First of all, while everyone is welcome to read (and hopefully enjoy) this post, please be aware that I am white. I am so white I may be related to Wonder Bread. I cause snow blindness when I wear a swimsuit, and these tips are geared towards people like me. It’s about the basics, and it’s about writing. The highlight of this tip list (spoilers) is to listen to minority voices, be aware of our own limits as people and writers, and pay experts for their time and talent to improve our work.
Begin with Character
If you don’t begin with character, then you start with a stereotype. Ever see a show or read a book with a token Black character? They feel shoehorned in, right? They aren’t memorable. You don’t see what they’re doing there. This is universally uncomfortable. And it began with a thought like: “This show really needs a Black character.”
Begin with your plot and your characters. As you’re developing individuals, pay very close attention to your ‘default’ settings. Are all characters white unless you have a specific reason for them not to be? Why is that? Are all your characters straight and cis? Again – why?
Actively Guard Against Stereotypes
They’re sneaky, they’re everywhere, and they’ll infiltrate your work if you aren’t careful. Don’t rely on secondary sources to inspire characters who are different from you. Step away from the television. Not all gay men call girls “honey,” not all Muslim women cover their hair, and people of other races come from all walks of life. If your Black characters all come from the ghetto, you have fallen into stereotype land. If your bi character cheats on every relationship, you’ve landed in the bog of wrong.
To combat stereotypes, go to the source. Read about actual, real-life people. There are tons and tons of resources online. Read, watch, and listen. You’re a writer. Do your research.
Is This Your Story?
Diversity feels complicated to white writers because we rarely have to think from someone else’s perspective. The majority of television presenters, script writers, major actors, producers, directors, etc. are all white. We don’t have to stop and do the math to see if popular media is presented with people like us in mind (because nearly all of it is – and if it isn’t, it goes in a special interest section). We – white writers – worry more about how to see from a serial killer’s point of view than a regular stranger’s.
Here’s the thing: as a white writer, you’re adding to white-produced media that will appeal primarily to white readers. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that, but you need to be aware of what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.
While diversity has a place in your work, don’t try to take a story from someone who can tell it better. If you’re straight, a coming-out story isn’t in your wheelhouse. Same goes for race/religion/etc. Writing a story from an indigenous person’s POV about Western expansion when you’re literally living on stolen land is rude (at best).
What you write should come from within. Your own struggles will shade your stories better than borrowed trauma.
Women may understand this concept a little more readily. I remember giving up on a favorite show when the lead (male) character spent the entire series ignoring women and then mansplained feminism to a room full of… women. There was a disconnect, to put it mildly. It revealed a lot of problematic choices in the series up to that point, and I left the episode feeling angry and kind of disgusted.
Guys, imagine someone who has spent maybe one day researching your favorite fandom drops a book about your all-time favorite show/book/game. It suggests all fans live in their mom’s basements, you’ve never been on a date, and the author know the subject better than you do. You’d be furious, right? Okay. So, now imagine that – but it’s your entire life.
Diversity Is Everywhere
Here is a special note for historical fiction and original world novelists: diversity has always been a thing. Seriously. There are great resources out there for anyone who wants to know about POC in Tudor England, the complexities of race in 17th Century France, or evidence of Muslim Vikings.
When you build an original world, add more than one country/territory/island where POC originate or rule. The world is a big place, and Europe is comparatively small.
Consider naturalized citizens in predominantly white zones that arrived as traders, royal guests, honored musicians, refugees, etc. Some should’ve been there for so long they have no idea when their families first emigrated. Maybe the white people did the emigrating.
LGBTQ+ people have always existed, too. Any historian can tell you that. They belong in historical and fantasy novels right along with the straight folks.
Consider a Sensitivity Reader
A sensitivity reader doesn’t get their title by being easily offended. They get their job title by being more sensitive to/aware of other races/cultures/gender identities/etc. These professionals have the blend of experience and skills authors from other demographics need in order to tell the stories they aspire to share.
A sensitivity readers is one of the most powerful tools in a writer’s arsenal, and changing politics doesn’t make them any less valuable. Why wouldn’t you want someone to make your book as good as it can possibly be? You wouldn’t complain about a historian giving you pointers to boost your historical fiction piece, so why not pull in a sensitivity reader’s talents to hone your expression of diversity?
Ultimately, the best way to add diversity well is to listen and learn. The list of resources below can help get you started if you don’t know where to begin: