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?Pin It