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5 Things to Consider when Writing Diversity: Remaining authentic while stretching your horizons

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Why is writing diversity so important?

For one thing, 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.

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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 cultures (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.

And the idea of writing diversity, of bringing attention to marginalized voices through literature, is nothing new, although recent events have certainly sparked a new light to shine on it. And, if anything, recent events have proven more than ever just why diversity in writing is so important to everyone.

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Now, I want to be clear, I am not talking only about racial diversity in writing. Diversity includes a range of differences from gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, abilities — 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.

In addition to this, writing diversity is scary. Especially now when you can see how badly some groups are still mistreated. So many authors now want to do a better job when it comes to diversity and representation that they've written themselves into paralysis instead:

  • Write what you know” has become a paralyzing rule that makes far too many authors believe if they don't know what it's like to live as a particular person, then they shouldn't try to write about it.
  • They're afraid of doing a bad job of representing a particular marginalized group and offending them.
  • They're afraid of alienating potential readers or receiving bad reviews for the simple inclusion of diversity.

But having and acknowledging these fears still doesn't fix the problem. The fact of the matter is that without diversity, marginalized voices will remain marginalized and fictional populations will remain boring and one-sided.

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

  1. 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?
  2. 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. If you have to describe the sexual orientation of a bi- or pansexual being, but you don't describe anyone else's orientation, then you immediately set heterosexual as the norm. 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. And I'm not saying you have to go into pages and pages of backstory trying to describe every nuance of every difference, please don't. But if you are taking the time to describe one because you want the diversity to be known, describe them all. Otherwise all you've done is describe an outlier. And describing an outlier has very little to do with real diversity.
  3. Stay away from stereotypes. First of all, using a stereotype, even one that isn't meant to be derogatory or harmful, is lazy. Second, it doesn't tell us your story. It tells us some other story not dreamed up in your head. Maybe it tells of a story born out of propaganda or maybe it repeats an old wive's tale. You want the characters to fit within your story and celebrate the culture they are meant to represent there in your story — 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.
  4. 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. And if you're worried about offending the “other side” — the people who wouldn't be able to relate to your more diverse characters? Well, those are the people you need to worry the least about, honestly. If they're upset at the inclusion of diversity, it's a sign that they've been spoonfed with characters who look like them — hardly anyone who should be saying anything about diversity, anyway.
  5. 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 make a point of highlighting it. Work it into the story in a natural way, just as you would any character's backstory.

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Did you enjoy this article? Here are some more posts on writing you may like:

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Why does representation matter in books?

Proper representation in books addresses two goals important to readers: inclusivity (the idea that everyone is truly equal and accepted for their differences rather than in spite of them) and perception (the idea that people are not inherently good or bad based on the way their personality traits, abilities, or looks).

3 thoughts on “5 Things to Consider when Writing Diversity: Remaining authentic while stretching your horizons”

  1. Deborah Rafferty Oswald

    This article was helpful to me as I explore diversity and racism in my upcoming YA historical fiction novel, The Girls of Haviland. I tried to keep a delicate balance between making my biracial character authentic while avoiding stereotypes. I will reread this article in the hope that I kept this balance throughout the story. Thanks for writing about this.

  2. Just want to thank you for all of these articles. I feel like your 4th point should really be the first one. Anymore, it feels like writing has become something of a minefield with readers demanding that you have more diversity but then condemning you as being unable to write from “X” groups perspective because you aren’t part of it. Let people that have a genuine story to tell tell their story.
    Also, small side note. you forgot the word not before offending in the 4th point. I’m sure most of the people visiting this page got the point of the statement, I just know that I appreciate it when people let me know stuff like that so I figured I’d pass it along to you.

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