Diversity is one of the defining words of the early 21st century. We’re learning to recognize and celebrate the wide variety of experiences in our society. In our workplaces and our culture, campaigners are taking steps to ensure diverse representation, both to overcome past inequalities and to benefit from the insights different people can bring.
As a writer, diversity can be a daunting issue to tackle. So why should you make the effort? And what can you do to get it right?
Why Take Other Perspectives?
For many people, the case for greater diversity in your fiction is self-evident. But in case you’re not so sure, let’s have a look at the benefits.
The most important point is that you increase representation. Readers find characters who look and act like them empowering. It helps to ensure that everyone is equally seen and heard within society. Though your novel might just be one tiny voice amid a vast chorus, it contributes to creating a more just society. And the more successful you become, the more valuable that contribution is.
Just as success empowers diversity, diversity can help you towards success. The broader the range of characters in your fiction, the more people will see themselves in your characters. That will help you to grow your audience, as readers seek out fiction they feel represented in.
Creatively, diversity gives you variety to work with. By tapping into different cultures, classes, and religions, you give yourself a rich pallet of content and a vast wealth of inspiration. Your characters will become more varied and interesting.
Finding Different Perspectives to Explore
I could write a whole book on diversity and still not cover all the ways that we vary as people, all the groups you could represent. But if you want to write more diversely, then certain key divisions will get you a long way.
Gender is an obvious starting place. Despite being half the human race, women are under-represented in much of popular culture. The statistics for who speaks in Oscar-winning films show a shocking disparity in representation. Try to make your work more balanced by giving women as many roles as men and making those roles as active and important. Include transgender and non-binary characters, so that these significant minorities are heard.
Related to gender is sexuality. A significant proportion of people are lesbian, gay, or bisexual, so include same-sex romantic relationships alongside heterosexual ones. When it’s appropriate to the setting, make these relationships as ordinary and accepted as any other. In genres such as science fiction and fantasy you can create a society where sexual equality is accepted, setting an example for the modern world.
No society is racially homogenous. Show the variety in your setting. If international characters are appropriate, draw them from a wide range of countries with diverse cultures and different levels of wealth and power.
Distinct from but connected to race is religion. Religious convictions can be a great motivator for characters and come from all manner of faiths, from atheism to Zoroastrianism. Even if a character isn’t religious, you can show their religious background and the variety of different upbringings, expectations, and faiths that people have.
Class and wealth are often overlooked but are very important. Do all of your characters read like they come from the Western middle classes? Remember, that’s not representative of any country, never mind the world. Include characters who come from the working classes, who’ve struggled with unemployment, been ostracized and marginalized. Show the poor as well as the comfortable, or at least those who come from these backgrounds. It will lead to a cast of characters with very different priorities and interests.
Remember, no single character is defined by just one of these features. That Indonesian freighter captain could also be gay, a woman, and/or born in a slum. Just don’t force all your variety into one character and leave the rest as the not-actually-default of straight, white men.
Like anything important, writing diversely isn’t a safe or easy option. There are ways to do it well, but before we get to that we need to look at the potential pitfalls.
There’s one pitfall that you shouldn’t have to worry about, but that it’s hard to ignore. There are some people who get offended at seeing more diversity in fiction. If they pick up a book that isn’t dominated by straight white men, they throw a fit. Change is hard to deal with, and a change away from seeing themselves in 99% of characters is a change they don’t like. These are people who want your fiction to be less adventurous and less representative. Listening to them will just hold you back. Try not to let those voices get to you, and remember, you may lose some of those readers, but you’ll be more appealing to many equally large and loud groups.
The pitfall that matters is getting diverse representation wrong. To write diversely, you have to write about experiences that aren’t your own. That’s challenging. Sometimes you’ll make a misstep. And when both your creation and the desire to do good matter to you, that can feel heartbreaking.
Not only can it go wrong, but it can cause offense. If you use stereotypes or inaccurately represent a group’s lives, then people are going to take offense. The criticism that comes from this will sting. The best way you can deal with it is to acknowledge your failure, listen to what people are saying, and do better next time (more on that in a moment).
This is part of creativity – falling down, dusting yourself off, and stepping up to do better next time.
Getting it Right
We’ve faced the fear of mistakes and talked about how to cope when things go wrong. But what can you do to stop this happening, to get representation right in the first place?
Start with research. If you know people from the backgrounds you want to represent, ask them about their lives. Do internet searches to learn about people’s lifestyles, cultures, mannerisms, and all the little things that make them who they are. Videos can be as useful as written texts, especially when it comes to how people speak. You could reach out to community groups to learn more – most people will be happy to help once they understand what you’re doing.
When the time comes to write, be specific in the details. This makes your representation more convincing and vivid. It shows that you’re really trying to understand people’s lives, not painting them in broad strokes.
Representing diverse viewpoints means representing new ideas and experiences to your readers. Find ways to make these ideas and experience accessible. Show what they are through contextual clues when they are introduced. If necessary, use a character to explain something. Sometimes it’s OK to tell, not show.
There are only so many spaces in the cast of your story, so use secondary characters to add more diversity. This will not only make your story more diverse but make those characters more distinctive and so help readers to remember who’s who.
Once you’ve written your story, try to find a diverse range of beta readers to look over it, especially readers from groups you’re writing about. They’ll find ways for you to represent them better and so avoid embarrassing public errors.
Know Your Limits
Because diversity is such a huge and important thing, it’s important to know your limits.
The things you write are never going to be perfect. You’re going to make mistakes in this, just like you’re going to make grammatical errors and messy plots.
No group is homogenous. Even if you perfectly represent one person’s experience of being bi or Asian-American, there will be others who have very different experiences. You will never please everyone.
You won’t be alone in your errors. My own early attempts at diversity were a mess. I still don’t do as well as I’d like. Try as I might, I don’t always remember to show a wide range of views. But practice makes better.
Forgive yourself for your mistakes, but don’t forget them. Work out which criticisms are valid and learn from those. Shakes off the rest, but remember, if there are a lot of criticisms from one under-represented group then they probably have a point. They know their experience better than you, no matter how much research you did.
Above all, remember that it’s better to try for genuine, representative diversity and get it wrong than to not do it at all. Each time you write a diverse group of characters, you’ll do better than the last time. Each time, your writing will be more creative and varied. And each step towards better representation is a step in the right direction.
There are no perfect examples of anything. But if you’d like to try some diverse stories for inspiration then check out Mike Brooks’ Keiko books and the TV series Sense8. Both show how, even within a small central cast, you can present a diverse community and make your story richer for it.