Diversity In Literature
Thinking about adding characters from diverse backgrounds in your story? Awesome! Representation in fiction is an important part of working toward equality for all social groups, and it’s always good to see more characters illustrating the oft-overlooked aspects of minority communities.
However, writing diverse characters, especially ones outside of your social groups, can be tricky, and, when done poorly, such characters can be more harmful than helpful. Here’s a general checklist of common mistakes and oversights, divided into three subgroups: things that should never be done under any circumstances, things that should be avoided in most cases, and things that are wonderful to include.
In the sense of representation, diverse characters come from marginalized and underrepresented groups, such as ethnic minorities, LGBTQIA+ persons, religious minorities, those with disabilities, and, to some extent, socioeconomic minorities.
These are things that writers should never, ever do when writing about minorities. These tactics and stereotypes reinforce negative stereotypes against these groups, contributing to their inequality and marginalization.
First, consider the roles of your diverse characters:
- Are they all villains?
- Are they all criminals?
- Do most of them die before the end of the book/series?
- Do they have jobs that are considered stereotypical toward their groups? (Examples: Asian manicurists, Indian cab drivers, lesbian/bisexual strippers, and oh so many more.)
Now consider your verbiage and point of view:
- At any point in your story, do you use the word “exotic” to describe or refer to a person?
- Have you used a derogatory word that is regarded by any group to be offensive on a historical and cultural level? (A few examples: n****r, f****t, s***w, r****d.)
- Do your diverse characters have the same amount of backstory and development as other characters of their type (main characters, minor characters, heroes, villains)?
- Does your story include a plot wherein a majority-member character ‘saves’ or ‘rescues’ a minority group, or joins said group and becomes the greatest of them or the Chosen One? (This trope is called the White Savior narrative, and it is seen all over the media. Overwhelmingly it involves a white character saving some Noble (or Ignoble) Savages, but be mindful of nuance in other scenarios, such as when a cisgender person ‘saves’ transgender ones or when a neurotypical person ‘saves’ some autistic children. Also, there is no such thing as a White Ally narrative.)
Now let’s talk about specific groups:
- Are your black women super sexualized, more so than your other female characters? Alternatively, are your black women matronly or subservient?
- Are your black men described as being lower in intelligence, notably intimidating, brutish, or violent?
- Are your Native Americans wise and conciliatory, yet also violent, and are they scantily clad?
- Particularly, are your Native American women innocent princesses and/or “breeding machines” useful only for their sex?
- Do your Latinos and Hispanics (or, really, immigrants from anywhere) speak only broken English, or no English at all?
- Do your Latino men work in construction? Are your Latino women housekeepers, maids, or janitors?
- Are your Asian characters defined only by their studiousness and good grades? Or by their skill at martial arts, and/or by underhandedness?
- Are your ‘terrorists’ from West Asia, South Asia, or North Africa? Alternatively, are they highly sexualized?
- Are your non-heterosexual characters described as having extreme sexual appetites?
- For your disabled characters: Are their disabilities turned into superpowers?
- Are your autistic characters unnaturally smart or talented in a particular realm (ie, savantism), but are otherwise emotionally, socially, and mentally unattached?
- Alternatively, do your autistic characters have some weird special ability that allows them to do things your neurotypical characters can’t, thus saving the day?
- Is there a split-personality character in your story at all? (Never, ever do this!)
Finally, for this section at least, let’s touch on cultural appropriation:
- Do your non-minority characters use weapons or other items from outside of their cultures? (Example: Western Europeans or high-fantasy knights wielding katanas, arakhs, schiavonas, or karambits.)
- Are such items included even without the presence of any characters from those actual cultures?
- Did you include creatures or items from other cultures? If so, did you take away their real-world contexts and rewrite them to better fit your own world/mythology?
Be aware that sometimes, writers try to include some of the above things as ‘social commentary’ or as jokes to say ‘ha, all nail shops are run by Asians, isn’t that true?’ Do not do this. It is harmful and debilitating to our cause. Leave that kind of commentary to people who are actually in those groups and have experienced the stereotypes that only strike you as funny.
If any of the above bullet points—even just one of them—shows up in your story, remove it ahead of publication.
These are tactics that writers use in attempting to write diversity characters that are usually harmful but can work in some situations. If you have done only two or three of these, and if you have established that you are aware and cognizant of context and nuance (see ‘The Always-Awesome’ below), then you are probably in the clear. If you’ve developed a pattern of cliched language, it would be best to address these.
Let’s look at the roles of your characters again:
Back to verbiage and point of view:
- Did you describe a brown-skinned person’s skin using any adjective other than “brown”? (Common examples are ‘coffee’ and ‘cappuccino.’ We’re people, not caffeinated drinks!)
- Do your characters of color go completely unremarked because they are written exactly like their white counterparts? (This can work in setting where a character’s differentiating traits would not be remarked upon, such as a college campus that’s stated to be ethnically diverse. If the college is Ivy League (or psuedo-Ivy League), Catholic, Jesuit, located in a very homogeneous area, and so forth, then it would be irresponsible of you to overlook the way your character of color would be treated. If you aren’t sure how they would be treated, do some research and ask around!)
More on specific groups:
- Are your black and Latino characters described as being from poor and/or violent backgrounds?
- Are your Native Americans extremely environmentally conscious?
- Fantasy writers: Do your Native Americans have nature-based superpowers?
- Do your non-heterosexual characters have rape, sexual assault, or childhood neglect in their backgrounds? (This tends to suggest that the character’s sexuality was caused by trauma, and that is an extremely unhelpful argument.)
- Are your autism-spectrum characters emotionally unavailable, socially clueless, and impossible to work with?
- Do you at any point suggest or state that a character’s negative qualities are due to a mental, psychological, or behavioral condition (for example, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or borderline personality disorder)?
There’s no section for cultural appropriation this time because cultural appropriation never works. Think of the use of multicultural elements in your story as an exchange: You borrow cultural touchstones, and in return, you offer something in return, such as a relatable character or a positive representation of a marginalized group. The worth of what you give in return is determined by members of the cultural group, not by you, so when you borrow, make sure you do so with respect to that culture!
Take an honest look at your manuscript and count how many of these appear in your story. A few of them are probably fine, especially if they appear only in passing and are not cornerstones of your plot. If you have more than that (or if you have things from the Never-Do list above), consider altering or removing those items.
These are things that make minority people cheer when they see them! You should not necessarily shoehorn these into your plot, but maybe you can glean some good ideas from them:
- Do your minority characters have just as much depth as your majority ones?
- Did you reach out to members of the community that you’re looking to portray, talk with them about your ideas, and research the various issues that the groups deal with on a regular basis, and then include that in your writing?
- Does your story acknowledge the history of robbery and disenfranchisement of Native Americans and attempt to address those past wrongs?
- Similarly, does your story acknowledge that your characters of color have more of an uphill battle and reward them for their efforts?
- Does your fantasy story acknowledge racism? (Racism is not specific to humans or the 21st century. Anywhere that you have characters in a politically powerless minority, the same issues will need to be addressed. This is particularly true of medieval-themed/high fantasy, where brown-skinned people were still characterized as ‘unintelligent’ or ‘barbaric,’ just in a less codified manner.)
- Do your LGBTQIA+ characters have complex and rewarding relationships, both romantic and otherwise?
- Do your physically disabled characters not recover from their disabilities by the end of the story, but are able to find happiness and success by other, equally fulfilling means?
- Are your autistic and other neurodivergent characters shown to have emotional depth, just expressed in less familiar ways?
- If your person-of-color/LGBTQIA+/neurodivergent/disabled friend read your manuscript, what would they think?
For additional explanations relative to literature and media, TVTropes actually has lots of Useful Notes regarding stereotypes and minority groups, with brief recommendations on how to navigate these sensitive topics.
Additionally, Shalamar’s editing team always includes ‘sensitivity reading’ and ‘diversity feedback’ in our work. If you would like to have your manuscript to be edited from the point of view of neurodivergent women of color, then check out our editing and review services!
We are open to feedback and suggestions for this list. Any questions, comments, or complaints about these items can be sent to us here!