If you’re on Twitter, you’re probably aware there’s a big push for diversity in novels–and rightly so! The #WhiteWashedOUT hashtag is trending all month, pointing out all the diverse roles in Hollywood that have been filled by white actors, and why this sucks. The #MSWL hashtag has agents from all over the country pining for every race and religion.
I’m sorry to say I didn’t realize this was an issue until I joined Twitter. All of my books were drowning in white characters, because it never occurred to me to add anyone else. I only found books with white characters. As a kid, all of my favorite protagonists were white.
And that’s the problem. The world is so much bigger than that.
This DFWCon panel could seriously have been an entire conference. I would trip over myself to sign up for a Diversity in Writing conference, where every panelist is from a different race or background, and they tell us white folk how to properly represent them.
(Hint: It involves research. Lots of it.)
This panel was less presenting information, and more talking about diversity from different perspectives. Here’s what to do / not to do:
- Subtlety is key. You don’t want to throw someone’s color in the reader’s face. If you have an African American character, don’t openly state he’s black. Instead, describe him as “dark skinned with dreadlocks.”
- Don’t use food to describe skin color. Mostly because it’s overdone and pretty cliche. You’re a creative person. You can figure out something better.
- It’s good to mix cultures. Say you have a main character named Carlos Hisakawa. His name alone is an easy, unobtrusive way to inform your readers that Carlos has two cultures behind him: Mexican and Japanese.
- Don’t forget how a character feels in certain areas. Setting is important. Just as a white woman might feel uncomfortable in a Mexican city, a black man could feel out of place in Salt Lake City, Utah. Think about this when writing a character’s response to a certain place.
- Culture influences everything. A Native American boy who grew up on a reservation might have a tough time adapting to certain aspects of modern medicine. If you have a 15 year old Mexican girl in your story, don’t forget about her quinceañera. These things should be woven deep into the characters.
- AVOID STEREOTYPICAL LANGUAGE. White writers sometimes lump certain phrases or stereotypes into a character based on their background. But in reality, even if a black character uses African American Vernacular English (or “ebonics,” although that term isn’t widely appreciated) with his friends, it doesn’t mean he’ll use it in school too. Just like a white girl may use Valley Girl Speak (unofficial term) with her girlfriends, but she’d never speak that way to her strict, millionaire father. Get it?
- This was actually a huge challenge for me. My African American character, Demarco, grew up in south Chicago gang territory. I did exhaustive research on AAVE, and pieced together dialogue as best I could. I then asked one of the panelists of a similar background to read Demarco’s first chapter and give me feedback. I was pleasantly surprised to find he added more slang, rather than berating me on what I’d written. So my takeaway is, less is more. If you think you’re overdoing the slang, you probably are.
If that was confusing, just watch this instead. This is what we need in literature.
I love TED talks. And there are lots and lots of them on diversity. If you’re not sure where to start, research-wise, this is a good place. Another is the blog Writing with Color. I scoured it while working on OPERATION OVERLOAD, and wow, it’s amazing!
Overall, the panelists wanted to see MORE:
- Biracial representation (especially in romance)
- Diversity (especially in YA)
- Different genders in work roles
- People of color in decision-making roles.
So keep that in mind when you’re plotting your next novel. As I said before, my novels were all white in high school. I’m sad to say OPERATION OVERLOAD is the first diverse novel I’ve attempted to write. But now that I’ve tried it, I’m never going back. Including characters from different cultures and religions offered a new perspective to the problems my characters faced. It’s a flavor you can’t find with white people being white.
That’s what diversity does for you.
The research may seem intimidating, but odds are you’re researching other things anyway. No good writer can finish a book without looking something up. And this, at least, will educate you on the ways of the world.
The last piece of advice these wonderful panelists offered is this. Join the community you wish to write. If you’re interested in writing a Polynesian character, find the Polynesian community in your area. Check out Meetup, find an online group, do your research. Give your finished product to a few Polynesian beta readers, and LISTEN to their feedback. Trust me, they know how to be themselves better than you do.
It’s time to get out there!
(Within reason, folks. Please don’t try to talk to the Russian mob if that’s your target culture. It’s just a bad, bad idea.)
How diverse is your writing? Have you attempted a diverse character before? How did it go? Let me know in the comments!