Friday, December 16, 2016

Diversity in Fiction

Writers hear all the time how we should be diverse in terms of what we write and our characters. Our stories should be unique, not cliche. They should hold diverse characters. So what does diverse mean? I'd argue there's no flat rule for what diverse is. Everyone hears diverse and pictures something different.

Though my kids will eat just about anything, they really like PB&J to the point where they have it for lunch every day.

I use a different jelly every week to make lunch diverse. My husband thinks I'm crazy and states that grape jelly is the only proper jelly to be paired with peanut butter. I'm happy to say though that the kids are happy with the apricot, orange, lemon, pineapple, mint, apple, fig, and you name it jellies I've used.

Being diverse doesn't always mean "kids have to eat something different every day", it could mean they're having a different fruit for breakfast this week, or a different jelly for lunch.

Imagine you're reading a book and every character is the exact same. It's possible for people to share some traits. But if you can't tell the difference between two people because their dialogue sounds the same and they have the exact same ambitions that they're trying to achieve in the exact same way, that's boring!

So we diversify in various ways, but what really counts is that characters are different in some way. Diversity is important in every genre, be it fantasy, historical fiction, romance, sci-fi, etc. Some genres will require you to adhere to what was true of that time period or if it's a modern setting, the same. But you can still have people who are unique and different without making them a dragon or blue-skinned alien.

One of my favorite sayings is "Write people" and that's what I believe will naturally make characters diverse. If you focus on writing characters that are "people" with depth and motives and hopes and fears and dreams, they'll naturally be diverse because you don't need to look very far to see that real people ARE diverse.

I've broken down difference into three main groups: Surface differences, Balanced differences, and Self differences. Don't think too much about my terms, I'm just coming up with ones that hopefully fit.

Surface differences are the things that mostly affect what other characters think about that character. They may have a measure of affect on how the character's story plays out, how they see themselves, etc. But most of what a character encounters, good or bad, when dealing with surface diversity is based on another character's perception of them.

Balanced differences are aspects of a character that affect how other characters see them and actual differences at a deeper level. These are things that, like physical differences, may have a character face adversity or have an easier road, but also do impact who a character is inside.

Self differences are diverse aspects of a character that affect who the character is and how they'll approach the world.

To note, there will be some crossover in all categories! I'm not creating hard lines, but trying to establish basic parameters. Obviously a surface difference could be something a character internalizes and makes a central part of the "why" when it comes to their actions. And a self difference could result in another character judging that person based on that difference.

Surface Differences
  • Physical - What do your characters look like? 
    • Hair - What color is it? How does the character style or cut it? A character's hair color may be cause for prejudice in your story. The way they cut and style it might be a key to their background or indicate something about themselves. 
    • Eyes - Color and shape. Are they lively, cold, dead, sparkling, humorous, etc.
    • Body type - Is the character muscular, lanky, stocky, skinny, plump, feeble, etc. This can show age, what kind of work a character does, if they're well off. What words you choose are important. Different words for the same trait can bring forth negative or positive connotations, so think about what message you want to send to readers and how you want them to feel. Are they tall, short or average? 

    •  These aspects instantly give readers a way to separate the characters in their mind and build an image of them. Depending on the circumstances, a character's physical appearance can affect how they're perceived or how they see themselves. Each descriptor can cause challenges or ease. If your character has the same eye color as everyone else, it might make them feel safe, or ordinary. They might like or hate blending in. In Keeper of the Lost Cities Sophie Foster grows up having her brown eyes be ordinary, but after learning the truth about who she is, she then lives among her people where no one else has brown eyes. She hates the attention! A tall person may be able to see over crowds, but finding clothes could be a nightmare. A short person may fit in with the people around the, but be suddenly in a position where they are wishing they could reach that tree branch or jump over a gap that their legs can't make. Different cultures will react differently to people who are skinny or overweight. I would die if I had to go on a cross-country journey. So what realistic advantages/disadvantages do a character's physical definitions give them?
  • Gender - The key thing with this again is how each gender is thought of in the society you've written, whether it's based in a realistic setting or one you've created. Are the genders seen as equal? Does one tend to fill certain roles in society more than the other? Is any character doing something considered non-traditional for their gender?

[Story note: The number of key women in Heart of the Winterland vastly outnumber the prominent men. Don't ask me why, the story wrote itself that way. And the genders are considered equal. Though I can see it being a fun challenge to make an unequal society in a future book, for now I'm happy letting characters be themselves without bumping into people who think men/women shouldn't/can't do x.]
  • Race - Also pretty self-explanatory. This can be anything from writing realistic fiction that uses the many races and ethnicities that exist in our world, to creating your own. This is tricky in fantasy(barring urban fantasy) because "europeans/africans/asians/etc" don't exist in fantasy worlds since there isn't a Europe or Asia, etc. But that doesn't mean we don't/can't base our character's fictional race on an existing one.
[For Winterland I predominately based my two fictional races on Western Europeans and Asians(with most of the influence coming from China/Japan).]
    • The tricky thing with race is that there's no winning. I've seen people get huffy because a story is mostly x race. Or the one or two characters from a different race are portrayed in a way they don't like. It does make it tempting as an author to be like ARGH, forget racial diversity! Here's the key for me with any type of fiction. If you're writing realistic fiction/urban fantasy, then yes, give credit to the influences each race has on their culture, but also factor in their PERSONAL situation. Where were they born? Raised? Who raised them and what were they like?

    • Then there's the freedom that comes with fantasy. I get to decide what life is like for each race, what their culture is, how they're seen by other people, etc.There still needs to be a good flavor of individuality in each. What holidays do they celebrate? What do they see as a priority in life? What kind of food do they eat? What do they wear? etc.
    • Here is one of the most important things I can say about this, because I see a lot of people worrying about this: Write a person. This goes back to my writing people theme. If you write a black character and name them John Smith and they are a high-end lawyer who listens to country music and settled down in the country, someone somewhere might say you've white-washed the character. If you create LaKeisha the loud and sassy black woman who's living in the inner city and working at the local diner when she's out out grooving(do people still groove?) with her girlfriends at the club playing rap music, then you'll be accused of stereotyping.

    • People, I warn you, you'll never please everyone. You'll never make everyone happy. So don't try. Write your character as a person whatever traits and features you give them. Because there are black people out there, real people, who fit into a John or LaKeisha box. Traits do not belong solely to one race or another, making it impossible for John to be John. And just because 
  • Clothing - Whatever the setting, there'll be clothing that is fashionable or not. There'll be clothing that gets associated with a certain group of people. Pajamas in public will probably never be seen as classy, I'm sad to say. What are the character's clothes made of? Are they well-worn? The wrong size? Do they wear something new every day or the same thing? What colors are they wearing? Culture can often dictate what fabrics, colors, or styles can be used by which people. Laborer's will most likely not be wearing the same thing as scholars.

Balanced Differences
  • Positions - this is anything from jobs, to ranks, to what role a person fills. 
    • How the character acts - This is what the character has learned through nurture or what they have chosen to maintain as a part of themselves because of their upbringing. A princess may speak more formally than a street rat. How they perceive meals, lodging, clothing, personal hygiene can easily be affected by what is their normal. A boy trying to support a sick mother and little sister might jump at the chance to earn day old bread, while a duchess may be upset that her bread didn't come with the right side of jam. 

    • How others see the character - Will your character be treated poorly or with deference by the people around them? Are they respected because of their position, or scorned for their poverty? A character might be a slave who's treated like furniture, or the only child of a powerful ruler and treated as glass.

  • Disabilities - These are impairment that may be physical, cognitive, intellectual, mental, sensory, developmental, or some combination of these that results in restrictions on an individual's ability to participate in what is considered "normal" in their everyday society.
  • Disorders - A wide range of conditions that affect mood, thinking, or behavior. These can range from mild to extreme. Depression, anxiety, dementia, PTSD, bipolar, and narcissistic personality disorder are all examples that fall in this category. These do not change no matter the genre, though society's perception of them or treatments will vary. 

  • Diseases and defects - Let it be known that I hate the word defect. I'm not sure why, but it hits me with a lot of negative connotations that may be the result of personal experience. First, let me say that these are not the same thing, but fall in the range of medical conditions and that's why I'm putting them together.
    • Diseases are something we can't escape in real life, so there's a certain amount of realism that can be added to writing by not omitting something we all face. Colds or the flu anyone? People get sick, they just do. And people get deathly sick. I'm sure we've all had friends and/or family whose suffered through a terrible disease and possibly even died as a result. Is it contagious? 
    • Defects are an often-inherited medical condition that occurs at or before birth. Down Syndrome, club foot, and cleft lip/palate are some examples. 
  • Often disorders, disabilities, diseases, and defects will play a role in how a character goes through a story. What are they having to overcome? Maybe it's a family member to a key character who has one of these problems. Does that change how the character sees the world? How do they have to adapt? How does it change them? Do they let it define them? What situations are a lot more difficult to navigate because of this? Does what they have leave them tired, physically, emotionally, or mentally? 
  • But they also can make a difference in how others see them. Are they discriminated against? Seen as helpless? Are they constantly shielded or offered assistance? Are people nervous around them? Is the society one who believes these people have a right to life? Are they ostracized or believed to be a burden?
Self Differences
  • Motivation - What does a character want from life? What is their goal for this story? What makes them get up every day and keep going? Are they out for revenge? Do they have a family to provide for? Is someone counting on them? Do they yearn for adventure? 
    • Unique - what makes a character special? What makes them stand out in their own way? Is it their ability to see the good in people everyone else has given up on? A good leader, a good follower, a good listener. Compassion, empathy, strength, determination, a strong sense of responsibility. What makes us admire or despise your character? 
    • Setting - Where does a character live? Where have they spent most of their life?
      • Rural or Urban? - A person who's raised in the country will be different than one raised in downtown *insert big city*.  An urban character might be more comfortable around crowds, dealing with traffic, or the general bustle of the city. They may find the country too quiet or boring. A rural character might hate the smell and noise of the city. They may miss the space or seeing the stars. Maybe they feel safer in their own environment?
      • Modern, Future, or Medieval? - This can also dictate your characters speech, attire, or attitude. Think about what is expected of people at the time and how that affects what your characters will do.
    • Family
      • Members - Are the character's parents living or dead? What kind of influence are the parents? Does the character have siblings? What are their siblings like? Are they the only child, only boy/girl, youngest/oldest, etc? 
      • Expectations - What do the guardians do for a living? Do they expect their child(ren) to follow in their footsteps? Do they want their child to aim higher and not be like them? Is their a position they're being trained for? What a character grows up having expected on them can be the driving force behind why they make decisions.
      • Society - Is there an aspect of the family that society judges the character on? Maybe there's a stigma against multiples or more than x amount of kids, or less than x amount of kids. Is it a multi-racial family? Did one of the parents marry outside of their social sphere?
      • Treatment - What is the relationship between the family members? Is there an abusive family member? Perhaps one of the parents is stubborn and so is the character. Do they butt heads? Does something in the past(perhaps the loss of a child, or a twin) make the parent withdraw from the character? The character could be a troublemaker who resents their parents attempts to get them on track.
    • Religion and personal beliefs
      • A persons morals, religion, or personal beliefs can greatly affect what a character does. One character may believe that everything is free for the taking and the real crime is thinking that they shouldn't be allowed to take what they want. Most villains won't see themselves as villains. Their morals will be skewed, but in their mind they'll be right. Whether you're creating your own religion or using an already established one, what your character believes will play a role in how they approach things and what they see as right or wrong.
    • Education  
      • What kind of education did the character receive? What about their parents/guardians? Were their parents pushing them to achieve more academically? Or were they more of the "school up to the age of 10 was good enough for me, so it's good enough for you." The kind of parents who find learning pointless or feel threatened by their child becoming smarter than they are.
      • A person raised by someone with a higher education or more money, will have different traits than someone on the other end of the spectrum. And then of course there's what they do with their own lives, did they seek to be something different than what their parents/guardians were? This can affect how a character talks, what they have for goals, if they're strengths lie in academic knowledge or street smarts. Maybe they can't read, but could survive off the land. 
    In writing this I kept adding more and more diverse points. I finally had to tell myself enough! So yes, I'm sure I missed some, but I needed to draw the line. I also know that MOST of these points can be expanded on enough to fill an entire post. (You're welcome to tackle it!) But because this is meant to be an all-inclusive post of the various ways you can promote diversity in characters, I've tried to keep each point fairly brief. There's hopefully enough there to give you ideas and spark deeper research.

    Which brings me to research! I hate research, but it's something that almost all writers need to do at some point. Regardless of genre, research is a necessary evil. I've spent a lot of time recently researching clothing and colors that may be restricted to certain classes in x time period in y country. Get some personal experience if possible. I was telling a fellow writer that I was thinking of buying what I dress my characters in and seeing what it'd be like to walk around in it. 

    Talk to people, read up on subjects, educate yourself. Everyone has a different set of experiences that plays a role in making them unique. We're all diverse and writing characters who are equally diverse doesn't have to be hard and shouldn't be a "token" character. Develop a character who feels like a real person and people shouldn't care if one aspect is the same. I'll read about all male characters if they're individuals. I'll read about all royalty if they're unique. I'll enjoy stories of people who are all short if they're diverse. I want diversity in my writing, along with other things of course. Create characters who I can laugh and cry with. 

    At the end of the day, write people and you will achieve diversity. 


    1. First, I agree with your husband about the grape jelly. It's what make a PB&J sandwich a PB&J sandwich. But I'm with you about 'writing people.' Although I see the necessity of people seeing representatives of themselves (race, culture, sexuality, etc.) in books. But by the end of the day, diverse characters are made of their individual characteristics. What makes them tick, their pet peeves, their ambitions, love and pain. No one reacts the same way to any of these, either due to their personality or personal/past experience. And that's what makes interesting reading.

      1. Another grape jelly lover! I'm surrounded. :D I normally don't mind if a character is "like me", but I will admit that I started watch the "The Librarians" and there was something special about seeing a tall female lead whose height isn't a running joke or constantly brought up. It's just part of her and I was like YES!

        I'm of the mind, like you, that it's about how they operate. I love characters who respond as I would and who have personalities that are in line with my own. At the heart of a character, my favorite traits are ones that I can identify with.

        But there's characters I like who aren't like me at all, and some that on the surface are completely opposite.

    2. Wonderful information, Kristen! I definitely agree that the important thing is to write people. That how I view my characters, regardless of their appearance, motivations, etc. :)