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June 5, 2014

One Step to Better Writing and More Diversity

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

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

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

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

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

This is about being a better writer.

Know Your Writing Tics

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

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

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

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

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

“Default” Characters Are a Writing Tic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Organic Characters, Not Quotas or Forcing

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

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

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

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

How to Include Diverse Characters in Our Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Writing Is Done with Purpose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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39 Comments on "One Step to Better Writing and More Diversity"

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Jennifer Rose

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

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

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

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

M
Hey Jami – great follow-up post to your last one. I especially appreciated: “My point here is to ensure that we’re treating all characters, diverse or not, as characters first.” THIS. So much of this, and it’s applicable to any character you “don’t know how to write”. I see topics almost every week in writing forums posted by people who don’t know how to write the opposite gender – the answer is easy! Make their personality whatever you want it to be! There’s no formula for writing a specific gender or background or WHATEVER – characters are all PEOPLE. So thanks for that 😀 As far as how to write diversity into your books, I like your idea of starting with a blank slate, but I think it can be hard to do – and easy to carry on even if you have unintentionally “stocked” your story with a non-diverse cast. I think it’s good to check: is this character “typical” to my mind/according to most people I know? If I need a “judge” or “doctor” and I conjure an image of an old white dude, then… can’t I do better? Why NOT make them women? Why NOT make them Sri Lankan? I think that a certain amount of “forcing” to get diverse characters into a story is sometimes necessary and always awesome. There’s a movie I love called “Salt” that stars Angelina Jolie (stay with me). Her character in the film is fantastic; she plays a totally capable American… Read more »
Carradee

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

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

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

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

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
😀 I’m glad we share the same philosophy, Jami. I also think we should never force diversity, and we should listen to our characters as PEOPLE, as THEMSELVES. So my character is a lesbian not because I’m purposefully looking for a different sexual orientation to make my story feel more “diverse”, but simply because THIS PARTICULAR CHARACTER happens to be a lesbian. Seriously, I had absolutely no idea what sexual orientation this character had until I saw how she reacts emotionally and psychologically to her female best friend’s presence. 🙂 So, as you said, none of this is DELIBERATE. This is my character speaking, not Serena speaking. And haha, your method is not at all insane! At least you still call it character creation. For me, as I’ve mentioned before, I see it as character discovery! I assume from the start that character are real, pre-existing people from other universes, lol. (I support the multiverse theory in physics. 😀 Our characters just feel so real that I wouldn’t believe it if people told me they weren’t real, lol.) About the stock characters coming first to mind, I think we talked about this before, but what comes to my mind first are usually SERENA cliches rather than story cliches, lol. So my characters aren’t the “classic archetypes”; rather, they often share at least one similarity with me, and thus they are “Serena archetypes”, lol. However, even though they are similar to me in some way or more, there will always be… Read more »
Linda Maye Adams

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

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

Glynis Jolly

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

Matthew Brown
I wasn’t expecting a follow up post. Very cool. I’ve got to hand it to you right off, it takes some serious bones to start this conversation in the first place, let alone keep it going. I greatly appreciate your statement that there should be no quotas, no press for political correctness, etc. The reason that some, including myself, can be so immediately concerned that this push for diversity is misguided is the way it is worded. It’s the word need. We need diversity in books. That suggests a determination to include diversity for its own sake, because it’s needed. That may not be what’s intended, but it is certainly what many people will hear. I don’t just mean that authors who don’t want to be told what to write will hear that. I mean that a lot people who will pursue the idea of diversity in literature will become focused on that ideal to detriment of others. And that is harmful. Admittedly, it’s not harmful to me. It is to the person who allows it to taint their viewpoint. It’s easy to say that the desire for diversity isn’t about making a statement or that it isn’t a political issue. For you and for anyone who approaches it responsibly, you’re right. For a lot of people though, it is or can become those things. That kind of perspective can do a lot of harm to the original idea. That has to be said. That isn’t the reason I wanted… Read more »
Bel
Bel
I’d like to thank you first of all for your blog posts, which I find interesting and informative, and sometimes thought-provoking. This is definitely a sensitive topic, but I applaud the fact that you’re tackling it, and regard that as part of a new openness in discussing these matters that’s currently sweeping through the Western world. The swing of the pendulum, perhaps? Some of your commenters have made insightful remarks, too. I live in the UK, and we have a regular TV drama called Midsomer Murders that’s very popular and has been going for years. OK, this is about screenwriting as opposed to writing fiction, but a few years ago a controversy blew up regarding the fact that ethnic minorities never appeared in the show. The producer (or whoever was in charge) explained that minorities weren’t included as they simply wouldn’t fit in. Midsomer Murders is an almost tongue-in-cheek murder-mystery drama. It mainly centres around rather eccentric, often old-fashioned, typical middle- or upper-class English characters living in picturesque villages – perhaps even “Lord of the Manor” types in their stately piles – and all regularly bumping each other off to prevent rivals winning the local bell-ringing contest, or the prize for Best Begonias at the annual horticultural show. As the debate raged, it was pointed out (and rightly, I think) that it would be very difficult to include ethnic minorities as the MCs. If they played the victim, well obviously they would have been targeted because of their ethnicity. On… Read more »
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[…] To diversify our own writing, Justina Ireland gives some diversity suggestions, and Jami Gold has one step to better writing and more diversity. […]

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

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

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

Tamyara Brown

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

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[…] don’t think it’s bad if some of the characters we write follow the stereotypes. As with other kinds of diversity, the problem is when that’s […]

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[…] and not make assumptions about them conforming to the “default.” Sticking with a “default” character is a cliché-like writing tic, and clichés and writing tics aren’t good in general. Instead, we want to treat each […]

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[…] written before about how we shouldn’t assume our characters belong to a straight, white, middle-class default because that’s lazy […]

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[…] 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 […]

Cheryl Head

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

With Admiration,

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[…] just as we might encourage diversity in our characters by asking ourselves whether we’re making assumptions about their traits, we can ask ourselves about our characters and whether we were conscious with […]

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