4 “To Do” and 1 “Avoid” Tips to Create Meaningful Diverse Characters
I’m a huge advocate of diversity in fiction in general, but especially diversity in YA. I think it’s important to have a cast of characters as compelling, complex, and varied as the world we live in. Having diverse characters not only gives those who are under represented a potential role model, but it also gives everyone, no matter who you are, the chance to expand your knowledge about someone or something that you may not have known before.
Diversity means different things to different people. I’m trying to be all inclusive when I talk about diversity: I’m talking Gays, Transgender, Blacks, Africans, Asians, Hispanics, Europeans, Americans, Arabs, Native Peoples, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Pagans… I could go on and on. I’m for being all inclusive. Most of my stories have a diverse cast of characters because those are the kinds of people I like to have around me in real life. I’ve never been too comfortable with vanilla cookies, I need a little color and variety of perspectives.
Of course when most people think about the topic of having diverse characters in fiction, they think about the #WeNeedDiverseBooks Campaign, which is about promoting minority protagonists in fiction. Totally cool. And I agree that this is a niche that needs to be filled.
“But how do I incorporate diverse characters into my story in a meaningful way?” you ask.
Well, here are four tips to help you make your story’s characters more varied and the one thing to avoid if you want your characters to come across as deep and true versus contrived and trendy.
The 4 Dos of Creating Diverse Characters In Your Novel
Make your character a minority because that is who the story is about
Everyone has their own unique story no matter what their background or sexual orientation is. Sure the story can be about being different, but that shouldn’t be the sole reason for your character being a minority. I encourage you to experiment with a minority as your protagonist or at the very least the your protagonist’s sidekick. It’s fun and you could learn a thing or two yourself.
The #1 Do: Research and Field Study
It is most important to understand the nationality, race, religion, or sexual orientation of your character(s). This is all part of making your character believable. If you understand what it means to be the minority you have chosen; show that understanding in your character’s actions, beliefs, thoughts, and feelings.
Observe the people around you, try to understand them, make some new friends. Everyone has their own life perspective and reasons for thinking the way they do. It’s your job as a writer to understand these things and accurately represent them in your characters. Look to real life and not just other forms of entertainment as fodder for your characters.
The #2 Do: Understanding Conflict
Understand the conflicts that your character must deal with within the confines of your story. Understand what makes your character the same or different from the other characters and make sure that those characteristics are true to real life (or at least relatable). Of course, this is true of any character you make up for your stories but going back to the #1 do, your character will have their own unique perspective because of who they are and their life experiences. Being the only Black boy in an all Chinese society can create an interesting dynamic. (i.e. The Karate Kid – 2010)
The #3 Do: Understand the Impact of Societal Experience
In fantasy and science fiction, does your character’s nationality, race, religion, or sexual orientation have an impact on how they are treated by society? Do any of these things have an impact on the world that’s been created?
A real world example: If you’re a black male living in America your worries when it comes to being stopped by a cop is very different than if you’re an white female or elderly Indian. The harassment level goes up and he worries whether or not he will be asked to exit his car just because. How your character feels in such a situation is very different depending on who they are and what their background is. So it’s important to understand the people you’re writing about and the society they live in. That’s what it’s all about when creating and working with diverse characters.
In some fictional worlds the roles we expect can be reversed. In other fictional worlds most people are colorblind – all forms of the Star Trek universe can fall under the colorblind society. For Trekkies it’s the ultimate social evolution to not be overly concerned with race and be more concerned with one’s humanity.
A person’s gender is the focus of the society in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness. Of course here, an Earthling is the central protagonist and encounters a society very different from our own.
Even though the two main protagonists are white males, the supporting cast within The Expanse is filled with diverse, multi-racial characters. Most of these character’s experience is influenced by their background and how society functions in the future.
The #4 Do: Use Stereotypes Sparingly
It’s okay to use stereotypes for your character, but don’t rely on those stereotypes too heavily. There has to be a reason for the character to exhibit those traits and you need to understand why. And remember, stereotypes exist for a reason. It doesn’t mean that everyone is that way, but there is always some amount of truth to stereotypes.
No Matter Who Your Characters Are
Remember that these are all the same things you need to know, or think about, no matter who your protagonist, antagonist, or minor characters are. I’m not trying to say that the character’s nationality, race, religion, or sexual orientation has to be the main conflict in the story, but there will be an underlying feeling regarding it as there is in our daily life. These are the kinds of things that help make your characters real.
The #1 Don’t of Creating Diverse Characters In Your Novel
Don’t make your character a minority because it’s the trendy thing or politically correct thing to do. It comes across as disingenuous and contrived.
This may come off as a bit of a controversial statement. But the one of the things that annoys me most are writers who insert underrepresented characters into their stories because they think it’s the trendy thing to do or think they need to succumb to political correctness so they won’t come off as being racist or something. The problem with this arbitrary decision is that it only makes your character come across as a cardboard cut out of cliche character traits. Who wants that?
And don’t make a minor character a minority in order to set them apart from other characters. That’s really not cool either. Making your character Hispanic or Chinese or whatever just so that they’re different from those around them is lazy characterization. I mean it’s ok to have the character be a minority, just be aware that you need to put a little more effort into the character besides saying this person is blind or gay or fill-in-the-blank. I know there’s a lot of talk out there in the writing community to make your minor characters have defining quarks and that’s nice and all but being a minority is a state of being, not a quark.
You see this arbitrary minority character phenomenon a lot more often in film (whether it be the big screen or the small) than you do in books — or perhaps I just think this because I’ve probably watched more movies and TV than I’ve read books (sad but true). Don’t get me wrong, I like the fact that I see more minorities in film these days, but the problem is that they are usually just placed there because of the fact that the actors either really pushed for the role (which is totally cool) or the production company wanted to look “inclusive.” *cough* Disney. Yeah, Disney does this a lot.
I’m going to stand on my soap box for just a moment in order to demonstrate why arbitrarily inputting a minority into your story is a contrived move.
My most recent encounter with a contrived minority was in ABC’s TV series Once Upon A Time. To start off, I love this show! I think it’s unique and imaginative, even if it is a little soapy. So in this fairy-tail retelling Mulan is a lesbian who is (or was?) in love with Aurora (Sleeping Beauty), who we all know is involved with Prince Phillip. This was first hinted at in… I think it was season 3, but I may be miss remembering, and it was such a brief moment that it could have been missed. But that that time, it came so out of the blue that I couldn’t help but be shocked and insulted at the same time at the choice. After a whole season of enjoyable viewing, how could the writers suddenly intimate that Mulan is a lesbian, no character build up or anything? Not that I have a problem with having a lesbian character, but to have her sprung upon us and then immediately dropped as if it never happened. Seriously? (Of course it was poorly revisited in season 5 — and don’t even get me started on how ignorant and immature that storyline played out.)
What bothered me most was the fact that the choice came from out of no where and had no real impact other than to provide some momentary blip of potential inner conflict for Mulan. And what bothered me more was the fact that I could imagine a group of people sitting in a little room saying, “We need to write in a gay character into the script to make the LGBT community feel included. Well Mulan isn’t attached to anyone right now, lets make her a lesbian. It will make a great twist.” Really?If I can imagine this conversation happening, this is a BAD thing and not very helpful for #WeNeedDiverseBooks.
Phew. Now I got that off my chest.
Please. Please. Please. Don’t do that to your readers. It will make you look stupid and potentially insult someone at the same time, and that’s not what this exercise is about.
A Short List of Books That Pull Off A Cast of Diverse Characters Well
Here is a short list of books who I believe pull off believable diverse characters. There are many more than what I have here, but these are books I’ve actually read myself at some point in my life and feel are worth the time when it comes to studying good, diverse characterization.
Many of these books don’t have minority characters as their protagonists, but they still contain a diverse cast and are true to the characters that are created.
- Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling (diverse supporting cast)
- Ender’s Game/Ender’s Shadow series by Orson Scott Card (diverse supporting cast)
- Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer (Asian & Black protagonists & diverse supporting cast)
- The Expanse series by James S.A. Corey (diverse supporting cast)
- The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker (diverse supporting cast)
- Kane Chronicles by Rick Riordan (half Black protagonists & diverse supporting cast)
- Alif The Unseen by Willow G Willson (half Arab half Indian protagonist & Arab supporting cast)
- The Martian by Andy Weir (diverse supporting cast)
- Fledgling by Octavia Butler (Black protagonist & diverse supporting cast)
- Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler (Black protagonist & diverse supporting cast)
- Mars by Ben Bova (Navajo protagonist & diverse supporting cast)
Just to name a few…As you can see most of my suggestions are science fiction or fantasy reads, but there are a tone more in the general fiction genre.
Diversity in YA Resources
And for those of you who are interested in resources to find more books that are for about about minorities or if you are interested in writing about minorities here are some helpful websites:
- We Need Diverse Books
- Diversity In YA
- Rich In Color
- Children’s Book Council Diversity
- Writing With Color
So what are your thoughts on diversity in YA? Is there a need? Do you think it’s even worth talking about? Does your current project in progress have a minority as your main character or as a minor character? I’d love to chat about it.