Independent publishing has given voice to writers who might otherwise not find a place in the book marketplace. This has, in turn, increased the diversity we see in both authors who publish books, and in the characters and subjects represented. Bharat Krishnan explores how to write diverse characters authentically.
As wuxia, African, and eastern-based fantasy become more popular subgenres in today’s market, writing diversity well has become an important tool for a writer to have in their repertoire.
Society is defined by boundaries.
Every single person on Earth has to live within those boundaries, and the ones that loom largest in our own lives are what seem diverse to us.
To that end, here are five tips for incorporating diversity authentically in your next book.
1. Be true to yourself
Find the boundaries within your own life and write about them with authority.
While writing my latest novel, it was important for me to explore my Hinduism. One way I did that was by naming a weapon wielded by one of the secondary characters after a famous character in the epic, the Mahabharata. Notice that even in my own story, this weapon is wielded by a secondary character and not the protagonist.
Minority communities are used to being underrepresented in works, and we still enjoy them quite a lot! The weapon, Ekalavya, is a bow used in a handful of scenes, and I suspect the majority of my readers will never pick up on the relevance of its name.
2. Highlight contrasts you see in how you view the world and its boundaries in your life
Just as in life, the setting of your story will determine the society that forms around it. In a desert setting like Oasis, whoever controls the supply of water controls the rules. Quite literally, you can’t survive without it.
Now, though, we’re at a period in history where the CEO of Nestlé said a few years ago that access to water isn’t a fundamental human right. Oasis takes that position to an extreme, and in doing so the society that emerges in the middle of a desert is one that invites contrasts.
More contrasts = more boundaries, and as we all know by now that leads to better diversity.
3. Dissect cultural events that speak to you
Chances are you have strong opinions on at least a handful of issues with cultural relevance. Think about how the unique circumstances of the people involved might have impacted the event, and also think about how the event is being covered in the press.
Bias can be found in everything, and once you identify biases you can see how authors hide them – often in plain sight. Just like bias is everywhere and nowhere, diversity is too and finding what motivates you personally can be an easy way to identify ways to make your writing more diverse.
Let’s say you think the UFC fighter Ronda Rousey is overrated, for instance. Once you unpack why Rousey gets more favorable press than other female fighters, you might be more cognizant of how bias can exclude underrepresented communities and how actively working to overcome that can lead to better, and more profitable, writing.
4. Understand conflict
At its core, all conflict stems from an inability for two or more people to get along.
More often than not, that inability is rooted in the fact that these people are different in some way. A good conflict makes a story irresistible, and so to understand conflict is to understand diversity.
Ask yourself some questions like, why would a deaf person not be a good archer? Is that something they could get around? Those types of questions will tell you if you have a compelling story or not. Reading about a deaf archer overcoming the odds to save a kingdom, for instance, would be a compelling read for me at least.
5. Know how to R.E.A.C.H.
Research – make sure you have an understanding of the type of character or community you want to explore (LGBT, disabled, a rural community when you personally live in a city, etc).
Empathize – improving your empathy, in general, will allow you to write more diverse characters because those characters will seem authentic if you can empathize with their underrepresented condition.
Acknowledge – recognize that you can’t know what this community feels and that that is okay. Have someone from that community read your work, or at least discuss it with them to gain their perspective.
Characterize – make sure your diverse character doesn’t just exist to serve the plot.
Humanize – know what you go through as a person in your everyday life and inject some of that daily routine into these characters wherever it makes sense. For example, if you’re writing an LGBT character, the love they feel for someone of the same gender is not different from the love you feel for the significant other in your life.
Authentic diversity speaks to targeted communities, and in doing so it succeeds in being everywhere and nowhere at once. It doesn’t matter how many black people you have in your story or if your main character is deaf or blind – what matters is that your unique voice shines through the course of your novel.
Just look at how a deaf, Asian warrior was handled in Netflix’s recent animated show, The Dragon Prince. Diverse writing is about more than just demographic data, and when you explore that your voice will come off stronger for it.
For a novel to succeed in the marketplace, it needs that unique voice, and if you aren’t talking about what makes you unique as a person then you’re not enunciating as clearly as possible and your voice will get lost in the crowd.
Have you explored diversity in your writing? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Bharat Krishnan is a philanthropic consultant in Columbus, Ohio. After ten years in Democratic politics, he wrote a memoir about his life on the road as a political campaign manager and just released a fantasy novel called Oasis. He refers to himself as a professional storyteller and amateur cook.
You can pick up Confessions of a Campaign Manager or Oasis here on Amazon. Feel free to send him a tweet.
This is a great read. Diversity in literature is such a hot topic these days, and for good reason. (I hope the written worlds will come to resemble the real one more closely.) thanks for the tips!
This was extremely helpful! It really highlights how you can use diversity to inspire creativity. I am definitely going to save and use these tips in my future writings!
Tonya Price says
What a wonderful post. We have to learn to appreciate that diversity strengths a society, a country and even families and how to incorporate that into our story telling. Thanks for such a thoughtful insights and advice.
Thank you for making me feel better (and a little less paranoid) about my efforts to represent diversity in my work. My last book featured a lesbian who was trying to get pregnant as a secondary character. I felt like I could write that story because my daughter had problems conceiving, so I was sitting very close on the sidelines of that process. (BTW–since you’re from Columbus, you may know her–she co-owns The Kitchen at 5th and Livingston.)
Roland R Clarke says
Valuable post to someone trying to write a lesbian/queer first POV protagonist. Many thanks.
Lynda A Dietz says
This was well said. And your advice about not having the diverse character only exist to further the plot is spot-on. Awareness and sensitivity readers are essential.
I shared it on Pinterest, but you should know that your Pinterest share button isn’t working (all other share buttons seem to be functioning just fine). I just copied your header picture to go with the link.