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How To Write Diverse Characters With Alex Anders

    Categories: Writing

The Guardian UK recently reported that diversity is a trend in publishing for 2018, so today, I have an interview with Alex Anders on how to write diverse characters without cultural appropriation or stereotyping, as well as boundaries around language and an interesting discussion on gender fluidity.

In the introduction, I mention the launch of Publica, which uses the blockchain for publishing – definitely an early entry into what may eventually be a bigger part of the industry. But I’ll be waiting for the Alliance of Independent Authors Blockchain for Books white paper, launching at London Book Fair, before giving my take on it.

I also give a personal update around my screenplay adaptation, the audiobook for The Healthy Writer, and note two new podcasts: Mark Lefebvre’s Stark Reflections on Writing and Publishing, plus Ingram Spark’s Go Publish Yourself.

This podcast is sponsored by Kobo Writing Life, which helps authors self-publish and reach readers in global markets through the Kobo eco-system. You can also subscribe to the Kobo Writing Life podcast for interviews with successful indie authors.

Alex Anders is an international bestselling author of romance and self-help, with over 250 books published under multiple pen names, he’s the host of The Bisexual Empowerment Podcast and YouTube channel, and is an African-American bisexual male. Alex appears regularly in the media to speak about diversity.

You can listen above or on iTunes or Stitcher or watch the video here, read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.

Show Notes

  • What prompted Alex to write romance with diverse characters
  • Writing diversely without straying into cultural appropriation
  • How to stay away from writing character stereotypes
  • Boundaries around dialogue
  • How and why publishing is changing and becoming more diverse

You can find Alex Anders at AlexAndersBooks.com and on Twitter @AlexAndersBooks

Transcript of Interview with Alex Anders

Joanna: Hi, everyone. I’m Joanna Penn from thecreativepenn.com. And today I’m here with Alex Anders. Hi, Alex.

Alex: Hi.

Joanna: It’s great to have you on the show. Just a little introduction.

Alex is an international bestselling author of romance and self-help, with over 250 books published under multiple pen names, he’s the host of “The Bisexual Empowerment Podcast” and YouTube channel, and is an African-American bisexual male. Alex appears regularly in the media to speak about diversity, which is what we’re talking about today. Which is very exciting, and I’m really thrilled to have you on the show.

Let’s start with a definition. Because the word diverse is kind of thrown around, but what is diversity in books and publishing as we’re discussing it today?

Alex: Well, I think because the publishing industry tends to go towards authors who are white, who are straight, who are of European descent. I think for our discussion, diversity should be anything outside of that.

Joanna: I think the other thing, let’s just say upfront, this is a fraught topic, isn’t it? I mean, I don’t like this trigger thing as in we shouldn’t talk about certain things in case they trigger people, but this is a very political hot potato, especially in this political climate.

Let’s just say upfront that our aim is to present this in a very positive way and try to help people.

How have you come up against these political hot potatoes in your career talking about this?

Alex: For me I’ve got to say it’s a lot easier. Because I am a person who does not automatically fit into the norm.

When I was an actor I will look around on set and I would be the only black person on set. And I went to a school in Wisconsin, and Wisconsin is the middle of United States, and there are a lot of people who had never met a black person before, and I was the first black person they were meeting. So, just in terms of life the idea of being the diverse one just was always automatic.

It’s just second nature for me to deal with it. And I sometimes don’t even see the differences anymore. I don’t even feel when these unusual things come up in my career, in my life.

But I can tell you as a bisexual, that has been a bit of a challenge, but even that has been surprisingly easier, and less confronting if you will, than I would have guessed.

Joanna: You mention acting then.

Give us a little potted history of how you got into writing and publishing.

Alex: Well, I started out a long time ago wanting to be a writer, and wishing I can tell stories. And I thought the way to tell those stories would be to become an actor. After coming to Los Angeles and doing it for a while I realized that being an actor is telling other people’s stories.

So, I tried to figure out other ways I could tell stories, and through my career I ended up doing things like I was a producer for Disney channel, a promo writer producer for Disney Channel, for Toon Disney, for Soapnet, for Vivendi Universal Games for a while. And I made my living doing that for about 10 years or so.

Then I start working at Disney brand marketing for Disney DVDs, and I was okay with it, it was interesting enough, but I really wanted to be in development, but in Disney you can’t really move up and down very easily. So, I decided my radical wish was leave my job in order to be considered for three development jobs that were coming up.

I left my job and then within a month the president declared that we were in the middle of a recession and all those jobs I wanted went away. And I thought, “Well, I’ve always wanted to write a book, let me write a book.” So, I wrote one and then wrote three more, and at that point I realized, “Okay, well, I’m not making a lot of money here, I wonder if there’s a way I can make more money.”

I did some research and I stumbled across someone by the name of Amanda Hocking who I’m sure everybody listening to this podcast might know who it is.

Joanna: Those of us oldies remember Amanda Hocking. I’m not sure how many new people do.

Alex: Yes, they go way back.

Joanna: Yes.

Alex: This is the point. Back in about 2009-2010 there was someone who’s named Amanda Hocking and she made big news because she signed, I think it was a $2 million deal to publish her indie books that she had been pushing digitally to a major publisher. Within that story they’re talking about how much she was making selling digitally.

And I thought, “What is digital? I don’t know what that is.” So I did some research on her and found out that the way she honed her skills and went from zero to selling a lot digitally was on a forum called Kindle boards at the time. So, I went looking for what that was, and I found it, and this was a forum where they just talked about, like all day long, how to sell more books. These are a bunch of independent authors.

I spent hours, and hours, and hours on this researching what it is, and I finally decided to change all my books from being print to being digital. And then, I started to just focus entirely on digital. Initially like I wrote eight books, sold still basically nothing.

And then, I realized there was a bunch of people who were selling a bunch of books and they were talking about what they were writing, and they were writing the sexy form of romance. In which case I said, you know, if I ever get desperate, I mean like really desperate because I’m an intellectual. I write smart books about, you know, intelligent things.

If I ever get desperate I’ll try that. And then, a month or two later I got desperate and the first book I wrote, I wrote it in a day, and I sold more in that in the next week with that one book that I did with my previous eight books the entire month. And I just switched, and from there I just started selling more until finally like within seven, eight months, so I was making a living at it. Ever since then I’ve been a professional author.

Joanna: And we should just say upfront that you were kind of joking with the desperate, as in active romance authors, and readers we absolutely respect you all. And, you know, we love you. You are the basis of our industry.

Alex: Thank you. The funny thing was that I have noticed that romance authors have a tendency to be on the cutting edge, for whatever reason.

Joanna: Absolutely. Well, because they get choked off everything. They’re like, “Oh, sorry we can’t have sex around here. Sorry you’re not allowed on our platform.” So they’ve always had to be ahead of everybody. I totally agree with you. Where you were in that curve.

Circling back to diversity, are you writing only diverse romance? So bisexual romance, African-American romance, or were you writing all kinds of romance?

Alex: Actually, no. One thing I have learned very well in my life is that there’s an audience and you play to that audience. And the audience for romance books are mostly white females.

So as a black male, I wanted to cater to the largest audience. So I wrote stories exclusively about white people. I made my living writing stories about a white female; slim-figured, sometimes curvy, mostly curvy, and it has done very well, and that was what I knew sold not only in English, but it sold in multiple languages.

I started out writing the originally just generic erotica…and actually no, first I started writing male on male erotica. Then I realized that if I kept doing this I would never date again because I mostly date women. I switched to like a, “50 Shades of Grey” and then after that I realized, well, there’s actually more money to be made in like just sexy romance.

So I switched to werewolf romance and I did very well by that for a while. But then I thought, okay…well, actually it was the Kindle Unlimited switch and things started having to be longer. So I thought, “You know what? I think I’ll make the switch to suspenseful romance. That’s what I’ll do.”

But it took me seven months to learn how to do that, which meant seven months of no income and I’d put all my hopes into that, my first book, released it and it completely failed. And I went, “Oh jeez.” Like either I can spend more time writing these books or I could like go back to what’s tried, what’s true, which I found to be successful, or I can try something else, which I do.

Before that I was doing my videos, which I do like videos, bisexual real talk. So they were videos aimed towards bisexuals and I was growing up an audience slowly but surely. I’m kind of an active guy just in terms of in community building within the bisexual community. And I thought, “Well, if I’m doing all this stuff why don’t I also try writing bisexual romance. Let me see if there’s audience for that.” And that’s when I made the switch, and really that’s when I started selling the most of my career in English.

Joanna: Wow.

And what about African Americans? Are you writing them yet?

Alex: Well, here’s the interesting thing again. I’m from the Bahamas. So, I grew up outside of the United States. The reason why I work within the bisexual romance genre is that I understand the experiences that are most associated with that. So, it becomes very easy for me to write about it.

Growing up at the Bahamas is different from growing up in United States, so, you know…and this is a tad bit of a stereotype, but not so much. I think the majority of African Americans grow up with an economic level that isn’t as high as the average white person American. Whereas I grew up in the Bahamas in a two-storey house on a hill, with a pool and a tennis court, playing tennis with Sidney Poitier. So it wasn’t exactly, you know, the equivalent experience.

So, what the readers are looking for are a deep dive into the African American experience, or a celebration of African American culture within the dating community, like within the dating sphere. And I don’t know if I know that.

I can make the characters black, and that will certainly sell some books, but would I be able to lock into the core reader group, readership of the African-American romance. So I’ve always kind of shied away from that knowing that first of all, stories with white protagonist in it sell more, and that I have an understanding of middle class white America better than I do the typical African American experience.

Joanna: This is so interesting, because we’re talking about diversity and the assumption there is we are talking about white people writing people of different sexualities or race, and you’re a black guy writing white female, which I think is presumably cisgender as we call it, and straight, which I think is brilliant.

I think there are two extremes for diversity and you’ve basically covered both of them there. And this is mainly the one I do which assume people are people, and I have enough in common with an African-American woman growing up in a very poor place, but she still experiences love, she still experiences grief. People are people whatever color, sexuality, gender.

And then there’s the other extreme which you mentioned, which is the deep dive into a cultural situation where that becomes the heart of the book. And that is where the cultural appropriation issues can come.

Someone emailed me and said how can I write about some of the things I do when I live in Bath, which is like this white heartland in Britain. Even though I went to school in Africa in Malawi in Sub-Saharan Africa and I’ve traveled around the world. My family is multicultural, I’m so offended. But this is the thing, it’s these two extremes that seem like a problem.

How can we balance writing multicultural, writing diversity whoever we are, and not be accused of cultural appropriation?

Alex: Honestly I don’t think there’s a way you can avoid being accused of something. People in this world are sensitive, sometimes rightfully so, sometimes not rightfully so.

If you live life fearlessly you are going to eventually be accused of something, and it’s a matter of whether or not you take it on and change because of it or not. And it’s like when should I take it on and when should I change because of, and when shouldn’t I take it on, or should I change back?

But really, the thing is that this will just happen. People will just say what they say, but the question is when should an author for their own moral self, decide what is too much, what is dancing on stereotypes and stuff like that.

I think really the guide that an author should follow is, yes, people are just people. I talk about my experience. I do not have the typical African-American experience yet I am a black man living in America. So I am by definition African American.

So, if you were to take a white character and just make that complexion black that is diversity and that’s not doing anything wrong. That’s not cheating or anything like that, because you can always find someone who is like that. And you’re just representing someone from that class, from that whatever else, who just happens to be black.

Joanna: It’s the same with gender. People say to me, how can I write male characters. I’m like, “Well, I just wrote them as I write a woman and I just give them a male name.” When I do it, I probably do what you say, like I’m writing a thriller in India so I give my character an Indian name. But I don’t have them like wobble their head or, you know, talk like that. I think I sit on that side, which is people are people.

But what was your other extreme?

Alex: The other thing is that there’s the idea of trying to do a deep dive when you don’t have the experiences necessary to do it.

Let’s say if you write African American romance, you don’t have to do the deep dive, but it certainly helps with readership. So if you try to do it and your experience is of let’s say the culture you’re writing about is just some sort of random, what I know from TV or I know from movies or from what I hear, you can rest assured that you will absolutely be writing a stereotype.

Because that is the way the human brain works. Like when we’re a child someone gives us a tennis ball and says this is a ball, and then the child goes, okay, so yellow, fuzzy, and small, those are balls. And that’s not bad, that’s creating a stereotype and that’s not bad, but if the parent then handed them a basketball and said this is a ball too, and the kid said “No, no, that is not a ball too, all balls are yellow, fuzzy, and small.” Then there’s a problem.

So, creating the stereotype isn’t the problem. If you meet another group and you go, “Okay, so everyone from this group is this, this, and this,” as long as when you meet someone else or you have other experiences and kind of broaden what you think of that group is, then it’s not a problem, but if you don’t have those multiple experiences to extend out your initial stereotype of the group then it’s a problem, and if you are writing a book and having a lot of your book being about the culture of whatever and you haven’t expanded like that, then you can just rest assured you’re writing a stereotype.

Joanna: Then that sort of begs the question about research. So, circling back to India. I’ve been to India a number of times. I love it. In Britain, we have a lot of Indian influence. And when I was writing, “Destroyer of Worlds” I spent a lot of time on YouTube because the biggest thing for me there was getting the religion right.

If we’ll mention race, sexuality, gender, religion is a hell of a prospect, because again, you separate an African-American, Muslim in a city with like your life in the Bahamas, again, it’s very different. So, I watched YouTube videos, but in a deep sense very specifically around what would this type of shrine look like, and then trying to use those details.

I read a lot of I guess books around, let’s say, tango dancing, I was trying to get a character on tango dancing, and read a book about that, or refugees. I was reading refugees stories written by refugees.

What are some of the other ways that you would recommend researching characters so we don’t write stereotypes?

Alex: In terms of research the thing I do most often is to go to Google Earth or Google Maps. And I choose an actual location for my sets, and I actually walk through them so I can get a sense of what it feels like to be in that exact space.

YouTube I think would be the best possible way because on YouTube if you’re looking through religions, and stuff like that. You could very easily find stuff on religion, but more than that there are videos where they talk about the 10 things that are unique about dating like a Russian woman, or something like that, or a Greek guy, and stuff like that.

So, you get a sense of from someone who is from probably your culture and the things they see that are different or from someone who left their culture and came to your culture and the things they notice that are different. So by watching like those specific types of videos you get a sense of how a person from the culture you’re writing about kind of the differences they see.

And that helps you to understand the things you can add to your character that would make it a little bit more fleshed out. YouTube and all of its forms that I think is the best possible way. You can do documentaries, you know, yes, you can read stories and stuff like that, but if you want to see a person, just see how they react and just kind of see the way they interact with the world, YouTube is I think by far the best.

Joanna: Me too. Writing dialogue, I think this is one of the worst things that authors do. They just do it on a country-specific thing.

I have a friend who wrote an Irish character and then the audiobook, it was like a leprechaun, he was like, “To be sure, to be sure,” and it was, like, “No, Irish people don’t speak like that.”

You can also really be offensive. Obviously, there are words in African-American culture that African Americans can use with each other that you can’t use if you’re not African American. It’s just not acceptable. But there would be people who want to write dialogue that represents those characters. And you can see how this becomes an issue because sometimes you don’t want to describe somebody in exactly the right way, but you want to use some language that respects their culture.

Where do you think the lines are around dialogue that might again be just totally cliché or morally wrong?

Alex: Again, so many interesting complex topics here. I grew up, as I’m sure you did, with Quentin Tarantino and, “Pulp Fiction” and Quentin Tarantino has a tendency to be comfortable with certain words to describe black people. And he feels comfortable with that because he grew up around a lot of black people and with a high appreciation of blaxploitation cinema from the ’70s.

That’s my background on it. And what I had to kind of come to terms with how people are allowed to use words if they don’t exist in the culture. And I think nowadays, I would say lean on being fearless. However, don’t be a lazy writer.

So if you’re going to use the words that’s going to offend somebody, ensure that you have done as much research as you possibly can so that you’re not creating that stereotype, so that you’ve expanded your understanding of culture in such a way that you can use it in the way that it is actually used in real life.

As long as you stick to those rules I think in terms of morally you can be okay. And as an author, it’s almost your responsibility to be fearless and to push a little bit, but again, don’t be a lazy writer, make sure that you’ve done your research, and understand what you’re using because words are powerful.

Joanna: And I think the other thing just on words. I’m almost 43 and what is so interesting, I’m finding this non-binary gender thing fascinating, and cisgender. The word is quite new, I think, at least in my experience; transgender, intersex. But particularly, the difference that younger generations have around the understanding of gender fluidity, which I love. I didn’t even know I had a choice to be more fluid around this thing.

Alex: Who did? I didn’t.

Joanna: Exactly. And I really love that. But what’s interesting is the language. I love the fact that we’re making up new language. I think that’s the point I’m trying to get to. And yet I hear people who are my age and older using them in the wrong way.

I heard an older relative of mine say, “Oh, I want to watch that program with the gay.” And I’m like, “What is ‘the gay’?” You can’t say that. She meant Graham Norton’s show, which is very popular, and she didn’t mean it in an offensive way. She loves him. But it could definitely be taken in an offensive way.

What do you think about the necessity to learn and understand the way people are using these words? I mean, it becomes quite silly if we get down to I’m a cisgender, African-American Muslim male. It becomes type-cast.

How far do we go with this?

Alex: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I think you go as far as is necessary to accommodate your world. You don’t have to know the intricacies of how a computer works to go about your life. So, there’s no need to really deep dive into that, and to completely understand that.

If your world is kind of small and isolated, then you technically don’t need these words. But, if your world is expanding, if you are interacting with a lot of younger people. If you’re an author and you want to try and do something with this and just kind of straight white male from European or that sort of thing, then it’s necessary for you to go into it and understand a little bit. But, I have something for your audience, some tips of what these words mean, just kinda like the basis of it, and how authors gonna use it an interesting way.

Joanna: Great.

Alex: I have a YouTube channel about bisexuality. I deal with sexuality a lot, and I think, first of all their sexual orientation and sexual identity…sexual orientation has to do with who you have fantasies about, who your behavior is with, and who you fall in love with.

So, it’s kind of like a scientific stuff you can look at, and people will argue this more, but there’s only three according to science, which is heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual. And then there’s sexual identity. And identity is how you want to present yourself to the world.

For example, they could be a person who their sexual orientation is really bisexual, but because of fear of reactions, they could identify as straight. So, in that way you have this kind of conflict going on.

The reason why I really now love writing bisexual characters so much is because writing is about writing conflict.

And internal conflict is key, and when I write about bisexuals I can constantly dance with the conflict of, this is how they really are, and this is how they present themselves to the world. And what conflict comes about because of that?

When dealing with identity, sexual orientation, those are major differences, and for sexual identity, that’s where you get straight as a sexual identity, gay as a sexual identity, bisexual, pansexual, queer, all these things.

Asexual is different. Asexual there is the spectrum of who you’re attracted to, and there’s the scale of how strong is your sexual desire? So, psychologists will put that on two separate scales. It’s not a sexual orientation, as it is kind of a clarification, a deepening of one’s sexuality.

Asexual exists on a scale of how much you’re attracted and it goes from hypersexual to asexual. So, that’s slightly something different.

In terms of like trans and non-binary, and stuff like that, those are all word that exist in a spectrum of…or two different categories, which is, sex and gender. Sex is all about the biology. It’s about what genitals you were born with, and what chemicals are being released in your body at particular ages, and stuff like that. It’s all about sex.

And now, there’s officially two, but now expanding on is there’s like a third, which is currently more like an other, because there are just so many variations on it. So, it’s male, female, and currently other, and other people might use different words.

But then there’s gender, and gender is how do you feel? Like do you feel whatever your individual society or your individual culture describes as male; describes as female. And, again, with the identities there are different identities within that, so there’s male, there’s female, there’s I feel trans. Intersex is more of closer on the lines of sex because intersex has to do with what your biology is and it not kind of completely conforming to all things male, all things female. Your genitals might not be completely clear in terms of what they are.

But, in terms of writing about someone within that sphere, creating a conflict between what their sex is, and how they feel is another thing you can kind of tap into to just get the interesting stuff about diversity and exploring past the straight world. We’re kind of clear of what the differences are between all of them?

Joanna: I find it so interesting. I did gender studies within psychology when I studied psychology. And I think it is so interesting as you say.

I write a female action hero, who is kind of presenting as male in so many ways because she’s basically a female James Bond. Because in the white action hero it’s usually a man, you know? This can go on so many levels, because I write diverse characters all the time and I still kind of come back to at the end of the day, that person whatever their external and internal things, they will still love, will still grieve, will still look for a home, unless they’re a psychopath, and the personality.

I just wanted to mention, “The Guardian,” on the 31st December 2017 said that, “Diversity in publishing is a trend for 2018.” Which I thought was really interesting, and you had said it is a smart business decision for authors to include diverse characters. Now, I think it’s a bit sad that we have to say that it’s a trend in publishing because it should be just part of publishing.

But, do you think that this portion, obviously, we’ve got a lot of movements that are going on right now this point in history that are trying to bring more diversity.

Do you think that this will stop being an issue? Or, how much will this become part of the industry or will it always feel like something we have to talk about?

Alex: No. I think, things are changing. Things are always changing and always getting better. But, I think that article had a point to what they’re saying, I think there’s a very specific reason why 2018 is and not 2017 or 2016.

Three reasons, first one being that, the generations are changing. The experiences of people growing up is just expanding. So, we are of the same generation. There’s a generation behind us, the millennials. And I think the millennials grew up with diversity and race being standard, because of rap music. It just became everywhere.

TV shows were beginning to be more diverse when they were growing up, because of I guess MTV’s less now. But, still back when millennials were there, it’s still kind of a big thing. And because of all these things, the millennials have grown up with, “No. You know, diversity is just kind of expected. That’s just what it is.” And now they have started making content for themselves and it reflects that.

And then the generation behind them, which is Generation Z, they’re growing up with sexual diversity the same way millennials grew up with racial diversity.

If you want to write books that these readers can relate to, though you have to start thinking about diversity, and you’ll always sell books if you don’t include diversity, but the stickiness factor of those generations.

For example, I am a lover of an author whose name is B. V. Larson. He writes sci-fi and I read a lot of sci-fi authors, but the first time I read one of his books, in the first chapter, aliens come to earth. Sadly, they kill his children, grab him, put him on the space…and then he has to battle to survive and the person that he had to battle was a Latina woman.

He fights her off and wins, and then she gets thrown off the spaceship. But, he tells the spaceship to grab her and help her, and repair her. And they become romantic interests. And it’s like, when you’re not white and you’re reading books, when you see a character, a main character that’s anything other than white, you have a tendency just to go, “What?”

I saw this and kind of went, “Wait, what just happened here?” And from that point forward like he, just, his best friend was black and all these other racial diverse groups were added to the story and as a non-white reader you kind of just go, “Oh, I like this. I really like this.”

I’ve read about 13 or 15 of his books, in part because I can like relate to stuff. If you want that stickiness with your readership, then you probably should try and make the roles better reflect the world of the upcoming generations because those are new readers.

That’s one big thing. But, I think also, like specifically 2018 versus 2017 and 2016, this is a kind of a broader, historical thing. And I’m gonna use American history since that’s what I’m most familiar with. So, there was a civil war in the United States which was the war against the north against the south, and it’s a war over slavery. Lincoln fought the war, freed the slaves, and right after that happened, there was a group created called the Ku Klux Klan. It’s an American group, it’s like a white supremacist group in the United States.

Joanna: I would hope that most people have heard of that.

Alex: I hope too. But, I’m sure your viewers are from all over the world. So there’s the Ku Klux Klan and they existed for a number of decades until the rest of the society came down, and squashed them and quieted them. And they went away for a while. And that remained for another couple decades until about 1940s, where there was a lot of Italian immigration into United States. And them plus the Jews, plus the blacks caused the Ku Klux Klan to decide they had to have a second wave. And then they did.

That lasted for a slightly short time, and then the rest of the society came down and squashed that. And they remained quiet again, until the 1960s when there was the Civil Rights Movement going on. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X. And then there was a third wave of the Ku Klux Klan, and again, society came together and kind of squashed them down.

And what happened, what did we just come out of in 2016, it was the first African-American president in the history of America. And what happened right afterwards? Well, we had our first president who openly said derogatory things about other races, and had made his career off of saying that the first black president wasn’t born here.

And then we had Charlottesville where the people of the Ku Klux Klan, the white supremacist group once again, they felt empowered. And they again came to the forefront. So, what happened throughout all history?

Society has come together again to silence that voice. And I think that readers tend to be a little bit more liberal simply because when you read, you find out about other people’s worlds. So, readers see those things like in Charlottesville there was that rally in Charlottesville, and go, “That’s really icky.”

And if you watch a TV show that just has all white people on it, or just read books that just have all nothing, but white culture it’s kinda like, “That’s icky. Oh, and that TV show I’m watching kind of reflects the velocity of that ickiness over there. And this book that I read is just nothing, but that. Maybe I should look for something a little bit more broader.”

And because of that kind of historical trend, people nowadays have a tendency to look for things that are slightly more diverse and does not reflect the ickiness of what’s going on in society today.

So, because of that trend, I think it is for 2018 a good idea to present things that make readers feel good for reading it, as opposed to having it reflect the attitude that we don’t want in society.

Joanna: I think you’re right. And I don’t know if this was Martin Luther King, but the arc of the moral universe tends towards the good. I think, was that Martin Luther King?

Alex: I think so. It’s long and bends towards justice.

Joanna: Something like that, we’re moving towards the good.

I was thinking about that around Netflix because what’s so interesting about Netflix, and the streaming media, and e-books, the ease of finding e-books, is that readers have a chance to actually seek out these more diverse, different things that they want to watch or read and they can find them, and they’re being produced now.

Whereas it was the publishing industry which certainly in Britain they’ve had reports on it is very, very white, straight dominated, university educated. But now, because of self-publishing, people can publish the books they want. I mean, Wattpad is so interesting. Young Muslim women writing love stories. What that means within a Muslim culture, which is so different to what you or I would be used to.

Alex: I can’t even imagine.

Joanna: Exactly. And that is absolutely fascinating. So, I love this. I think this is such an interesting angle, and in a way it shouldn’t be. But, I think we all have to be responsible for saying, yes, let’s try.

And instead of just instinctively picking a character, just like us is to try and think a bit deeper about who that character could be, and as you say, use that for conflict.

Even within my own family, we have several mixed race marriages across racial and religious diversity. Just within my siblings and of course when you come from different cultures, there are going to be conflicts. But, yet love is there, so yeah, I think this is so important.

Alex: Yes. It’s absolutely important and morally speaking it’s probably something you should be thinking about as an author.

But, just looking at it from an author perspective, like the fun of writing is coming up with conflicts and resolving those conflicts, and diving into the experiences of interacting with different races and different sexual orientations, and stuff like that. It’s like a gold mine.

In the United States, I’ve been noticing just so many more bisexual characters ending up on television shows. And honestly, I don’t think it’s because TV writers are saying, “Hey, this is something different wherever else.” I think it’s generally because when a person stops and thinks about it, like writing about bisexuality or a bisexual character, how much more interesting is it that that character can fall in love with that person, let’s say the opposite gender on which is pretty standard and stuff like that.

But then, you could have that same character later on fall for that one over there. There’s just so much you can explore. So much you can do with it.

It just becomes so much more of an option to a person as a writer. And I think, more and more writers are starting to realize that and hence, making more and more characters bisexual because it just opens up this whole new world of what you can explore and, you know, stuff that people haven’t seen before.

Joanna: Fantastic. Right. So where can people find you and your books, and your YouTube channel, and everything you do online?

Alex: You can go to one place, alexandersbooks.com. There I have all of my books listed. I also have all my social media so you can find my YouTube channel, and you can find all that stuff there.

Joanna: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time Alex, that was great.

Alex: Thank you. Thank you so much. I’m glad you invited me, and I appreciate it so much.

Joanna Penn :

View Comments (14)

  • great show as always - rang a bell with me as my current project "Darkest storm" Dusty Miller #2 features a British criminal (Dusty) who is both white and straight, going to a neo fascist america to rescue a gay friend from a 'treatment' camp. Aldo (the gay friend in question) is most definitely not a stereotype but I am lucky to have a number of gay friends helping me with this. I have however I fear been to the stereotype mine for the antagonists... its difficult to write an ignorant racist homophobic bigot from the deep south without invoking the Bubba T Flubba stereotype. ( I don't have any ignorant racists homophobic bigot friends to help me with this, nor to a give a good one whether I upset that demographic, but I do worry about the effect on my writing credibility.

    On a completely different note while I totally understand and respect your desire to keep area of your life private, if you ever wrote and autobiography I would totally read it - schooled in Malawi, ran a scuba diving business in New zealand, gave up her day job in australia to become a best selling author before moving to the Uk .... I can see the Holywood adaptation already.

  • Love this episode. This is such a need for more diverse fiction with trans, ace, non-binary, and other minority protagonists.

    As a trans woman, I have had a hard time finding books with trans protagonists, aside from transition stories, romance, and erotica. I wanted books with trans characters that didn't center around their identity. Crime fiction and sci-fi and fantasy with cisgender characters generally doesn't center around their cisgenderness.

    So since I couldn't find the kind of books I wanted to read, I've started writing them. My third novel, CHASER, about a transgender woman working as a bounty hunter launches in March.

    • Hello, I'm so happy to read your comment. I miss the women in SINC, Scottsdale AZ., Moved to MO to be by my new grand and great grandbabies. Thank you for being so kind and encouraging to a little old lady when I first started. My first meeting I felt so lost and overwhelmed. You invited me to sit with you. Lucky day for me. You, Betty Webb, and Donis Casey were so generous with advice, tips, talks and overall writing help.You got me hooked on JF Penn podcasts. Love your books and your characters. Can't wait for the next one.

      • I loved listening to this week's blog on diversity. After sending my first book out to beta readers as I call them, I sent a questionnaire. The basics. I wanted to know if parts were slow, where did they have questions, which characters were their favorites. What surprised me out of 40 people two told me not to include gay characters in my book. Well, I thought, I guess I'll have 2 bad reviews on Amazon out of forty merely for allowing diversity in characters to enter the hallowed world of acceptable people in books. Guess what, I like my women. They are good hard loving women and they stay in my book. One of them and ER nurse saves my heroines' life, She's important to my story. I'm not deleting any character from my story because of their race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, national origin or any other so-called unacceptable people. My characters tell me what they want to be, and they stay in my book.
        I don't read bad reviews and I don't give bad reviews ever. Anyone who has enough work ethic to write 60k to 70 K and put their soul into a book deserves my respect. It's funny in the old days of hard copies of a 1st edition were rare with errata, as they were known then. I remember in the Maltese Falcon where the sleuth questions shady bookseller about a valuable book. The Grammar police should hope most of the products sold have 1 or two errors out of 70K.
        I'm 70+. I grew up in the 60's in an integrated high school where we elected an amazing student for Prom King, he was black. My father had grown up with a hypercritical mother as far as religion, sex, color, and national origin were concerned and he refused to pass those teachings on to he children after he was in the horrors of WW2. He said it stops here.
        I often wondered if I had the same results with my children. I remember picking up my son's best friend after school and I asked him which boy was his buddy. "There Mom the one in the red sweater," he said. That the young boy was colored never entered my son's head.
        So at my time of life, I am unpleasantly surprised by people who dislike reading about others merely because of race, national origin, sex, language, religion, ethnicity, and many other horrible niches that they plug the wonderful people I have met in my long life.
        I recently read Tony Hillerman's book on writing. His stories were rejected because as one editor said: "Nobody wants to read a book about Indians.". How wrong they were. Nobody will read a story about a Polish Catholic woman detective. Nobody will read a story about a boy wizard written by a woman. People only want to read books that take place in big Cities. Nobody wants to read a book about a traditionally built lady who lives in Africa. Oh, and the one I always heard in high school and college, "Girl's don't do math, nor do they belong on a computer except as a data entry person. And just maybe nobody will read a NOT so cozy small town mystery book full of diverse interesting characters written by a 70+ woman who has lived a long eventful life. Watch me.

  • This was a terrific episode. Important subject, and fascinating perspective from Alex.

    There's always a danger that the discussion of topics like this can end up being worthy, dull, and pious. None of that here, just intelligent and perceptive points - and highly actionable, too.

    Fine work, Joanna and Alex.

  • What really grabbed me here was, "Diversity shouldn't be a trend in publishing, it should just be a part of publishing". That's exactly how I feel. Try to look up literary agents on Twitter through #mswl. It's all about #diversity and #ownvoices, as if the publishing industry is trying to capitalize on certain social agendas. In my opinion, it should be all about the story, the best story an author can produce, and if it includes diverse characters, why, that's just a part of literature, as it is a part of life. Not trying to seek it out artificially.

    An important character in my fantasy trilogy is bisexual, but I didn't make him bi for the sake of diversity or to fit into a subgenre. It just fell in perfectly with the plot and character, and I went for it.

    The backlash against so-called cultural appropriation is another thing that really puzzles me. The hero of my recent historical fiction novel is a black Jewish man. So am I allowed to write about such a character because I'm Jewish, or is it cultural appropriation, because I'm a white woman? I say, always write people, not cardboard outlines, and you should be fine.

    • I agree - I'm of the "people are people" slant as well. Often socio-economic status means we have more in common than skin colour, country of birth or sexual orientation anyway!

      • Actually, there are some cultural/social experiences that people of color (POC) experience no matter what socio-economic status they're in. In the US upper-middle class POC experience the same kinds of stereotyping as people who are in blue-color or working poor status. Police stops, being followed in stores, being called racial slurs, etc. So, no. It's incorrect to say socioeconomic status means we have more in common. People are shaped by their experiences.

  • I've been listening to your podcast for almost a year now and I always enjoy them, but this week's was perfect. Craft, business and marketing in one podcast!

    It was a great main topic which covers the craft of writing in an area that can be very sensitive if not done well.

    It was also interesting to hear Alex's personal journey to find that zone where he is writing what he enjoys in a commercial genre. This also seemed to resonate with some of your thoughts on cross genre.

    As an aside, it seems to me that while film is very laser focussed on a specific target audience, the new breed of subscription TV has created great work by being more cross genre than film. (just my thoughts as a Netflix binge viewer)

    • Thanks Craig, glad you found it interesting. And I agree that Netflix and streaming services have made cross-genre more possible. I loved Bright from Netflix which was fantasy action adventure meets buddy cop movie. The critics hated it but it did well enough that they are making a sequel. It's the reason I decided to adapt Map of Shadows into a screenplay!