young, pretty, socially adept physics whiz…who also ended up a werewolf at 12. (For the record, I came up with this character before I ever heard of the Mercy Thompson series.)

I finally figured it out while realizing that I’m asexual, at least for the time being. (I have reason to suspect it’s a reactive asexuality rather than an actual natural one, with me naturally qualifying as a gray-a.)

But asexuality wasn’t one of the options I was thinking about, when I was trying to figure out this character. I knew she didn’t like other females or both genders, so I assumed she had to like guys.

Fortunately, I realized it pretty early into the story. 🙂

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Jami Gold June 3, 2014 at 6:09 pm

Hi Carradee,

Interesting! And that’s why listening to our characters is really the best way to make sure we’re not making stereotypical assumptions. 🙂

As I mentioned in one of these comments, I didn’t “hear” my upcoming heroine’s voice until I wiped the slate clean of assumptions. Only after realizing how her background was so different from mine was I able to “know” her. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Jennifer Rose June 3, 2014 at 11:34 am

Of course, this is a sensitive subject – and one that does need to be discussed. In my current novel, I’m working on having a highly diverse population – but that is because the world involves refugees from all over the ‘world.’ So how awkward would it be to have only white males in my refugee city? And frankly, I’m having fun meeting all these ‘different’ people! I agree that we have to stay true to our art. My other novel is completely populated by ancient Japanese people, and that’s okay too.

On the labeling topic- I want to add a layer to it: yes, we all make an instant label when we meet someone, but it is what we DO with that information that makes a difference. Do you keep that person in a particular ‘bucket’ even though they move on to show you evidence to the contrary? Do you apply all your past experiences with that ‘label’ to the person you just met?
[tangent- I think that’s why stereotypes in novels can be so successful – people are applying their own emotional experience of that stereotype to that character].

Articles like these are great because they keep the conversation going. Once the conversation goes silent, that’s where harm lies. The movie/writing industry is saturated with such a high percentage of white males, it’s ingrained in our minds that’s what most characters are.

I think it’s the DISCUSSION that’s of key importance, so we do actually stop and question – why is this character what you immediately think of? Why couldn’t this character be female, for example? And if you realize it’s because all your societal experiences leads you to that first type of character, then you could perhaps consider a change.

Keep our minds questioning! We are the artists with the power to change what media shows us!

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Jami Gold June 3, 2014 at 1:14 pm

Hi Jennifer,

Good point! I faced this “need” to be diverse when writing my first story. The “world” involved groups from around the globe, and it would be disingenuous to ignore the diversity of the characters.

So I started out my writing career with that thought process of questioning assumptions. Some who might not have faced the “need” might work from default assumptions until the issue is pointed out to them. That’s where the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign can help.

On the “what we do with that categorization” issue–Exactly! If our categories result in disrespect or in limiting our understanding of unique individuals, that’s a problem.

I’m not a brain expert, but I think what happens in our brains (if we’re not an *-ist) is that a new acquaintance starts in a category of whatever we can observe or determine from small talk, anything from gender to friends in common. But as we get to know someone and become friends with them, our brain moves them into their own unique category. That’s why we can look at someone we know and think “Oh, that’s so-and-so” and not about the superficial categories.

But it takes time and more information before our brain takes that step of creating a custom category for someone. Just as we don’t name the “spear-carriers” in our books, our brains won’t create a custom category without a reason. As long as we’re open to others, however, that customization will happen. But it’s against human nature (not to mention our ability to remember!–says she of the terrible memory for names 😉 ) to expect that to happen for everyone immediately.

Thanks for helping keep the conversation going, and thanks for the comment! 🙂

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Kristen Lamb June 3, 2014 at 12:06 pm

Great post! What irks me is that certain groups are immune when it comes to stereotyping and categorizing. Yes, we need the shortcut and we simply CANNOT know everything (I.e. that someone is Argentinian and not Hispanic and yes I have been REAMED for that). But other races have no problem referring to me as the “white woman” and I don’t have issue with this. But, if I say, “Yeah, you’re looking for Cynthia, the black woman with short hair” then I am being insensitive by not saying “African American?” I need to be able to spot the difference between a Cuban and an Ecuadorian, a Thai and a Korean, but “white” is okay even though I am primarily Scandinavian and our looks, values and culture are very different from English, Italian, Polish or Russian.

So as a “white” person, I’m supposed to be an expert on PC and instant recognition of all world ethnic groups, but the same burden isn’t on others? I say that people need to just LIGHTEN UP. I don’t demand the world know I am a Scandinavian-American. I’m an American. Yes, the white lady with the big mouth :).

And as far as writing a diverse group of characters, sometimes I think we as writers might write those of another race, religion, sex, etc BETTER because we pay far closer attention since we aren’t part of those groups.

My male characters are ALWAYS better than my female characters and likely because as a chick? There is a lot of stuff I assume or take for granted. When it comes to writing someone different? I must pay attention, study and be sensitive to nuance.

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Jami Gold June 3, 2014 at 1:31 pm

Hi Kristen,

Yes, our brains can only learn what they’re exposed to. Until I lived in an area with many Asians, I didn’t “see” the visual differences between Asian nationalities (knowing what features to pay attention to). I still can’t differentiate between the various Hispanic and South American nationalities. (I see the differences, but I don’t know what they mean.)

That doesn’t mean I was–or am–racist. That simply means that I don’t have enough information to train my brain. That’s not a crime. As you said, people of another ethnicity might say that all “white people” look the same to them too–and unless they’ve been exposed to what creates the differences, they might not pay attention and that’s not a crime either.

Like you, I choose not to be offended. It’s very difficult for people to offend me. (They have to really try. LOL!)

Great point about how outsiders might be more objective about characters unlike themselves! I agree completely about how I write male characters more individually because I’m not one. 😀 It’s much easier for me to listen to the character and not to my assumptions when the character is so different from myself. Thanks for the comment!

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Kristen Lamb June 3, 2014 at 12:18 pm

And the irony of writing that post on PC was when I looked through all my relationships and friendships and school experiences as a kid and young adult in Texas, I WAS THE MINORITY. I didn’t realize that until 25 years later. My group of friends has three Vietnamese, a Choctaw, three Mexicans, two African Americans, there Muslim-Americans…and then me, the “white” girl ;).

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Jami Gold June 3, 2014 at 1:34 pm

Hi Kristen,

LOL! Yep, and you know what? The only time I was bullied in that school was by a white boy who joined my class for a couple of months. 😉

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Jennifer Rose June 4, 2014 at 1:16 pm

Haha, Kristen!

I had a similar experience in my friend-group in high school, as I went to an inner city school.

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Serena Yung June 3, 2014 at 1:14 pm

I love this post! 😀

Yes I definitely agree that we should stay true to THAT SPECIFIC PERSON (character) rather than that SPECIFIC CATEGORY of person. Good point in that we thus shouldn’t worry so much about getting the “types right”, lol.

Yeah I used to fear writing from the POV of male characters, but now I’m not afraid anymore. In fact, I find that I write from male POVs more often than from female POVs, lol! I heard from George R.R. Martin that we shouldn’t fear writing characters of the opposite gender from us. Instead, we should think of them as PEOPLE, not as GENDERS. This makes a lot of sense and now I feel perfectly comfortable with and LOVE writing in the male perspective. I even find it easy and not at all unsettling to write in the POV of a male being in love with a girl or even to write sex scenes in the POV of a male. Because he is a person, not a gender. :D. In fact, I think if we want to worry at all, we should worry more about similarity of PERSONALITY rather than of gender. It’s easier for me to write a male character with a personality similar to mine, than to write a female character with a very different personality from mine. That said, we can still write about people with different personalities from us. Though I find that no matter how different they are, unless they are minor characters, they will always have at least ONE STREAK of their personality that’s the same as me, haha.

Right now, I do have a big dilemma involving political correctness and the fear of offending people. One of my characters is a lesbian, and not only is she in love with a girl; that girl she’s in love with is her cousin too! Albeit they are DISTANT cousins, though with the same surname. (The latter shouldn’t be THAT much of a problem though, because in my story society, lots of people marry their cousins, lol. Though probably not cousins with the same surname…) However, my story will very clearly show a positive attitude towards homosexuality, and whilst I’m glad that that reflects my own positive view of homosexuality, I’m kind of afraid that some family and friends who have a negative attitude towards homosexuality, will be very unhappy with how positively I’m presenting this type of love. 🙁 So I’m debating with myself whether I should reveal that this character is a lesbian, or whether I should keep it ambiguous, I.e. make it unclear whether she is really in love with her female distant cousin or if it’s just very deep friendship. Right now, I’m still leaning towards revealing it rather than hiding it, but I am still a bit fearful of some of my more uh, homophobic family members and friends. Eek! I don’t know what to do!

Apart from my fear of readers who highly disapprove of homosexuality, I do also have that fear of oh no, what if I represent her wrong??? But after reading your post, I guess I shouldn’t worry THAT much anymore. 😀 The thing I was worried about, was that even though my lesbian character is in love with her female distant cousin, her love, though romantic, is not sexual or physical. Instead, it’s an emotional, spiritual love, of the heart and soul. I wonder if people might interpret that as my implicit condemnation of the physical/ sexual sides of a homosexual relationship or a homosexual’s sexual desires. 🙁 I actually DON’T disapprove of the physical and sexual sides of homosexuality at all. It’s just that THIS SPECIFIC CHARACTER, this specific person, is more of an emotional-spiritual love person, and not much of a physical/ sexual person. It’s a statement about HER specifically, not about lesbians in general. I mean, there are heterosexuals who are only interested in the emotional and spiritual sides of a relationship and cringe at hugs, kisses, caresses, hand holding, touching, and are afraid of sex. Since there are heterosexuals who don’t like the physical/ sexual side of things, then I’m pretty sure that there are lesbians who don’t like it either. Once again, it’s about the specific person, not about this CATEGORY of people in general.

So thanks for this reassurance that if we stay true to that specific character, we shouldn’t worry about “getting the type right”. 😀

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Jami Gold June 3, 2014 at 2:19 pm

Hi Serena,

Exactly! If we try to stick to some “ideal” representation of a category, that’s just as bad as using a cliche. Much better to think of unique individuals–and just let their various categories be part of what defines them, along with all their other aspects. 🙂

I hear you on the worry about family and friends’ judgments. But we can’t be responsible for what others think or feel. As long as we’re not being offensive (unless that’s the point, such as with an antagonist), self-censorship will drive us crazy and stifle our muse.

That said, I’d also say don’t feel the need to put something specific in unless it fits the story to be specific. This “being true to our story and characters” goes both ways. 😉

And I love what you said about how our characters shouldn’t be seen as a “statement.” That’s exactly why I want to see more diverse books.

If there are only a handful of XYZ type of diversity in such-and-such genre, each XYZ type of character will feel like a statement. Whereas if we have a lot of diversity, each type of character can be seen as individuals–which is what we all want. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung June 3, 2014 at 4:36 pm

Mmm, good point that following an ideal for a category would be a cliche. It’s much more fun to see PEOPLE rather than cliches, haha.

The categories being only part of what defines them, yes indeed! Actually, my lesbian character doesn’t have any stereotypical lesbian characteristics (e.g. very boyish/ butch; she’s actually rather feminine, and she’s like everyone’s beloved older sister :D), except that the person she’s in love with is also female and that she’s not interested in men. But that’s just the definition of a lesbian, not really a stereotypical trait, haha.


I hear you on the worry about family and friends’ judgments. But we can’t be responsible for what others think or feel. As long as we’re not being offensive (unless that’s the point, such as with an antagonist), self-censorship will drive us crazy and stifle our muse.

True, that. I really shouldn’t feel that anxious about writing about homosexual characters just because I know some of my readers are kind of homophobic, lol.


And I love what you said about how our characters shouldn’t be seen as a “statement.”

Yes! And I really hate how some readers automatically assume that any beliefs expressed by your main characters represent YOUR beliefs. I could write about people with completely different attitudes towards things from me. E.g. my character might think that gambling is acceptable and even enjoyable, but I obviously DON’T think gambling is okay, lol. So it’s better if a work is not a literary classic. If it’s a classic, people automatically assume everything about the novel is a political statement. XDD


If there are only a handful of XYZ type of diversity in such-and-such genre, each XYZ type of character will feel like a statement.

That’s a good point too. Actually this would be true for species categories as well. If, in the fantasy genre, there is a lack of guardian angels, for example, we will assume that ALL guardian angels are the same, and they collectively express a statement. There seems to be a big lack of imaginary friends in this genre too, and it feels like ALL imaginary friends have xyz characteristics, when I’m pretty sure there is a greater diversity of the types of imaginary friend personalities than there seems to be. At least we get a great diversity of elves, lol.


Whereas if we have a lot of diversity, each type of character can be seen as individuals–which is what we all want.

😀 I most definitely want this! And if we have more diversity of category x characters in the genre, people who read a lot from this genre will be able to stereotype people in category x less. I think there was an era (maybe 18th century?) and subculture in literary history, where women were either the “saint” type or the “whore” type…=_= Clearly that didn’t help men readers stereotype women less!

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Jami Gold June 3, 2014 at 5:10 pm

Hi Serena,

LOL! Yep, I know several lesbians, and while a few are the stereotypical butch, others are most definitely not. 🙂 And that’s why stereotypes fall short. Stereotypes might be a legitimate starting point for our brain’s understanding, but they shouldn’t be the ending point.

Very true about how our characters are not us, and while we might write stories with themes that agree with our worldview, that doesn’t mean every element or every character will reflect us. Our stories will usually be better if we can explore any variety we want.

Exactly! on the reason why we need to see LOTS of diversity to avoid stereotypes. More of that subtext I love. 😉 Thanks for the comment!

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Renn Hadley June 3, 2014 at 1:28 pm

I think we are all looking to see ourselves represented in fiction and we’re also constantly categorizing everything as “like me” or “not like me”. Do we humans have a natural tendency to villainize or fetishize what we see as different? I’d like to see respectful discussions about how specific words do trigger feelings, because while we can’t please everyone, we can all broaden our understanding of how our own perspective is shown in our writing.

Thanks for bringing this up.

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Jami Gold June 3, 2014 at 2:25 pm

Hi Renn,

Yes, it would be great to be able to have calm conversations about various words and impressions. I’ve seen others try to start such discussions, and unfortunately, the often devolve into someone trying to state that their opinion (which is often unrelated to their personal experience) should be universal to everyone. *sigh* We can hope that as a society, we’ll eventually get there. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Anne R. Allen June 3, 2014 at 1:48 pm

This is an important topic to discuss, although I don’t really think there’s a solution. I get reviews that criticize my books as “politically correct drivel” because I have a diverse cast of characters. And others say my books “set feminism back 1000 years” because my heroine is more Lucille Ball than Lara Croft.

We live in the age of the permanently offended. There are people who will take offense at anything, even if it means purposely twisting words or making up stuff that isn’t there.

One of my favorite writers is Ursula LeGuin, who makes you think differently about stereotypes by not telling you the POV character is black until halfway through the book, and he/she changes gender along the way. But I see lots of people who hate being “tricked” out of their usual stereotyped shorthand by her writing.

Not that there’s anything wrong with the shorthand. As you say, the human brain thinks in categories. They make for easier reading.

I think that in the end, we have to write what works for our story. And that usually ends up following the old rule of writing what we know.

I figure if you don’t know any African-American trans people, you probably can’t write about them as well as you can about Armenian-American farmers in the Central California Valley where you grew up. Or fat Irish girls with unmanageable hair if you happen to be one.

So write about the Armenians and fat girls with bad hair and let the reviewers complain. Or write their own books. I think complaining probably makes them very happy, or they wouldn’t spend so much of their lives doing it. 🙂

Thanks for the brave post. Nice to see Kristen weighing in.

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Jami Gold June 3, 2014 at 2:33 pm

Hi Anne,

Yes, there are far too many wanting to be offended, and often for things they don’t have personal experience with. It’s one thing to be sensitive to others, but it’s a far stranger thing when I see someone tell the affected party that they “should be” offended at something and are upset when they’re not. O.o

Ooo, great point about how authors can not define characters, and how that approach comes with its own fans and complainers. I remember when that happened with Hunger Games and Rue. The author never specifically said the skin color of Rue, but the subtext of her district implied black. Yet there was a whole host of people complaining about the movie deceiving them when Rue was revealed to be, yes, black. *sigh*

LOL! about complainers being happy only when they complain. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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David June 3, 2014 at 2:32 pm

“Political Correctness” = pseudo intellectualism hiding intentional destruction of any opposing free will based thoughts and ideas. Why it persists and continues to grow seems based on the amount of teeth gnashing the NON-“Politically Correct” waste on it. It (PC) seems to have taken on a uncontrollable life of its own bringing down any who oppose it.

This whole subject could easily devolve into a diatribe against a political party or derogatory spiel against main stream media.

Instead of withering up and blowing away as all bad ideas should, this will continue to grow and demand an ever higher price for free thinking non-conformity. What a shame!

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Jami Gold June 3, 2014 at 2:39 pm

Hi David,

Yes, it’s very true that many discussions about political correctness devolve into personal attacks and political rants. I’ve seen people claim that EVERY member of such-and-such political party must be an *-ist label. That’s the destructive kind of stereotyping, and all groups can be guilty of it.

I write with lots of subtext and I see much more nuance in the world. Most labels of any kind don’t apply to me (much less fit perfectly). Because of our unique experiences, I’d guess that most of us could say the same.

We might agree with X party on this issue and Y party on that issue. Attacks don’t want to see nuance–only enemies. And that’s the most destructive idea of all. 🙁 Thanks for the comment!

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Kelly Roberts June 3, 2014 at 3:25 pm

Great post, Jami (as was Kristen’s)! My next novel features a main character who is paralyzed in an accident. I am not paralyzed, so I know that in order to make sure I understand (as well as I can) what that type of life event does to a person beyond the physical is to research, research, research.

This will involve talking with people who know what that’s like. In my day job, I happen to work with employees who need accommodations at work due to medical conditions/disabilities, and many of them are paraplegics or people who require assistive devices to walk. I’ve worked closely with them this year and seeing their challenges has opened my eyes. This type of diversity is horribly lacking in fiction, especially in YA. The teen years are hard enough–imagine losing your ability to walk when you’re that age. That’s what I want to explore in my work.

But like you’ve said, my MC will be her own person, with her own life experiences. She’s not going to be “generic” paraplegic. Will it speak to everyone with that experience? No. But this story is much more about this one person’s experience.

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Jami Gold June 3, 2014 at 3:34 pm

Hi Kelly,

Exactly! We want to know about the potential experiences our characters might have had so those we portray that are specific to them are shown honestly. That involves research. But no matter what, our story won’t speak to everyone with that experience, and that’s okay. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Linda Maye Adams June 3, 2014 at 3:26 pm

Last year, I wrote “The Disability Challenge” for Unleaded Fuel for Writers. It’s worth posting here, and can easily be converted to other diverse characters: http://unleadedwriting.com/2013/01/08/the-disability-challenge-getting-a-disabled-character-in-your-story/

I think the challenge is that diversity is such a volatile issue that discussion turns into knock down drag out fights that scare people off. Political correctness, unfortunately, tends to speak to the people who don’t need to hear it or don’t want to hear it, and leaves the people who might make a difference too scared to try. A challenge like the above is a very simple way to get your feet wet in a safe way. I did it with a relatively minor character in one of my books (a guy in a wheelchair who painted surfboards), and he turned into an awesome character. Which I wouldn’t have gotten if I hadn’t tried it into the first place.

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Jami Gold June 3, 2014 at 3:46 pm

Hi Linda,

Thanks for sharing your experience! I love the challenge idea–and the way you pointed out that this isn’t about making stories where the diverse aspect is the story. That’s where we too often run into trouble. Instead, the story is the story and the characters are three-dimensional, and the diversity aspect is just part of who they are.

And you’re so right about the ultimate issue. If we don’t even try, we’re going to miss out on great characters–and so will our readers. 🙁

There are some blogs focused on discussing books from a diversity standpoint, and seeing what resonates or what offends might help us get a handle on the challenge as well. One I know of for the romance genre is Love In The Margins. Under “Reading Guide,” they list many more review blogs focused on various aspects of diversity. Thanks for the comment! 🙂

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Fiona June 3, 2014 at 4:31 pm

I very much appreciate all your writing tips, but that out of the way, I came away kind of confused about what you were trying to say.

I agree some people are afraid to “write diversity” and I get why–but as you point out, if authors can write fantasy (or be another gender), they can do race, too. I agree white shouldn’t be the default.

So, we are on the same page there, but being “true” to your character is to me a cop-out. It’s easy to say, but doesn’t change much. Unfortunately, much does need to change, because 8% for characters or authors of color is not enough. I don’t see agonizing about how authors can’t be “authentic” writing from the viewpoint of another gender.

I do try to make sure I always have someone diverse. I mean, I write fantasy. If I can write about a ghost, I can write about someone who is a different color (or gender) than I am.

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Jami Gold June 3, 2014 at 4:55 pm

Hi Fiona,

Most of the time, when authors are seriously slammed for writing diverse characters, it’s because the author chose to write a character according to a stereotype or because they made the character 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 call to be true to the character is for us, as authors, to ensure that we’re treating these diverse characters as characters first. That they’re not just that diverse element–that is just one piece of their whole. And if we’re viewing these characters as whole, three-dimensional beings, we’re more likely to portray them in unique, non-stereotypical ways.

So I guess you could say that my call is that not only should we be open to diverse characters in our stories, but also to reassure authors how they can ensure they avoid the stereotype issue. In other words, I’m trying to get rid of the fears that could be used as excuses for avoiding the inclusion of diverse characters. 🙂

As I mentioned on Facebook: “Having lots of diverse books means that the stupid stereotypes will be drowned out by sheer variety. But… The only way to have LOTS of diverse books is if everyone feels “allowed” to write stories beyond their experience. And that means we can’t let fear of not being PC hold us back.” Does that make sense? Thanks for the comment!

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Linda Maye Adams June 4, 2014 at 3:49 am

Just putting in my two cents worth:

It’s a big problem getting people to put diversity into any stories. I have a friend who was an editor of a publication. They put into the guidelines they wanted diversity characters. They advertised it everywhere. Out of the hundreds of submissions, they got exactly 12 diverse characters. Of the 12, the disabled characters were all bad guys (i.e., disability made them evil) or got killed on the first page (i.e., disability made them victims). The PoC in the stories followed a similar trend, and there were few women characters. Some were likely thinking that the reader would apply diversity and the writer could leave off the description, which then resulted in a default character, rather than a diverse character.

It sounds easy, but it’s not. If the writer wants to do diversity, they have to OWN it, and they have to pay attention to it. I’ve heard many writers say, “I don’t like describing characters. It’s better to let the reader imagine it.” In the absence of description, the default sets in. I saw a recommendation that the easiest way around this was to describe all the characters’ skin colors, but the first time actually trying that will be very hard.

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Jami Gold June 4, 2014 at 9:45 am

Hi Linda,

Thanks so much for sharing that information! That’s incredibly sad and disappointing, but also not surprising. 🙁 Those are all “throw-away” characters with negative aspects, which is about the worst combination possible.

I say we shouldn’t count a story as being truly “diverse” unless the diverse character is a) specifically described (not just un-described), b) a major-enough character to be three-dimensional, and c) if one is the bad guy, there should be others who aren’t the bad guy. Thoughts? 🙂

Some readers might apply diversity to an un-described character, but as you said, many won’t because their defaults are too strong. The example you had in the challenge you listed–with using sound (or other senses) and action in addition to sight for description–might help authors get over the awkwardness. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Alica June 3, 2014 at 7:02 pm

Wonderful post! And I agree I want more diversity in my books, and I love writing diverse characters as they travel to countries I’ve never been. I do my research, try and find someone of that xyz to give me their opinion on how I’m doing and for my YA series I’m totally cheating, its written 1st POV, so all my diverse characters are seen from her POV and I’m not in their heads.

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Jami Gold June 3, 2014 at 7:08 pm

Hi Alica,

Yes, research definitely helps, and starting with a non-POV character can ease us into learning the stereotypes and assumptions we need to avoid. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Carradee June 3, 2014 at 8:07 pm

I also tend to write first person, but sometimes I find it helpful to read memoirs and first person accounts (online) by people who’ve been in the position of one of my characters, whether it’s the way a pretty part-Asian girl might get treated in a club, or what a gunshot to the chest feels like.

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Jami Gold June 3, 2014 at 9:15 pm

Hi Carradee,

That’s a great tip! 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

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Ron Estrada June 4, 2014 at 4:40 am

Well said. I responded on the blog of a writer who started the campaign (though it was probably multiple writers). I agree that minorities get treated differently. I work a mile outside the Detroit city limits. I talk to these guys every day. I hear the stories. But I also stated that we cannot force readers to read more diverse books just because it’s the right thing to do. We read diverse books because the stories are good and characters interesting (funny how that universal rule works). We read diverse characters because we’re sick of reading about people just like us. I will write in a black Detroit man because he’s a fantastic character, not because black Detroit men get watched like hawks whenever they enter a department store. This attempt to engineer human behavior has been a losing proposition for centuries, and will result in the inevitable backlash. Like I said, I talk to my black Detroit friends here where I work. And I no longer walk on eggshells. Niether do they. Start there, with a conversation, then you won’t need some hashtag campaign to change the world.

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Jami Gold June 4, 2014 at 9:57 am

Hi Ron,

I absolutely agree that storytelling comes first! As you said, readers have to want to read the story. Then the diversity comes along for the ride and sinks in through subtext. 😉

I certainly hope more diverse authors write their stories, and none of this is meant to take away from their efforts and work at all. But the rest of us can add diversity to our stories, simply by starting with a true blank slate for every character that walks onto the page.

If we do that, we’ll not only be insuring that the story comes first, so this isn’t about trying to “cram” diversity into stories, but we’ll also be adding to the overall diversity of the stories on the shelves. I see that as a win-win. 🙂

I agree that any attempt to “cram” in diversity or as you said, “engineer,” behavior will result in a backlash–which is on some level the problem with political correctness, at least as far as these unintended consequences of eggshell-walking. I’m glad you were able to move past that point with your friends, and that’s what I hope to get away from, but that might mean people needing to cut each other more slack as long as we’re all trying. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Matthew Brown June 4, 2014 at 8:42 am

Oh, this is something I shouldn’t comment on, because I really just don’t care about diversity in literature. I’m certainly not afraid of it, but I don’t feel that any victory has been gained because a book’s character is female or black or gay. There was a time when we were supposed to be colorblind. I always hated that phrase. Now, though, we’re supposed to celebrate diversity by making certain that everyone is represented, even in fiction where the people are not people, they are words on paper. I think colorblind was better.

Can I relate to a female or black or homosexual character as well as a white, straight male? Yes. Absolutely. In fact, I take a bit of umbrage at the idea that any of these things is a barrier between myself and the ideas and experiences of others. I don’t need characters who resemble me or those that I know. I certainly won’t resist the idea of diversity in literature, only the deliberate quest for it. My resistance to this quest for diversity is, ironically, based on a kind of idealism. I hate to sound this sunny and naïve, but I do truly believe that we are all the same. As you’ve pointed out, Miss Gold, we are all different and diverse unto ourselves. We are also all the same. We all think. We all feel. I think it’s misguided to APPLY diversity to a story. Write the characters that you see in the story.

Just make certain that you see what’s really there. Because it is true that many writers write only certain types into stories, and I’ll admit with no hesitation that that is no more true and real than pushing diversity into a story. I’m not saying this to compromise. I only want to make it clear that I see the problem that others see. I suppose I’m just not certain that I see the same solution. Diversity in literature must, MUST, be accepted and allowed by all readers and authors. To search for it and create it to prove a point can cost the story. Unless, of course, that’s what your story is about. Power to you.

If I write a story with characters who are black or gay or female, it won’t be to prove a point. It won’t serve the purpose of adding different kinds of characters. If there are no obvious characters of diversity starring in my books, that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. I like to write chara-ters who aren’t fully described. It’s a fun trick to use characters who can be different things. An example, a friend of mine described one of my books as a story about two white guys on a road trip. I asked, “What makes you think Nick’s white?” One of the characters, the central character, isn’t described physically in the book. Most people don’t even realize it. Nick could be white. He could be black. He could be hispanic, asian or anything else. The book doesn’t say, and if it doesn’t, then why assume? I left that out quite intentionally. I’ve done similar things with other characters. I might not create characters for the sake of diversity, but I have created a number of characters who have the potential for diversity. Obscuring certain character details allows the reader to fill it in. Sadly, most people will assume white, straight male not because those are the characters they see, but because it doesn’t occur to them to see it any other way. I think that many characters who are left open to interpretation are assumed to be a certain type. If it’s true that people want diversity in their books, then I might have turned the tables on the readers by using their perspectives.

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Jami Gold June 4, 2014 at 10:58 am

Hi Matthew,

On many levels, I don’t disagree. The story needs to comes first or we’re likely to invoke yet more backlash. However, if we leave characters un-described or we don’t start from a true blank slate (for example, not assuming every character is white, middle-class, straight, male, etc. unless proven otherwise), we run into problems. That’s why I believe, as authors, we should be conscious of this.

I don’t force any of my characters or stories to be diverse. This isn’t about trying to meet a quota or cramming diversity in to make a point. I don’t try to make sure “everyone is represented.”

Instead, what I’ve found is that by NOT assuming that “default” character, by ensuring that I start with a true blank slate when characters walk onto the page, diverse voices naturally creep into my characters. So merely by being conscious of avoiding “default” characters, diversity appears. 🙂 That, to me, is what this push (at least as far as non-diverse authors) can be about.

Also, while I agree with leaving minor characters un-described, for major characters, something (maybe not visual) should hint at their diversity or they are going to be whitewashed. It’s easy to say that would be the reader’s problem and not the author’s, but that also wouldn’t necessarily be true to character to not have their diversity affect them or their experience in any way–EVER.

I don’t write stories where the diversity is the point–or even where it’s trying to make a point–but being a diverse character usually affects 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.

Sure, with minor characters, we might never see those aspects and there’s no issue with not describing “spear carriers.” But pretending that diversity doesn’t affect a major character in action, behavior, interactions, senses, etc.–EVER–is still a form of whitewashing unless the story is set on a different world with different social issues.

So while I agree that the story comes first and that we shouldn’t feel obligated to cram diversity in to meet some “quota,” I still think that we can ensure that we’re not using “default” characters (either on the author end or on the reader end). I hope that makes sense. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Trever June 4, 2014 at 9:58 am

Great article. Glad to see someone else noting that it’s not as cut and dry as many people make it out to be. It’s not just as simple as ‘buy more diverse books’ or ‘write more diverse books’. PC Sameness is literally stagnating our culture and not having the positive impact it was originally intended for.

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Jami Gold June 4, 2014 at 11:01 am

Hi Trever,

Good point! It does no good to say that there’s “only one right way” to write a such-and-such character. a) That’s not true to the diversity of experiences such-and-such type of people have. And b) that will just create new stereotypes and cliches, which is lazy writing. 🙂

True diversity means welcoming stories with all manner of characters with all manner of experiences. Thanks for the comment!

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Lolita Moroney June 5, 2014 at 6:37 am

Unfortunately being on the inside doesn’t protect you from the PC brigade. A future book I want to write features epilepsy quite heavily and whilst I have epilepsy myself, I can guarantee that there will be people who take offence to it. To be honest, I don’t care. I think that most people will recognise that it’s just an expression of the question we all ask when things get tough, “Why the hell did I get lumbered with this?” Even though my portrayal would be just as valid as any of my epileptic peers I expect it’ll come in for some heavy criticism. The pep squad is so intent on quashing any kind of stereotype that it almost denies people the right to their own feelings and thoughts. It’s sad when you can’t express anything other than shiny happy crap because someone believes that it’s to the detriment of the group. I’m in a Live Journal community called Epileptics and we were all quite happy sharing our experiences and woes when someone came along and posted a rant about how she found the name of the community unacceptable as the term “epileptic” was offensive. She herself was a carer rather than a sufferer (yes I said sufferer as we sure as hell don’t enjoy it) and she was universally told to get a grip and stop being so sensitive. The truth is as well that sometimes epileptic is the only word that makes a sentence make sense and trying to use PC terminology makes a complete mess of it.

Someone somewhere is deciding what people should and shouldn’t be offended by. As far as epilepsy is concerned, the worst example I’ve heard of by far is that local authorities were being told to replace the word “brainstorm” with “thought shower” in case it offended employees with epilepsy. That really is the height of absurdity and I find it difficult to be believe that anybody is that precious as to be offended by brainstorm.

Gender stereotyping drives me insane. When I want to buy something I am sick and tired of the women’s version of it being pink. It’s bloody everywhere. I wanted to buy a black baseball cap last year and the only ones I could find for women were predominantly pink. There were a few incorporating lilac although I’m not sure that’s any better. In the end I had to buy a man’s cap even though on the smallest setting it’s still loose. And pyjamas? For the love of God can someone make pyjamas for women that aren’t pastel colours and/or have cutesy animals, love hearts or a smattering of diamante on them? Is it so wrong for a woman to want things in primary colours? I’m beginning to think so. I hate it when feminist groups complain about female characters in books, TV and films not being strong women who are good role models. Surely if you’re trying to write something true to life then you’re going to write how people really are rather than how you’d like them to be? If I were to write about the women I worked with previously it would be heavily frowned upon because they were so stereotypical. Every day I had to sit and listen to constant chatter about soap operas, reality TV, shoes, clothes and on one occasion, a colleague telling how that morning when her partner had said that they couldn’t afford whatever it was she wanted, she turned on the waterworks and got moody until he conceded. If you wrote about that you’d be crucified for it even though these people exist.

Authenticity should never be sacrificed to avoid offending people.

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Jami Gold June 5, 2014 at 10:51 am

Hi Lolita,

I understand and suspect you’re right about the criticism some will have for your story. 🙁 I’m sorry for your experience with LJ, but thank you so much for sharing it so we all can learn!

That style of judgment–assuming that there’s only one right experience or attitude or whatever–is what drives me craziest. The expectation that everyone with ONE similar aspect would be lockstep in every aspect is just another form of stereotyping. It dismisses and shames the reality of others’ experiences, and when that expectation comes from someone without the experience, it’s infinitely more frustrating.

LOL! at your pink rant. I don’t mind pink now, but as a child I hated pink (or anything pastel, really) with a passion. I absolutely refused to wear any of it. My mom probably had a heck of a time buying anything for me. 😉

And by the way, I own an all-black baseball cap too. 😀 Mine is a woman’s cap (I think), but the fabric is more felt-like than usual baseball cap material. So yeah, I know the struggle. :-/

As for the gender reality, the truth is that many stereotypes exist for a reason. If I included characters like those you’d describe, I’d just make sure that the stereotype wasn’t limiting. That is, maybe other female characters wouldn’t be like that, or maybe one of them changes during the course of the story, etc. We don’t want to be unrealistic on either extreme, and sometimes that means finding a way to show balance. 🙂 Thanks for the great comment!

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Piper Bayard June 5, 2014 at 8:29 pm

Great comment, Lolita. I think the only thing we can do that can ring true is write from our own experiences with these things, and we all have them in some form. There will always be haters and trolls.

As for the gender issues, well said. I remember being amazed in law school that even the most serious women students spent their time obsessing about the men. Needless to say, the men found other things to talk about.

I am determined to write strong women who are actually women. What self-proclaimed feminists don’t seem to realize is that women are not men with girl parts. We are different. We have different brain chemistry, we have different life experiences, and in many things, we have different values. So the women in our books have curves, they like sugar, and while they may be great shots with sniping rifles (we write spy thrillers), they also knit great sweaters and make lasagna. I’m tired of overboard PC feminism putting women down for being women, and I refuse to play along. I have to believe there is an audience for strong women who aren’t men with girl parts.

Thank you for your perspective and your courage.

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Jami Gold June 6, 2014 at 2:17 pm

Hi Piper,

Yes, “gender equailty” doesn’t do any good if it’s just going to dictate that there’s only one way to be a “strong female.” But that’s a different rant. 😉 Thanks for sharing your insights!

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Piper Bayard June 5, 2014 at 8:08 pm

Great post, Jami.

For myself, I don’t give a rodent’s rear end about PC. I’m a child of the 60s. The whole point of the Civil Rights Movement was that everyone is a PERSON first, and that race, religion, and disabilities are IRRELEVANT. Unfortunately, that has been turned on its ear, and race seems to be more relevant than ever.

In the 80s, I was shot at, my horse was shot, and my family was savaged and run out of a predominantly Mexican-American town because we were white.

In the 90s, I was told by minorities that I would not be considered for jobs because I’m white. My daughter was the only white girl and only middle class girl at her school in first grade, and we had to move her because she was constantly the brunt of vicious racism.

The result? I am more convicted than ever in my belief that racism is racism, no matter who perpetuates it, and there’s plenty getting spread around by the people who scream foul the loudest. The behavior is the behavior, and no one gets a pass.

At this point, I’m so sad to see that The Dream of racial equality is being buried by the new institutional rise of racism. All of the questions we fought to have removed from medical and education forms are back with even deeper implications than before. Racism has become an industry, and there is a great deal of money and political power in convincing people to be loyal to their race above their country or even their own good sense.

My writing partner, Intelligence Operative Jay Holmes, is a native Spanish speaker as well as an American born. Our protag in our Apex Predator series is a native Spanish speaker of Spanish heritage. Our protag in our WIP is an American woman of Mexican descent. She is not hyphenated in any way, shape, or form, nor does SHE give a rodent’s rear end about being anything but American. In dealing with PC, we follow the Star Trek Doctrine, as in IT DOESN’T EFFING MATTER! We write minority characters who are PEOPLE first. Their race, religion, and sexual orientation are irrelevant to their abilities with the exception of some language exposure. That’s because it’s not only The Dream, but also how mature adults behave in real life.

I didn’t let the 60s turn me into a racist; I didn’t let my own violent experiences or those of my daughter turn me into a racist; I refuse to let the current PC racism industry do it now. I have personally watched racism be taught to my children’s generation. These PC divisionists have no idea what they are perpetuating by putting race first and people last. They are taking us backward, and I won’t be a party to it by pandering to them.

Long answer for a short question. Thank you for the opportunity to speak my mind on a topic which has touched me and my writing partner so deeply.

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Jami Gold June 6, 2014 at 2:10 pm

Hi Piper,

As someone who grew up with a black Santa as normal in the local store, I want to see people as people too. And sometimes struggling to find the “right” labels feels like it’s calling attention to differences, which–and I don’t mean to erase different struggles by any means–can feel “othering,” which I don’t want to do.

There has to be a way to recognize different struggles–so we’re not blind to them–but not making such a big deal of people’s differences that it’s “othering.” :-/

And yes, I’ve heard “traitor to your race” and “traitor to your gender” and all sorts of things, which…just make no sense to me. I’d rather search for commonalities with anyone regardless of our labels. *sigh* Thanks for the comment!

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Piper Bayard June 6, 2014 at 6:20 pm

Everyone has struggles. Everyone. The PC culture ranks struggles, and that is an elitist approach that encourages people to think of themselves as victims rather than people with opportunities and responsibilities. It’s divisive and perpetuates racism.

That said, there is definitely racism to be dealt with, and no one is being honest about it. All minorities get a free pass to openly hate on whites, and in fact, it has become fashionable to do so in movies, media, and TV. At the same time, no one is confronting the rampant racism in marketing. Corporations are the worst. For example, the last time I visited Holmes, he received a credit card offer in Spanish in the mail. “Cash this check now.” Fine print? 55% interest rate. I don’t think that’s even legal, but Spanish speakers are targeted with this crap. It’s SICK, and no one is talking about it. These are the same companies that carry on about PC in the workplace.

And “race traitor”? What kind of crap is that? Last time I checked, we’re all the “human” race.

I’m with you. We are all individuals who have suffered and struggled. Let’s focus on the commonalities.

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Jami Gold June 6, 2014 at 9:29 pm

Hi Piper,

Wow, that experience with Holmes. Sick is right. That exploitation is the kind of racism that deserves attention, and yes, should be ranked above angry debate over whether this respectfully meant label is more PC than that respectfully meant label. As you said, divisiveness just perpetuates racism. Thanks for the comment!

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Rather Not Say June 11, 2014 at 9:03 pm

I live in a wheelchair, and I’m fine with “That’s so lame.” It’s not elegant, but it does give a good impression of impotence. Oops! Did I say “impotence”? (Look it up. It means more than you think.)

The fact is, I see nothing wrong with brushing back the worst of the “offense-taking” class. If I say something and you take offense to it, I’m going to do a fast evaluation, finding the ratio of my Non-PC-ness and your level of offense-taking. If it comes out I went over the line, I’ll apologize. If the fault is yours, I’ll probably just cut you out of my experience. That whole walking-on-eggshells is so not my style.

I’ve never written a crippled (disabled, differently abled, atypically abled. GIVE ME A BREAK.) character (when I go into my imagination, I want it to be better than everyday life), but I do have one in mind for a short story–because the wheelchair is such an awesome prop. Anyone who takes offense to the comedy I make of it can kiss my arse–but you’ll have to wait till I transfer to the bed and roll over. Oops! Did I say “roll”?

I did! I did! But then, that’s exactly how I roll.

Your mileage may vary.

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Jami Gold June 11, 2014 at 10:19 pm

Hi RNS (*smile*),

LOL! Thanks so much for sharing your insights!

That’s a great point. On some level, if we’re not purposely being offensive, but someone chooses to take it that way anyway, we’d probably wonder whether we’ll be likely to continue accidentally offend them and decide if hanging around with them is worth the effort. That plays in to that “isolation” issue I mentioned too–on both sides.

Speaking for myself, I’d love to read more from those writing with authentic experiences, so good luck with your story idea. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Rebecca McKnight June 19, 2014 at 6:34 pm

I don’t try to write for diversity, it just kind of happens because I write about things that have really happened to people I really know. (In a totally fictional way, of course)
I don’t even think about it until test readers say things like:
“Wait, wouldn’t Angel go to Mass with them?” No, because Angel is partially based on a Hispanic friend of mine and the stuff he deals with for not being Catholic is part of the character. (never mind the person who asked, “He’s a guy and his name is Angel?”)
“I don’t think a gay man would react like that/say that.” Really? Because that scene was based on something that happened to a very dear friend of mine while we were out somewhere.
“I don’t think it’s realistic for a paralyzed woman to travel across the state on a motorcycle.” Well, that character’s experiences are partially based on my best friend in high school’s sister who travels the country in a specially adapted sidecar her husband built for her.
I’m not really sure how to make my characters “more realistic” when I take my inspiration from real events and real people? People accuse me of “trying to make a point” with my gay characters, for instance. I guess my point would be that this is how the real gay men that I know act. Why do I have to be making a point?

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Jami Gold June 19, 2014 at 6:40 pm

Hi Rebecca,

Yes, this idea that there’s one “universally approved experience” for any type of character is what drives me crazy. Especially as those judgments usually come from people “not in the know.” THAT belief is its own insidious stereotype, and I have no problem shooting that down. 😉

All we can do in those cases is do our best to show how the experience is realistic for THIS character. 🙂 Good luck and thanks for the comment!

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Rubyfruit June 21, 2014 at 12:49 am

For context, I’m black, a woman, and bisexual, so maybe some resentment based on people acting as though trying to write about experiences that aren’t fully theirs is like writing space aliens, or books supposedly made for my demographic have never once reflected my own experience, even a little bit, might bleed through onto my comment, so forgive me if I rant a little.

I haven’t participated in the online campaign precisely because I dislike what Tumblr has done to this exact topic. There is a point to be made that there is a need for greater diversity in books, but every time that point is made, the people who shout the loudest are the ones who drop the anvil onto their own feet every time they shout down a writer for not doing it “right”, for not trying hard enough. Because it isn’t good enough that a character is something other than straight, white, or male, or whatever; the characters can’t interact as people, but as representatives of their particular group, with the full experience of being in that group according to what is held as the One True Experience. And at least from my having read “urban fiction” (where one is meant to read “urban” as meaning “for black people”), that One True Experience is the most grindingly miserable one possible, rife with discrimination and general awfulness, the details of which I’m not getting into here. I know that fiction is fiction but if the point that’s supposed to be made is that everyone benefits from more diversity of characters, and no one benefits from stereotypes, then why is it that some people, the doing the most finger-wagging and hand-wringing over this topic, are the ones pushing for stereotypes that they happen to approve of? I find it ironic that there is no diversity in their “diversity”.

Again, maybe I have such strong feelings because lately I’ve seen diversity of characters being reduced to a numbers game, needing X number of Y different characters to make the story properly diverse. Or maybe because, as I’ve said, I’ve gotten sick of this One Universal Experience nonsense that makes writing message boards act like writing characters whose experiences are different than the poster’s own is like writing about alien life, then ignoring anyone who says that their experiences differ from the Universal Experience that they’ve gleaned from stories about the Never-Ending Misery and Suffering of What It Is to Be in Group X. Maybe it’s all of those things and then some. I’m all for seeing more diversity of characters, but not if writers feel like they have to. The only thing that could come from that kind of thinking is rote stereotypes, Diversity Without Diversity. I don’t claim to speak for all black people, all women, all people in the LGBT Alphabet Soup Acronym, but this black bisexual woman doesn’t think that rote stereotypes based on a supposed Universal Experience is “better than nothing at all”.

Again, I’m sorry for the long-winded comment.

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Jami Gold June 21, 2014 at 9:06 am

Hi Rubyfruit,

Well-stated! Please! Rant away! 😀

I agree 100% with the issues you point out (I went into many of them even more in my follow-up post) and have stayed away from the Tumblr campaign (I’ve mostly seen the hashtag on Twitter). As I’ve stated here, I don’t believe in the One True Experience either. And I hate that the people doing the judging of that are–too often–not in the position to “know” anyway and are merely using their expectations (i.e., stereotypes) to judge “appropriateness.”

I’d quote some of my favorite lines from your comment (like the lack of “diversity in their ‘diversity’ “), but I’d end up quoting almost your whole reply. LOL!

Like you, I wouldn’t want to see diversity just for numbers’ sake or just for diversity’s sake. As I pointed out in my follow-up post, I’m more for including diversity simply because it’s normal in most societies.

I understand, too, what you’re saying about diversity not equaling alien life. The only reason I compared writing diverse characters to writing my paranormal characters is because (in my mind) they both come down to being true to the character and NOT writing to stereotypes. I figure that if I can be true to my paranormal characters (which I have no problem with), then I have no excuse for not being able to similarly be true to my diverse characters.

I hope my mention of that point didn’t dismiss the important difference in respect necessary between those who have real experiences and those who don’t. That’s not the impression I intended. In other words, my thought process wasn’t about implying that diverse characters are “just as bizarre” as alien life (which, resounding “no”), but rather about taking away the excuses some have for not being able to use their imagination to include diverse elements. I hope that makes sense. 🙂

I always appreciate long comments, especially ones so well thought out. So I thank you for sharing your insights! 🙂

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Rubyfruit June 21, 2014 at 10:48 am

Hi, Jami!

Thanks for your reply. I see the point that you were making, my reference to alien life wasn’t a slight to you, but a reference to my experience on many, many writing message boards where people apparently want to write diverse characters and who realize how fraught it is, but the advice they get almost always comes off like someone trying to give advice on how to write space people, and they always bring up some Universal Experience, and shout down anyone who says “Um, actually I’m in the group you’re talking about and that’s not my experience at all”. To me that’s the worst part of it, because the people doing the most hand-wringing and finger-wagging about the need for diversity and the dangers of stereotyping…are the ones perpetuating stereotypes. The difference is, they’re the stereotypes they approve of, so it’s okay because their stereotypes and cliches are different and somehow permissible for reasons not yet explained.

I’m with you all the way on diversity being normal. At least as a writer, part of it is treating it like it’s not a big deal. I don’t stop the story for a lecture on how Person X is from Group Y and you should be nice to them, instead I think about who the character is and how they got there. I don’t pretend that characters in a story where vampires and fairies are known to exist would have the exact same hangups about race, disability, sexual orientation, et cetera, as real-life people in 2014. I don’t even pretend that people in 2185 have the same hangups about race, disability, et cetera, as people in 2014. I guess that’s the problem that I have when people talk about “diversity” while at the same time insisting on using some kind of template for “proper diversity”.

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Jami Gold June 21, 2014 at 3:40 pm

Hi Rubyfruit,

Exactly! I know I’m going to be slammed for some of my stories because I often do treat diversity as normal and no big deal. The characters are three-dimensional and their essence in the story isn’t just about their diverse element. It affects the story, yes, but often in a minor way compared to everything else going on.

One of my heroes has dark skin and dreads…and he’s not human. There’s no way he’d have the same response to racism as those who grew up in a human (much less black) culture. That’s why–for me–it all comes down to the character. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your insights!

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Serena Yung March 20, 2015 at 10:40 pm

Hello, it’s me again! So recently on Pinterest, there was a post on how to make your guy characters actually sound like guys…I did NOT click into it, because my guy characters in my head were entreating me not to click it, haha! In fact, if my main guys actually sound like guys, they would be out of character!! Lol. My guys are either more feminine or androgynous, very few sound “masculine”, and that’s good, because I like feminine or androgynous men better in romances and other stories anyway. Also, I don’t want them to sound like “their gender”. I want them to sound like themselves!

For instance, I have a male character called Damien, and I don’t want Damien to either “sound like a guy” or “sound like a girl” (though the latter is definitely preferred, haha). I want Damien to sound like Damien!

George R. R. Martin commented once (don’t remember if I told you this already) that we shouldn’t be afraid of writing in the POV of characters of the opposite gender from us; instead of thinking that they are the opposite gender, we should think that they are PEOPLE. Individuals. This tip is really helpful.

If we look at real life, we’ll see that actually, people’s speech is made up of a mix of “feminine” and “masculine” ways of speech, or even “gender neutral” ways of speech. I am pretty sure I sound mostly gender neutral, lol, but I sometimes sound “feminine” and sometimes “masculine”, but mostly gender neutral. Or maybe we could say I sound “North American”, since I am writing in English, and I’ve been brought up in and exposed to mostly North American social environments. The vast majority of my friends speak in a “North American way” too. However, again, that is a stereotype, and of course North Americans don’t all speak the same way; there are certain phrases that a lot of North Americans seem to use, but it varies between different social circles, and yeah there’s a lot of diversity there. (I do notice that I often talk like some of the characters in Hollywood movies, though, or like some cartoon characters…But again of course they don’t represent ALL North Americans’ way of talking.)

About looking at real men and women rather than at stereotypes, I look at my close male friends, and no, they don’t really sound like the stereotypical male. Their speech style sounds closer to the stereotypical female style, but of course they have “stereotypical male speech styles” sometimes and many “gender neutral speech styles” at yet some other times. It’s true that I prefer more feminine or androgynous males as friends, so my friends may not be “representative of the male population”, but that’s okay, because I don’t want to write about “typical males”. I want to write about my particular males. My particular story character individuals.

Anyway, I just thought that was a fun topic to discuss, haha.

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Jami Gold March 23, 2015 at 1:40 pm

Hi Serena,

I understand. My characters–male or female–are individuals. 🙂

However, there are some subtle differences that can make a character sound stronger, more self-assured, etc. And often those changes are appropriate for even less-masculine male characters. So I do click on links like that just in case I can pick up tips for some subtext cues that might be sneaking into my characters’ thoughts and dialogue without me intending to. 😉

Our (and our characters’) voices can be made up of word choice, words we avoid (even little words like “so”), sentence length, sentence complexity, style (rambling vs. concise, etc.), use of prepositional phrases, use of pronouns, etc. Those are all things that could easily leak from my voice to my characters’ voices if I wasn’t careful and/or aware.

In other words, I want my characters’ thoughts and words to be intentional, and sometimes the best way to make sure everything is intentional is to become aware of my internal habits. 🙂 Great topic–I might have to do a blog post about this–thanks for bringing it up!

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Serena Yung March 23, 2015 at 4:36 pm

Hmm yeah I like calling it sounding stronger and more assertive rather than sounding more “male” too, haha. Since I personally know many females who talk in a strong and assertive way, as well as some males who uh…always sound the opposite of that, to put it more euphemistically. ^_^” But I agree that even less assertive people, of both genders, can be strong and firm sometimes (even if you unfortunately never happened to see these moments).

I do get what you mean by your voice leaking into your character’s voice, though. We indeed want them to sound like themselves and not like us, unless they do sound like us, lol.

As for speech quirks, even though I’m much less familiar with Chinese, especially Mandarin Chinese, than I am with English, I also notice some subtle things that make characters sound more assertive and strong. 😀 Or things that make them sound either gentler and more diplomatic, or more weak or cowardly, depending on the context.

In Chinese, there are little words like ejaculations or interjections that don’t mean anything by themselves. Applying one of these to the end of the sentence may make it sound softer and less pushy. Not applying any of these words at the end of the sentence may make it sound more firm or undiplomatic, haha. (Don’t think that word exists, but you know what I mean.) Some of these interjection words can also create some other emotional tones, like petulant anger, for instance.

E.g. My hero once said, “Wo mei you ku. Wo cai bu ku ne!” Which approximately means “I didn’t cry. I wouldn’t cry!/ Of course I wouldn’t cry!”. The “ne” at the end of the second sentence makes it sound more petulant (and cute XD). If he didn’t say “ne” there, then he sounds…more firm and closed and even like he’s hiding his feelings a bit (as strange as that may sound.)

Lol. So yeah I would probably feel better about reading something like “how to make your characters sound more assertive” than “how to make them sound like guys”…But for the sake of my male characters in my head, I won’t click into that article since they entreat me not to, haha. I don’t want to hurt their feelings. ^_^”

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Jami Gold March 24, 2015 at 12:52 pm

Hi Serena,

As a female who, er, can be assertive sometimes, I understand. 😉

Ooo, love the examples from Chinese! Very similar differences in how sentences start and end change the tone in English too. Like, “Hmm,” “blah blah, right?” or “blah blah, you know?” etc. 🙂

It’s great to be aware of these options (and our natural habits) for our writing. Thanks for bringing it up!

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Sophie May 19, 2015 at 12:08 am

I’ve seen this campaign go around on Tumblr, and it did make me think. Right now, I live in a place (Abu Dhabi, in the UAE) with so much diversity, it wouldn’t be right to ignore that.

However, my immediate reaction to characters who have a trait I don’t have is to go “Ack!” when developing them, because then I think “What if I get this wrong? I don’t want to offend anyone…”. (Interestingly, none of my characters have anything I have–despite that actually making sense. For example, I’m autistic, and yet none of my characters are autistic… Weird.)

I suppose it is good living in such a diverse place, because that means I have a better idea of what diversity is. I’ll probably treat it as normal because it is to me. I’m not making a point when I develop a character who is asexual or a character who is transgender/transsexual. That is just part of who they are, and that’s the way it should stay

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Jami Gold December 5, 2015 at 10:05 pm

Hi Sophie,

Yes! Love that idea of “that is just part of who they are.”

I couldn’t change my characters to include or not include some diverse element without going back to a blank slate and starting over. They simply are who they are. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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