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.”
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?