In the last two years, diversity in fiction has become more and more prevalent. We’ve seen blockbuster film and TV hits from award winning books like The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas or Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi. The positive side to this is that marginalized authors are having their stories published in their own voices. This also goes some way to removing hurtful stereotypes from the past.
But what about authors writing diverse characters when they’re not part of that diverse group themselves. Is that okay? As with all things, it depends on how it’s handled, but we’ve all seen vitriolic social media reactions toward authors who’ve gotten something wrong when writing diverse characters. Even books vetted by sensitivity readers aren’t immune to scathing criticism and (sometimes) online bullying. This response has made many people wary of writing characters who are different from them.
So many writers edge back to the traditional safe ground of writing what they know. But all this does is create fear. And we know what fear does: it cripples and blinds, muting the voices that would tell the stories the world so desperately needs to hear.
It’s okay to write diverse characters as long as we do our homework and avoid hurtful stereotypes. Here are some tips for how to write a character who’s different from you.
If you don’t know how to do something, the first thing you usually do is Google it. Diverse characters should be no different. Look for articles written by diverse voices. For example, the Huffington Post has a homepage series for Black Voices, Queer Voices and Latino Voices.
If you prefer audio-visual formats, look for podcasts and YouTube channels like this one: Bisexual Real Talk. Remember, most of the big social media platforms have supercharged search functions. You can type whatever you want into YouTube and find a solution on how to fix the knob on your washing machine, which means you can also use it as a research platform for character development.
If you’re more into audio, try Listen Notes. It’s a thematic search function for podcasts. Want to find interviews with trans people? Type that in. Want to find information on the history of Native Americans? Type that in, too.
The important thing to note is that if you want to include a character from a specific people group, make sure you learn from people of that background rather than gathering second-hand information.
Reach Out to Advocacy Organizations
Most advocacy groups are only too keen to help spread the word about the people they work with. There are tons of organisations working with minority groups, from Stonewall for LGBTQIA people to Mind, a mental health charity.
Better still, if there’s a local branch, you can pop in and ask whether you’d be able to speak to their service users. That way you get primary research and first-hand accounts, which bring a richness to your writing that you can’t get any other way.
Read Fiction AND Non-fiction
Writers are always told to read as much as they write. So why wouldn’t you do the same if you want to create a character from a different background than yours?
You can use information sites dedicated to diverse books like this one, which has lists of everything from queer stories to Asian author lists, middle eastern fiction, and much more. Or you can always use Goodreads’ huge book lists to find stories from every single genre and type of minority you could think of.
But don’t forget, it’s not all about fiction. If you want ideas about personal experiences, read memoirs or nonfiction books about history and culture. Pop into your library and ask the librarian for recommendations or go to your local book store and do the same.
Speak to People
I know writers are often introverted, but it’s time to step outside of your comfort zone. Besides, it doesn’t matter what country, gender, or ethnicity people are from, it’s human nature to want to talk about yourself, and that’s what makes gathering primary research so easy.
If you want to create an African American male character, speak to African American males. If you what to write a Latino character or a girl from Nigeria or maybe a transgender Chinese boy, guess what… go speak to them and ask questions.
Nine times out of ten, if you ask someone about their heritage, cultural practices, or their experiences of coming out, they’ll be only too keen to tell you. And if they aren’t, the worst they will do is say no. But the improvement and quality of your words if they say yes far outweighs the risk of a ‘no.’
Once you’ve written your book, you can use a group of sensitivity readers to make sure you’ve not said anything that would cause harm or offense.
A sensitivity reader is someone who is a prolific reader or who has a background in writing and editing and also has personal experiences of the topic you’re writing about. The aim is to highlight any misrepresentation, bias, unconscious or blatant racism, homophobia, or unintentional stereotyping.
Opinions vary widely about the topic of hiring sensitivity readers. Is it an imperative for accuracy? A form of censorship? Would not hiring sensitivity readers be a barrier to publication? This is something you’ll want to research yourself, to figure out what you believe and what’s best for your story.
If you decide to hire sensitivity readers, I’d advise starting in author forums, be it on Facebook or otherwise. If you have a mailing list of readers, you can always do a call out in the same way you’d ask for advance readers or reviewers. And if, when researching, you speak to people from the desired background, you can always ask if they’d be willing to review your story once it’s finished.
Regardless, it’s important to have more than one person read your work. I, for example, am a woman of colour with a mixed heritage. I’m also a lesbian woman. However, while I could read and give an opinion on a character like me, my experiences aren’t universal to all lesbian or mixed raced people. Therefore, it’s important to get a range of views and find the middle ground in them.
Universality of the Human Condition
You might be wondering why I haven’t talked about craft. There’s a reason for that: you need to treat your diverse characters in the same way you treat all of your other characters. They should still have character arcs and goals and motivations because realistically, under our skin and gender and sexuality, we’re all human. But there’s one thing all humans share: emotion.
I could go into detail about how to write emotion, but Becca and Angela have that covered in spades. For more information, check out their compilation post, containing over a dozen links to posts on how to write character emotion. Or use the search function in the right-hand sidebar to find more.
Bottom line: it doesn’t matter who your character is or what ‘minority’ they come from. The way you make them real to a reader is by concentrating on their emotional journey.
This is really the message I want to leave you with. We’ll never normalize minority groups if we don’t bring them into the limelight. Be brave, talk about experiences, ask people from different backgrounds questions, and learn about cultural differences. If you’re unsure about whether you should be the one to write a particular experience or story, ask the people within that group. Then go forth and populate your books with characters that are different until different becomes what it should have been all along: normal.
Sacha BlackResident Writing Coach
Sacha is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, 13 Steps To Evil – How To Craft A Superbad Villain. Her blog for writers, www.sachablack.co.uk, is home to regular writing, marketing and publishing advice sprinkled with dark humour and the occasional bad word. In addition to craft books, she writes YA fantasy. The first two books in her Eden East Novel: Keepers and Victor, are out now. You can find her manning the helm at The Rebel Author Podcast, and on social media:
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