Shining a Light on Diversity Issues

by Jami Gold on July 28, 2015

in For Readers, Writing Stuff

Cartoon of people looking up at light with text: Shining a Light on Diversity Issues

I’m gearing up for the release of my second full-length novel, Pure Sacrifice, on August 12th. This book was difficult for me in many ways, mostly because of the revision process, but one frustrating aspect was beyond my control.

I’ve written before about how we shouldn’t assume our characters belong to a straight, white, middle-class default because that’s lazy writing:

“The fastest, easiest way to create more diverse stories is to start with a blank slateDon’t have a “default” character.”

I never force anything in my stories, and I don’t believe in quotas. Yet my stories contain diverse characters because I take the extra step of asking just one question to avoid the problem of my brain sending me Mr. Generic from Central Casting:

“Whenever a character—from my protagonists to the nameless, just-above-a-spear-carrier minor characters—appears on the page, I stop and listen.

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

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

Because of that step of not assuming, of waiting until I hear a voice that resonates, I knew my paranormal character for this book wouldn’t be white skinned. Great! Except…

The Ugly Side of Cover Design

The branding for my Mythos Legacy series depicts the paranormal character (whether hero or heroine) on my covers. So the cover of Pure Sacrifice needed to depict Markos, my shapeshifting unicorn hero. The character who is not white skinned.

(Note: He’s not African-American either. He’s a unicorn—and like all those of his race, his humanoid shapeshifted form could “pass” for black on Earth. However, by no means do I claim or label this book to be an interracial romance or anything to do with the black experience. The dichotomy of mythological unicorns being “white and pure” and their humanoid form being darker skinned is just how the character came to me.)

In the traditional publishing world, it wouldn’t be unheard of for the publisher to whitewash the cover and choose a model that “wouldn’t affect sales.” In fact, I’ve heard of several books with whitewashed covers along those lines.

Maybe having a non-white model on the cover does affect sales. Maybe it doesn’t.

(So far, my preorder sales says it doesn’t. Take that publisher assumptions! *smile*)

But one of the benefits of indie publishing is ensuring that our books meet our expectations. And I refused to whitewash this cover.

Diversity Is Needed Everywhere

While I was drafting the story, the visual inspiration for Markos was the actor Jason Momoa, who is known for Stargate: Atlantis, Conan the Barbarian, Game of Thrones, and DC’s new Aquaman.

Jason Momoa

Um, yeah, dark-ish skin and dreadlocks? There’s no whitewashing that. *smile* (And I feel compelled to ask: Besides, who would want to whitewash him away?)

However, then I ran into another problem: stock photo sites. Searching on “dreadlocks” brought up a bunch of white-skinned hipster types, while most of the dark-skinned models were posed and shot to look like drug users. Yeah, no racist assumptions there. *rolls eyes*

I searched every stock photo site. I asked a few models I’ve befriended this past year if they knew anyone. I even put out a call for a custom shoot that never came together. In short, I spent months upon months looking for an intense, sexy, non-drugged-out appearing, dark-skinned man with dreadlocks.

Nothing…until I searched “dreads” instead of “dreadlocks” on one of the sites. (And boy, is that ever a lesson on the importance of tags for our work.) There, I found one new model. Luckily, that model was perfect. *smile*

Pure Sacrifice cover

The Many Diversity Issues around Us

This problem of non-diverse cover stock is nothing new. Courtney Milan wrote about her struggles with the issue over a year ago.

One of the panels at the just-completed RWA conference poked fun at the limited stock by using one of the few interracial couple shots on the cover of their workshop handout: Celebrating the MOST used stock couple in any one genre!

(The rest of the handout by Alyssa Cole, Lena Hart, K. M. Jackson, and Falguni Kothari is great for sharing some do’s and don’ts for multicultural stories. They also include links to helpful resources, such as diverse stock photo sites. Much appreciation to them for sharing their handout with everyone!)

Sometimes we don’t see the problems around us until we stumble over them or they’re pointed out to us. That’s why it’s so important to listen to marginalized voices. It’s far easier to see what is around us (active racism, etc.) than to see what isn’t (lack of opportunities, etc.).

Yes, we need diverse books. But—as I discovered with this story—we also need diverse cover models and diverse everything else. Plus, there’s a difference between diverse characters and diverse authors.

White authors like myself can research and add diversity to our stories, but in a perfect (or perhaps, fair) world, the voices of diverse authors would be louder when it comes to diversity so they can direct their own stories. Yet too often, that isn’t what happens.

In following the #RWA15 tweets last week, I was horrified to learn how poorly some of my fellow authors are treated within the industry just because of the color of their skin. Many of the tweets about the Diversity in Romance: Why it Matters workshop were captured in a Storify by Alisha Rai, one of the panelists.

Too often, traditional publishers see black romance authors and think their books would appeal only to black women. No matter how mainstream their stories, they’re shunted to the “diverse” imprint in many publishing houses.

As a result, their books are sold on a separate shelf in bookstores and labeled African-American Romance. Panelist Farrah Rochon calls this is the most blatant form of segregation still in existence.

To add insult to injury, those imprints are often priced higher. Gee, not marketed to mainstream readers and priced higher? Yet publishers blame the authors and not themselves for “disappointing” sales. *shakes head*

So What Can We Do?

  • We can make sure we’re not lazily defaulting to stock characters. As I’ve said before, “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.” And as the panelists said in answer to the question, “Who should be writing diverse books?” “Everyone.”
  • We can research to ensure we’re not defaulting to stereotypes when we write any kind of character.
  • We can ask a member of the appropriate community to check our work for problematic elements (and if they point something out, we should listen).
  • We can boost the voices of diverse authors: link to them, retweet them, share their words, etc.
  • We can watch out for assumptions about not being able to relate to stories with diverse characters or written by diverse authors. After all, we can all relate to the human experience.
  • When we find books we like by diverse authors, we can support them: buy their books, promote their work, etc.
  • We can support diverse resources. (For example, I participated in Mosiac Stock‘s Kickstarter several months back.)

Most of all, we want to ensure that we see past any defensiveness caused by guilt, quota assumptions, or political correctness. “Diversity” isn’t a genre, so this isn’t about trying to change our storytelling as writers or our reading habits as readers.

Most stories with diverse characters aren’t (or shouldn’t be) about the diversity issue. Readers simply want a good story, and the “specs” of the characters shouldn’t affect that. As someone who writes shapeshifting unicorn heroes, I should be able to handle characters who aren’t like me. *smile*

Do you write diverse characters? Have you seen areas like the stock photo issue where more diversity would be helpful? Have you run into any problems with including diverse characters? Do you have other suggestions for what we can do to help? Are there books you’ve loved by diverse authors that you want to promote in the comments?

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42 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Melinda Primrose July 28, 2015 at 7:59 am

The only comment I would add is to make sure your diverse characters don’t have stereotypical experiences. Don’t just assume that every blind person is like Helen Keller, for example. Blind people have the same spectrum of experiences as everyone else. I feel reasonably certain this is true for all diverse people. I can only speak with absolute certainty about blindness, as I live it. I know my experiences differ from friends with blindness. A quick example is that I know people who are blind who aren’t afraid to travel without sighted assistance. I, however, am. Just remember that everyone’s the same when it comes to differences. We all have them.

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Jami Gold July 28, 2015 at 8:49 am

Hi Melinda,

Absolutely! And thank you for reiterating that point with a concrete example. 🙂

One comment Alisha Rai made in the Diversity in Romance panel (and this is touched on in the post at both of the Storify links with her) was that we’d never read a “white” book and think it didn’t have enough Dave Matthews Band (or any other white stereotype). Yet too often with diversity, we think about checking boxes based on stereotypes. That’s not how it works (or not how it should).

I even had some readers question with Pure Sacrifice, “If this character isn’t black-black, why are you making him black?” As though the only reason to include a non-white-skinned character was to make their appearance the point of the book. As though a completely made-up character type (a unicorn who shapeshifts!) should automatically default to white.

To me, throwing away defaults, assumptions, stereotypes, etc. is the goal–and avoiding those big-picture cliches will improve our writing too. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your experience!

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Shauna Roberts July 28, 2015 at 10:11 am

I write about ancient Mesopotamia. The stock photo houses have very, very few Middle Eastern–looking people. For my last book, I had to use a Persian-looking guy and a woman with curly hair (when the hero comments many times in the book on her straight hair).

For at least one of my planned Mesopotamia books, I think I’ll need a custom shoot. That’s not the total answer, either, because the ancient Sumerians had black hair and were quite proud of it. I’ll need to have the hair darkened and possibly the skin as well. I’d much rather have someone with Iraqi ancestry pose and earn the model fee.

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Jami Gold July 28, 2015 at 10:55 am

Hi Shauna,

Thanks for sharing! Yes, it’s frustrating to find good matches for diverse covers. (It was hard enough to find a long-haired blond for Unintended Guardian because of the “tall, dark, and handsome” default, but diversity is on a whole different level of difficult.)

And as you alluded to, none of our choices are good. We either have to be happy with “close enough,” pay extra for a custom shoot, or pay extra for additional photo-manipulation. It shouldn’t have to cost a premium to get diverse covers. *sigh*

I can’t recommend that handout from the RWA workshop enough. Maybe one of those resources would have additional choices for you. 🙂 Good luck, and thanks for sharing your experience!

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Davonne Burns July 28, 2015 at 11:38 am

Once again you show just how amazing and perceptive you are Jami. Thank you for this lovely post.

I’ve always been an advocate of diversity in fiction and media, but as you said, not simply for it’s own sake but because it reflects the world around us. There is a very telling gif set on Tumblr that I see sometimes where a typical white male calls an Asian female coworker ‘exotic.’ She the proceeds to disabuse him of the notion that her ethnicity is rare and that in fact they outnumber whites by quite a large margin. “So who’s the exotic one here?”

I found it amusing.

Race isn’t the only area where we need diversity. Sexual orientation and gender identity are just as diverse and just as in need of genuine portrayals. ^^

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Jami Gold July 28, 2015 at 12:26 pm

Hi Davonne,

I claim nothing except being willing to listen to others so I might learn. (And that includes learning from you! 🙂 )

Great insight with that gif. Yes, that use of the term exotic assumes a European-centric default rather than a population-percentage default–which of course, is telling in its own way.

And I absolutely agree with you about the “all types of diversity.” I focused on race mostly here because of my cover issues and the points from the RWA workshops that resonated with me, but the problems exist on many levels. Thank you for pointing that out! 🙂

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Ashley July 30, 2015 at 7:42 am

Whenever I hear of something like that (and I’ve heard people complain before about “stop using ‘exotic’ as the default descriptor for Asian characters!”) it just makes me want to write a story set in a culture where the blue-eyed-blonde is a rare sight and referred to as “exotic” every other sentence, just to mess with people’s heads.

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Jami Gold July 30, 2015 at 9:14 am

Hi Ashley,

Ha! In this story, the heroine is blonde, and she’s the only white character for the vast majority of the book. So yeah, I know what you mean. 😉

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Cobalt-Blue July 28, 2015 at 12:15 pm

I’m going to get flamed for this, but so be it:
I disagree with you. A lack of diversity IS NOT A PROBLEM; except for a lack of diversity of thought, where anyone who disagrees with the diversity crowd is automatically vilified as a racist. . We’ve had diversity jammed down our throat to the point that it has become ridiculous. Heimdall, the father of the Nordic people played by a black man. Johnny Storm switched from white to black while his sister, Sue remains white. James West, a 19th Century Secret Service Agent played by a black man. These casting issues were done in the name of diversity, but make no sense whatsoever.
It’s funny, I’ve never seen any traditionally black characters portrayed by whites. Maybe Leonardo DiCaprio can play Falcon? Or how about Matt Damon as T’Challa the Black Panther? Granted the traditionally Asian characters in the Last Airbender were portrayed by whites in a bad movie, but to make up for the traditionally European (except one) characters in Attack on Titan are all being portrayed by Asians.

Make a character another race if it fits the story, but don’t do it for the sake of “being diverse”. Do it because it fits the character. After all of the recent race-bending issues in popular characters, I’ve gone out of my way to DEFINE my character’s race being Black, White, Asian, Hispanic, or Whatever. But I take issue with diversity for the sake of diversity, and I take issue with the idea that we should not have a default setting for our characters- especially in certain settings. Guinevere is NOT going to black no matter what BBC thinks, and being as Tolkein’s stuff is based on Northern European legends neither a Black, Asian, nor Hispanic character has any place in them.

As for cover art, there is a reason I do MY OWN cover art, using DAZ 3D Studio. I can make my characters look any way I want them, Black, White, Asian, Hispanic, Elfin, etc…

In closing, over the last few years, the terms diversity, and anti-racism have been used to cover up anti-white racism.

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Jami Gold July 28, 2015 at 1:07 pm

Hi Cobalt-Blue,

I don’t flame, and I don’t allow flaming in my comments. 🙂 (Yes, I have and will delete attacks. This is my space, not anyone else’s platform.)

However, if:

“Make a character another race if it fits the story, but don’t do it for the sake of “being diverse”.”

…is all you took away from this post, I’m afraid you might have missed the point.

I don’t believe in “pushing” diversity, quotas, diversity-for-the-sake-of-diversity (although it’s often questionable what that term means), etc. either. I also dislike the vilification of those who disagree with ideas, as branding someone an *ist tends to shut down conversation and reasonable dialogue rather than encourage it.

But at the same time, assuming that any use of the word diversity is always “shoving down throats” or “covering up anti-white racism” isn’t productive either. So I’m going to address your points in a non-shouty way, and hopefully we can have a good discussion from this. 🙂

I disagree with your assertion that diversity isn’t a problem. Until there are stories for every type of diversity reflecting at least the percentage found in the population, the balance is off.

When there are too few diverse stories, the ones in existence have to carry a heavier load of being “representative,” and that’s an unfair expectation. My books certainly shouldn’t be held up as an example of “white author stories”–I just want to write good stories. Other authors and stories with diverse characters have the right to be judged on the same basis.

As for the white-to-black casting decisions, the examples you shared (and the insistence that they couldn’t exist) might hint at a skewed view of history. MedievalPOC is a great blog sharing historical art depicting people of color. Diversity has always existed in our cultures, so while someone might be able to make the argument that such-and-such casting call would reflect an uncommon or rare occurrence, they couldn’t say it was impossible. Twins have been born with one white and one black, etc. Again, rare, but not impossible.

Personally, I don’t see those switches as unfair because there are SO many roles for whites already. This post about candy bowls talks about how each role for diverse characters is a big deal, and how there’s no need to whine about something we’ll never miss.

As for the assertion that no white actors are tapped to play diverse characters, just last month, the Aloha movie used a blonde, white woman to play a half-Hawaiian-half-Asian character (if I’m remembering correctly). This happens constantly, and if we’re not aware of it, it’s simply because we’re unaware of the original source. Ignorance doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

All that said, I do agree with you that this shouldn’t be about a “push” for diversity, especially for where it doesn’t fit (although we might need to examine our assumptions about whether something really doesn’t fit). Rather it should be about opening our eyes to the diversity in the real world around us and not relying on lazy cliches for any aspect of our writing.

Your statement that we should “do it because it fits the character” is exactly what I said about listening until we hear a 3-dimensional character, except that we might need to watch out for stereotypes when determining what fits. (Are our good guys always white and our bad guys always non-white? Etc.) Sometimes the voice I hear comes from white characters, and sometimes it doesn’t.

The point is that I’m listening, and it sounds like you might be doing the same. So I suspect that any perceived disagreement here is simply because of the assumption that this post was pushing us to include diversity where it doesn’t fit the character. And as a pantser who always follows whatever her muse tells her to do, I can guarantee that wasn’t my point. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Cobalt-Blue July 28, 2015 at 5:01 pm

I saw those switches as unfair because they changed the race of ESTABLISHED characters for the sake of diversity, not to add to the story. They had a quota to meet, and that was how they did it. I’m sorry, but anyone who has read the lore of the Nordic people knows that Heimdall is the genetic father of all the Nordic folk and they are NOT black. (The Lay of Rigg). They are the ultimate blond haired blue eyed people. Making him a black man was as bad as portraying Jesus as being blond and blue eyed. The changes were done to be “edgy”, not for any value and distracted from the work as a whole.

Someone suggested that it’s a good idea to live in a culture where you’re a minority. I’ve done that. Lived and taught in the public schools of South Korea for two years. Trust me, I understand what it means to be a minority and to be exotic. (An older gentleman reached on on a bus to feel the hair on my chest that was sticking out from my polo shirt kind of exotic minority.)

But my point is that we should not mix in a minority character for the sake of being diverse. My novels are about male, female, (I’ve been told that I write strong female characters very well without making them overbearing)intersexual, gay, straight, bi, black, white, Asian, alien, nocturnal and deific characters, and they are all mixed up, and sometimes in multi-racial relationships. But they are that way because it fits the character not out of some social responsibility to make the genre more diverse.

In my Atlantis Unleashed Universe, Stride is a black male speedster who is married to an Asian cryokinetic named Morn. When asked about his wife’s code name, his only reply was that it came from the song Dixie and he quoted the line: “In Dixie Land where I was born early on one frosty Morn.” It turns out she was born in Tupelo Mississippi during a snow storm. When he was asked if bother him, him, his reply was that the song was from a long time ago, and was about people not alive today–besides, he LIKES Elvis.

My point is that we don’t have any responsibility to make our stories more diverse. Our responsibility is to hopefully tell a good story. If it includes diverse characters, that’s all well and good, but we should not be forcing ourselves to include a more diverse character base out of some social responsibility. Nor should we be forcing ourselves to be more aware of it. That is agenda driven storytelling and it’s just shy of propaganda.

If there is a market for more minority character based stories, then someone will figure it out and write them. If not, our “being aware”, and creating more minority characters will not only not make a difference, it will hurt our stories. Good stories should be good stories no matter who the character is.

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Jami Gold July 28, 2015 at 5:48 pm

Hi Cobalt-Blue,

I don’t know enough about the lore of Heimdall to argue about that particular casting call, and I don’t think focusing on one example has a point. That’s like political arguments: Both sides can point to bad examples from the other side. After all, there are plenty of whitewashed casting calls too, so a tit-for-tat accounting wouldn’t end well.

(Besides, I write paranormal and would have no problem with a character appearing one way on Asgard and another way on Earth. 😉 )

However, I can see how that depiction might be jarring for a serious student of Nordic mythology. So I understand how that choice was distracting for you.

(Personally, I feel the same way about Harry Potter’s eyes in the movies because their color was such a big deal in the books. Every line in the movie about him having his mother’s eyes made me cringe. LOL!)

Anyway, as this points out, we’re all different and diverse in some way because we all have different experiences. For you, that casting choice was distracting. For me, it wasn’t. That’s not right or wrong, just a fact.

Going back to my last comment and the candy bowl analogy I linked to, you noticed that candy piece was missing from the “white” bowl. I didn’t. If we extended the analogy, we could say that your knowledge meant that particular candy piece was a different color or shape from the rest of the candies in the bowl, while I was color-blind to that difference. Again, not right or wrong. Just a fact.

Because it wasn’t distracting to me, I didn’t see the casting choice as diversity for diversity’s sake, but rather as casting someone with enough gravitas to fit the role. Maybe the producers had diversity in mind, but maybe they didn’t.

Either way, the answer doesn’t matter to me, but I understand that it matters to you. However, that’s all irrelevant when it comes to the point of this post.

“My point is that we don’t have any responsibility to make our stories more diverse. Our responsibility is to hopefully tell a good story. If it includes diverse characters, that’s all well and good, but we should not be forcing ourselves to include a more diverse character base out of some social responsibility. Nor should we be forcing ourselves to be more aware of it. That is agenda driven storytelling and it’s just shy of propaganda.”

I agree with all of that except for the last two sentences. Responsibility, no. I agree that this shouldn’t be a shaming sort of “you should do this.” Forcing awareness? I fail to see how there’s anything wrong with becoming more aware or recognizing our assumptions.

Just as we want to be aware of our writing tics, our pet phrases, etc., so we can dig deeper, this is the same. I’m sure your experiences in South Korea made you aware of many issues that others might not be aware of. (For example, some might not understand your reference to chest hair–just because they’re not aware that different ethnicities tend to have different amounts of body hair.) It’s not wrong to try to be able to see past our gender/cultural/class blinders.

Again, none of this is about pressuring anyone to create diverse characters that don’t work for the story. I do not support agenda-driven storytelling either. So I guess I’m confused about how becoming more aware so that we’re not making assumptions or taking writing shortcuts is bad.

It feels like you’re arguing against a position that doesn’t exist in this post. Like you’re trying to make a statement on how diversity-for-quota is bad even though that’s not what this post is about and not at all what I’m advocating. In other words, it feels like you’re arguing with an enemy you expected to be here but isn’t, and yet you still want to make your argument anyway.

This post isn’t about the movies–and certainly not about Heimdall. It’s about how there are diversity-related struggles throughout the publishing process and publishing industry that we might not be aware of until they’re pointed out, and that it’s a good thing to be aware of these issues.

It’s only by stepping outside of ourselves and our perceptions that we can write a character of a different gender, class, ability, sexual orientation, or race (and when I talk race, I also include the paranormal definition of race–such as unicorns 😉 ). It’s only by stepping outside of ourselves and our perceptions that we can guess at how to make our ideas understandable to readers who can’t read our mind. 🙂

In short, empathy is essential to good storytelling. And all this post does is illuminate another area where we can practice that empathy. Thanks for the comment!

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Deborah Makarios July 28, 2015 at 3:42 pm

Living (even briefly) in a country where you are a minority is often a good experience too – it helps you see what you take for granted.
Another group not often represented in books (or represented in very stereotypical ways): dwarfs/dwarves. The Significant Other in my fantasy WIP is a dwarf, belonging to a race of dwarves (unlike human dwarfs IRL), but hopefully not as a hi-ho-hi-ho stereotype. More of a freedom-fighter-action kind of guy.

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Jami Gold July 28, 2015 at 3:49 pm

Hi Deborah,

Good point! Any kind of travel often gives us a new perspective once we get home, and this situation is no different. I’ve talked before about growing up a minority in my school (the only white girl), and maybe that experience helped me see beyond myself a bit. 🙂

I also like how you point out that even our fictional elements can fall to stereotypes and cliches. I definitely like playing with the mythology stereotypes in my series, so I understand. 🙂 Good luck with your story, and thanks for the comment!

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Glynis Jolly July 28, 2015 at 4:21 pm

Do I write diverse characters?

Uhmm… if you’re asking if I write about characters just from the Euro culture or do I put in other cultures, I do the latter. I come from a multi-cultural family. Even within the Euro culture there’s diversity. I mean, are you more likely to think of an English or Italian person outwardly showing passion, for instance? I do go further though seeing that I have examples right within my reach. My stepdaughter is half Korean and half Euro-American. She’s lived in both worlds. She’s an excellent example of the mix. The only cultures not represented in my family are the ones from the Middle East, although I did go to a high school where just under a half of the students were Jewish so I feel quite comfortable with their culture. Still, I don’t feel I know quite enough about it though.

I am catching myself shying away from issues like body shapes and sizes, and disability despite the fact that I, myself am an adequate example for all of this, and have been around all sorts of shapes, sizes, and disabilities. Should I try to incorporate these aspects into my stories? Probably, as long as I don’t go to the extreme. Why not the extreme? I don’t think these issues should ever be a major point of any fictional story.

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Jami Gold July 28, 2015 at 4:51 pm

Hi Glynis,

Good point! There are many kinds of diversity. However, as you alluded to, most times the term “diversity” refers to marginalized groups of various types.

(Which brings up the issue of whether what “counts” as diversity is affected by genre. Thrillers tend to have action-hero-type male protagonists, for example, so any type of female protagonist (or a non-alpha-type man or a gender-diverse character) would be a switch. Interesting question to ponder. 🙂 )

I understand the issue of shying away from certain elements if it would be hard to incorporate them into a story without having that element become the focus. I’ve seen a video that focused on the (true) love story between an abled person and someone with a disease(?)/disability(?) that left him unable to move anything but his eyes. (This was a while ago, and I can’t remember the details because the video didn’t focus on the cause–which is kind of my point. LOL!)

In the video, the various contraptions and communication methods didn’t have to be explained. They were just shown while the couple interacted. In a book, the sheer amount of explanation necessary to set each scene might overwhelm the narrative. Of course that’s not saying that it couldn’t be done, but it would likely be extraordinarily difficult for someone without first or second-hand knowledge to write that kind of a story in a way that flowed and felt natural. Thanks for sharing your insights! 🙂

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Jordan July 28, 2015 at 11:13 pm

I just had this problem with a novella for an anthology and it drove me nuts! I grew up in a diverse city and set my latest novella there. So one of the characters was half Black, half white. When he’s introduced, I mention his skin tone is halfway between the black and white characters right there. I mention his skintone a lot. But when we actually use the words “mixed race” halfway through, most of my beta readers and editors have been totally thrown.

I was kind of upset about it, because of that whole default-white thing. In the end, I just took out the “mixed race” reference. I’m sad to see it go, and I know some–maybe a lot–of readers will default to the character being white, or “dark white.” But better than jerking readers out of the story, I guess?

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Jami Gold July 29, 2015 at 6:32 am

Hi Jordan,

Yes, and that was one of the many reasons I didn’t want to whitewash the cover. I knew if the cover model was “white-passing” at all, some might skip over every hint and reference possible until something pulled them out of the story when they couldn’t ignore the truth any longer.

In my first novel, I received feedback about a minor character, “I’ve never seen hair described this way.” Um, that’s because it’s natural black hair, not “white” hair. (It was one phrase of an action beat sentence, so it wasn’t an “othering” moment either, and I wasn’t about to go into a bigger explanation, which would turn it into an othering moment.)

The defaults are so hard to battle against when, as you said, it seems that we have to pull readers out of the story to get it. I don’t claim to be perfect either, as I’m a fast reader and I’m sure I miss some references and make assumptions. But I know I miss things, so it doesn’t take me out of the story when I catch up. It’s just an “okay” shrug and move on. 🙂

I’m sorry you felt you had to make that edit to avoid issues. My hope is that with more diverse stories out there, those defaults will soften a bit so others might have a “no big deal” reaction like mine. 🙂 Thanks for sharing, and thanks for the comment!

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Carradee July 28, 2015 at 11:15 pm

The stock photo issue is frustrating. To be fair, with the kinds of characters I write, I have difficulty finding images for most of them—even the white ones. But when I’m writing a character that doesn’t have to be white and I go looking for a stock photo in a particular position or with particular features…anything I find will usually be white.

As a case in point, there’s no reason that my character Third has to be white. The story gives her reddish hair and bluish eyes, which are most likely to occur in a white light-skinned person, but it’s possible to be a non-white redhead. It’s possible to be a non-white blue-eyed person.

But just try finding a stock photo with such a non-standard appearance. [sigh] So she’s ended up white. Which means her family and all multiverse versions of her are, too (which matters for the story). So I thought, “Well, characters, these other characters don’t have to be white, so maybe 2 or more won’t be…”—but all the suitable photos I’m finding are white.

I’ve realized that one of them, it’s probably better if she’s white—I’d look as if I were stereotyping if she weren’t. The others still don’t have to be (skin color is the least of the discrimination they’re dealing with, so it’s irrelevant to them), but the others… There are two that I’d prefer them not be white. But I can’t find any image that’s even close.

But that’s another factor that can be…difficult, when wanting to write a diverse cast: Some characters, if they are not white, can result in saying things the author doesn’t want. For instance, the character that’ll be better off white is abused because of a particular ability she has—and giving her some other appearance risks giving the message that the abuse has something to do with her skin color.

[shrug] It’s possible I’m thinking too hard, but I do at least endeavor to consider what my spec fic characters could be interpreted as saying to a real world audience, in order to attempt to avoid accidental “Oops, I didn’t mean that…”s.

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Jami Gold July 29, 2015 at 6:51 am

Hi Carradee,

Great points! Yes, with my paranormal characters, I’ve opted to have my cover artist change the eye color to what I need, but not everyone has that option to tweak photos. It’s sad that you had to change a big part of your worldbuilding just because of a stock photo issue.

I’ve also run into that issue about not wanting to send the wrong message. This is another reason why it’s good to be aware, so we can try to prevent issues. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Roni Loren July 29, 2015 at 8:17 am

Such an important discussion. And a big one. But just to touch on the cover art part, I hope there are photographers out there who are seeing all these discussions and who will answer the call to create stock photos that better reflect real world diversity.

Honestly, this is when I’m happy that my publisher moved me to covers that don’t have people on them (the big shift post-50 Shades in erotic romance covers.) My characters can look any way I want them to. I’ve had a hispanic hero and heroine, an african-american heroine, I’m about to write a Japanese hero. I also write gay and bisexual main characters. My publisher and the covers give me the freedom to write characters the way I want to. It’s so much more interesting to have a fully realized, diverse, real world cast of characters. I want to reflect the world I live in. Having said that, if I DID have people on my covers, I’d want lots of choices in those stock photos, so I really, really hope stock photo companies and photogs start answering the call and creating real choices for book covers.

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Jami Gold July 29, 2015 at 11:21 am

Hi Roni,

Hear, hear! 😀 Yes, this stock cover issue starts with assumptions that certain types of images wouldn’t sell, yet as these complaints point out, the demand is there. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

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Jon July 29, 2015 at 12:27 pm

Great post, Jami,
Diversity is a word that normally covers issues of ethnicity. You’ve pointed out ways for authors to work the world around us into their books. Your ideas could be expanded to age, medical conditions and body dimensions.

I’m a bit over 60 guy. While I enjoy fantasizing about sweet young females, worlds beyond Alpha Centuri, and the shape-shifter next door, is it possible for me to fantasize about romance with a woman with grey in her hair (or fur), a limp or hips that have held up too many children and lattes? Yup.

Could Mr. Tall, Dark and Handsome be bald?

David Weber writes a best seller sci-fi series that is now about 20 books long. I am so pleased that he constantly has characters who are identified first by title (fire chief, combat engineer, Gunny) who are casually, later, referred to with a female gender pronoun. No ooh, no wow, just part of the story. For me, this is a damn good reminder that I’m still making assumptions about gender. I realize that in my mind, I’ve labeled the person male.

The more that authors can help with acceptance, the closer society comes to equality of opportunity. Just my opinion.

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Jami Gold July 29, 2015 at 12:49 pm

Hi Jon,

Yes, as I mentioned in an earlier comment, this post mostly focused on racial/ethnic diversity because of my cover model woes and the RWA workshops. But you’re absolutely right that there are many types of diversity.

In one of my stories, the heroine isn’t the stereotypical thin body type (I’ll be introducing that book and cover soon! 🙂 ), and in a WIP (work in progress), the heroine is covered in scars. (And at least one stock photo site specializing in romance covers has a bald hero cover model! So yes, it’s possible–LOL!)

It’s fun to explore and mix-and-match the different elements that combine to make something bigger than its parts: a 3-dimensional character. 🙂 I always think about how science fiction or fantasy stories have allowed us to relate to 3-armed aliens or a dwarf, so I tend to think that assumptions about humans outside of the default are just an excuse of laziness (or worse).

All that said, like you, I often fall victim to the assumed labels until they’re pointed out otherwise too. So I focus on trying to do better with my writing, my reading, and my assumptions. 🙂 Thanks for the comment and for the great insight about equality of opportunity!

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Ashley July 30, 2015 at 9:05 am

Thanks for writing this post. I stopped by to comment on your habit of “listening” to your characters and got sucked in by all the comments, which were just as thought-provoking as the post itself! So now I have several things to comment on…

I am amused by what non-writers tend to assume about how characters come into being. I was recently talking with my husband about a certain character in my book, a woman who lives life pretending to be a man. He wanted to know if she’s interested in men (which would make dating rather complicated in what is essentially Renaissance Europe) or women, and I said I didn’t know, “she hasn’t told me that.” “What do you mean?” he said. “Didn’t you invent her?” Ha! If only it were so easy! (Amirite?)

On the other hand, I consciously decided to have such a character because putting a man in that role (sword-for-hire), as I kind of automatically assumed it would be, put my heroine in the position of (what could be seen as, considering her later choices) always being “saved” by a man; having an openly female character felt like pushing an agenda (after all, I’m writing a fantasy epic with four female and zero male protagonists; maybe leave SOME roles for the guys?). Perhaps the funniest thing of all is that having come up with this solution I’m not planning to ever state her real gender openly – while it’s super important to who she is and where she’s coming from, having other characters realize it is absolutely irrelevant to the story at large. I’m just hoping to write her in such a way that a handful of the most astute readers start putting together the clues and saying, “Wait a minute…”! When they make the movie version and cast a woman for this part, a lot of fans are going to be very upset and I’m okay with that. 😉

But this character sort of points to the issue I have including diversity in general – I definitely have a race-and-culture (and even occasionally, oddly enough, a gender) bias, but when I realize it then I feel like I “should” follow through on it by changing or creating characters to fill the gap. (Not forcing them, of course, but I think the above example shows that sometimes if you think about it enough, you can find a way to shift a character so that you satisfy both story and diversity.) But then I start to feel kind of self-conscious about it, like, “Is this too much? Is it going to come across like an agenda?” Or I worry that, even if it’s accurate (POC in Medieval Europe) it will distract readers who assume it’s inaccurate and done for the sake of quota… which, after all, it maybe kind of is?

And, like, how much is “enough”? Assuming that you have not maxed out the diversity you can include without being distracting, should you aim for true-to-life ratios or is it okay to stop after a few token characters (and get accused, accurately, of tokenization!)?

In my story I have one kingdom I affectionately think of as the “Rainbow Kingdom” because there are so many ethnicities mixed together that there’s no majority and nobody pays any attention to it. In another kingdom, one character flees the palace and ends up in the city’s underbelly. The lower-class people there are a little darker in color (more Mediterranean-looking) than the upper-class, which is fairly true to most cultures/times when light skin is seen as a sign of status, even within ethnicities. (I used to live in LA, where you would see Asian people carrying umbrellas on sunny days to protect their complexion; I have a friend whose light-skinned black father was discouraged from marrying her dark-skinned black mother because she was seen as being lower status; etc.) I get to play with it though because this very prissy girl has always preferred pasty-skinned slender court gentlemen and can’t imagine being attracted to a darker-skinned, muscular sailor… until she gets to know him, of course. 😉

But I’m trying to fill out the supporting cast of the based-on-Italy kingdom and I keep feeling like I “should” have a character of color. Then I say, “but that’s not very realistic,” and then I reply to myself, “It’s not ACTUALLY Italy, it’s fantasy, duh.” But is there any REASON to have someone of a different race? I don’t know yet. I’m sure there COULD be a reason… but is this urge my instinct telling me something I haven’t consciously realized or just a fear of not being politically correct? Don’t know.

I’m probably overthinking it all terribly but I feel like it’s a difficult subject to get right.

Sorry, this comment is practically a book in itself…

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Jami Gold July 30, 2015 at 9:52 am

Hi Ashley,

LOL! Yep, I completely relate to the “haven’t told me yet” issue. 😀

That’s an interesting question about how we can ensure that something doesn’t feel like an “agenda”. I’m not sure that I have any insights for that other than making sure the story always flows and makes sense to itself, and that the characters are all individuals and feel real/3-dimensional.

I’m sure some people might assume we have an agenda where we don’t. As I said, my characters aren’t an agenda–that’s just how they come to me. But like you pointed out, non-writers make a lot of assumptions about how authors come up with their stories. (And romance authors can share endless stories about people assuming all sorts of sex-related things based on their stories. “You’ve done XYZ, just like your characters, haven’t you?” “Oh, yes, and I’ve murdered people too.” *rolls eyes*)

My beta buddy Angela Quarles just released her story Must Love Chainmail, a time-travel romance, and she originally included a black character in medieval Wales. To head off the issue of taking readers out of the story, she had the modern-day heroine (who’d traveled back in time) internally think about how her assumptions had been wrong. (In later revisions, she took this character out for other reasons, but I liked her technique for dealing with the issue.) Sometimes “hanging a lampshade” on something can help a reader accept it and move on. 😉

As I mentioned in my reply to you in Davonne’s thread above, my blonde heroine is the only white character for the vast majority of this book. That wasn’t something I did on purpose or with an agenda.

I doubt most readers will even realize that fact because that detail fits with the story. She lives in a non-white neighborhood. Period. That’s just a fact. The only time her unusualness is commented on is when she feels out of place. 😉

Anyway, I understand the overthinking problem. 😀 Personally, I wouldn’t do something that felt like I was forcing myself or shoehorning a diverse character into a story. I mean it when I say that I listen and let them tell me who they are. LOL! So the most I would do in that case is make sure my assumptions of what’s “realistic” weren’t preventing me from hearing certain voices. Not sure if that helps or makes sense, but there you go… Thanks for sharing your insights and experiences!

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Kari July 30, 2015 at 12:06 pm

Hi Jami,

Great post! I can’t remember what got me out of the default white characters, the ones who did make sense in my first two novels given time and setting, and yeah, my inexperience. It may very well have been the next one set in a post-apocalyptic time.

I just thought “Wouldn’t some of these people be from different places?” And then they were. Same thing when I opened the door to LGBTQ characters. “Am I sure this character is Assumed Gender and Sexuality?” And then they weren’t. That simple opening of my mind, of my inner casting director, added such richness and depth to those stories and everything I’ve written since.

For me, the goal isn’t to make a point of the variety of characters in the worlds inside my head. When we read a story with a human character unlike ourselves and it’s no different from hair color, then we’re making real progress. When writers stop getting comments like “Why’d you have to make Character X gay/black/trans/whatever I’m not?”

Sure, that difference CAN be the point of a story. But it doesn’t always have to be.

Peace.

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Jami Gold July 30, 2015 at 12:12 pm

Hi Kari,

Great way to put it! Yes, this is about opening our inner casting director to seeing diverse “specs” with the same possibilities as hair colors. 🙂

It’s not about limiting ourselves to make a point or push an agenda. It’s about making sure we’re not artificially limiting ourselves with assumptions. Thanks for sharing those insights!

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Serena Yung July 31, 2015 at 7:15 pm

Thanks for this wonderful post, Jami!

I most definitely didn’t feel “put off” by Markos not looking “white-skinned”, lol. Looking forward to reading it in August. ^^ Ah speaking of the white and pure unicorn image, the image of Black Beauty (a beautiful black horse) just came to my mind. 😀

I love your method of asking your characters who they are, where if they say “Uh…”, you don’t write about them, lol.

Amen to the not writing diverse characters according to their stereotypes. I think I told you about my writing homosexual characters? Well, you know the stereotype that lesbians are very manly? Well, my main lesbian girl is actually one of the most feminine out of all my female characters! I also have a gay male character who is NOT girlish as the stereotype suggests. Instead, he is one of the manlier of my male characters.

In my real life, I’ve only met one girl who I know is a confirmed lesbian, and she is somewhat boyish but I wouldn’t call her “butch.” (I heard that the word “butch” can be an offensive term, too.) I do have a female friend who is bisexual, and she is more feminine than masculine.

So I guess I don’t have much personal experience talking to (confirmed) lesbians or female bisexuals, but I remember this psych study we saw in class, where they measured the level of femininity of lesbians against the level of femininity their ideal partners are. The data was taken from an online dating website. So from this graph, there are lesbians of high to low levels of femininity, which we would expect if we see lesbians as people rather than as a group that society expects to be very masculine. Not that there is anything wrong with masculine lesbians (just as there isn’t anything wrong with masculine straight women), but just saying that lesbians can be very feminine as well.

As for gay men, I have known three confirmed gay men, one of whom is a good friend of mine. Society expects gay men to be very feminine, and indeed two of these gay men I know are quite feminine, yet the third gay man is very masculine. The study above done on lesbians was done on gay men as well, so we see that homosexual males also range from high to low on masculinity. Not all of them are feminine. There is also this other stereotype of gay men being very flamboyant in dress, but none of these three gay males I know dress like that. In fact, their clothes look very normal and are not at all eye-catching.

And of course, with other social classifications like race, age, and social class, there will always be different personalities. So even though members of the same social group may face SOME similar treatment by the society, they definitely don’t all behave in the same way. I especially like to think about the elderly stereotype, and from my volunteer work with seniors, I can see that there are many different personalities among them as well! Again, this is what one would expect if we see them as individuals rather than as a socially defined stereotype of “the elderly.”

Oh BTW on the straight, white, middle-class default point, it might be amusing to you that I actually don’t have a default at all, lol. Okay maybe I have a “species = human” default, lol, but I definitely have non-humans as well. In most stories, I don’t even talk about my characters’ race, though I do often mention their hair and eye colors. But we can’t assume that e.g. green eyes mean a white character, because one, they might not be on earth, or even if they are on earth, you don’t know if it’s set in our world or in some alternate universe, lol. But if it’s the latter, maybe I should make it clear.

I don’t want readers to make assumptions about my characters’ races, though, because that might change how they view my characters as people. 🙁 Obviously I don’t want readers to believe that since my character is race X, they must be an XYZ kind of person.

About the blank slate, it might surprise people that I start with a blank slate even for sexual orientation. There really are some characters where I’m not sure whether they are straight, homosexual, bisexual, or asexual (or a mix of the above if we go by the continuum rather than categorical model of sexuality.) And for some of these characters, it doesn’t actually matter because they never fall in love with anyone in the story, and maybe have never fallen in love with anyone in the past either. Yet even if the latter were true, that doesn’t automatically mean they’re aromantic, because it might just mean they weren’t feeling ready yet, or they haven’t yet met anyone they were interested in.

BTW I learned that there is a difference between being asexual and being aromantic. One could be capable of falling in love with people romantically, yet have no sexual desires for anybody. On the reverse side, one could be capable of having sexual desires for others, yet never fancy anyone romantically. This may sound strange to some people, but I know these cases exist from my psych course and some psych books I read.

And one more “don’t assume the default/ stereotype” point that I will make quickly because it might feel awkward to some others reading this comment, we shouldn’t assume a level of sex drive for characters either. I know our modern society believes that males have a greater sex drive than females (while in Medieval Europe, people believed that FEMALES had a greater sex drive than males!), but it really does depend on the individual. I personally know some girls with a high sex drive as well as guys who are indifferent to sex. (Some of my psych course readings confirm that such cases exist.) Vice versa exists too, of course, but the point is to not assume anything based on someone’s gender.

So lol, for both my male and female characters, I start with a blank slate for level of sex drive too, and for some reason, I have a lot of asexual characters, most of whom are male. There is only one character I know of so far who has a very high sex drive, so you see my characters don’t tell me everything. Well, this is an embarrassing topic anyway, so I wouldn’t blame my characters for not wanting to tell me unless it’s relevant to the plot situation, lol.

Okay back to a not so awkward topic, it’s cool that you seem comfortable talking to all of your characters. For me, I’m usually too shy to say hi, lol! I feel like they’re all such cool people that I’m too timid to talk to them, haha. The characters I DO talk to are mostly characters I have met in my stories where Serena is a character, because they already know me, haha! Pretty weird, huh?

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Jami Gold August 2, 2015 at 10:25 pm

Hi Serena,

Great point about how we’ll see diversity everywhere, even with age stereotypes. And I’ve never heard that tidbit about Medieval Europe believing females had stronger sex drives. How interesting!

Yes, various ideas and assumptions can definitely change over time with society. We tend to think of the current situation as being very static, or as changing in only one direction. However, human cultures have always changed and adjusted, swinging from one end to another and back and forth. 🙂

LOL! at your characters not wanting to tell you about their sex drive. Yes, I don’t ask. I just let them show me with their actions. 😉

And you shouldn’t be too intimidated to talk to your characters. I bet they’ll think that you’re pretty interesting! 😀 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung August 3, 2015 at 1:02 pm

“And I’ve never heard that tidbit about Medieval Europe believing females had stronger sex drives. How interesting!”

Haha I learned about that from an article from TV tropes, and also from my experience of reading Boccaccio’s (in the Medieval times, in Italy specifically) many stories about promiscuous women, lol. Also, Must Love Chainmail had a short moment where Robert said that he knew women had greater sex drive than men (or something along those lines.) LOL!

Yeah I usually don’t ask specifically either and just see what they do as the story unfolds. So if the story doesn’t require me to know what the sex drive level of character X is, I’ll never know! Lol.

“And you shouldn’t be too intimidated to talk to your characters. I bet they’ll think that you’re pretty interesting!”

Aw! Thanks for saying that. I’m still really shy towards most of my characters, though, but maybe one day I’ll overcome my shyness, lol! It’s like how I really admire Dostoyevsky but would be way too cowed to go talk to him in person, haha. (If he were still alive.) I’m pretty sure non-writers who read this won’t understand what we’re talking about, this “being too timid to talk to your characters”…I think most non-writers don’t even know that many writers can talk to our characters! Kind of sad, really. I hope that our ability will become general knowledge one day.

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Jami Gold August 3, 2015 at 3:37 pm

Hi Serena,

Exactly! I don’t know anything my characters don’t tell me or show me, and stuff like that is probably weird for non-writers to think about. 🙂

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Julie Glover August 2, 2015 at 3:56 pm

Great article! And thank you for highlighting the scarcity of diverse stock photos. That drives me crazy. I cannot understand why photographers don’t seek out more diversity in their models. It simply boggles my mind. Let’s hope it changes!

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Jami Gold August 2, 2015 at 10:26 pm

Hi Julie,

I can’t understand it either. But I hope that the additional attention to the problems for book covers will lead to changes. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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PJ Friel October 8, 2015 at 10:03 am

Saw a link to this post in one of Jami’s other blog posts, regarding the difficulty of finding diverse stock art, so I thought I’d pop in and leave a note about a new stock art site called Mosiac Stock. Mosaic was created by a fellow author for just this very reason. She was tired of not being able to find good images for her books.

Here’s a link to their site – http://www.mosaicstockphotos.com/

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Jami Gold October 8, 2015 at 11:35 am

Hi PJ,

Yes! I do have a link to them in the post, but in the time since I wrote this, they’ve added a lot of images and categories, so I’m happy to give them another shout out. 😀 Thanks for sharing!

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