Approaching Diversity in Fiction

You know what's often a touchy subject when discussing writing? Diversity. No, wait, don't leave just yet. Let me explain. Diversity has, sadly, become very politicized when it shouldn't be. Really, it's just a question of having a more believable cast of characters. Diversity can be a good way to make characters interesting. It can give a character a unique take on a situation that would feel mundane to another character.

Let's face it. Storytelling is about putting different characters in unique situations. That can't work if everyone is similar, and that means pushing the envelope. I first want to look at how the mainstream approaches diversity. From there on, we can discuss what we can learn from it. I also want to touch a bit on my own personal experience with it.

Most corporate media tends to be ruled by fear of the unknown. Anything that hasn't been done before, that could potentially offend someone, is not something investors like. As a result, it tends to be very conservative in its approach. That's not to say that they're opposed to it, but they'll stick with diversity flavors that are proven sellers. Decades ago, the idea of a female protagonist in anything other than a romance story was unthinkable. Now, it's common and accepted by most people. (There's always ultra-conservative assholes out there, but we'll ignore them here. They're really just a vocal minority, and I will not give them a platform.)

There are multiple steps to diversity adoption. First, a form of diversity is shown by one mainstream project. Think of the Kirk/Uhura kiss in the original Star Trek, for example. We get something the mainstream audience considers to be brand new, and people talk about it. More recently, we saw the Doctor in Doctor Who transition from male to female. Again, it made the news and everyone talked about it. For a lot of us, the reaction was: "about time." For the average Joe, it was shocking.

Eventually, these things gain acceptance by the public. Progressive voices do tend to win in the long run. It's just a slow process, and conservative views don't dissapear overnight. As a form of diversity is accepted, it gets marketed. Authors try to adopt it and jump on the bandwagon. It's not always successful. There are cases of straight up exploitation. There's also people who just get it wrong. How many "token black guy" or "token gay friend" have we seen in movies? How many of these characters are little more than walking stereotypes?

Luckily, these things are criticized and slowly, as time goes on, diversity is normalized. Members of minorities speak out and inform the public on misconceptions. Eventually, diversity is seen as a normal part of fiction and is no longer exotic. It's no longer special to see female characters in positions of power. It's no longer a big deal to see gay characters, or heroes who aren't white.

That's not to say that misrepresentation ever disappears. Accidental sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. will always be around. Truth is, writing anything different from our own experiences is a challenge. "Write what you know" is a common saying, but one that, honestly, is bullshit. As a writer, I want to challenge myself. I want to use my writing as a tool to broaden my own horizon and learn new things. That means taking risks, and potentially making mistakes. That also means learning from those mistakes.

So what should we do about it? First, mistakes should be called out, but not ridiculed. I have a transgender character in Opt Out. Did I get anything wrong when writing that character? Quite possibly. What proofreaders pointed out, I fixed. Still, what I wrote is based off research, not experience. As it often does, it comes down to intent. Did the author try to include diversity, or did they write an exploitation piece? Sometimes, it can be hard to tell.

If you are a member of a minority and you feel you're being misrepresented in a work of fiction, my advice would be to reach out and point out the mistake. If you're being ignored or if your opinion is disregarded, then you can mock to your heart's content. Just make sure that you don't discourage a writer who honestly tried to give you some representation and happened to make a mistake. Writing involves a lot of research, and it's easy for something to slip by. That's not malice, that's an honest mistake. Keep the writer's experience and resources in mind as well. A major movie studio can afford a consultant. A self-published writer cannot.

If you're a writer, then do your research. Don't base your characters on what you see in fiction, but rather look at what real people go through. Social media can be a good starting place for research. I'm going to use a personal example here. This is a Reddit thread I started a while ago for a story I'm currently working on:

Creating this thread wasn't my first step. The idea is to lurk first. I want to write a genderfluid character. The first step is to create them as a fully fleshed out character first, and make sure genderfluidity is part of who they are, but not their entire identity. Then I read about it. I would take notes of experiences people posted online, get some ideas on how they perceived it and what they learned from it. I took plenty of notes. Most importantly, I kept an open mind and left by preconceptions at home.

After about a month, I started the thread I linked, where I asked for clarifications. This is something I highly recommend. Reach out to the community. A lot of people like talking about who they are, and they do want fair representation in fiction. Also, be mindful that some communities might feel threatened by what you're attempting to do. Some minority groups were often painted negatively in fiction, and are understandably wary. It's your job to convince them of your good intentions. Just be respectful. If a community doesn't want you asking question, then politely honor their request.

Overall, diversity in fiction is great. We do need more of it, and I recommend making the effort. Just make sure you do it for the right reasons. Don't be afraid to ask questions and push the envelope. Just be sure to do it right. Remember that what is a character trait to you is every day life to some people.