Before you continue, read this post via Open Pages by Ara. She talks about her hopes of 2017 being a year of diverse books.
I wanted to open up this discussion about writing more diverse characters. A few days ago, I talked with other writers about including other cultures in our stories. Getting various opinions helped me figure out where to start with a new fantasy manuscript featuring a Indian/Pakistani influenced main character.
After chatting briefly with Ara and other friends, we’ve come up with a nifty list of suggestions. I hope you’ll find this useful if you’re feeling lost or anxious about reader reception. Consider this information good for characters with different religion backgrounds, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
Do Your Due Research
While I hope my post will be helpful, your research should come primarily from people who know more about the race/group of people you’re trying to depict, not solely from blog articles. Here are some resources to give you a head start, though:
- Writing With Color—a whole tumblr feed that brings up tips and common pet peeves about writing non-white characters.
- We Need Diverse Books—a non-profit that highlights great examples of children’s books and young adult novels that encourages positive representation.
- Ways to Describe Characters of Color—a fairly popular Pinterest post about how to describe a character of color.
- Writing About Other Cultures—a similar take on this topic with a more Asian influence in her examples.
- Pinterest—create Pinterest boards and collect character inspiration images, blog posts about the cultures you’re interested in, or helpful charts. Pinterest is always a great place for character research and inspiration.
There aren’t a lot of specific posts out there about how to pin down a whole community, because like any group, they don’t fit in a box! Maybe it’ll inspire you to write posts about communities you belong to so fellow writers can better represent said communities.
Reach Out to the Community
Remember the flack JK Rowling got for using parts of Native American history for her background stories about Ilvermorny? While I admire her desire to include them into the wizarding world, she overstepped her boundaries without asking for anyone’s blessing. Some aspects of culture were translated into her canon without paying respect to its true origins. A lot of people in and out of the Native American community weren’t very happy about it.
How can you avoid this mess? Reach out to your fellow writers who are in a position to give you accurate and honest feedback. Go to primary resources, not secondary if possible. Most beta readers will likely be happy and eager to let you know if you got it right or not. If they point out huge issues that leads to heavy revisions, make the according changes.
I do have one major side note: if you reach out to the community and they don’t want their culture be included in your novel, be respectful of that fact and revise. Some communities are sensitive about their past and culture, and they will share their stories how they see fit.
Don’t Overthink It
Honestly, when I brought my question to my writing community, I was expecting a grand amount of specific insight. Like, specific do’s and don’ts. A few writers who are actually Indian basically agreed that the best way to include diverse characters is just to make them normal, enriching characters.
Basically, any character tips will work for anyone regardless of skin tone. The “show not tell” stuff, you know? A character can be influenced by their upbringing or race, but realistic characters are either the hero or the villain—and happens to be brown, black, white, etc. We shouldn’t toss in every single ethnicity to fulfill a diversity quota. As you think about this, make sure there’s a purpose to your character’s unique ethnicity rather than to appear more progressive than you are.
That’s pretty much it—keep it simple, writers! I hope I got this right—overall, I just wanted to communicate respect. No matter your genre, the golden rule still applies. I’ll continue my research and discussions—please do the same and reach out to those who know way more than I do about accurate representation.
What advice would you give about writing diverse characters? We’d love to hear all different perspectives if possible. Happy writing!