On Writing Diverse Characters


[Whoa this post is wordy. And a bit academic-sounding. Bear with me?]

The human existence has such a large range of potential experiences that we would be missing out if we ignore the possibilities of character. The inclusion of diverse characters allows for a delightful range of possibilities. I could argue that, to some extent at least, it is necessary to include diverse characters (since we do live in a diverse world), but that’s not the direction this post is heading in.

A problem with diverse characters is when they devolve into tokens. Tokens, for example, are a common problem with the diversity checklist (when a list of diverse characters are included simply for the fact of having diverse characters). A token character (an extension of tokenism) is essentially a mostly-symbolic effort to make one or more minority group(s) appear represented in something. These tokens are often stereotypes, which should be avoided (really, please avoiding writing stereotypes. You can do better than that). For the best known example of tokens, pick almost any 1980s (American) kids movie and find the token black kid. Do they have any personality beyond being the token black kid? Probably not. In fact, you could probably take one from one movie and switch them with the token black kid in another. Would you notice? Probably not. This is because the personality and characteristics assigned to a token character are reduced to just them belonging to the minority group(s).

It is important to remember that a diverse characteristic is only a portion of a character’s identity. For example, you can have a trans girl who loves to play the guitar, has a stay-at-home dad, competes in swim, likes the color blue, and is an extrovert. The fact that she is a trans girl is only one portion of her identity. It certainly influences how she navigates the world, but just the fact that she is transgender should not encompass all that we see of her character. Do not allow a diverse characteristic to overshadow the complexities of a character. (In fact, you should already be writing complex characters, at least for your mains and secondaries.)

I prefer to think of including diverse characters as having a character who just happens to have a diverse trait. To continue the above example, that character is a girl who just happens to be transgender. She has other aspects (her love of playing the guitar, for example), that are still important to who she is, and the reader should see more than just her gender. I would argue that only showing the reader her trans-ness is, in actuality, a type of erasure since it reduces her to only that aspect of her identity (therefore erasing her perceived humanity).

It is also important to remember the intersections of identity. For example, if you write a black trans girl, you have an intersection between her identity of being a trans girl and her identity in being black. A tricky thing with writing transgender characters is that they are not always visibly transgender, but a black trans girl is always visibly black to the characters she interacts with (depending on how she is written, she might not be visibly black to the reader, but that is always a choice on the writer’s side). Although you can make a diverse character who is a plot device, I highly recommend that you tread carefully there. A diverse character who is used as a plot device can gain a negative reaction from that community, depending on the plot device. Also, do not overdo it (not every interaction with a transgender person is about them being transgender, for example).

That being said, one of the most important things to consider when writing a diverse character is if you can represent them well. Bad representation is, at the very least, misleading and often stereotypical. However, bad representation can be overtly dangerous for a community (for examples, see [here], [here], [here], and [here]). When researching how to write a character with a particular diverse trait, I read a lot of blogs (and I really do mean A LOT of blogs). I look specifically for blogs written by members of that specific community to make sure that my representation is as accurate as it can be (and to avoid issues like voyeurism).

Let me lay out an example. The narrator of [Into the Unknown] (ItU) is a character who happens to be deaf. They are also a character who just happens to be POC (non-white, this one is mixed race). I intentionally left this character unnamed and ungendered (i.e. I want the reader to determine how they see the character. If a reader reads them as NB, fine. If not, that’s also fine). There is a very long explanation as to why I did this with their name and gender. Eventually, I’ll write a blog post on it (the short version, as also stated above, is that I wanted the reader to be able to determine what gender, if any, they see the character as).

Since I am not deaf (I’m listening to rock music on the radio as I type this; the current song is [here] if anyone’s curious), I have been researching how to write this character through reading blogs. I can also reference resources that are specifically about writing deaf characters ([here], for example), and I can start with the basics if I need to as I get to know how this character navigates their world ([here], for example). I’ve also been trying to pick up on pieces of ASL (American sign language). I do not intend to become fluent in ASL, but it helps me to understand how this character interacts with other characters. I do not currently have the option of discussing their experiences (respectfully) with a deaf individual in person, otherwise I would. Since this character is POC, I’ve also read some POC blogs (however, I have written mixed race POC characters before, so I hope that I already have knowledge I can call on to help represent them well). I am having trouble finding any blogs where these traits intersect, so I have to intersect them in a way that I hope is accurate until I do find some. Also, because of the way ItU is set up (and how race functions in [The Balance of Souls]), race has different implications than in our world. So, I also take that into account.

Since I am non-binary (and since I have done this before with characters in unpublished work), I am reasonably sure that I can write a character well who is de-coupled from gender. As for this character, I have intentionally mixed the feminine and masculine. This includes action words and perceptions since (fun fact) authors tend to gender the action words of gendered characters.

And, finally, the method and style of storytelling will influence how a diverse character is portrayed. For example, there are no italicized thoughts in ItU. The plot involves a shift from an environment where the narrator is surrounded by friends fluent in ASL to an unfamiliar environment where almost no one knows it. The fact that this story is told in 1st person influences how the narrator is portrayed (and some of the types of research I end up doing since the reader perceives the narrator more through the narrator’s telling of their story and how other characters interact with them). The genre (sci-fi horror) also necessitates certain changes in style that can, in turn, influence how a character is portrayed.

How another character perceives that character can also influence how a reader sees them (possibly pertaining to their diverse trait). For example, Mica in [Victim] sees Rina just as his girlfriend. He never describes her in a negative way pertaining to her gender or appearance because of how he perceives her. Since Victim is told in 1st person from Mica’s perspective, this in turn influences how the reader perceives her. I initially wanted to make Rina transgender, but I decided against it. I gave her a skin condition instead, but the reader only sees her through Mica’s perspective. Therefore, the reader doesn’t see her skin condition. Even when Rina is the focus (the short extra [here], for example), it may not be clear to the reader how others perceive her.

The narrator in ItU extends beyond their diverse traits. For example, the narrator has a near-obsessive love of stars and astronomy. They have a boyfriend named Aiden and a backstory involving distant parents. Their favorite color is sunset orange, and they do not know the color of their own eyes (because dystopian sci-fi). They are fiercely loyal to their friends, but definitely not an extrovert. When I first started ItU, I did not sit down and plan out that I wanted this character to be deaf or POC. But, after I began writing, it felt natural to this character. This is a character who just happens to be deaf. They are not a token; they are a complete character. I just hope I can do them justice in how I write them.

(Someday, I know I’ll mess up. I know the limitations, histories, and traps of my genres (especially horror), so I know I’ll make a mistake someday. I’ll learn and move on.)

Wondering about that follow-up post? It never got posted. A condensed version can be found [here].

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