First and foremost, I want to thank Ariadne and Jules for discussing this idea with me. The topic of inclusivity in writing is enormously important and intrinsically requires diverse and representative opinions and points of view. As such, it was not a topic I wanted to approach alone. The specific thoughts and ideas that stemmed from each of these conversations are cited at the end of this blog.
Buckle up and listen close. This world is not homogenous. Your story shouldn’t be either. If your characters are carbon copies of each other, you’re doing something wrong. Your characters – and your world for that matter – should be diverse.
Now that we’ve established that, let’s talk about how.
There is, unfortunately, a wrong way to create diversity. Take the early Disney movies Peter Pan, Dumbo, and The Jungle Book. When done poorly, characters are unintentionally reduced to stereotypical caricatures of themselves or, worse, used to intentionally reinforce those stereotypes.
There is, fortunately, also a right way to create diversity. Take the recent Disney movies Coco, Encanto, and Raya and the Last Dragon. When done properly, characters enrich the world by displaying realistic differences and recognizing the normality of diversity.
Creating diversity isn’t hard. It takes genuine desire, a willingness to not half-ass something important, and honest respect for other people. So, here are five things I do to make sure I have a diverse cast of characters while respecting the experiences of a life I haven’t lived.
This list is a starting point, but effort shouldn’t end where the list does.
We’re gonna start out really basic. Just do some research. Any research, really. Well, not any research, but some credible research.
There are different ways to do research. Google can be a great place to start as long as you’re discerning; don’t use “My Crazy ADHD Sister” as a blueprint for a character with ADHD. Finding people willing to share their experiences can be harder, but it often leads to better advice; however, remember to ask if someone is willing to share their experience before you start peppering them with questions.
Reading books with diverse characters – and from diverse authors – is another great way to better understand how to diversify characters; focus on books that have been praised for accurate representation.
Research is beneficial whether you’re building your own world or telling a story set in ours. When creating diverse fantasy worlds, research can help you avoid transposing stereotypes from our world to your own. Research is essential to creating diversity in a story set in our world. If you understand a culture or a chronic illness, you can depict it without relying on stereotypes to fill out a character or reducing an identity down to a one-off line or joke.
Character versus Plot
There is a difference between a story with people of color and a story about being a person of color. Replace POC with whatever you desire and the statement still stands.
Writing a character who belongs to a culture that you do not, identifies as you do not, has a chronic illness you do not, etc. is different from writing a story about belonging to a culture you do not, identifying as you do not, having a chronic illness you do not, etc. and this distinction is essential to respectful representation.
The line is drawn with conflict. Here, stories in fantasy worlds have a distinct advantage over stories in our world. No one has experienced the conflict of chasing down a big-bad-evil while trying to learn to control newfound magic and fight as well as a centuries-old soldier. But many people experience micro- and macro-aggressions every day because of their identity and, if you don’t, that’s not your story to tell.
Including realistic representation in both fantastic and real-world settings helps to create an immersive and realistic story, but should not be done at the expense of appropriating another author’s story.
Whether you’re building a world or writing a story set in ours, be careful what you label as normal.
Consciously and subconsciously, all of us categorize the world around and create patterns out of disorder. It helps us to feel more secure in a universe that is infinitely bigger than we are. Unfortunately, in our attempts to create familiarity in writing, authors can end up reinforcing the idea that the unfamiliar is inherently bad or, at the other extreme, that the familiar is only good because a character is ignorant.
This attitude is especially important to be aware of when creating or representing contrasting cultures. Here, stories set in fantasy worlds have a distinct disadvantage compared to stories set in our world. In theory, fantasy “norms” don’t have real-world counterparts.
In practice, the norms we create in our writing are often a reflection of our own experiences. It takes active vigilance to ensure that you haven’t let biases fill out your worldbuilding. Contrarily, real-world norms actually exist and the awareness that there are real-world consequences of favoring one set above another can keep authors on their toes.
Overall, the easiest way to avoid favoring one set of norms above another is to avoid hierarchical comparisons. Unless you’ve created a culture that goes against universal morals – like murder is wrong, you don’t need to place one culture above another in your story. Allow them to coexist.
And please, for the love of a good plot, stop having your diverse characters abandon their childhood culture in favor of your childhood culture. This will always sound, and be, racist.
Sensitivity Readers vs Beta Readers
If you want to be sure your characters are actually diverse and not simple stereotypes, have a diverse group of people read it before you publish it. If you’re representing a specific culture or chronic illness, try to include readers from those groups in your beta readers. The more diverse your group, the more likely you are to catch little inconsistencies.
However, and more importantly, don’t depend solely on your beta readers to bring issues to your attention. It’s important to recognize that not everyone is comfortable correcting stereotypes or offensive representation. Although many beta readers might bring offensive content to your attention, it is not their job and many are tired of being expected to educate others.
To be taught, hire sensitivity readers.
Sensitivity readers are not the same as beta readers. These readers are, essentially, editors. Sensitivity readers are paid to read your story with the goal of finding offensive content, stereotypes, and biases and create a report that includes all this information and teaches you how to fix it.
Sometimes, this one is the hardest things – especially if you really, genuinely tried to be respectful and aware. However, it’s also the most important.
It is not your place to decide if your words offend someone else.
Respect for others is the keystone to creating a diverse cast of characters, and that means accepting and learning if you don’t get it right the first time. If a beta or sensitivity reader is uncomfortable with the way you’ve depicted a character, other people will be too.
Accepting and acting on criticism is the best way to be sure that you’ve created a diverse cast instead of reinforced stereotypes. Remember, everyone makes mistakes; good authors fix them.
As promised, I would like to give credit where credit is due. Thank you, Jules, for informing the “Sensitivity Reader” section. Thank you, Ariadne, for informing the “Creating Normal” section.
Written for The Plottery
I’m Elizabeth Miles, but you can call me Lizzie! I am a full-time stay-at-home mom and part-time author during breaks from chasing down over-confident toddlers. Mystery, romance, and fantasy are my favorite genres for both reading and writing.