A Reflection on Diversity

Posted: December 20, 2016 in On Writing
Tags: , , , ,

Yeah, yeah, so this is going to be one of those posts that is writing about writing. Unlike some of the other ones I’ve done, this is way less about craft and more about content and the fundamental underpinnings of character. So if you are here only for the short fic, might want to give this a pass. Also, I am not writing this to call any author out, except for maybe myself.

Here’s the thing. I’m a cis/het/white able-bodied dude creeping up on his forties. I write speculative fiction. For decades, spec fic was written for my demographic.  I count among my influences Robert E. Howard, Michael Moorcock, H.P. Lovecraft, Roger Zelazny, Clark Ashton Smith, and yeah, even some Robert Heinlein. I grew up reading R.A. Salvatore and David Eddings.

It is only relatively recently that other demographics are starting to make gains in those fields as writers. As a result, many, many characters that I’ve read are through the lens of a male perspective. And hey, guess what my default is when I start writing? People that (more or less) look like me. Write what you know, right?


Isn’t that a failure of imagination on my part? If I can write a knife wielding blood magician as a hero, if I can write an expy of a Roman legionnaire trapped in a sword, if I can write a mech pilot flitting through space fighting aliens, why can’t I write a character different from myself?

Part of the answer, of course, is that writing a character who is even superficially like me is comfortable. I know what that experience is like. The problem inherent with that is that when someone picks up a story I wrote, are they ever going to see themselves in place of the hero? If my daughter picks up one of my stories, is she going to wonder why the girl can’t do the rescuing, can’t be the badass? Yes, this is something I’m working on.

Part of the answer as well is a fear of getting it wrong. Of trying to write a non-heterosexual character and being accused of queerbaiting. Of writing a person of color and flailing horribly. Of writing a female character and getting it absolutely mind-boggingly wrong. Of writing a disabled character and screwing the pooch on it completely.

All of that feels like excuses though, doesn’t it? First drafts should and are encouraged to be able to be imperfect. Editing is where the magic happens, where you make the words not suck. That isn’t only about fixing the surface issues. Grammar. Spelling. It’s also about shoring up the story structure. Of taking a long, hard look at characters and making sure you are treating them as characters and not window dressing or worse treating the thing that makes them diverse as the sole aspect of their character that makes them unique.

So what’s the answer? Is there an answer?

Well, the first step is to treat the characters as characters, and not a collection of tickboxes. A disabled character might use a wheelchair, but they are not their wheelchair. A character might have dark skin and suffer discrimination because of it, but they are not lesser because of it. A sword in the hand of a woman is as dangerous (or more so) in the hand of a woman as it is in the hand of a man.

And if you are looking at your fiction and say that diversity has no place because “history” take a good long hard look at what you are writing. Even the Arthurian legends had Palamades, a Saracen. And Shakspeare has Othello (well, and Aaron too if you want to go strictly villainous). And if you are including potatoes and tomatoes but not diverse characters because “history?” That speaks more to your own lack of research than any historic veracity. This goes double if you are writing spec fic in anything other than a real world historic context. If you limit diversity to non-human races, but all your characters look like you? That’s a problem. Fiction should give us a chance to rise above ourselves, to tell truth about the world and sometimes to reshape in such a way that we can show what is possible as opposed to what is.

So the question becomes what next? Where do I go from here? My answer is that I’m going to keep writing, working to be cognizant of where I can do better and knowing that everyone reading what I write doesn’t have the same background, the same lens through which I see the world. And I’ll keep my daughter in mind for the day when she picks up something I wrote and looks for herself in the words.

  1. WriterDrew says:

    Very good piece. You’re saying several things I’ve thought at times and I’m sure we’re not the only ones

  2. Good post. I’m a queer white woman, and I also grew up on the usual suspects of spec fic: Have Spacesuit Will Travel and The Hobbit were the bedtime stories my dad would read to me as a kid. But these days, I gravitate more and more to stories that aren’t about the white straight male heroes that populated the lit which shaped me as a kid–and certainly most everything I write doesn’t resemble those “classic” stories at all. I think the genre as a whole will be a better place the more people acknowledge the biases and lack of representation both in the spec fic canon as well as their own writing. Thanks for posting about this, and good luck with your new writing resolutions!

    • I think we are starting to see a paradigm shift in the genre(s), and there are definitely some writers (Saladin Ahmed, Kameron Hurley, Delilah Dawson,Hillary Monahan) that I am following more closely than I would have before. And its more than just adding skin tone or a different sexual preference, but trying to do so as honestly and humanely as possible. That could be a whole other post though, and I was nervous enough writing this one.

  3. The first step is the hardest, and that’s realizing you can do more. Trust me. You’re going to make some missteps. Make a point of not being defensive about it. Take a breath and ask how can you do better. Because that’s what it’s all about–getting better. Writing better.
    Honest observation and asking the occasional questions helps. I’d also highly recommend Nissi Shawl’s book on Writing the Other. It’s been invaluable to me. http://www.aqueductpress.com/books/978-1-933500-00-3.php
    Good luck and good writing!

  4. From this post it sounds like you will be writing these characters thoughtfully and with awareness. I think that’s most important. Don’t be afraid to ask people for feedback on it.

    • That is part of the problem I face. Most of my beta readers share a lot of the same demographics I do. But yeah, being open to feedback is a huge part of it, and actually listening to what people have to say.

  5. Great post! I feel the exact same way. Been writing for about seven years now and all my protagonists are white straight able-bodied Catholic girls my age or younger set in a place I’ve actually lived. While I’ve included a number of diverse characters as supporting characters, I have yet to have one of them be the protagonist, because, as you state, I have a “fear of getting it wrong”. Something to work on in the new year for sure.

    • Heh, I feel your pain. Catholic K-8 plus Jesuit high school here. On the plus side, I have the rich Catholic mythology to draw on, along with its associated baggage.
      Anyway, I’m glad you liked the post.

    • Uniforms and all for K-8. More relaxed dress code for high school (no sneakers, no jeans, collared shirt), And yes, HS was all-male. Luckily we had some sister schools but man if you want awkward teenage boys…

  6. Amy Laurel says:

    “Well, the first step is to treat the characters as characters, and not a collection of tickboxes. A disabled character might use a wheelchair, but they are not their wheelchair.”

    I love that! I worry when I write in “diverse” characters that I’m not doing them justice, but I worry too about leaving them out and thus not being relatable to all of my audience. This is a great article with some great advice! Thanks for sharing it!

    • One of the better pieces of advice I’ve seen is that if you are writing a certain type of character, especially one that is unlike you, find someone with the same kind of traits as that character to give it a read first to make sure you aren’t wandering blindly into a mine field.

  7. You’ve got a good response on this one so far =) Well done being transparently honest.

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