It’s official … Audiences have voted with their wallets and proved they WANT more diverse characters as standard. Novels lead the way, with breakout successes like Gone Girl and The Hate You Give making huge cultural impacts.
Now the screenwriting world has undergone a radical overhaul, too. Massive movie franchises like Disney’s, Marvel’s and DC’s through to streamed shows like Russian Doll, Good Girls and Dead to Me have followed suit. And this is just the start!
So, it’s a fact that audiences want a greater variety of characters in books, movies and television that feel both fresh AND authentic. Whether it’s protagonists and antagonists, supporting or peripheral, audiences and readers just don’t want the ‘same-old, same-old’.
Writers too are taking up the challenge. But as writers, we are also told to ‘write what we know’ … And we can’t KNOW EVERYTHING. *Supersadface*
One of the reasons I wrote my book, Writing Diverse Characters For Fiction, Film & TV (affiliate link) is because so many writers contacted me worried about this. They would say they’d LOVE to write more diverse stories and characters BUT …
… They ‘don’t know where to start’ and
… They’re ‘afraid of getting it wrong’
So now what?
Well, start here with this handy flow chart … And to avoid ‘getting it wrong’, pay close attentions to what it asks of you as a writer. LET’S GO!
Emotional truth is the first stop on the flow chart. Authenticity is the antidote to samey tropes and stereotypes. True fact! Start with these questions, below.
1) Why this story?
This part asks the writer to consider WHY they feel the need to tell this particular story. It helps us connect with our own motivations and identify that element that really connects us to both the story and our target audience.
However, sometimes we have to face we are not the best writers for the job. For example, maybe it’s time now for disabled people to tell THEIR stories from their POVs, instead of able-bodied people doing it for them?
2) Why this character?
Note the character spotlight on the flow chart. Connection is key to a diverse character feeling authentic.
- Is this character like me? Why/why not?
- How can I make this character’s struggle or motivation meaningful to the most people possible in my target audience?
- Can I bring authenticity to this character? How can I access his/her world?
- What research do I need to do? What do I already know?
TOP TIP: Writers fall into the ‘same-old, same-old’ when they don’t SCRUTINISE their ideas and assumptions at foundation level. If you do the above however, you can find a fresh take.
Next on the flow chart: check your initial logline/idea, with the following questions in mind.
3) What is LIKE this story?
- What has gone before in this genre, style, tone in various mediums?
- How is yours the same … but DIFFERENT? What is your twist, or unique selling point?
- Who is your target audience? (It’s not ‘for everyone’!).
- How do you know they will like YOUR story, or at least are likely to pay $$ to watch it?
- What does your target audience want? What research do you need to do on this?
4) What type of diverse story do you want to write?
- Diversity as catalyst. The most common type of diverse story. The main characters’ diversity serve as the REASON for the story occurs (ie. had they not had some kind of ‘difference’, they would not be part of the story). Examples: GET OUT, MAD MAX FURY ROAD, THE HANDMAID’S TALE.
- Diversity as backstory. In this story world, diversity is the standard. The lead characters and their secondaries are not the REASON for the story. Instead, characters live in a diverse world where their individual heritage may or may not be important eg. PITCH PERFECT, OCEAN’S 8, EMPIRE, THE 100 , GRAVITY, BROOKLYN 99 etc).
Back to characterisation on the flow chart, with the following questions in mind:
5) What is LIKE this character?
- Who is your protagonist? What does s/he want? Why?
- Who is your antagonist? Why does s/he get in your protagonist’s way?
- Who are your secondary characters? Are they ‘Team Protag’ or ‘Team Antag’ – Do they help or hinder your main characters? Why?
- Are your characters archetypal? Cross-reference with your story notes. Are your characters a fresh twist on those ‘usual’ archetypes we see in their story’s genre/type, or rehashes of what we have seen before?
- Where does your protagonist live? What is the status quo in his/her storyworld? Is this a world where diversity is typical … or untypical? Why?
6) Type of Protagonist You Are Writing
Next up on the flow chart … Protagonists are most often the character driving the story, making them vital to the success of your story.
- Protagonist as The Educated – the most common. This type leads to the protagonist changing his or her viewpoints via her actions in the narrative, thanks to the actions and teachings of other characters (usually secondaries, but also the antagonist. B2W calls this ‘The Transformative Arc’). ‘The Hero’s Journey’ is a classic example of the transformative arc, so most superheroes follow this route.
- Protagonist as The Educator – There are many ways to do this, but here are 3 of the most common ways to write a protagonist who does not undergo a transformative arc … (affiliate link)
- ‘The Change Agent’ is when a protagonist does not change him or herself, but may inspire other characters to change, such as the antagonist or secondary characters, ie. Forrest Gump, Mary Poppins. MORE HERE.
- The Voyager. This is a character who is already capable and doesn’t need to change so much, as solve a significant problem presented with skills and attributes they already possess, ie. John McClane, Ellen Ripley, Furiosa, John Wick. Secondary characters may have to decide to ‘fall in’ with the protagonist and see the mission his/her way … They must help the protagonist, or they are the enemy. You could say The Voyager’s motto is ‘join me or die’. MORE HERE.
- The Passive Protagonist. A passive protagonist will resist all efforts to make him or her do ANYTHING … which is why a secondary character or antagonist MUST ‘take the reins’ FOR the passive protagonist and drive the story forwards. Usually, a passive protagonist will take some kind of last-minute action in the final moments of the story *for some reason*, often under sufferance (especially comedy), ie. THE BIG LEBOWSKI.
7) Write A New Logline / short pitch for your book or screenplay
Now return to your notes/ original logline / outline and use what you have broken down here to INFORM your story in a NEW logline … with your diverse character at the heart of it!
Try the 3 Cs – clarity, character, conflict. The model reminds us a good logline makes it obvious what is at stake for a character by using clear language, such as active verbs and focusing on WHO does WHAT. This prevents us from describing ‘around’ the story and/or falling back on cliched language.
Another good model for loglines to use in conjunction with the above:
When (inciting incident occurs), a (specific protagonist) must (objective) or (this happens –> stakes).
Download your free cheat sheet on How To Write A Logline.
Good Luck with your writing!
Lucy V. Hay
Resident Writing Coach
Lucy is a script editor, author and blogger who helps writers at her site, Bang2write.com. To get free stuff for your novel or screenplay, CLICK HERE.
Twitter ǀ Facebook ǀ Instagram
Traci Kenworth says
Important topic! Thanks!
Lucy V Hay says
Thanks for commenting!
This is helpful even if not intentionally writing diversity, especially under the points made under “Why this character?”. There are some aspects of my characters that are like me, but I don’t want to make them a carbon copy of myself. That would be pretty boring. There is something to writing what you know, but we grow as people and as writers if we explore beyond what we know.
Lucy V Hay says
Absolutely. I often say to my writers, forget about diversity and think about VARIETY. We don’t put ourselves into every story, or rehash the ‘same-old, same-old’. So ‘why this character?’ can really help
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
I am so glad to see this post. There is a lot of confusion over diversity, especially from non-diverse writers wondering how to handle it. I’ve seen people in forums grouse because they hear diverse characters are popular so they “add some in” (sigh) but then they get yelled at by readers who say they are using hurtful stereotypes (where to even begin with this conversation, right?). Thankfully I also hear from the other end of the spectrum where writers want to write a diverse character properly and are worried about accidentally writing something incorrectly out of ignorance. The good news is the answer for both is the same: research. And you’ve provided some great information to digest, so thank you!
Delighted to be able to help. Fact is, we can’t know **everything about everything** no matter who we are. Plus it will be more difficult for dominant voices – of any kind! – because we may not have had to think about certain things before. But research and being intentional (and thinking about HOW we can help rather than hijack) can never hurt.
BECCA PUGLISI says
So much awesome information here! A lot of people are talking about writing diverse characters, but very few go into such detail about the process and how to do it right. Thanks for sharing, Lucy!
Lucy V Hay says
Thank you for having me!