Well, so far I’ve survived the discussion about diversity in literature from last time. I guess I’m a glutton for punishment because I want to touch on one concern that popped up in several online conversations: a worry that focusing on diversity might harm storytelling quality.
Like the campaign #WeNeedDiverseBooks says, we all should want to encourage diversity in books for countless reasons, ranging from a larger variety of stories, motivations, and conflicts to improving our empathy, appreciation, and understanding. In my mind, however, the main reason to include diversity in books is because diversity is normal in life and therefore should be normal in books (unless our worldbuilding requires otherwise).
But… None of that means we should value diversity over storytelling.
This push for diversity is not about needing to cram diversity into a story just to meet a quota. This isn’t about making a statement. This isn’t about pushing an agenda or making “issue” books. This isn’t a political issue. This isn’t about being able to check a box for diversity.
This is about being a better writer.
Know Your Writing Tics
Part of what we learn on our path to becoming better writers is our writing tics. Do our characters shrug too often? Do we use big words to impress when a normal word would be more appropriate? Do we use the same descriptions over and over?
I tend to binge-read authors, inhaling several books from a single author in a row. That means I notice tons of writing tics.
One author describes every one of her heroines’ waist and hips and every one of her heroes’ eyes and voice the same way—exact words and phrases. Another author’s heroes all swear the same way despite very different backgrounds.
This isn’t meant to shame those authors because we all have writing tics. But writing tics are like clichés. Or by-the-numbers tropes. Or stereotypes. Or assumptions.
They’re lazy and we can do better. However, we often won’t notice them until someone points them out. So I’m pointing one out for us all. *smile*
“Default” Characters Are a Writing Tic
One type of writing tic that many authors share is the “default” character. As Roni Loren said in her post about writing diverse characters, the first step in adding diversity is not having “a ‘default’ that everyone who walks onto the page is white, straight, and middle-class until proven otherwise.”
If we need a cop to appear as a minor character and our mind assumes this cop is a white male, that’s lazy. That style of writing is just as lazy as writing a formulaic story with no twists. Or as choosing the first plot twist that pops into our head.
Too often, the reason that plot twist pops into our head is because it’s been done a bajillion times before. Ever heard the writing advice to discard your first idea for any scenario? That might be a bit extreme, but this is the same problem on the character level.
Now, that’s not to say that our cop shouldn’t be a white male. The problem isn’t with the “lack” of diversity. The problem is with the assumption, the laziness.
The fastest, easiest way to create more diverse stories is not to force diverse characters into our writing. That way lies either stilted writing (best case scenario) or unjustified holier-than-thou attitudes. (There are probably even worse case scenarios, but I’d rather not think of those.)
Instead, the fastest, easiest way to create more diverse stories is to start with a blank slate. Don’t have a “default” character. Or if one pops into our head, stop and ask ourselves if that’s really the voice we’re hearing.
Don’t take the shortcut. Overcome that writing tic. *smile*
Organic Characters, Not Quotas or Forcing
While I understand the idealism and goals behind quotas in real life, due to human nature, quotas in reality more often seem to give people an excuse to disrespect others and claim that someone doesn’t really deserve whatever they have—and that disrespect doesn’t do anyone any good. So I’m certainly not one who’s going to argue for anything in our writing that is similarly “artificial.”
I have never approached a character or a story with the “goal” of adding diversity. I never “try” to make a diverse character. I don’t force anything.
In fact, I write by the seat of my pants, so I write organically. I mean it when I say I don’t force anything. If it doesn’t feel natural, I don’t do it—characters included.
Yet, as I mentioned last time, my stories do contain diverse characters. Many of them, in fact. How did I manage that?
How to Include Diverse Characters in Our Stories
All I did to include diversity in my stories was ditch the writing tic of using default characters. Whenever a character—from my protagonists to the nameless, just-above-a-spear-carrier minor characters—appears on the page, I stop and listen.
- 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.)
- If it’s the latter, I shove them away, and I listen more until I hear a voice that feels real.
- Then I let them tell me who they are. *smile*
Note: There is no wrong answer because there’s no quota.
It’s perfectly okay if our answers lead us to a straight, white, non-disabled, middle-class male. They exist! They’re quite common in fact! *smile*
The point isn’t to avoid or force any type of character. The point is that we took the step to make sure. Even if our character creation process doesn’t follow my slightly insane, organic process, we can still make sure that we didn’t just make assumptions or blindly accept the stock character sent by our brain’s Central Casting.
And we should do this with our good guys and our bad guys. Negative stereotypes often show up in villains, and that kind of diversity doesn’t help if it’s done just as thoughtlessly.
Good Writing Is Done with Purpose
Anything we include in our writing, from the setting details to the foreshadowing, should be done with purpose. That’s different from being done with a purpose.
Going into our writing with a purpose might mean we have too much of an agenda or issue we’re trying to push. Agents frequently bemoan on Twitter about such stories because the storytelling usually sucks. Prioritizing agenda over storytelling isn’t going to be successful.
Writing with purpose means that we’re being conscious of our choices. We mention these details and not those details for a reason. These details matter to the story. Those details don’t, so it would be distracting to include them.
That’s why this simple step of ensuring we’re avoiding “default” characters is important for us to become better writers. We’re being conscious of our choices, whether the character turns out to be diverse or not.
Couldn’t We Just Not Describe Our Characters at All?
Some might argue for the approach of leaving characters un-described and letting readers fill in the blanks. There are pros and cons for that approach.
We can leave minor characters un-described. Minor characters might not even get names, so a lack of description would be a similar choice.
However, for major characters, something (maybe not visual) should hint at their diverse element (if one exists) or they’re going to be whitewashed by many readers. Yes, we could say that would be the reader’s problem and not ours, but that also wouldn’t necessarily be true to the character to not have their diversity affect them or their experience in any way—ever.
Being a diverse character would usually affect them in some way. Disabled characters might struggle with an aspect of daily life, ethnic characters might struggle with other characters’ assumptions (or maybe they’re so used to being treated differently, it stands out when they’re not), differently oriented characters might face unwanted flirtation, etc.
Those issues don’t need to be a plot point or a big deal, and the diverse element doesn’t need to be told, but showing a mention in some way is probably necessary to be true to the character. Pretending that diversity doesn’t affect a major character in action, behavior, interactions, senses, etc.—ever—is a form of whitewashing (unless the story is set on a different world with different social issues).
So, Is a “Blank Slate” the “Right” Way to Approach Diversity?
That question implies that there’s a “wrong” way to approach diversity. I’d call using stereotypes a “wrong” way, but beyond negative applications like that, I’m not sure there is a wrong way. It’s certainly not wrong for us to include diverse characters as normal elements of our stories, even if we’re not diverse ourselves.
I’m a white author, so I might not be the right person to write stories about diversity, like where tackling complex diversity questions, goals, motivations, conflicts, and themes are the main point of the story. However, it would be disingenuous to pretend that diverse characters don’t exist in my story worlds—they take place on Earth after all.
Most of the time, when non-diverse authors are slammed for writing diverse characters, it’s because the author wrote a character according to a stereotype or as an “other” (like an uber-insightful, near-magical elderly black woman whose only purpose in the story is to make the protagonist “better”). Neither of those situations treat the diverse characters as three-dimensional. They’re important only for their diverse aspects and not treated as a “real” person.
My point here is to ensure that we’re treating all characters, diverse or not, as characters first. When we write diverse characters, we want to make sure that they’re not just that diverse element.
Rather, the categories a character might fit into are just one element affecting the character and the story. Our characters’ diverse elements (or lack thereof) might affect the character and story just as much—or just as little—as their personality traits, job, age, where they live, etc.
If we’re viewing our characters as whole, three-dimensional beings, we’re more likely to portray them in unique, non-stereotypical ways. “Default” characters, “stock” characters, “ideal” diverse characters, and stereotypes are all different forms of clichés. And they’re all lazy writing.
Listening to our characters’ unique voices, goals, and motivations avoids all of those issues. If we don’t even try, we’re going to miss out on great characters–and so will our readers. And maybe that’s the best argument of all for why we should start with a blank slate for our characters. *smile*
Have you noticed your brain defaulting to certain character assumptions? Do you try to start with a blank slate? If so, has that naturally led to increased diversity among your characters? Do you think there are “right” or “wrong” ways to include diversity in our stories?Pin It