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October 22, 2015

Writing Diversity: How Can We Avoid Issues?

Purple eye and green hair with text: Avoiding Mistakes with Diversity

The real world is filled with diversity, and I’ve often said that our stories should be the same way. That’s not an agenda, just a truth.

Even within our own culture (whatever that is), we’re likely to find diversity simply because we all have different experiences and backgrounds. Some will be poor, and some will come from a broken home. Some will be educated, and some will be religious. Some will struggle with disabilities, and some will identify with a non-default gender or sexual orientation. Etc., etc.

This is a good thing when it comes to our characters, especially for characters with diverse elements, as there’s no definitive black, gay, disabled, whatever experience, and therefore there’s no “one right way” to portray those characters. There are, however, wrong ways to portray diversity.

For some writers, the fear of “getting it wrong” discourages them from including diverse elements. Yet the subjective nature of reading and everyone’s unique experiences (which can lead to different levels of sensitivity) means we can’t avoid all issues or make everyone happy no matter what we do.

Although I strive to be aware and listen and learn, I still make mistakes. But I think there are steps we can take to minimize—as much as possible—the potential of “getting it wrong.”

Let’s talk about some of the basic tips to keep in mind, as well as my advice for the best way to ensure our words and our intentions won’t get us into trouble. *smile*

Tips for Portraying Diversity Respectfully

  • Don’t Make Excuses: No matter our genre, our characters don’t all look like us and have the same background (gender, class, education, living conditions, etc.), and we can broaden our choices to include diversity the same way.
  • Avoid Quotas or Agendas: On the other hand, there are no “brownie points” for meeting an imagined quota. Rather, we can add diverse characters simply by holding “open casting calls” in our head instead of falling back on our defaults.
  • Beware an “It’s the Right Thing to Do” Attitude: Including diversity isn’t like eating our vegetables or taking our vitamins. For most stories, it’s logical to include diverse elements, and no one deserves a pat on the back just because they’re being logical. *smile*
  • Recognize that “Diverse” Isn’t a Genre: Our stories don’t have to be about the diverse element. A story about a gay character can be about anything, not just about them coming out.
  • Ask if the Story Is Ours to Tell: If we don’t have direct experience with the diverse element, a story that centers on the diverse aspect might suffer from disrespectful negative stereotypes or breathless, isn’t-it-inspirational-how-they-overcame-those-obstacles “positive” stereotypes. (Note that treating a character’s diverse element as a problem to overcome isn’t actually positive.)
  • Avoid Stereotypes in Our Characters and Story Premise: A story premise that requires an all-white cast of good guys and an all-minority cast of bad guys is likely problematic.
  • Develop Three-Dimensional Characters: Our characters shouldn’t be just about their diverse element(s). They should be fully developed with a rich history, filled with beliefs, fears, values, strengths, weaknesses, etc.
  • Keep an Eye out for Diversity Combinations: There are many types of diversity, and each of those can intersect with others. A character with disabilities who also belongs to a racial minority will likely have a different experience from a character with disabilities who grows up in a privileged family.
  • Listen to Our Characters: If our characters are three-dimensional and unique, we can avoid many stereotypes by being true to them.
  • Research, Research, Research: To eliminate stereotypes that creep in without us knowing, we should research any history, religious beliefs, cultural or societal issues, current status, notable updates or research, etc. that might affect or tie in to our story.
  • Be Open-Minded: There’s no shame in being unaware—no one can know everything—but we have to be willing to listen and learn without defensiveness.
  • Watch Out for Disrespectful Worldbuilding: Current beliefs of non-Christian cultures aren’t playgrounds to treat like ancient myths or fantasy elements (i.e., Twilight‘s treatment of the Quileute tribe).

The Value (and Limitations) of an Accuracy or Sensitivity Read

A common suggestion to avoid being unintentionally disrespectful is to seek out someone who shares that diverse element (or at the very least, has direct experience with it) and ask them to read our work and point out issues.

Even with the best of intentions, we can make mistakes that only someone with cultural or societal knowledge can point out to us. We might intend our words to mean one thing, but cultural experience or subtext might imply a different meaning. We might have included stereotypes without meaning to. Etc., etc.

In other words, getting insight from someone deeply “in the know” is an important step…with a couple of caveats.

  • Positive feedback doesn’t guarantee a lack of problems. No group is a monolith, and something that reads fine to one person might be offensive to another.
  • Allow time to find a willing reader and receive feedback during our beta read or developmental edit stage so we’re still at the point of being willing to make big revisions.
  • At all costs, avoid becoming defensive at any feedback. This is a time to listen and learn.
  • No one owes us their time, so requests should be made with the utmost respect.

Tips for a Respectful Request

The hero of my upcoming release Ironclad Devotion is a member of the Navajo tribe. However, he’s dismissive of his heritage, so I was…um, extremely concerned about the story coming across as being disrespectful of Navajo beliefs. *smile*

So I wanted to get a “sensitivity” read from someone knowledgeable and experienced with the culture. I was lucky enough to work with V.S. Nelson, who isn’t just Native American, but she’d also lived and worked on the Navajo reservation for nearly two decades. I’ve known Virginia for years through our local writing chapter, but if we don’t know who might qualify as a reader for our story, we should ask around.

Here’s how I made sure my request was respectful and non-defensive:

  • Don’t assume potential readers would be willing to read or have the time to read, but you can ask for other names and leave it open for them to volunteer themselves.
    For example, in my initial approach, after giving a short description of the premise and characters, I said: “I want to make sure I’m not in any way misrepresenting, disrespecting, insulting, etc. the Navajo culture with this story. It’s important to me that I get it right. Do you know of anyone with the cultural knowledge who might be willing to read/review those sections and let me know where I need to fix things?”
  • Word your messages with the assumption that there are issues. Don’t assume you have it right. This helps set the tone for honest feedback by showing how you wouldn’t be defensive.
  • Once you have a reader lined up, make it easy for them by giving a summary of every relevant section, just in case they want to skip to the pages that might have concerns rather than read the whole story. (i.e., Chapter 1, Pages 4-5: Character is introduced as… He states… He thinks… Others respond by… Etc.)
  • Feel free to explain your intentions for each section, but explain your goal for including that information. (i.e., Make it clear that the explanation isn’t about being defensive.)
    In my message with the summaries, I said, “After each section, I’m adding in italics what my intentions were for the actual writing, in case that helps figure out if my intentions are off-base and need to be rethought or if the specific word choices, etc. aren’t matching my intentions. If you come across a problematic aspect, these descriptions may help figure out where the problem lies.”
  • Reiterate that you really want honest feedback about anything and everything that might be an issue, and ensure they understand that you’re fine with making major changes.
  • Thank them profusely for their time.

There’s Not Always a Right Answer

Just as reading is subjective, what we want to accomplish or get across with our story and writing is subjective too. Sometimes, just as with any feedback, we might choose to ignore the suggestions and stick with what feels more true to the character.

I don’t hold up my stories as perfect examples of how to “do diversity right,” as there’s always room for improvement, and I’m sure I screwed up in multiple ways. However, I want to share a couple of examples to point out how subjectivity plays a part.

In my story, Pure Sacrifice, the hero has dark skin, so I wanted to describe the heroine’s skin color too (so that white wasn’t assumed the “default” color). In her point-of-view, she mocks her lily-white skin.

However, sometimes a phrase like “lily-white” implies “perfection.” (Think of the old fairy tales and the type of wording they’d use.) So the phrase could be taken as bragging in a “this character is good and the other characters are bad” type of way by some readers.

Yet to be true to the heroine’s character, I had to include the words. I hope it’s obvious from her self-mocking that she doesn’t intend the phrase to give an impression of superiority. But at the same time, I can’t control that some might be sensitive to the usage.

For an opposite type of example, editing feedback made it clear that the word choice for one character went over the line. Although the words were true to the character, they were so strong that they stole the focus from my goal for the scene. So I decided to change the dialogue so the overall scene would create the impression I wanted without making readers focus on specific word choices.

On another occasion, I allowed a setting of a neighborhood to conform to stereotypes, as the racial makeup and housing market details were based on the real-world neighborhood in that location. Was it wrong to include the stereotypes? Or was it right to remain honest about the reality?

In other words, everything is a choice, but not necessarily a right or wrong kind of choice (even if we get reviews picking on it). The point is to think through the decision, so we’re not falling back on defaults, assumptions, or stereotypes.

Subjectivity Is Inevitable with Every Story Element

As those examples show, we as authors are still in charge of our story. Right and wrong choices aren’t always clear or set in stone. And no matter how hard we try, we’re likely to receive negative feedback, but we shouldn’t take it personally.

If someone doesn’t connect to our character because they don’t think a cop would act that way, we don’t vow to stop writing cops. If we set a book in New York and a local points out issues with our setting details, we don’t swear off ever setting a book in New York again.

We listen to see if our police officer did act out of character, and then if we decide we were true to the character, we shrug. We take notes about how we didn’t research our setting well enough so we do better next time.

In other words, when we run into non-diversity-related problems with our story, we don’t take it personally and decide to avoid ever trying again. So when one person thinks such-and-such doesn’t ring true for a diverse element in our story, we shouldn’t give up on including diversity either. *smile*

Have you seen books that included diverse elements in problematic ways? Could any of this advice have fixed the problem? Can you think of other steps we can take to avoid issues? Have you ever run into problems with including a diverse element? Was the problem one of subjectivity or one you could have handled better?

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45 Comments on "Writing Diversity: How Can We Avoid Issues?"

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Davonne Burns

I can tell you put a lot of thought and effort into this and it is very much appreciated. This point in particular:

Ask if the Story Is Ours to Tell: If we don’t have direct experience with the diverse element, a story that centers on the diverse aspect might suffer from disrespectful negative stereotypes or breathless, isn’t-it-inspirational-how-they-overcame-those-obstacles “positive” stereotypes. (Note that treating a character’s diverse element as a problem to overcome isn’t actually positive.)

Even as a member of a couple of intersectional minorities, I know that some stories are not mine to tell.

There are some great resources for authors looking to add diversity in unproblematic ways. I run a blog that focuses on how to write LGBT+ characters (mogaiwriters.tumblr.com). There is also the Writing With Color blog (writingwithcolor.tumblr.com) which will answer specific questions. I’m also available to answer questions regarding mental health and living with a chronic mental illness.

The single biggest issue I’ve encountered in books has been the ‘happy’ ending of the diversity issue being ‘solved.’ Diversity is not an issue that requires resolution. It’s a state of being and integral to a character’s self-identity. Yes this even applies to mental illnesses. ^_^

Thank you so much for addressing this, it’s something that you don’t see discussed so openly and honestly very often among the writing community.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Davonne, thanks for sharing that blog link! And from reading one of the articles, I just found out I’m a demisexual! Good, I don’t need to keep saying I’m a “kind of asexual but not quite” anymore, lol. And yes, I agree that giving us a name “demisexuals” gives us a sense of identity, community, and that we’re not alone and not “weird.” 😀 Strangely enough, I only just found out recently that most people are more sexual than I am (lust even for people they don’t have a close emotional bond with, which I find hard to understand as a demisexual…) This may explain why I have such a surprisingly large number of asexual characters, where some are romantic and some are aromantic. The majority of these asexual characters are male too, maybe because I’m a bit of a tomboy and also feel slightly more male than female. Well, to be precise, I feel gender neutral but with a slight male bent, and for some reason I feel emotionally closer to my male story characters… Yeah, gender identity and sexual orientation are interesting topics! I also agree with the idea that members of the queer or “non-standard” sexual orientation community, are people all the same, with their own personalities. One of my closest friends is a hyposexual gay male, and you wouldn’t be able to tell just by interacting with him. He’s a person just like everybody else. Just as demisexuals like myself are just people too.
Davonne Burns

Sure, I’m glad you found it useful! And congrats on discovering your orientation! It can definitely feel a bit freeing to know you share something in common with other people. I myself am demisexual so I totally get the not understanding lust thing.

And I totally agree with you that people are people first and foremost. While race, ethnicity, gender identity and sexual orientation are important and make up a large part of how a person identifies, they are only one part of a whole person. ^_^

Happy Assexual Awareness Week!!!

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
😀 Happy Asexual Awareness Week to you too! Yeah, demisexuality had me quite confused. Some friends had in the past asked if I was asexual, but I said no because I do for example enjoy reading sex scenes in romance novels, lol! But later this year, some of my friends (both male and female) talked about having sexual urges for their acquaintances or casual friends. So then I started thinking hey maybe I’m asexual since I don’t feel anything sexual towards anyone lol. But demisexuality fits me even better than “asexual” because there is indeed that one exception where lust can possibly appear. It does feel a bit strange since it’s not “mainstream”, nor is it LGBT, nor strictly asexuality. But yeah I could see it as part of the asexuality umbrella including Grey As. (And so demisexuality could be a part of LGBTQA or LGBTQ+.) And argh, I wish I found out I was a demisexual before graduating from university last year, because there’s an LGBT student group that includes asexuals. Well, I will hopefully get into grad school and perhaps I can find an LGBTQ+ group there to join! The questioning process can be very confusing so yes indeed, as Jami said, it’s very liberating and comforting to know that there are others with similar experiences. And on the fiction side, no wonder I can empathize with both asexual and sexual characters ! Lol. Oh on a general point: I know the idea of not labelling people or… Read more »
Debra Johnson
Debra Johnson

I appreciate the complexity of this topic and the comprehensive discussion. I particularly found 2 tips noteworthy: Recognize that diverse isn’t a genre, and Ask if the story is ours to tell, as two important points.

Additional thoughts:

The current push for diversity will encourage many writers to become more inclusive in their stories. That is both a plus and minus. Writers who are also people of color, know white culture intimately. White writers MAY be far less knowledgeable about the cultures of “Others”.

It’s equally important to understand we all have a culture. The easiest way to define white American culture – the majority culture that immigrants are expected to adopt. It includes language, customs, religious beliefs, political ideologies, dress, etc. considered to be appropriate/acceptable.

Research is a great tool. However, you might want to check who created that source. Sources written by the majority culture about “Others” may carry internal bias.

My suggestion is that you read books by diverse authors in your genre.
By reading and supporting diverse authors you can accomplish two things: 1-access an authenticate voice/resource, and 2-you will do more than simply appropriate the cultures and experiences of others.

Other resources: First Nations-http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com. Ms. Debbie Reese who writes the blog reviews books for children for diversity issues in portrayal of Native Americans.
Writing with Color on tumblr was mentioned in another post.

Jami, thank you for a thoughtful discussion.

Marcy Kennedy
I appreciate how you’re willing to address the tough subjects and that you try to do it in a balanced way. For example, you mentioned religion and culture in this post rather than just focusing on racial stereotypes, which is sometimes all that’s talked about when we look at the topic of respectfully approaching the diverse elements of our world in fiction. I’ve seen this done well, and I’ve seen it done poorly. I won’t name the book or author (because I don’t think it serves a purpose), but a few years ago, I read a romantic suspense where every Christian character was an abuser and/or adulterer and/or murderer. Since I’m a Christian (and also attend a church of the same denomination as the characters in the book) it was also really obvious to me when the author made mistakes in the belief system. It hit my buttons because it seemed like the author intended to make every character of my faith a hypocrite and evil, and that they didn’t even take the time to make sure they got some of the fundamental beliefs correct. The world the author portrayed didn’t reflect my reality at all. I use that as an example because it’s one I’ve personally encountered and felt the sting of, but I find it just as upsetting when an author paints any group of people with a broad brush, failing to acknowledge that there are good people and bad people, hypocrites and the sincere in any group,… Read more »
Deborah Makarios

I so agree about not trying to fill a quota. Tolkien has been criticized for not having a lot of female characters, but at least he stuck to what he was good at.
Unfortunately the writers for the Hobbit movies felt the need to “fix” the paucity of female characters by introducing a spunky kick-ass she-elf who trades suggestive banter with the guy from the wrong side of the tracks; forms a love-triangle etc, etc. It was all too fan-fictiony for me, and I couldn’t even manage to summon up the willpower to go and see the final installment.
Writers should be interested in all kinds of people and how they experience the world, but that doesn’t mean that every story needs to include every kind of person. Serve the story, not the statistics.

Kassandra Lamb

Great post on an important topic, Jami! Since I’m a pantser I do have characters pop up occasionally who are Hispanic, African-American, gay, transgender, etc. I strive to let all my characters evolve organically in the first draft, but then I definitely try to find a beta reader(s) who can check my attitudes and beliefs about the diverse character.

Your comment about being sure it is your story to tell really resonates with me. Mostly my characters’ diverse features are not integral to the story; they’re just part of who they are. This is because I’ve always felt reluctant to address issues that I haven’t experienced and would have trouble relating to accurately. Thank you for giving me the words to explain that reluctance. Those issues are stories I haven’t felt were mine to tell.

Rona Courtney
Rona Courtney
I think a point that needs to be reiterated is that you’ll never get everything “right.” People will always find fault with your representation and will condemn you for it, not knowing the amount of time, effort and research you put into it. What’s disheartening is to see authors use that as a reason to stop including diversity of any kind, and “stick to what they know.” As writers, we inherently go outside of what we know, it’s part of what’s so amazing about the job. Another thing to think about is that readers will often make assumptions about the race of the writer they’re reading, without looking deeper into it. Not every writer puts his or her picture up, so readers make assumptions. I had no idea that one of my favorite gay romance authors is a straight black woman until recently, and I was thrilled. Her characters are all (thus far) white, and I’d made the assumption that the author was a white woman, because the vast majority of authors I’ve read in that genre are. That said, I’m also a straight black female who writes gay romance, and it never occurred to me that I couldn’t do their stories justice because of my race or my sexuality. It amazes me how that assumption occurs in one area (I’m white and can’t write characters of color) and not in another (I’m straight and can’t write sexuality other than my own). I grew up as an only child, in… Read more »
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[…] Writing Diversity: How Can We Avoid Issues? by Jami Gold. […]

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[…] week, we talked about how we can add diversity to our stories in a respectful way. Several of the comments brought up fantastic points, and some included helpful resources and […]

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[…] Gold offers great tips for and examples of writing diversity (without […]

Taurean J. Watkins (@Taurean_Watkins)

I also felt such a general apathy toward crowdfunding that I felt I needed to add some nuance here (my personal journey aside) because lately I’ve seen this attitude in authors who didn’t have to crowdfund were coming off a bit snobbish about the practice in general, and I don’t want authors struggling financially to be needlessly discouraged because “experts” are making them feel like shady beggars on the street, just because they didn’t have to make a similar choice for their books.

Not all authors do this, of course, but I have seen some who do, and I do think without meaning to, authors who can fund their own publishing at the pro level lose touch with those who can’t.

I’m certainly not saying crowdfunding’s the best and only way, but for some of us, it’s either crowdfund or give up, until we can be in a position where we can stand on our own without it some of the time.

I’m speaking for authors in that position, not the authors who have the means to pro indie publish themselves, they have that option/right, many authors, myself included, don’t.

But we’re no less “professional” than you, or we would just put out some chintzy amateurish looking rag that no one but pitying friends/family would buy. I know jerky scammers exist, I’m not pretending they don’t, but don’t lump us all in the same dang box, that’s all I’m saying.

Okay, I’ll shut up now. (Sigh)

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[…] month Jami Gold brought up the subject of diversity on her blog.  Diversity is a huge topic right now, and it should be. We need more diversity in […]

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Jami! I’ve just come across a great example of writing a diverse character well! I’m so thrilled to share this. 🙂 I just read the Maze Runner series by James Dashner, and one of the main characters is Minho, who is the only Asian in the whole story!! (At least that we’re told of in the books.). He also happens to be my favorite character and my latest character crush. Yet despite that Minho is a racial minority, everybody in the story treats him like a normal person (a fellow teenage boy and good friend), rather than as some exotic species (“oh my gosh, an Asian!!”) I don’t mind that much when people exoticize us Asians, but I do feel weird when some non-Asians find me so fascinating just because I’m Asian. Uh…I’m just an ordinary human being just like you, you know? ^_^”. LOLL. And Maze Runner never even talked about the issue of race. Plus, after we finally got to know Minho’s name, which was very soon, we don’t even hear the word “Asian” ever again; he’s only referred to as Minho from then on. Surprisingly, I’ve never even heard of other racial names, like “black,” even though I think some of the characters were black. It was also really nice to see that Minho does NOT fit into the Asian stereotype of the “quiet nerd who can solve quadratic equations in his head”, as one commenter in a Goodreads thread mentioned, haha. Instead, Minho is this really… Read more »
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[…] Diversity is a huge buzz word right now in the entertainment industry and while there is a great focus on it, the actual results have been marginal at best. Unfortunately some well-meaning writers have perpetuated harmful stereotypes, misrepresented an orientation or been less than accurate in their portrayals of queer* persons. […]

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[…] from including diverse elements,” posits author Jami Gold in her highly informative article, “Writing Diversity: How Can We Avoid Issues.” She gives a handy checklist of ways to mitigate that fear and respectfully portray characters. […]

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