If you watch the news, read the paper, or pay pretty much any attention to the world at all today, you’ll know that diversity is one of the biggest issues we face as a world community: how to address it, respect it, and most of all, represent it properly in writing. One need look no further than the last few months to find a multitude for stories about representations of diverse people gone bad in publishing, from Barnes and Noble’s disastrous diversity book covers for classics to the misfires of hotly-debated novels like American Dirt. The conversation about which people can write what stories and whether people of different races, sexual orientations, and ethnicities can accurately depict the struggles of others at all seems to be in question. And I’ll be honest, I don’t know if I have any earth-shaking insights on how to deal with it all. But I figured now might be a good time for me to talk about how I approach adding some needed diversity to my own work.
I’ll admit it: as a straight white male, there’s a lot I’m sure I don’t understand about other peoples and cultures. I like to think that I’m more open-minded than most, and that traveling the world pretty extensively has given me some insight that others might not have and made me a better and more understanding person. But nobody’s perfect, and I’m always terribly self-conscious in my writing, worrying about whether I’m representing my black, Asian, female, or other groups of characters fairly and accurately. It really does keep me up at night sometimes. However, I do believe that deep down, with all their cultural and other background differences aside, people are basically the same everywhere you go and that you should always follow the golden rule of treating others the way you want to be treated. People have the same basic desires, wants, and needs, and will respond positively to other people treating them well. While I’m not trying to deny that there’s probably a vast gulf of difference between how I live my everyday life and how, for example, someone in Japan does, not to mention how each of us perceives the world we live in, values systems, etcetera, all in all I like to believe that people are people and I try to focus on the ways we’re alike rather than the ways we’re different.
When I wrote my first novel, The Showstopper, I’ll admit that diversity in my story wasn’t very high on my list of considerations. It takes place in New York City during the 1920s, and while New York was of course a city full of all different kinds of people, even at that time, I had a very clear idea of who my characters were and what the story would look like. As such, the furthest I got into diversity was discussing the plight of Irish immigrants during that time period, and as a descendant of those immigrants myself and having grown up on stories about them, I figured that was pretty non-controversial. However, afterward I was painfully aware that, country of origin aside, pretty much all the characters were white, and only one of them was a woman (who I felt could have probably played a much more fleshed-out and important role in the story had I given it a bit more thought). I’m definitely my own worst critic, but I think going forward from that, aiming to better myself and do more in my next work was a reasonable goal.
Enter Camp Ferguson, the first novel in my YA series. Unlike The Showstopper, I always tell people Camp Ferguson is more character-driven than plot-driven, and I had the personalities of all the different characters worked on in my head for years before I found a story to give them a home in. This is how I construct most characters I write about, and I didn’t even consider what their physical appearances might be like until well after I started writing the book. I quickly realized that pretty much all the characters, once again, were white. I don’t really know why. Maybe because that’s my identity, I’m just kind of hard-wired to imagine people that way when I read about them unless I’m told otherwise? In Harry Potter, I’m fairly certain nobody ever discussed the color of Hermoine Granger’s skin, for example. J.K. Rowling claims she was meant to be a black character, and despite her history of diversity revisionism I honestly I don’t know if there’s any textual evidence to refute that. I just always kind of imagined her as white, and Emma Watson’s portrayal in the movies just solidified it. I may be wrong about that, but I’m just trying to give an example of this kind of cultural lens bias that I think a lot of writers struggle with.
So anyway, I took a step back and looked at my Camp Ferguson characters again. Did they really all have to be white? Of course not. And in that case, could this character here be black? Sure, no reason why not. Could this other character be gay? Yeah, I could work that in. And so on and so on until I felt I had a pretty diverse cast of characters on a wide range of spectrums. I’m working in future books to include depictions (sensitive, of course) of those with developmental disabilities and other differences, as well as writing more female characters (still something that keeps me up at night). Having diverse representations of characters in my writing is really important to me, and representing them in a fair, accurate, and sensitive way is key. Sure sensitivity and beta readers and other outside help can be useful to that end, but it all starts with making sure the way YOU write your story is mindful of including diverse characters.
The problem with this approach, of course, is that you could make an argument that by not assigning a whole lot of importance to the identities of my characters, I risk having my representations be of poorer quality and making diverse characters more “token” representations of whole groups of people than actual, realistic people themselves. I think that’s a fair and valid point, but I would counter with the same argument as I’ve already stated about people in real life: a person’s identity, whatever it may be, is not all that they are, and at their core most people are more alike than different. I think it would be a different conversation if the focus of the story were about exploring that character’s identity, but in Camp Ferguson, that’s not really the case. It’s mostly just about a group of kids together having a good time. I’ve worked very hard to give each of my characters their own personality traits and distinctive voice: their physical appearance or other lifestyle choices are just another thing about them that can make them stand out from the crowd and make them feel like unique, fully-formed people.
That’s also not to say I don’t think more deeply about diversity issues in my writing, either. In the sequel to The Showstopper I have on the back burner, I’d be very much getting into some thorny historical issues of representation. The novel would take place in New Orleans in the 1930s, and in such a diverse community I don’t think I could even set a story there believably without talking about issues of race and inequality, especially in the case of black Americans during that time period. I definitely don’t feel comfortable writing about that until I do some major background research, and that’s more of a task than I’m feeling up to at the moment. In addition, one of the new characters I’d like to introduce is a bisexual female character who’s also a Secret Service agent. Pushing the believability envelope for a female Secret Service member is pretty big on its own, but how do I depict and out and proud bi woman in the 1930s? Can I even do that? I love this character I’ve built up in my head (think the female version of Captain Jack Harkness from Doctor Who), but I’m not sure if she can believably fit into this narrative I’m trying to create. Thus the reason why this particular work is shelved until such time as I’m more comfortable in my ability to tackle these problems.
I really hope I haven’t managed to sound totally ignorant in the course of this article: I don’t think I have, but one can never be totally sure when writing about the experiences of people who aren’t like you, as I’ve said. What I’d love is for this post to spark a constructive conversation about diversity in fiction, or at the very least for other writers to talk about how they approach fitting diverse characters into their books and whether my method has merit or needs work. If you’ve got ideas, I’d very much like to hear them. No one should ever stop learning.