Tuesday, February 3, 2015

4 Tips for Writing Diverse Characters

Olivia Rivers is a Young Adult author who writes in multiple genres, ranging from Epic Fantasy to Contemporary Romance. She has a passion for diverse literature, and you’ll often find disabled main characters in her novels. Olivia is a certified neek (nerd/geek hybrid,) and her love for technology led her to enter the indie-publishing world at the age of sixteen. Now nineteen, she continues to self-publish while also dabbling in traditional publishing. She is represented by Laurie McLean of Fuse Literary, and her YA Contemporary TONE DEAF hits shelves Spring 2016 from Skyhorse Publishing.


Growing up chronically ill, my local library was a bittersweet place. Of all the hundreds of books in my library’s Young Adult section, only a frighteningly small number contained disabled protagonists. As a kid who was dealing with a life-long chronic illness, it was depressing to have authors suggest that only healthy people got to have “normal” roles in stories.

After talking to other readers from various minority communities, it became pretty obvious that I wasn’t the only one facing this issue. My solution was to tackle the problem head-on. To date, I’ve written main characters who are blind, deaf, chronically-ill, mobility-impaired, and mentally-ill. I also make an active effort to incorporate other minorities into my writing, such as diverse races and sexual orientations.

And the best part? Lots of other writers are catching the diversity bug, too. Movements like #WeNeedDiverseBooks are taking the book world by storm, and the response from readers has been overwhelmingly positive.



Writers are beginning to see the benefits of diverse characters, but it’s left a lot of questions. Just how exactly does one write a diverse character? It’s a broad question with a lot of different pieces, but I continue to come back to four tips that help me with my own writing:

1. “Diversity” does not equal “personality.” 

Sometimes I hear writers asking questions like, “Would a girl in a wheelchair enjoy watching basketball?” The issue with this sort of question is that it tries to use a broad group (physically disabled people, in this case) as the sole way of defining a multi-faceted individual (the character.) Diversity impacts people, but it doesn’t define us. Maybe your wheelchair-bound character feels depressed by the concept of sports, or maybe she’s an avid athlete on a Special Olympics team. The answer lies in their personality, and that’s something that can’t be painted by broad categories like “disabled” or “not disabled.” No matter who or what they are, a diverse character should have just as many personality quirks as any other character.

2. Research. 

It sounds so simple, but many authors forget to do this. There’s no point in writing diverse characters if you’re just going to reinforce false information or stereotypes. Personally, I’ve found reaching out to people to be one of the most effective ways of research. You’d be shocked at how much you can learn about diversity by just sitting down and talking to someone who represents a certain community. And you’d probably also be shocked by how eager a lot of people are to talk about their diversities. If you approach the topic in an open, honest, and respectful manner, chances are whoever you’re speaking to will be more than willing to discuss their experiences with diversity.

In regards to other forms of research, online forums and websites are also very helpful, and reading non-fiction books on the subject is always a great idea. The goal is to be so familiar with the subject that it becomes a natural part of your character, and not a stereotype you’re carelessly cramming them into.

3. Some stereotypes exist for a reason.

That being said, sometimes stereotypes exist for a reason, and they can be okay in certain situations. It’s possible to be so afraid of “stereotyping” a character that you accidentally villainize people who actually fall into that stereotype.

I recently had a critique partner tell me, “I know my main character’s best friend is gay, but I’m afraid people will think it’s a stereotype if I include that!” My response to her: It is a stereotype for a girl’s best friend to be gay. But it’s also something that routinely happens in real life, and no gay kid should ever be told they’re a “damaging cliché” just for preferring friends who are girls. On the flip side, if a gay kid wants to hang out with the football team, no one should get upset for them not being a cliché. And that’s the important part: a character might fall into a stereotype, but it still shouldn’t define them.

“Gay best friend” doesn’t describe someone’s personality any more than “blue paperback book” describes a novel’s plot. As I mentioned in my first tip, if a diverse character is going to be presented realistically, the focus needs to come down to who they are, not what they are.

4. You will offend people, and you have to handle that type of criticism with grace. 

Even if you spend your entire life researching a minority, or even if you belong to that minority yourself, you will inevitably offend someone with your diverse characters. The goal is to be as inclusive as possible, but remember that appeasing every single individual within a group just isn’t possible. If you focus on making every soul in the world happy with your representation, you’ll end up with a cardboard cutout for a character. And presenting a diverse character as someone with no personality or human traits is possibly more damaging than just leaving them out. The keys here are to minimize the possibility of offending someone as much as you feasibly can, be as respectful as possible, and to not let a small number of negative opinions discourage you from writing diversely.

Do you think diverse characters are important to include in literature? Have you ever worked with one? If not, would you consider doing so in the future? 

34 comments:

  1. Great post! I think we could all learn from this. Diverse characters are as important as anyone in literature if not more so.

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    1. Thanks for dropping by and reading! It's so encouraging to see people excited about the concept of diverse characters.

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  2. I think it's important to portray a wide range of diverse characters, and not only important, but realistic! We're not all 'normal' by everyday standards and it's worse to show the world as such, in my opinion. I'm working on including more diversity in my casts, but I also think it's important to make sure you aren't sticking someone in 'just because'. "But I have to have a diverse character because REASONS" is not a very good reason at all, I think xD

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    1. I love your comment about none of us being exactly normal. Totally true!

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  3. Thanks for the post, Olivia! And congrats on your new contract! I do think it's important to have diverse characters, but I understand why it doesn't come easily to people. We all tend to write what we know, so it's easy to forget other types of people. That said, this is something that's bothered me lately, and I added a lot of diversity in King's Folly. I have a blind girl, who will become more of a main character in book two, and I wrote several people with physical limitations, which I think was a lot more common in a medieval setting where the most popular medical prescription to arm and leg wounds was to cut it off. It has been an interesting challenge, but I love these characters and think it makes my book more authentic.

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    1. Thanks so much for having me on the blog, Ms. Williamson! I definitely agree that writing diverse characters can be an intimidating challenge, but I'm so glad to see more and more authors tackling the subject. I'll look forward to reading about your diverse characters in King's Folly! I love that title, by the way. So intriguing!

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  4. WONDERFUL post, Olivia! I especially love the point about a characters diversity not being their whole personality. Congrats a million times on the publishing deal! I'm doubly excited for you because we are pub sisters! In fact, we have the same editor! :)

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    1. Shallee, I literally just ordered "The Unhappening of Genesis Lee" a couple days ago, so I'm SO happy to run into you here! I’m totally excited to read your book when it comes. (And that cover? It’s amazingly gorgeous! I couldn’t just get the kindle copy, because I need that prettiness on my bookshelf. <3 ) Anyway, thanks for reading my post and for the encouraging comments! I look forward to getting to know our little Skyhorse family better.

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    2. Aw, thank you so much! (And yeah, I still stroke my cover on a regular basis.) I'm really excited to read yours, too! And if you're interested, there's a Sky Pony private authors group on Facebook where we gather to get to know each other! Let me know if you'd like to join!

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  5. I've never worked with anything like this, and I don't plan on doing so, but I may change my mind. I always love reading books with characters who have been disabled!

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    1. Thanks for stopping by and reading, Jessica!

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  6. Diverse characters are definitely an important aspect to stories, but it's so difficult to deal with the stereotypes correctly. What I try to do with stereotypes is acknowledge their existence and know that they are often true, but even though they might be true about a person, they shouldn't completely define that person. People are so much more than their stereotypes.

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    1. Ana, I think that's a very smart way to go about it. Personally, I fall into a few stereotypical roles--sleep deprived student, geek with glasses, girl who loves makeup. But none of those can fully define me on their own, and I think your point about people being more than their stereotypes is spot-on. :)

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  7. I think diversity is incredibly important. As a person of colour I'm tired of seeing nothing but white characters in so many books. I read a lot of fantasy, and really - if authors can invent a whole new world, can they not invent a character who isn't white? Every story I write includes people of colour, and I also include diversity in other respects like sexual and romantic orientation. Thank you for this post, I think it's a great topic to talk about! It's also made me think about other forms of diversity, like disability, and how I could include those in my writing.

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    1. "if authors can invent a whole new world, can they not invent a character who isn't white?" Kate, can I give you a round of applause for that comment? It's so entirely accurate! I think writers tend to panic at the thought of diversity, because they're worried about "doing it wrong." But if writers can "get it right" when they use dragons or elves or fairies as characters, surely writing a diverse character can't be any more difficult. It might take more research than creativity, and a different thought process at times, but I truly don't think it's any more difficult to write a diverse character than it is to write a fantastical one. I think it's awesome that you include diversity in your stories. I'll look forward to getting to read about your characters someday!

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    2. This is so true!

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  8. One of my main characters for the novel I am currently readying for self-publication is both blind and crippled. He also small. Because of his disabilities most creatures think Prometheus is not a threat. They find out they are wrong later. His disabilities are a biggest disappointment for his father, a powerful fire giant lord, who was told his first born would be powerful. Because he is always looked down on, he is often sarcastic and surly with anyone who tries to help him.

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    1. I'm so happy to run across another writer who incorporates diversity into their stories! Best of luck to you with your self-publishing journey. It sounds like you've got some really neat characters, and some great mythology to boot!

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  9. I've never even given this any thought! I could totally add this! *clicks pen eviley* Thanks for the wonderful ideas and I have to say that your a TOTAL inspiration to me! (since I'm a teen it's wonderful to see someone so close to my age being published already!) Thank you thank you!!!

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    1. Oh! And your hair is beautiful by the way!

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    2. Thanks so much, Emma! I'm glad my post was helpful to you. It's so awesome to see other writers excited by the prospect of diverse characters!

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  10. Oooh! This is just what I need. I'm planning for a novel now and I want a diverse character, so thanks for posting this.

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    1. I'm so glad to hear you'll be writing a diverse character, Kat! I'll cross my fingers that these tips help you as you dive into your new novel.

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  11. I readily and half sheepishly, half not at all sheepishly admit to being someone who has rarely even considered whether my characters are "diverse" or not. Maybe this is because I don't usually think very much about what my characters look like. To me, they're just people, and I think that can actually be a benefit, because I don't get caught up in "am I making this diverse enough?" I that while it certainly takes a bit of thought to begin this journey of creating diverse characters, the best thing is when it just happens. In my two most recent books I've been working on, I've incorporated more diverse races, and most of it "just happened" when I went to describe characters. I've yet to tackle a disability, but one of the ideas I've had for a while involves a main character who's blind. I definitely get scared of research, but I'd like to try it someday, so I'd better get over it. :)

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    1. Don't feel like you have to be sheepish! I'll readily admit that I often don't think about what my characters look like, either. In fact, I just had a critique partner point out in one of my manuscripts that I don't mention a character is Asian until halfway through the story. Whoops! So I completely get where you're coming from. And blind characters present such a fun challenge! It's a great way to work on description, in my opinion. When you can't rely on sight, it really makes you hone your ability to work with the other senses. I'd really encourage you to give it a try! :)

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  12. As a reader with CP (Cerebral Palsy), I've got to say that I love the word 'diversities' as opposed to 'disabilities', because the fact is that our differences make us stronger. We just don't need the stereotypes that limit us: as authors / readers, we're trying to feed our imaginations, not block them. And I agree with #2 - you would be surprised how many diverse people are willing to talk about their differences. :-)

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    1. "as authors / readers, we're trying to feed our imaginations, not block them." Lara, I just love the way you put this! Telling an enjoyable story is key, but stretching a reader's mind might be even more important. It's so lovely when a story really makes you view something in a new manner, whether you're reading or writing it. Good luck with your writing!

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  13. I totally agree about diversity not being personality. It's getting a lot less obvious in fiction, at least with real races, but it drives me nuts with aliens or other nonhumans. I think it's important to treat fantasy species the same way as real world races or cultures because readers often perceive the fantasy species as allegories for real world race issues. (Example: if you have an evil race like orcs, it makes genocide justifiable, which won't sit well with most readers.)

    I don't have much diversity in my first book, Country in Chaos. (There is a woman who is half Korean, a black guy, Mexican, and a Russian.) I'm not adding more diversity to this book because it's set in rural Montana, which is still very non-diverse.
    When it comes to disability, I have even less diversity. (Ironic considering I have glasses.) This is mostly because I write action/war stories. If a character cannot function in a war, they'll probably get left behind. The closest thing I have to disability is my cyborg, who is able to fully function in combat. My MC's uncle, who is a minor character, dos have prosthetic legs that don't work well.
    I have, however, tried to get more diverse in my good characters. I don't think people realize this, but the biggest lack of diversity isn't race, it's personal beliefs. I've noticed that in most Christian media, be it book or films, almost all the good guys are Christian. In secular media, it's the same way. Almost everyone is secular. If it's a romance, chances are everyone will have the same beliefs about intimacy before marriage. There are very few Christians in secular media, and I've seen VERY few Muslims who were decent people in any media.
    When it comes to politics, the same thing goes. All the good people seem to have the same beliefs on homosexuality, racism, or women's rights. This just isn't how things are. I've met good people with different beliefs on these issues. Even if someone can't stomach having a character who is really racist, they could probably manage one who disagrees with interracial marriage. (And a tip for these beliefs that don't match with yours, DON'T "fix" the characters too often. It gets preachy.)

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    1. Jessi, you make a really interesting point about not "fixing" all the characters. I agree that it can become an issue when all the "good" characters magically start to believe in the exact same thing by the end of the story. Even people who believe in the same thing often believe in it for different reasons, so I think you're spot-on when you say this sort of portrayal is unrealistic. Thanks for the insightful comment, and thanks for stopping by and reading!

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    2. Yep. I've felt like I was on the receiving end of the "fixing" in one case. The character was a rebellious pro-South boy with some slight racist tendencies. I'd related well to his rebel attitude and pro-South, but after a black boy saved him, the pro-South thing vanished with the racism. This bothered me since most people who think we'd be better off if the South won the Civil War (or War of Northern Aggression) aren't racist. (Only a small minority are.) It makes me think the author failed to do any research whatsoever on the issue and just used a stereotype.
      There have been other times I've noticed the "token diversity" ends up getting killed early on, probably because the author wants to be diverse but doesn't want to deal with a character they have trouble understanding. If the reader happens to be from that token diversity, it can be pretty annoying.

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  14. I have to admit that I'm disappointed. Particularly with this blog post. I had thought that this blog was Christian. Now, I can't really read this anymore, because it compromises my religious beliefs. I'm a teen writer, too, and I used to enjoy reading and following this blog. I can't share this with my writer friends anymore either. I can't help but feel extremely disappointed.
    ~A Disappointed Teen Writer~

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    1. I'm sorry to hear you feel disappointed. Our blog's focus is "honesty, encouragement, and community for writers" and we felt like Olivia's post honored that.

      We certainly don't expect our readers to agree with every opinion stated on the blog. Heck, sometimes I read an article I wrote a few years ago and find myself disagreeing. There are lots of writing teachers who I disagree with about social or religious issues, but I wouldn't have grown nearly as much in my writing if I had chosen not to learn from them based on differing opinions.

      I would be happy to talk to you about it further. You can email me at: Stephanie(at)GoTeenWriters.com

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    2. Hey Anonymous,
      My ultimate goal in writing diverse fiction is to make all readers feel like a welcome and appreciated part of the book community. While I can’t apologize for my personal beliefs, I can say I’m very sorry if my post made you feel unwelcome or uncomfortable visiting Go Teen Writers. Stephanie and Jill run a truly lovely blog here that has personally helped me a ton, and I’d hate to think I’ve scared someone away from it. If you want to discuss anything about my post, please feel free to email me at olivia(at)oliviariversbooks(dot)com. I’d be more than happy to chat about the aspects of this post you find troubling, and see if maybe a fuller explanation of things would set your mind at ease.

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  15. Brilliant post! As a non-disabled person who frequently writes disabled characters this is often something I have to think about. Point 4 is especially helpful, a reminder that no matter what people will be offended and not to get too hung up about it, but also to try to avoid hurting people.
    Here's a question for you, and any other people who wish to comment: I tend to write rather unpleasant main characters and often my main characters are disabled. However, I don't wish it to appear as if the disability has somehow made them unpleasant, or worse that the disability is somehow a symbol for inner brokenness. Any ideas how these things tend to appear, and how they can be avoided?

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