By Nicole Pierce
Here at Quill Shift, we look for and encourage books with diverse characters. When we say “diverse characters” we are referring, but not limiting, to characters of different races and ethnicities, religious backgrounds, sexual orientations, gender identities, and physical and mental abilities.
Thousands of others are asking for these types of stories, too. The problem is that although there are more being slowly published, there are still not an overwhelming number on the market considering the majority-minority status the US is approaching rapidly. One of the big reasons for the shortage in young adult and middle grade fiction with diverse characters is that some writers are not sure how to create these characters. These writers may be thinking:
I want my story to have a ______ main character but I’m afraid I’ll portray someone incorrectly/afraid I may use a stereotype on accident/ I don’t know much about their cultures or beliefs.
First, it’s okay to feel this way. But here’s some advice—don’t think of writing diverse characters as a new concept. Just write! Your character is more than one identity trait. They are more than just their ethnicity or religious beliefs. It’s important to think when writing a story with diverse characters that all of your characters need to be nuanced people with many different facets to who they are.
In YA author Olivia Rivers’ article 4 Tips for Writing Diverse Characters, she gives a quick and easy explanation on how “‘Diversity’ does not equal ‘personality’”.
Sometimes I hear writers asking questions like, “Would a girl in a wheelchair enjoy watching basketball?” The issue with this sort of question is that it tries to use a broad group (physically disabled people, in this case) as the sole way of defining a multi-faceted individual (the character.) Diversity impacts people, but it doesn’t define us.
When it comes to writing with diversity in mind, trying is better than nothing. You may not get it right the first time. A few people from your writing group may tell you that your character shouldn’t do this, or that’s not correct. That’s okay! You tried, and you can fix things in your second draft.
You cannot be afraid to try. Many writers fear they’re going to mess up, that they might offend someone. They don’t want to portray their asexual character or wheelchair-bound protagonist poorly and have their story chewed up and stepped on.
But if writers don’t try, the books will never be written. The stories will never be read and thousands of people will still be asking for books that have characters that look like them, have similar cultures as them, have similar experiences to them.
Having diverse characters is not the only way to add diversity into your novels. You can also set your story in different places. While the article by Olivia Rivers gives some great advice on how to write diverse characters, Cultural Accuracy in YA by River (a blogger from Cherry Blossom and Maple Syrup) gives great examples on how not to write about diverse settings. She focuses on stories set in Japan, but her thoughts can apply to any books with diverse characters or settings.
One of the biggest issues I have with some of the YA books set in Japan is that the MC usually acclimates way too quickly. She (so far I’ve only read one book with a male MC) picks up the language in no time and never suffers from culture shock.
River goes into detail using books that she has read that portrayed white main characters traveling to Japan accurately and inaccurately. She uses her own experience in Japan to give the readers a better understanding of how the books are lacking in cultural accuracy.
Like many others, River is happy to see the demand for diverse books, but she wants to be sure they’re accurate and that “diversity isn’t used as a gimmick.” This mindset is important to have when you’re writing your own stories.
What Can You Do to Succeed?
First, make a conscious decision to create a story that best represents the world of your characters. If it’s a natural thing for your characters to encounter people from all walks of life—and for most stories it will be—that means next, you must try to include them.
After you know that the world will be inclusive and you are going to try to do the best you can on that front, research is going to be your number one method in helping you write characters whose experiences are not similar to your own. But everyone says do your research and it doesn’t much help if a starting point isn’t also shared. In recognition of this fact, below are a number of curated posts pointing to multiple articles on writing carefully crafted diverse characters.
Not only does this curated post have great articles to read, but it also provides a list of Tumblr blogs to follow. One aspect that is extra appealing is that this that it provides articles about body diversity.
Originally from the Tumblr of scoutprouvaire, this list has been added to by many others. The articles highlighted range from diversity in general to women, LGBTQIA, race, and cultures.
This masterpost contains a fantastic explanation on how to use gender neutral pronouns in your writing and a list of resources for gender and LGBTQ.
If you are not familiar with Tu Books, they are a publishing imprint from LEE & LOW Books that focuses on MG and YA fiction. The 10 resources they list talk about how to write about cultures that are not your own.
The articles listed in this curated post are great for those who already somewhat understand asexuality (and demisexuality). If you’re not familiar with these terms, Anagnori does point to introductory resources as well.
This masterpost contains a wealth of information on personality and mental disorders. There are guest posts, videos, Tumblr pages, you name it.
Broken down by race, lgbtqia, religion, disability and mental health issues, family structure, socioeconomic diversity (a big one, but often ignored), and intersectionality, this page doesn’t just give you helpful links to other articles to use as resources, but book lists for each section and/or books of note that have been published containing the various identifier.
We hope you’ll check them out and let us know which resources you found most helpful!