Thursday, October 03, 2013

On Diversity and Character Depth

The majority of submissions I get are about kids and teens who are white, comfortably well off, able-bodied, secular, average-sized, cis-gender and straight. Maybe (in fact, probably) their race or economic status or religion or sexual orientation or whatever is never mentioned... but let's get real, if it isn't mentioned in any way EVER, the reader is going to assume and "default normal."

The question of WHY white-rich-ablebodied-secular-averagesized-cis-straight people are "default" in this country, or how to change that, is not one I'm prepared to tackle -- just let's go with the fact that at this point in time, it is the case that the people in this country who tend to think about race least often are WHITE PEOPLE. The people for whom money is rarely an issue are WEALTHY PEOPLE. Right or wrong, if you never ever mention anything about money or race, your reader will probably assume your characters are relatively well-off and white. And the same goes for all those other categories.

So does that mean you just need to randomly make all your characters Black or Japanese (or whatever) but have all their other dealings be exactly the same as they would otherwise be? Um. . . no. Nor does it mean that you should force a "mixed salad" tokenism where each and every character has one thing different about them. That's silly.

Taking your characters beyond "default" is really just about giving them dimension. If your character is deaf or blind or a wheelchair user or obese or agoraphobic, or doesn't speak the language, or is a child prodigy, or an uncomfortable fashionista wearing absurdly high heels, or an uber-confident princess wearing an ostentatious diamond necklace . . . or heck, even a super-mousy shy kid in a plain school uniform . . . each of these characters will certainly think differently about how to best navigate the crowded and unfamiliar stair-filled subway platform. They each might notice different and unexpected things in the auditorium on the first day of school. So if you don't mention anything about who they are, your reader will fill in with the easiest thing, which is a blank and boring "default." Which, OK. . . but again, characters who make interesting choices and observations have depth and are usually way cooler characters to read about.

"Look, my characters are just going to Mickey-D's, let's not make a big deal out of it."

Not every split second in your book will be able to further the plot. But, pretty much anything your character does, if it is important enough to put in a book, should reveal something about them. Even mudane things. Hell, ESPECIALLY mundane things.

If your character is going to eat at McDonalds, where they come from will inform how they approach that experience. Do they keep kosher? Are they diabetic? Do they have body issues? Must they stick to the value meal and worry about it? Do they recognize the person behind the counter? Is it their sister? Are they skeeved out because it is dirty in there and they saw a PBS show about what goes in the chicken nuggets and now they are wiping everything down with hand sanitizer and ordering vegetarian? Are they waiting for the bathroom because they need to brush their teeth and change clothes? Is it the one place they can meet up with their boyfriend away from the prying eyes of their family? Do they eat fast and thoughtlessly because they are wrapped up in writing a sonata and don't even notice their surroundings? Any of these choices would reveal something about the character. Otherwise, why bother putting it in the book?

"But I've heard you say you want books where people are just [gay, bi, queer, trans, etc], and being [any of these things] is not a PROBLEM." 

Sure. Being gay [or whatever else] isn't a bad thing. It doesn't need to be a problem. Just, most of the books I see in this vein are coming-out narratives that include being disowned and beaten up or worse. While this is no doubt the experience of some people, it's not the only story, and it is a story that has been told a lot. I'd rather hear a different story.

Still, if you are tempted to just not mention gayness, you are making it invisible.

I don't want it to be invisible. It's real, and important.

"But I don't want to write an ISSUE BOOK!"

I'm not saying all books should include grinding poverty or racial unrest or fat activism or queer kissing or ANYTHING. (Well, actually, maybe all books should include queer kissing.) (KIDDING!) (or am I?) . . . Annnnyway, I don't think it has to be an issue book to reflect reality. I think it just has to reflect reality. If you want a book with interesting and vibrant characters, they should be multi-faceted and not cookie-cutter default. . . Reality happens to include all kinds of people.

I'm also not saying "I hate books about [xyz] people" OR "I only want to rep books about [xyz] people."

I think anything you want to write about is FINE. I'm not the topic-police. I'm just saying, straight-cis-white-ablebodied-uppermiddleclass main characters are the vast majority of what fills the ol' inbox (and, for that matter, the bookstore). So non-default stories, whatever they may be, will feel fresh, and are likely stand out in a good way.



  1. This was insightful. I struggled with describing my character so that his race didn't become an issue. In the end I discovered that it was important as it added a dimension to him (as you said). Strange that it is so hard to strike thexright chord on this.

  2. My favorite topic!

    I feel for you, I really do.My novels contain diverse characters (and queer kissing), but, to be blunt, it was quite difficult getting there. And I received no help. None. Because people won't talk the issues in an honest way.

    The "problem" with diversity I believe goes much deeper than shallow characterization. Here's what I see:

    Books devoid of any descriptor of race/gender/etc, as you noted, on purpose in order to avoid either getting it wrong or trying to appeal to a wide audience.

    Books attempting to be diverse but wind up in the cliche category.

    Books attempting to highlight "the message" and are preachy.

    Books where the author is using a diversity theme where they should be writing diverse values.

    Then the hardest one of all, books with diverse characters that seem real, but the characters are devoid of agency and make no attempt to get it.

    But those are auxiliary issues. The main cultural issue is the way diversity is discussed, which in general is a mine field of political correctness many try to avoid. It is difficult to have a conversation as any viewpoint that doesn't toe the line is met with immediate shamming. Because the conversation gets shut down, viewpoints (right or wrong) are not examined properly. When discussion is shut down, all those problems I mentioned above are created because looking at diversity in a different direction in order to understand it and write well becomes difficult. The attempts at diversity becomes meh. It's so bad I can spot YA authors who are trying to be diverse but have no frame of reference other than what they read or movies they see. The reality they write to doesn't exist.

    I've studied diversity from genetics to memetics and how they both start to interact over periods of time. Yet it is my unfortunate experience I can't talk about diversity with almost anyone, really, except my editor (who is a researcher on par with me) (okay, maybe better than me) (she is super smart).

    Thus, sadly, until we can talk about things without people going crazy, I think you will see books with less diverse characters over time.

    TL:DR: The subject of diversity, despite the diverse American culture, is too toxic to produce writers who really want to understand it. You're scratching the surface with the literary problems highlighted here.

  3. I think my book manages to do what your looking for at least some of the times :0s

  4. Just a comment about the reality. Only a small percentage of YA fiction has a diversity main character (probably less than 3%). Hence, literary agents who wish to sell to editors of book publishers are more likely to pick novels from the other 97%, increasing their chances for a sale. Authors who realizes this fact will choose to write a YA fiction with a non-diversity main character in order to increase their chances to get an agent. The current publishing market dictates not to write Diversity YA fiction, in order to make a sale. Just my observation.

    1. Right - but I work in publishing - I sell A LOT of books - and while I agree "Only a small percentage of YA fiction has diversity" -- the response should be NOT "so don't write diversity" -- but in fact "FOR GOD'S SAKE WE NEED MORE DIVERSITY."

      I strongly disagree that you are "more likely to make a sale" if you write the same stuff everyone else writes. In my experience, the opposite is true.

  5. I know that Andrea Brown Literary Agency is top in YA and that you do well. That's why I read your blog, to get some insights. We can put the "WE need more diversity and we can sell it" to the test. My three novels, as you can view by clicking on my blog, are all about diversity in the main characters: Chinese, German, LGBT, Mexican. Please check your inbox. Thanks.

  6. Halleluiah!!!!! Refreshing, realistic post, as an aspiring writer of colour this post gave me the motivation to keep pushing on and blocking what I see on the shelves and write my book and hope for the best and also if I want to write a book full of Caucasian people that's okay too cause I get to play a great puppet master with my characters =o)

  7. Thoughtful, and made me look real hard at my manuscript.

  8. I just wanted to say thank-you for talking about disability as part of diversity. It's so rare that it's included and there are hardly any books on it, but for once it was nice to be included.

  9. Anonymous5:34 AM

    Lately we had a "discussion" (actually we all agreed, more or less ...) on the same issue, and ended up with the same result. Cause it's boring to write about such characters, too -- and actually it's even worse than writing about them instead of just having to read about them. I want my characters to be allowed to be the strong personalities they *are* - but that's impossible if their writer (=me) is afraid of steping on some fanatic's toes, who consider being gay/lesbian/bisexual/darker coloured/red haired as some sort of crime.

  10. Anonymous9:18 AM

    J, what do you mean by "cis-gender"?


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