Writing Diversity: How Can We Avoid Issues?
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
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.
Thanks–yes, this post took far longer to write than usual. LOL! So I’m glad the effort was worth it. 🙂
Thank you for sharing those resources and for your offer to answer questions! I’ve learned so much just from watching complaints about stories pass back and forth on Twitter. 😉
Stories with disability and mental illness are very susceptible to that “solved” issue, which creates the subtext that “solving” those is required for a happy ending. Not the kind of story many readers would appreciate. 🙁 Yet the vast majority of stories with that type of diversity I’ve seen have fallen into that category because so many might not have thought through the subtext. That’s why awareness is so important. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!
I know what you mean, Davonne. There are stories about the African-American experience in the U.S. I don’t approach for that very reason. Just because I’m black doesn’t mean I’m the right person to tell the story, unless I was willing to be immersed in intensive research and find people within the experience willing to cross-reference points with. Or co-author with someone who has info I couldn’t get otherwise on my own. While research does matter in fiction, I’m not wed to it the same way than if were writing a nonfiction book on race relations, where there are more variables and study points of reference that frankly would make even the greatest minds of our time freak out! (LOL) Plus, truth be told, part of why I write pseudo-anthro animal stories is because I don’t have to face the ethnicity issue as much. Not the only reason, mind you, but that’s part of it. It’s hard enough to tell a gripping story, harder still when you’re wrestling with the weighty matters like the politics of human diversity and ethnicity. That said, I do have to speak to what you said here- “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. ^_^” I’m not offended by this (Just to clarify!) and I agree with… — Read More »
Taurean (may I say I love the name!), I completely understand where you are coming from and I apologize if my comment might have struck a wrong note.
“I honestly believe more people would admit to their mental issues and more likely get whatever help they have access to if we broaden the views in fiction especially.” I think this right here gets to the heart of matters. I HATE it when villains are painted as schizophrenic nut jobs (I’m bipolar schizophrenic). Accepting how an illness changes you and your life can take years and, for better or worse, they do have a hand in defining us both internally and externally.
I apologize for not being more clear in my statement above (rushing through a post on a topic like this is not recommended). But, you are very right and unfortunately mental illness isn’t the only thing that’s often portrayed badly in fiction. That’s why I appreciate Jami’s post. I think too often we forget to look outside ourselves when writing because we often put so much of ourselves into our characters. (All my characters are somewhere on the MOGAI spectrum. I can’t seem to write heterosexual characters as anything but villains) XD
Thank you so much for such a thoughtful comment. I really appreciate it.
This comment string between you and Taurean brings up some great points. I love what you said about the need to look outside ourselves when writing sometimes, and I think this ties in with the happy ending point you made above.
Someone outside a marginalized group might make assumptions about what a happy ending would look like, and those assumptions might lead them to portray an ending that creates a life more like theirs. But those in different groups might define their happy ending differently.
Going back to the example of mental illness, rather than being “cured” by the end, a happy ending might be reaching a point where the illness is dealt with in healthy ways, or is accepted, etc. (Others could probably come up with far better examples than I can. 🙂 )
I just wanted to point that out for anyone who comes across this post and wonders how to portray a happy ending if the mental illness isn’t something to “cure.” (Unfortunately, I’ve heard of plenty of books doing the same with physical disabilities as well–a magical ability to walk or see or have children again. *sigh*) Thanks so much for bringing this up!
Thanks for replying Davonne (You too, Jami!), I know that lots of things are mishandled in fiction as you elude to, Davonne, but this imbalance of how people with varying degrees of mental illness are viewed in fiction is for me just as heartbreaking as mishandling or ignoring ethnic diversity, and besides, I focused on this point because my comments around here go long and I get in trouble when I try to get too broad. Believe me, I know there are other ways people and situations can get stereotyped in annoying ways. Besides, I think most readers are aware of wish fulfillment and things particularly, but there’s a BIG difference between that and ignorantly narrow views of how people with mental illness are portrayed, and while there’s excellent nonfiction giving the science (and HEART) this needs, we need more fiction that brings dignity and respect to those with various forms of Autism/Mental Illness. I think as long as there are prominent stories of more nuanced portrayals of mental illness, the caricatures won’t have the divisive weight they do now, and I believe we can get there, how long that will take is anyone’s guess, though, but my overall point is that it HAS to start somewhere. What you said here is a BIG part of why I don’t write about mental illness in my fiction- “Even as a member of a couple of intersectional minorities, I know that some stories are not mine to tell.” While you cited this… — Read More »
Hi Taurean, You’re not alone in many of your concerns. I know a reader with disabilities who has to work up the courage to read stories about characters with disabilities because she’s seen it done poorly SO many times. I also know authors of color who choose to write white characters because they have their own reasons for writing “diverse” from their situation. Especially in cases where there might be personal wishes for a different life, there’s nothing wrong in choosing to write stories without those elements. Just because we have direct experience with something doesn’t mean we want to explore that topic in our stories, whether that’s race, mental illness, or being a victim of rape. Despite our direct experience, we might not feel up for (or qualified to or interested in) delving into the topic. We often talk about readers reading for an escape, but the same can apply to authors too. As I mentioned in the post, sometimes I choose character elements or settings that I want to learn about. So writing can be a form of escapism for us as well, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We don’t “owe” anyone certain stories, and I think we all should be allowed to write beyond our experience. 🙂 So I understand the distinction you’re drawing between comfortable and complacent. We want to push ourselves to grow and improve–and thus not be complacent–but we don’t have to feel the need to write about things that make us uncomfortable.… — Read More »
I wasn’t at all offended by what you were saying, Davonne, I just wanted to expand on it from both my life experience, and what I’ve read and watched about how our experience is often one-dimensionally portrayed.
Even though I know it’s not realistic on a cerebral level, I sometimes wish I could pop my mental issues like a zit, because what I lose in being more adaptable and less tunnel-thinking, and better controlling my emotions-doesn’t balance out whatever I gain from having the mental struggles I do.
Sometimes that wish fulfillment is appealing to me. However unrealistic.
It’s hard to see the positive side of a difficult situation because it feels like what you gain from having X mental challenge doesn’t begin to compensate from what you lose and have to live every day in return.
My Asperger’s makes me feel positive and negative emotions far more intensely than the average person.
(It’s like having MLP Pinkie Pie’s boundless optimism juxtaposed to Pooh’s Eeyore’s negative outlook, with a dash of anger in the form of a raging dragon) It also contributes to my struggle with change and compromise (Particularly when I’m FORCED into it).
But I’m back in counseling and would consider medication if needed.
I do recognize there are good things that my mental challenges gave me, I just want it to better balance out the less-than-good things my mental challenges give me and those in my life who try so hard to help me in the ways they can.
Thank you for sharing your experiences with the intersection of race and illness so honestly! As you so insightfully point out, dealing with mental illness is a minefield for those struggling, especially with the stigma that exists for getting help or for not getting help. I think you’re right that a better, nuanced representation in fiction might help reduce that stigma.
I think your point about how in the case of mental illness–just as with any element of what makes up an individual (race, gender, class, etc.)–those with the same element don’t speak for the rest. We see this time and again with every aspect: one black criminal doesn’t mean all blacks are bad, one Muslim terrorist doesn’t mean all Muslims are bad, and one mentally ill shooter doesn’t mean all mentally ill are bad. Our culture “gets” that with whites, and we need to expand that understanding to all. Thank you so much for great comment!
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.
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!!!
😀 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 »
That’s an interesting point. 🙂 Yes, I think to some extent, defining ourselves can be empowering because it’s a confirmation that–as you said–we’re not alone and that we “belong” to a community of sorts. However, if others define us, it can feel limiting, as though they’re not seeing our other aspects. (We know our other aspects, so we don’t worry about that issue with us. LOL!)
That’s a great point, and I think that’s part of why knowing how to be politically correct can be difficult. We can see others define themselves and thus think it’s okay for us to define them that way too, but it’s often not. Sometimes people get grumpy about that, but if we think of it from this perspective of whole and belonging vs. limiting, it makes sense. 🙂 Thanks for bringing that up!
Yes indeed! Us defining ourselves as X feels nice, but someone else using the same term to define us may not feel so nice. However, there are some terms I don’t mind others calling me, like writer, Pokemon fan, psych geek, Christian, artist, science geek, etc.
Btw I just joined an LGBTQIAA thread on Nanowrimo! It was awesome to see that there were many other asexuals and demisexuals, so I’m definitely not alone. 🙂 There was one commenter who is not involved in the community so didn’t know the terms Ace of Spades, Ace of Diamonds, Ace of Hearts, and Ace of Clubs. That made me feel better because I was not previously in the LGBTQA+ community either and am only just learning the many terms. It’s also really interesting as an intellectual topic how sexual desire, sex drive, and sexual attraction are three different things! Though in common language, we may see them as pretty much the same thing. As an asexual /demisexual, I can see how the terms are different, haha.
Awesome! I totally forgot to even look there for other aces.
Yeah these online communities are awesome! There was a guy on the thread who was surprised there were so many Aces. Haha it is really nice to see many others like you, especially if it’s sort of a “minority” group like the asexuals or demisexuals.
Very true! Some labels don’t strike us as “loaded,” so we wouldn’t take offense unless we knew the person meant to offend–and sometimes not even then. (I can’t imagine a tone of voice possible that would make me take offense to “writer.” LOL!)
I’d never heard the Ace terminology before, but that might describe a character in a book I’m currently planning. So it’s nice to have a “label” that might help me understand him–even though he might not be aware of the terminology. 🙂 So thank you for sharing those insights!
Yes, putting a name to something can be so empowering. 🙂 I’m glad you found what clicked for you!
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.
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.
Great point about checking the sources on any research we do! Sources outside of the culture might frame explanations with an “othering” focus, which won’t help us avoid that issue in our work.
I love your tip too about how to recognize culture: what an immigrant is expected to adopt. So clear and easy to understand. 🙂
I also love your tip about reading books by diverse authors. In so many ways, supporting diverse authors themselves is far more important. What I can do in my books is just a bonus to that, and as you said, that’s also an authentic voice for the culture. I’ve recommended following the @WOCInRomance account on Twitter, as they share links to romance books by diverse authors, and I’d love to hear of any others. 🙂 Thanks for sharing that great advice!
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 »
Yes, there are many ways to marginalize someone…unfortunately. 🙁
And I don’t think that was ranty. 🙂 Especially because even if we’re in a non-marginalized or privileged group most of the time, if we can see how the things that hurt us are related to what marginalized groups experience in a more overpowering and oppressive way, we might have more empathy for listening and not dismissing their experiences.
As you point out, the issues with lack of research and stereotypes are something we might all be able to relate to, which might help us become more aware in general. Thanks for sharing your insights!
Exactly. When it’s not something you normally experience, it can be all too easy to be blind to it. But if we remember a time that it happened to us, then we’re much more likely (I think) to be sensitive to what others might be facing on a regular basis.
But I think there are still definitely stories I would never try to tell because, as you said, it’s not my story. I don’t have the necessary experience to write it.
Agreed–I don’t have the necessary experience or insight to write it. Obviously, as I write paranormal, I have to write characters all the time that I don’t have the experience for. 🙂
But as I don’t force diversity into my stories or aim for quotas, I also don’t force myself to write characters until I hear their voice in my head–and thus feel some measure of connection that I can relate to and gain insight from or into. Well-done research can help us fill in many blanks, but nothing can replace insights that we feel deep inside. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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.
LOL! Yeah, I watched all the Hobbit movies and enjoyed them for what they were, but it definitely didn’t feel like Tolkien’s Hobbit. 🙁
Love the final sentence: Serve the story, not the statistics. 😀 Thanks for sharing!
For my upcoming debut novel “GABRIEL” the cast is predominantly male, but I didn’t do it consciously, and certainly not to “diss” girls and women in any way, but I was simply doing what many writers do, write the book you want to read. Part of why I had (and kinda still do…) such apathy toward YA books was that outside HP (From “Prisoner of Azkaban” onward) most of them had male characters that weren’t reflective of how I was. Since most of the 100+ beta-readers I’ve had for “Gabriel” over an 8 year period (Before it sold in 2012) were women, and none of them took issue with the male-centric cast, or the few female characters in the story that I did my best to be sure they’re not one-note stereotypes. Of course, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, many of these women who beta-read this book were mothers of sons who I felt were overgeneralizing their opinions of why boys wouldn’t respond to “Gabriel” because he’s not the “typical boy” their sons are, meaning rowdy and wild all the time. Yes, they gave me advice I could use and made the book better, but I could’ve done without the commentary of their narrow views of what boys will read, and especially what’s “too sophisticated for boys, yet not for girls the same age.” While they may be some truth in the “Girls mature quicker than Boys” thing, I don’t think it’s the “Mars and Venus” polar opposite extremes that’s often… — Read More »
Hi Taurean, I think you make several good points here. First, when beta reading or editing, I try to mention when suggestions are based on marketing issues vs. writing craft issues. As you alluded to, sometimes stories with diverse aspects might be seen as “less marketable,” and feedback along those lines can make us doubt ourselves even more than we already are. So maybe as writers–especially if those who provided feedback don’t specify the why of their feedback–we should keep that variation in mind and not feel the need to “fix” marketing issues. Some of those “issues” might be the reason we wrote the book (such as in your case). Just because someone doesn’t understand our goals for our story doesn’t mean we should feel pressured to conform. 🙂 I think it’s great that you were able to include so much more depth to your character as you matured in your understanding. And I understand your reticence to set that book aside. Just a note, though, that I’ve never spouted the draft and revise only a handful times perspective. I broke that “rule” myself. 😉 That advice might work for those who already have writing craft under their belt, but for those of us who need to learn the basics, I’m not convinced that’s the best advice. I used one story to learn almost everything on–probably to the tune of triple-digit editing passes. No joke. But I was still learning that whole time, so it’s not like I was wasting… — Read More »
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.
Yes, I’m with you on the pantser, organic character development. 😀
Like you, my characters often don’t make a big deal of their diverse elements. I worried for a while if I should have done more–and I love how you worded your reluctance, so you helped something click with me to drop that worry too. LOL! Thanks for the comment!
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 »
Agreed. People can find fault with anything and everything, but that shouldn’t be a reason to stop trying.
I love your litany of reality vs. assumptions for your life. 🙂 I feel the same way: if anyone heard just about my living situation as a child, where I went to school, who my friends were, the color of Santa in the local mall at Christmas, etc., they’d assume I was black. I’m not offended by that assumption, but it does speak to stereotypes and why assumptions are so problematic.
I agree completely about how it is sad if people don’t reach beyond their comfort zones based on fear–especially when this fear doesn’t carry over to writing male vs. female, or settings other than their hometown, or jobs they haven’t held, etc. It’s a fear specifically about offending others. And while it’s good from the perspective of not wanting to offend others, it’s bad for being so limiting.
Love it! 😀 Well said! So thank you for the rant and the comment! LOL!
While I get where Rona’s coming from, there is such a thing as “Research Overload” and sometimes it’s better to draft now, research later, and I say this a writer who has a hard time finding “The Next Book” in me. Also, unless we’re writing nonfiction, we have to sometimes pick and choose what research works for our story, and I’m not talking about things like getting street names right, or accurately quoting real life historical figures, but we have to allow for some retrofitting some research. Part of why I write fantasy is because I can make up my own worlds, without being wed to certain geography and historical pinnings. Of course, if it’s not set on Earth, the world-building’s harder because you don’t want to come off like a travelogue , but you also have to give the reader a sense of the world when it’s not “The Bronx” in New York or a Kansas suburb. For writers of animal fantasy like me, we have to decide how “real” our nonhuman characters are, and whether or not the world has humans or is animals only. Just because I research the mating habits of baboons doesn’t mean it belongs in the story I’m writing, and I tend to be in the middle between of naturalistic and anthro, and as such, it’s hard to convey that in words, and why I hope to commission an illustrator to help combat this, and to have visual representation of my characters for promo/social… — Read More »
Absolutely! And that’s why we each have to measure advice for what fits best for us. Only we can know what applies to us or not. 🙂
I haven’t run into the over-research problem too often, but enough that I know it is a possibility. LOL! And as you said, sometimes we need to draft first–explore ideas–before we know enough about what we want to write.
Great point about how much genre plays a part. Yes, I write paranormal fantasy, but my stories are set on Earth for the most part. Others will have different requirements for worldbuilding and realism.
I’ve mentioned to you before that my beta buddy crowdfunded her debut, so just because I wouldn’t/didn’t go that route for myself doesn’t mean I’d knock it for others. But that’s kind of my attitude about most things. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
I know you don’t make those assumptions, Jami, but I do think there is a perception problem between authors in my position with limited finances and publisher support versus a trad. published or more seasoned indie author who had the means and connections to not need crowdfunding (when it started to become a viable option) and adds to the author divide at times. But apart from what Julie Musli replied to a comment I made on Janice Hardy’s blog recently, I felt I needed to speak to what echoed for me in Rona’s comment above. 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 needless discouraged because While I know I takes things too personally sometimes, I really feel sometimes authors at a different stage in their careers (who again, can afford to publish themselves at the pro level, sans crowdfunding) were losing touch with the fact that’s not possible for everyone, which doesn’t mean they don’t take their work any less seriously than you, and certainly aren’t less professional than you in how they see and want their work portrayed. Just because I wasn’t some high-powered corporate “darling” in a former life doesn’t mean I’m incapable of having a business mindset AT… — Read More »
[…] Writing Diversity: How Can We Avoid Issues? by Jami Gold. […]
[…] 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 […]
[…] Gold offers great tips for and examples of writing diversity (without […]
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)
I know you’ve struggled with this issue, so I understand the need to vent. 🙂
Bringing it back to the topic of diversity with this post, I think the issue of crowdfunding is relevant because books that fall outside the “norm” often have a harder time fitting into typical marketing and genre paths that provide support from the industry. And you’re right, the only authors put into this position are the ones that care about doing a professional job–otherwise they’d just slap their work out there. Thanks for sharing!
[…] 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 […]
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 »
I haven’t read that book, but I understand what you mean. He was treated like an individual and not a stereotype, and that’s exactly what we’re talking about here. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!
P.S. And I fixed the edit. 🙂
[…] 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. […]
[…] 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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[…] Writing Diversity: How Can We Avoid Issues? […]