Unless the world you’re building happens to be the most boring world in the, well, world… chances are the world you’re building includes a diverse population.
Diversity is the norm. And if you don’t believe me, just look around you. Check out the people in your classes, your work place, your favorite television show. Gone are the days of cookie-cutter characters who have the same hair colors, eye colors, skin colors, accents, or even genders. Whether you delve into diversity deep enough to create entire races (complete with cultural history, viewpoints, and mythologies) or just deep enough to be believable, diversity is going to add depth and realism to your story. It’s what’s going to help us love your sidekick as much as we love your main character. What adds insight to your antagonist. What determines why one character might turn left instead of following everyone else turning right.
Now, I want to be clear, I am not talking only about racial diversity. Diversity includes a range of differences from gender, sexual orientation, race, religion — anything that lends a different lens through which a character might view (and therefore respond to) the world.
So if writing diversity is so important, then why don’t we see more of it in novels and movies? Well, that’s easy. Writing diversity is hard. It requires research. Work. It’s not enough to simply describe a character as either white or black and leave it at that. You have to do more. A black person in Detroit is going to see the world differently from a black person in California. You have to adopt that point of view — see your world through that character’s eyes and help your readers do the same.
And that takes time. More time, I’m afraid, than some authors want to spend.
So, what are some of the things you should consider when delving into writing diversity? Here are my top five:
5 Things to Consider when Writing Diversity
- Be genuine. Make the diversity real. Diversity is not some selling point to add to the back blurb of your novel. If you want a fad to sell your book, mark it “vegan” or “gluten-free” and you’ll have just about the same amount of luck. Be mindful of the setting you’re creating, and allow the diversity in your characters to strengthen it. Does it make sense to have the token black guy at a tiny high school in rural Minnesota? I’ll give you a hint, if you can call him the token anything — it’s not genuine. But on the same note, if your story takes place in a metropolitan area, does it make sense that every person your main character runs into is a white male?
- Be consistent. To describe a person of color in your books, but not describe the white person, is inconsistent. Not to mention, it implies that white is the norm in your world. And if you’re writing about the real world, chances are that’s wrong (and if you’re writing about a fantasy world, chances are you’re still wrong). Describing one and not the other brings attention to the differences, but not in a good way. If you describe one, describe them all.
- Stay away from stereotypes. Yes, I believe stereotypes have their place. Fiction novels is not one of those places. First of all, it’s lazy. Second, it doesn’t tell us your story. It tells us some other story not dreamed up in your head. You want the characters to fit within your story, and celebrate the culture they are meant to represent there. Not mock them. In my opinion, turning your character into a joke, or having the character turn his or her culture into a joke, is worse than having cookie-cutter characters.
- Don’t worry about who you’re going to offend. I’m going to be honest here, offending someone with your story is no longer a possibility. It’s a given. Especially when putting together a culture. No matter how much research you do, there is going to be a detail you miss. And someone, somewhere is going to call you out on that detail. Worrying about it ahead of time won’t change this. Hesitating and refusing to write because you’re afraid of offending someone is counter productive. Do your research, take your time, and get your story written.
- As important as diversity is, it should not be the focal point of your story unless your story is focused on diversity. Just like I said to make it genuine, it should also be normal. Above all else, your characters are people. Well, they might be aliens or vampires or bunnies — but I’m sure you get my drift here. People are people. They don’t walk into a cafeteria and talk about the differences in their skin colors and religions. The reason white is the “norm” is because it’s not highlighted in books. The moment you highlight the character’s black skin, you make white the norm. If you want diversity to be the norm, don’t highlight it.