Representation in Literature: Why It’s Important & How To Handle It

Happy to welcome Deborah Dixon, a passionate author, editor, and racial justice activist to talk a bit on Representation in Literature, a topic of importance and something I think many of us want to understand better so we can encourage the right sort of discussions and help bring about change. Please read on!

Representation in LiteratureThe issue of representation has become an important one in literature and throughout the entertainment industry. As an author and publisher of color, I am often asked to offer insight on how best to include characters of diverse backgrounds. Specifically, this means characters from minority or underrepresented groups, such as ethnic minorities, LGBTQIA+ persons, religious minorities, those with disabilities, and to some extent, socioeconomic minorities. In this article, I will use the term “minority” to refer to members of all of these groups.

First, my credentials: I am Jamaican, neurodivergent, and simultaneously a citizen of and immigrant to the United States, among other things. These credentials do matter, because the basis of a person’s regard for your opinion on these sensitive matters starts with your background. It isn’t the whole picture; not every minority person has the same breadth of experiences, and many majority members have been exposed to the problems that minority members face. Also, like anything else, background and privilege are nuanced. Even I have some sources of privilege: I am cisgender and not physically disabled.

Also valued is the nature of a writer’s privilege. I won’t discuss privilege and entitlement too much here, as there are plenty of resources on both, such as this exploration of the different elements of identity.

Diversity and representation in literature

There are two primary reasons why representation is important: inclusivity and perception.

Seeing people who look, act, and experience life like them in media makes a person feel included in a society, and it reinforces positive views of themselves and what they can achieve in society. Also, members of other groups, especially majority groups, base their ideas of groups on what they see in the media. For example, a hiring manager who watches too many police procedurals might view candidates of minority races as having criminal tendencies.

For people who exist outside of these marginalized and underrepresented groups, it can be hard to imagine life with the experiences and hardships that minorities experience. Without those experiences, writing characters of diverse backgrounds can seem daunting.

A good start is to be cognizant of the problems that your character would face and when those problems would have to be addressed. People of minority groups are still people; we have similar needs and similar motivations. The main difference is in the ways that society and its structures are arrayed against any particular group.

Therefore, in some situations, it will be perfectly acceptable to write a minority character just as you would any other. If a character’s romantic relationships are never brought up, then their sexual orientation might be little more than a footnote. Likewise, a black student’s college career might be just like that of a white student if the college itself is diverse and tolerant.

However, if the character is placed in a situation where their identity would be a factor, then it would be irresponsible to overlook it. For example, a black character being pulled over by the police should be described as feeling exceptional anxiety over their possible treatment by the officers. Whether the writer feels that this is a legitimate fear is irrelevant; it is what black people experience, and it is a problem that we continue to battle. Any work that included a black character getting along famously with the police would be soundly ridiculed by the black community.

Also, it might be tempting to fall back on stereotypes, but these are harmful images that still negatively affect members of those minorities. Take, for example, the common use of Middle Eastern characters as villains, or the portrayal of Native Americans as oversexualized savages. If these are the characters that are being written, then we would rather not have them at all!

Remember that minority characters are not there to be “exotic” ornaments for your plot. One striking example I encountered as an editor was a white writer using an almost all-white cast who included an Asian woman as a manicurist. It was meant as a cheeky observation, but in practice, it supported yet another harmful stereotype, and it would have reinforced to readers that Asian woman are only fit to run nail salons.

Always Do the Research

There is plenty of first-hand material about the situations that minority groups face, and many companies, including mine, offer research specific to fiction writing. If you happen to know someone from the group that you are interested in writing about, then ask that person if they can offer any insight, and be prepared for them to possibly turn you down.

Finally, remember that this is a cultural exchange; you must offer something in return. Consider promoting minority authors. Don’t just tack on characters to be “diverse,” and don’t borrow elements from a group without context, such as European knights using scimitars because they’re “cool.”

For a well-known example of what not to do, observe J. K. Rowling’s approach to including Native Americans in the Potterverse. She combined the hundreds of Native American cultures into one homogenous “community,” reappropriated important cultural touchstones, and supported harmful narratives of Natives accepting white colonialism. Although she was called out on this, she has not publicly apologized or changed her approach.

The best recent example of representation being done right is a film: 2016’s The Accountant, in which the main character, played by Ben Affleck, is high-functioning autistic. While the character is written in a very predictable fashion—aural oversensitivity, emotional vacancy—Affleck’s performance provides nuance that elevates the entire story. It’s clear that he and his supporting cast did the research, and while the movie’s overall effect on the autistic community is debatable, many of us saw pieces of ourselves in its protagonist.

Although the entertainment industry at large is welcoming more content written by minority members, most stories that reach the mainstream are still ones written by the majority—white, straight people. The majority still has a much stronger voice. Use it to amplify positive portrayals of the people who need them the most.

As with anything else, when in doubt, ask.

Look for editors who specifically offer sensitivity reading as part of their processes. Many editors, like those at Shalamar, offer diversity feedback as a matter of course. Here’s an additional resource to check out if you are incorporating diversity in your work:

Writing Diversity Checklist

We welcome respectful discussion–if you have questions or comments, Debra is here to discuss!

Shalamar is a book publishing and author advocacy company based in New Orleans, Louisiana. Created in 2016 by a trio of writers, Shalamar aims to break down barriers to entry in publishing by offering accessible and affordable services to new and undiscovered writers.

The company also supports initiatives to amplify voices from underrepresented and marginalized groups. They can be found at @shalamarllp on Facebook and @ShalamarNOLA everywhere else.

Deborah Dixon is a cofounder, author, and editor at Shalamar. She has published two novels, seven novellas, and numerous short stories of her own.

She is a digital rights and racial justice activist, and her opinions on social issues, the publishing process, and Saints football can be found on Twitter at @Deboracracy.

About ANGELA ACKERMAN

Angela is an international speaker and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also enjoys dreaming up new tools and resources for One Stop For Writers, a library built to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Characters, Critiquing & Critiques, Diversity, Editing Tips, Focus, Guest Post, Stereotypes, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Representation in Literature: Why It’s Important & How To Handle It

  1. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday! For Writers & Readers – 10-18-2018 | The Author Chronicles

  2. As a Native American author, I want to thank you for this post. Keep fighting the good fight!

    It is hard to find books where people like me aren’t
    A) Sexy Shifters
    B) Poor
    C) Swindlers

    Which is funny, since none of the Lenni-Lenape people that I know are any of those.
    Hang on…
    *runs outside, looks at the moon, tries real real extra super hard*
    Nope. Still not a shifter. Darn.
    😉

    My people also didn’t wear huge feather headdresses, live in teepees, say “howgh” for hello, or most of the other traits that perhaps were exhibited in the western tribes. We did, however, influence the creation of the original laws of this country, such as the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Obviously not well enough to be considered human until 1879, or be eligible to be citizen of the land we’d lived on for thousands of years until 1924, or get the Voting Rights Act fully nailed down (looking at two states right now…). But hey, we tried.

    If anyone out there does have a book with well-written Lenni-Lenape characters, please track me down and drop a buy link. I’m always looking!

    • Preach it! I would love to sit many, many non-Native writers (sadly, including some Black ones) down and have them write this sentence a few hundred times:

      Native American communities are NOT monolithic.

      As you can see above, I refuse to let Rowling live it down.

      If anyone out there has a story will well-developed Lenni-Lenape characters, I just might publish it. 😉

  3. Claire says:

    That’s definitely some great stuff, and I largely agree. I do take issue with simply saying there are some things you should “never do.” For example, making an autistic character have some unique strange ability can work if it’s done well or the usual cliches of the trope are subverted.

    I’m not saying that just for the sake of debate. I have autism myself, and my current story in progress plays on that trope.

    • Thank you Claire! And thanks for checking out our list!

      The things that made it onto the Never-Do list aren’t there because they can’t be done well, but because when they are done (well or otherwise), they consistently cause harm to real, living people of that particular group.

      Regarding autistic characters, I’ll go and change my wording on the list, but I did think specifically of powers that are related to a character’s autism, correcting the ‘imbalance’ of the disability. (An autistic character with, say, lightning powers, unrelated to her autism, would probably be okay.)

      Objectively, a disability-superpower autistic character could possibly be done well, especially by an autistic writer, but I respectfully disagree that the character *should* be done even so. Even if the character was brilliant and an excellent role model, like a neurodivergent Wonder Woman, she would still be perpetrating objectifying stereotypes about how we need a ‘cure’ to balance out our deficiencies. It also isolates a model minority within the autistic community, as it elevates ‘superhuman’ autistics (ie savants) above others on the spectrum, valuing them more and devaluing the others as useless or helpless.

      (Here’s an article that goes into model minorities more: https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/why-good-doctor-is-bad-medicine-autism-1098809 )

      So while this kind of character could work from a character-development standpoint, her existence would cause strain on those of us (like you and me) who deal with autism stereotypes regularly. My opinion is that the character isn’t worth the harm done, but we likely have different experiences and observations that lead to different conclusions. 🙂

  4. Wonderful! Very revelant!

  5. Keli Beall says:

    First of all, Who Dat!!!

    Thank you so much for writing this article, Deborah. I loved that you explained that a writer needs to remember that diverse characters are still human beings. I also hate that you had to say that.

    I had a small press from Mississippi, where I’m from, reach out to me about wanting to work with me. The minute they found out I was a lesbian they quickly let me know that they could not work with a story with LGBTQ+ characters, because they wouldn’t know how to market it. It was shocking and saddening. Needless to say, I did not work with them.

    Thank you again, and I look forward to checking out your company and your work!

    • Deborah Dixon says:

      Yeah you rite Keli!!!!

      I’m sorry to hear about your experience with that press! And yet I’m not surprised. The inclusion of underrepresented writers ourselves is another topic that I’m passionate about, and fortunately I get to work toward that goal through Shalamar.

      Being treated that way, particularly by a press that sought you out, had to have stung, and rightfully so; but, with the benefit of hindsight, people that closed-minded would have been rough to work with anyway, so maybe it was for the better, rudeness and prejudice aside.

      (Marketing professionals are specifically taught to adapt to different audience, genres, and trends, so that excuse is always code for “we don’t want to work with you.”)

      I hope you found a much better home for your writing, and would love to hear from you anytime!

  6. Glad to have you here discussing something that I think confuses a lot of people because sometimes we can see part of the picture, but not the whole thing and so we don’t necessarily realize the ripples that come from stereotypes or the level of inequity out there.

    In our fiction it is our job to make the reader feel part of another’s point of view. I think as a Caucasian and a Caucasian author, I need to work harder to do what I can to make sure all voices are represented. Change comes about through understanding, and this happens at all levels from governing entities to the drivers of industries to the producers of content and the consumers of that content.

    Thanks for being here!

  7. Hi everyone! Angela, thank you SO MUCH for your help and your kindness! You are an inspiration to me as an author advocate. <3

    Readers: Thanks for checking out this article! I am happy to answer any further questions you might have here. You can also contact me directly if you'd prefer a one-on-one conversation.

    Much love from New Orleans!

  8. Thanks for being here today, Deborah!

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