On Sunday, May 1, I had the pleasure of presenting a workshop at GrubStreet’s Muse & the Marketplace conference. Here’s a snippet of what it was about:
“Character” refers to the people in your book and keeping them real in word, deed, and circumstance. But “character” also refers to the need for the writer to exhibit true character in the crafting of the stories they tell. Attendees will explore how to write through fear and with empathy and compassion to tell the stories that are either not told enough or not told at all. This requires risk-taking and a bit of bravery, especially in our highly-charged political environment. Come prepared for a frank and generative discussion.
Of course, with this description, some attendees were a little surprised when my talk focused almost entirely on writing diverse characters. I’m happy to say that I didn’t lose very many listeners after the first five minutes and, even better, everyone in the room participated throughout the talk and after during the 30-minute discussion session.
Note that I did not say 30-minute Q&A. I’ve done my fair share of programming, especially around talking about diversity in children’s literature, and I’ve found that opening up avenues for attendees to not only speak with the presenter on the same level, but also communicate openly with their fellow writers (or agents, marketers, editors, librarians, etc.) is imperative to generative conversations. Everyone should feel heard and be able to contribute their knowledge and experiences.
After the workshop, which ended exactly on time (thank you very much), I promised attendees that I would share the many resources I used to create my presentation. Of course, I want these resources to go beyond the conference attendees so…eat your heart out, readers! And a huge thank you goes out to Michaela Whatnall, one of my amazing spring interns who did a lot of digging and compiling to make these resources shareable.
First, she created a list of questions she found online that writers were asking concerning their ability to write diverse characters.
- Is it better to have a diverse book with possible mistakes, or a book without diversity with no errors in representation?
- How do I do effective research when writing diversely?
- How can I find beta readers who represent the minorities I am trying to represent?
- Why should I write diversely, when it’s safer to not do so?
- Will I be torn to pieces if I get something wrong when trying to represent a minority, even if it was an honest mistake?
- If I do end up causing anger with my representation, how do I gracefully handle the backlash?
- Will I get attacked simply for writing an identity which is not my own, even if I do it successfully?
- How can I know if the representation in my book is stereotypical or negative?
- Are there situations in which it is inappropriate for me to write certain identities?
- Am I allowed to write a different perspective than my own, or is that someone else’s story to tell? Should I leave it to someone who could tell it more genuinely?
- How can I avoid seeming like I’m “ticking the boxes on the diversity list,” or just writing diversely to fit the current market?
- Will my book sell worse because it’s not “mainstream” enough?
After looking through those, the focus was turned to reading and curating articles that answered the above questions. We wanted to have many different viewpoints at our disposal to create a well-rounded workshop for the Muse & the Marketplace participants while still maintaining the QSLA stance that people from all backgrounds should write inclusively.
The below list is not exhaustive, of course, but it’s a nice sampling of what’s out there focused on writing diverse characters.
This article addresses many fears of writers when considering writing diversely, including getting wrong and offending someone, the book not being “mainstream” enough, and whether not belonging to a certain group disqualifies you from writing about it.
The author suggests as solutions to the first big fear doing research, not writing stereotypes, not making diversity “a big thing” while still being aware the characters don’t exist in a vacuum, accepting that they may still get something wrong. She believes the “mainstream” view is old-fashioned, and while she recognizes that there are many views on the final point, she doesn’t think a writer should be confined to writing only groups of which they are a part.
This post includes many, many links to outside resources surrounding this topic, taking into account many different perspectives. It focuses on racial diversity but considers the entirety of the “writing diversely” conversation. There are categories of links, half going to pieces written by people who believe white writers should write POC characters, and half by people who don’t think so.
The author herself, a white woman, puts forward her own opinion that if a white author reflects deeply on their reasons for writing a POC main character, a perspective which they have never lived themselves, and find they really are not being hurtful with their representation, then they should go ahead and write their story, while constantly listening to the voices of those they are trying to represent, researching, and being prepared for criticism and understanding where it comes from. She advises to listen to this criticism and to apologize. Then to do better next time.
It’s a never-ending list of resources for writers. It may be overwhelming, but it is well-organized under general headings. It links to many articles and discussions on the topic of writing diversity and many related areas.
I found this article while falling through the rabbit hole of links that one tends to do when in the focused research phase. One link led to another, which lead to another, and then I found myself reading Lamar Giles’s words. What I found most interesting was that he was debunking diversity myths from his own quoted words. How often are we misheard or misunderstood? And then how often do we get the chance to clarify what we meant or the nuance of the situation? It felt apt to quote one of Lamar’s clarifications during our conversation about being brave as not only does his entire article focus on diversity in children’s literature, but his willingness to speak out, and with fervor, on this subject–confronting misunderstandings along the way–is the essence of being brave so that other voices can be heard.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with Gene Luen Yang a couple of times and he’s a delight. Not only because he’s one of the nicest people I’ve met in the industry, but also because he breaks things down–especially diversity in children’s literature with a comics focus–in such a way that he’s not blaming or antagonizing, but sharing his views, opinions, and experiences with a camaraderie and openness that invites more conversation and action.
The author addresses the question of, “When is it appropriate for me to write characters outside of my own race?” Her response is that it is appropriate when race is treated as an organic part of the character, and not when it is tokenism. She then goes on to explain tokenism and appropriation and provides resources about tropes to avoid when writing outside of one’s own race/culture.
A Tumblr thread with multiple individual voices, all valuable to the conversation. The participants assert that the checklisting effect comes from poor writing, not from “too much diversity” (which, clearly, is not a thing). They argue that there should be efforts to help these writers make the diverse identities of their characters more meaningful, rather than just pasted-on labels.
I quoted a part of this post in my talk, but really it’s all great. It breaks down gratuitous diversity, what it is not, and why there truly is “diversity for the wrong reasons”.
The author provides a well-organized collection of resources for writers who are writing characters with marginalized identities. Among other resources, she includes lists of articles about writing characters of diverse racial/ethnic/cultural background, LGBTQIAP characters, religious characters, characters with diverse family structures, characters with disabilities or mental illness, and characters of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. Under these categories are also books she recommends with these types of characters.
The page introduces the concept of a sensitivity reader and why they are important to the process of writing a novel containing marginalized characters outside of your own experience. They then link to a database of qualified sensitivity readers. The listings include expertise, rate, qualifications, and contact information.
The author discusses how basing a character around a stereotype shows that your character is not complex or developed enough. She urges writers to ask themselves, “Have I done my characters justice?”
The article lays out common LGBTQ stereotypes and why they should be avoided. This is part one in a series which also addresses gender, words to watch out for, secondary characters and gay jokes, and other resources.
Mitali offers ten questions writers can ask themselves after completing a story, to check if their representation is genuine and there for the right reasons. In the comments section, you will find a great exchange that could help you go a little deeper into the checklist via explanation for the last point.
During the workshop, I played two videos from this pre-conference diversity session at ALA Midwinter 2015. There are many videos from the conference from featuring authors, editors, diversity advocates, teachers, agents, and more all focused on encouraging more voices in the industry to speak up and support inclusive children’s literature as well as provide ways in which to make that happen.
One of my very first posts on the Quill Shift Literary Agency blog focused on the CBC Diversity 101 series. It is such a crucial resource for writers just starting out as well as seasoned writers to understand the stereotypes that one can fall into when writing characters from specific backgrounds. I’ve linked to my blog post here and above.
In the workshop, I used a few quotes from authors who had participated in this series who are known for writing outside of their perspective. Read the entire Authenticity It’s Complicated! series here, and then go back and read the other It’s Complicated! series as well.
Like I mentioned in the talk, the answer is that no one is forcing you or telling you to write them in, but if you really want to have a realistic world, then look outside and see that you’re living in a society filled with people from different background, different abilities, and different identities. If you want your story to be authentic, then it should represent those beautiful difference while at the same time getting to the heart of the fact that we’re all human.
A Very Real Response to Bad Representation vs. No Representation, Taking Criticism, and Permission to Write Outside Your Perspective
At the end of the workshop (and throughout) I tried to impress upon attendees that we’re a community. Those within communities need to support one another.
I hope you find these resources helpful and support your endeavors to create diverse characters and story lines. Also, feel free to add other resources you’ve found helpful that aren’t listed above in the comments section!