Diversity matters and you should be writing about it

I am a middle class, white female. I have a privilege that I was born into just because of circumstances and it is my responsibility to keep that in mind in everything I create. Just because privilege isn't intentionally sought doesn't mean I don't receive it because of who I am and what I look like. And how stupid is that?

I'm a strong proponent of diversity, especially when it comes to all things fiction: books, television, films. Why not have a more diverse cast of characters? Aren't we tired of seeing the same paper person over and over again? Give me characters of color, characters with complex gender identities, characters of mixed sexual orientations, characters with disabilities, characters with mental illnesses. Give me more real people!

Diversity and representation in young adult is pretty pathetic; it's getting better, but there's still loads of room to grow. And I hold myself and some of my early work under this microscope of scrutiny, as well. All too often, I find myself automatically making my characters straight white women because, well, I know how to write that easily. What a lazy excuse! If I can write about demons and angels and ghosts, I can damn well include characters that aren't "like me." Aren't I doing that already? (God I hope so, otherwise I'm probably a psychopathic killer who loves torturing people and summoning demons.)

I'm more conscious of the characters I craft now, and am proud of the diversity I have in my stories. The Ignite series alone has a cast of characters that is as diverse in appearance as it is in morality. Kala's a one-winged, black, lesbian angel with the mouth of a sailor and a heart of pure gold. Gus is a shy, bisexual book worm in Hell. Zo is an Asian angel with more allegiance to man than to Heaven.

In The Empath, my main character (Odessa) is described as black. Originally, I wrote her as a pale girl with red hair and freckles. Why? Just a knee-jerk reaction. But changing her race didn't make a lick of difference to the story I was telling; in fact, it aided in the story, as Odessa faced prejudices as a psychic. Adding in the factor of race in the late 1800s made that sense of "not belonging" and mistrust stronger. It added another layer of tension.

I want to be sure my characters are diverse and representational of the real world--even if they exist in a fictional one. And I want them to be in roles where they are not defined by their skin color/sexual orientation/disability. I want that to just be a trait of theirs, just an underscore of their voice. There's a quote from Orphan Black (which you should be watching, if you aren't already) Cosima says that really nails this idea: "My sexuality's not the most interesting thing about me."

In my works in progress, I've written characters with crippling anxiety; I have a gender-bent Robin Hood story where Robin still falls in love with Maid Marian. In my sci-fi, multiple cultures and races are represented, along with a spectrum of sexualities and genders. In Lyra, my story Patchwork Press anthology, my main characters (Orpheus and Eury) are an interracial same sex couple with a wide division in their castes. Why write characters like this? Why not.

I have an issue with authors who are over ambiguous with diversity in text and only reveal in after-interviews/blog posts "Well, that character was gay" or "Actually, that character was Muslim, though it was never mentioned or even alluded to once." I'll do all I can to make it clear just who my characters are, and I can guarantee that they'll be more complex than just an aspect of diversity. Diversity doesn't overshadow a character; it makes them stronger and more realistic. And don't we want characters that feel more realistic??? I know I do!

I'm still learning and growing, in both my writing and my life. Writing diverse characters can sometimes feel like I'm writing with my left hand, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't try. My handwriting may still look sloppy to some people, but I will always work my hardest to focus on the soul of their character while also acknowledging their diverse traits. And don't let the fear of not knowing how to write diverse characters stop you. Do some research, and write. Write it again. The more you practice, the better you'll be, and eventually, you'll be ambidextrous.

Don't be a lazy author that excuses the lack of diversity in your books. Find a way to fix that problem, because diversity and representation matters, and you should be writing it.

This post is from the archives, originally posted February 2015.

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