Recently, there's been a fantastic online campaign going on called We Need Diverse Books. You've probably seen the hashtag flying by on Twitter or the Tumblr site. So this is not a post about why we need diverse books. Of course, we need them. Desperately. And if you need more reasons to add, check out their website.
However, what I do want to talk about are some of the myths and fears authors have to tackle when deciding to write a book with characters who are of a different race, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, physical ability level, and/or sexual orientation from their own. Because let's face it, there are some pitfalls that can happen.
And unfortunately, many times those potential pitfalls scare authors away from making their characters more diverse because it seems easier to just "write what you know," which many times can end up meaning writing "people who look/act/talk exactly like me." And because we need more diversity in the author ranks as well, we end up with loads of books where the vast majority of characters are white and straight and middle class because authors are "writing what they know."
This has bothered me in my own genre for a long time. I write romance and if you look across the romance shelves in the bookstore (just like if you look at the middle grade shelves or young adult or urban fantasy or thrillers or pick almost any genre), you see a bunch of white faces looking back at you. But, of course, if you look around the store, you know that this is not real life. Our world is big. Readers are diverse.
I know my readers are diverse. But when I looked at my first few books, I realized I was doing the same thing. I was writing characters who looked like me (well, thinner and with better hair, of course) but I was falling into the same trap. And why was I doing that? That wasn't a reflection of my day-to-day life. I live in a diverse community and have a diverse group of friends. My own family is full of diversity. So what was I doing?
And I realized (a) I was being lazy and (b) I was a little scared.
The first one was unintentional and easy enough to fix. But the second one took some thought. I've always included LGBT characters in my stories, so that wasn't an issue. But besides having a Hispanic secondary hero in my second book, I'd been woefully homogenous when it came to race and ethnicity. So I decided to write a Latina heroine in my book, Not Until You. And I just recently wrote an African-American heroine in Nothing Between Us, my book that comes out January 2015.
So now when I'm creating a main character or secondary character, I make sure that I build the person from a blank slate. I don't want to fall into having a "default" that everyone who walks onto the page is white, straight, and middle-class until proven otherwise. But along the way, I did (and still do) wrestle with some of the worries that I think lot of authors may face when choosing to diversify their characters.
The Fears and How to Move Past Them
Fear: I will get something wrong and offend someone.
This is the biggie. No one wants to be that author who gets called out in reviews or on blogs for being ignorant or offensive. That's a scary thought. That can alienate readers. It could hurt your career. It can hurt other people's feelings. This is probably the number one reason an author will shy away from writing diverse characters.
How to face it:
- Research - If you aren't sure about something, research the pants off of the topic. Ask people who would have the answers you need. Read widely. If you have trusted readers/friends who are part of the group you're writing about, ask if they'd be willing to give you a beta read and encourage them to call you out if you've made some misstep.
- Don't write stereotypes - Yes, stereotypes exist for a reason. Some people fit them. That doesn't mean you need to write them. That's like using clichés when you can write something fresh. Step back and think more deeply about your character so that you don't end up with a stereotype out of central casting. When I wrote Marcela in Not Until You, I didn't want to write the stereotype of the "fiery Latina." Marcela has a backbone, but she's more the quiet, studious type.
- You don't have to make a big thing out of the diverse elements - If your story is about challenges your character faces because of their race/religion/disability/etc., then yes, you will need to tackle the subject head on. But if you're writing something other than that, it doesn't need to be a "big thing." In Not Until You, Marcela is Hispanic. Is that discussed in the storyline? Not so much. I describe her. You meet her family and see a bit of her culture and religious upbringing through them, but that's all. Her heritage is part of who she is, not a plot point.
- BUT, also be aware that characters don't exist in a vacuum. - You don't have to make a thing of it if that's not part of your story, but also make sure you're not writing around it. If you're writing a gay character in a small southern town, you can't pretend that prejudice wouldn't come up on occasion. Be realistic about the challenges that still exist.
- Accept that you might get something wrong anyway - This is a work-related hazard for writers. Not just with diversity but with any subject we're writing about. We may not always get it right. I can write a love story between two college guys (which I did in the New Adult anthology Fifty First Times) but I've never been gay--or a guy--so I could get something wrong. But, I think the risk is worth it. Because even with that short story, I got emails and comments from readers who told me they'd never read a male/male romance before and that they were surprised they liked it. And that they didn't expect it to be as sweet and romantic as a m/f romance or that they thought they'd be "weirded out" but weren't. If that little story makes one person look at a gay couple differently and see that love is love no matter the gender combination, I call that a win and worth the risk.
Fear: The book won't be as commercially viable or "mainstream" enough.
This is old thinking in my opinion. We don't give readers enough credit. Readers want to read a good story. Period. Write a character a reader can pull for, and you will find people to buy your books.
Fear: If I'm not part of a certain group, do I have the right to write about it?
This topic has varied opinions. Some believe that stories about x group should only be written by writers who are x. I mentioned earlier that we need more diversity amongst published authors, so I see where this idea comes from. And I absolutely agree that there needs to be focus on encouraging diverse voices in the publishing world. (That's a bigger topic I'm not going to tackle here.) But I don't think that means that any writer should be limited to only writing about groups they belong to or experiences they've personally had (how boring). A rising tide lifts all boats. Let's all be part of that tide together.
At the end of the day, sticking with the status quo may be "safe." But, come on, who became a writer to play it safe?