Friday, January 15, 2016

For the Sake of Diversity...

“We should be diverse in our writing.”

As a writer, have you ever heard that phrase?
It seems to come more and more at us as if we are required to do what others wish us to do. As if we are required to write what others demand we writer.

To a certain extent, that is true. If a writer wants to be published, they have to write something that readers will read and that publishers will pick up and be willing to print. As authors we have to consider our audience and be mindful of them as we write.

This consideration used to apply to two different forms of consideration: age and genre.
You wrote according to your target age and target genre. Anything else was completely up to you. Your character could be any race you wanted, any gender, position, occupation, ethnicity, religion (or lack thereof), and so forth. No one really seemed to care, fifty years ago or so (based on what I can read and see and learn about from those who lived then). 

If your character was a straight white Christian male, no one had a problem.
If your character was a young lady who happened to be incompetent at saving herself from the darkness and doom, that was acceptable.

Enter the term “diversity”.
More and more this word is permeating and percolating through our society until it reaches even us: the reclusive fiction and non-fiction writers. It affects us more with each day: it affects who will publish what, what readers want to read, and what you “must” writer about.

Before we begin, let me say this: I have nothing against diversity.
To repeat: I have nothing against diversity.
I’m not a racist or sexist pig, all right?
Please and thank you. My being a white male does not make me those things. I’m just here to blog about why diversity can harm or help story. Any other form and usage of the word is irrelevant.
Now. With that covered…

What is diversity?

I could pull out a dictionary and give you four or five definitions, but not all of them (if any) would apply to this situation. Our situation is this: what is diversity when it comes to writing?

Simple answer: diversity is including many or all people groups in your writing.
Note how simple that sounds. It’s including more than one people group in your writing. Also note how non-aggressive it is, and how nonexistent the agenda behind it is.

Diversity is realizing that the world has more than one kind of people in it and incorporating at least two of those groups in your writing.
To take it a step farther, it is realizing that your world has more than one kind of people in it. Even if you haven’t come across them yet, it is unrealistic to have an entire planet populated by one type of people group.

Oftentimes the proponents of diversity will come at the subject with an agenda; they want something from us writers and they want it now. This minority or that wants more “representation” for their little clique, as if we – the writers – own them that representation.

If you want to write about this minority or that, great! Good for you. Have a nice life, write about your minority, and bask in the praise your book will have for representing that minority.
Or hide as it gets slammed for presenting the minority poorly or biasedly. As if it’s possible to present something without bias.

Diversity does not, however, have to be about an agenda. It doesn’t even have to be about a minority, for that matter.

Does your story have more than one nationality in it? Do people claim patriotism to different countries?
That is diversity.
Does your story have more than one ethnicity in it? Are people likely to associate with one ethnicity than another?
That is diversity.
Do your characters associate themselves with different races?
That is diversity.
Do your characters associate themselves with different religions?
That is diversity.

You get the picture.

Diversity is presenting a world with vivid life. Where not everyone has the same color skin, the same color eyes, the same beliefs, the same worldview or outlook on everything.

The Trap of Diversity

The danger of diversity comes when you feel obligated to have it in your story. When you feel compelled by someone that isn’t you to include [insert minority group of choice], that is not real diversity.
Being pressured into including something for diversity’s sake is not creating art. It isn’t even creating a mirrored reflection of reality.
It’s creating a blob of clay with all the “correct” colors slapped onto it.

Never include something to a story because you feel obligated to do so. Society has no right to demand you write about [insert a different minority group of choice], or about anything at all. You have to consider what society wants, but you don’t have to go with the flow. Oftentimes it is authors who get to form public opinion. We write something, publish something, spread something to the world and create new opinions in our readers. 

That is the power of writing. That is why diversity is important. Because if we spread the false belief that there is only one racial group or ethnicity that is important, we’re spreading lies. Our job is to spread truth, is it not?
And there is the danger. Many groups with an agenda, trying to promote [insert yet another minority group – we’re practicing diversity, you know] tend to “hate” (as it were) on any other group. When you promote one group as higher than another (whether they are a minority or not), you aren’t doing anything worthwhile. You might be building up one group and representing them, but you’re tearing another one down.
When you proclaim that whites aren’t the best people in the world and therefore our stories should have more [insert ethnicity], you’re being just as harmful as those who believe in white superiority.

If there truly is equality, our writing should show equality. Not favoritism. Not for anyone. Not for whites or blacks or purples.

Avoiding the Checklist

Have you ever seen one of those movies where there seems to be one character for every ethnicity, race, and background?
I’m sure you have:
There’s the attractive, independent young woman (which is somehow diverse because all women are attractive, independent, and young? I guess?), the black guy with mad 'skillz', the nerdy white guy who gets the girl, somehow, and the Asian or Hispanic fellow who has all the connections and know-how to get the job done.

Oh look, diversity, right?

Eh, no.

Diversity is not a checklist. It is not going through your novel and saying “oh, this character can be androgynous, and this one can be black and this one can be…”. Diversity is so much more than a checklist of ethnicities and races and minorities. It is delving into your story and deciding “what is diversity in my story?”

Is diversity shown in the number of religions people believe? Is it shown in the slums where peoples of all kinds mesh together to form a system of support for the poor under oppression?
Perhaps it is shown through personality. Through the girl who is fiercely independent and through the other girl who is willing to let others lead.

Take your checklist for diversity and tear it into tiny shreds. A checklist never did anyone good, unless it was a grocery list or to-do list for the weekend.
Instead of checking off a box each time you insert a new skin color, consider what is realistic for your story.
Consider what is right for the story.

If something doesn’t work for your story (for instance, a tale set in 1700s Massachusetts won’t have many black people, nor would a tale set in 1100 Norway, whereas a story whose setting is near-future Liberia will have more blacks than whites or Hispanics or Asians), don’t use it.

If it makes logical sense for your main character to be a twenty-year-old white male, have your main character be a twenty-year-old white male.

Sure, break stereotypes.
But it’s okay to break the stereotype of breaking stereotypes.

Don’t try to be unique. That’s too hard to do, and a waste of time anyway because the word means so little anymore.
Instead of trying to be unique and “representative”, be real.

Be diverse, because diversity is important. But even more than that be real.

Your story needs to be real more than it needs diversity.

What do you think? Do you think diversity is important in novels? Do YOUR stories have diversity? Leave a comment and share!

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  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I've been thinking this for quite a long time now.
    My current novel does not contain any characters of color, or any non-straights. Why? Because that's how the story came to me. It does happen to have a strong female lead. Why? Not because I'm a feminist (though I am), I can tell you that. Because that was how the story came to me, and that is how I have built it. I'm not required to show off your minority. I'm not required to show off my minority either. There aren't any asexuals or aromantics in this novel, either, and I am both.
    Write what you want. If your book doesn't contain any POC, that's fine. If it does, nice. If all it contains is Hispanics, that works too.
    This is especially true in a fantasy world. If you've got a real-life setting, then only having white people is probably going to be a bit weird (unless you're in 1100 Norway, as Aidan said) but if you're in a fantasy world, heck, you don't even need to have any /humans/.
    So stop worrying about representation, unless you specifically want to. And if you want to write a novel where diversity is a main part of it, that works too!

    1. EXACTLY.
      Diversity is only useful so far as it is realistic.
      If you worry about it for appearances sake, you're doing it wrong.

  2. May as well stick my own two cents in, hm? Because, you know, writing a long post about it isn't enough.

    My current project, Agram Awakens, is an epic/high fantasy novel. I’ve been worldbuilding for two years or so, now, and have developed several countries and races.
    I’m not talking just “okay black people go here and white people here”, but I’ve created three humanoid races in addition to “humans”.
    It’s been interesting to try and incorporate this form of diversity into the novel. Of the six main characters, three are non-humans and the dynamic between races is a lot of fun to write.
    The diversity itself isn’t so hard to create. It’s the incorporation thereof without sounding forced that can be tricky.

  3. *likes*
    As a fantasy writer, I rarely worry much about diversity. But since I've been stretching my boundaries into futuristic, his-fic, and contemporary fantasy, I've started to think about it more. I think what helps me figure it all out is to forget completely what it is that makes them a minority, and just write them as a person. (my grand writing philosophy coming out there--"just write about people and forget everything else." It might get me in trouble some day--like when I'm published and need a /plot/--but for now, I'm sticking to it. XD)
    Anyway. I'm rambling. Fabulous post.

    1. Ahahah, needing a plot is optional, right?
      Really though, fantasy can be a great way to use diversity in whole new ways (such as creating your own races and so forth), but also a good excuse to avoid dealing with the excess "agenda-pushing" that surrounds diversity.

      And of course, writing people as people rather than "minorities" is exactly what avoiding the checklist is all about. ^_^ If we forget that they're /people/, we end up writing them just to prove a point.