Diversity is a hot-button issue in the publishing industry these days, with publishers calling more loudly than ever for novels that include characters of all colors and backgrounds. In recent years, stories featuring gay characters held the top spot on many publishers’ wish lists. Now, in response to the public outcry over George Floyd’s death, publishing houses are seeking novels highlighting characters of color like never before.
This pressure to follow the current trend may make you think you absolutely must change your novel to add the type of diversity publishers are clamoring for.
But do you really?
And…perhaps more importantly…should you?
To answer the former question: no. While the call for diversity is loud and strong at the moment, there are plenty of publishers out there who are still just looking for a great story, regardless of the characters’ color or sexuality.
And to answer the latter question: maybe not. Why? Because a diverse cast of characters may not be the best choice for your story, nor is it always realistic.
Whoa…am I a “hater?”
Not at all! And before you start thinking I’m arguing against adding diversity to your book, let me clarify. I absolutely love diversity, both in literature and in our society itself. Nowhere else in the world can you find such a rich tapestry of colors and lifestyles and cultures and religions, and I believe this is one of our country’s greatest blessings.
Including characters from diverse backgrounds can certainly add a unique richness and depth to your writing, and if you feel called to do this, then by all means, do! Novels featuring characters with cultures and lives far different from their own offer readers a glimpse into someone else’s reality and can foster acceptance, understanding, and compassion.
However, I don’t believe writers should add diversity to their novels simply for diversity’s sake, nor should they ever feel pressured into doing so.
What’s Right for You?
Before you get to work diversifying your cast of characters, ask yourself these questions:
Does it make sense in my setting?
Many novels set in the US in modern times can easily (and probably should) include a diverse cast of characters. Just wander the aisles of nearly any Walmart or grocery store in the country and you’ll encounter a beautiful array of skin tones and accents. So in many cases, an all-white (or all-black, all-Latino, all-anything) cast isn’t an accurate picture of reality.
However, there are settings which require more homogeneity among your characters.
- Is your novel set in Harlem in 1930? Then a colorful cast (not to mention some good jazz ) is to be expected.
- Does your story take place in 1080 AD in the castle of William the Conqueror? In this case, it’s not realistic to include characters of color because they were exceedingly rare in that setting and era.
- Is your story set in Japan in 800 AD? Then…well, you get the idea.
Does the diverse character add something to the story?
Every character should have a purpose in your story…or he shouldn’t be in it. If there isn’t a clear reason for a diverse character to be included, then readers may view him as the “token [fill in the blank].” You don’t have to make this character the star of the show (although you certainly may!), but he should most definitely have a role to play in the story.
How your character plays that role will be largely determined by his background, which influences many aspects of his life – his education, his views on dating and marriage, his plans for the future, his religious beliefs, etc. On the one hand, you may find that adding this character changes your story – however subtly – in a way you just don’t want. But on the other hand, a diverse character’s background may offer compelling new elements that make your novel even better.
Can I write this character authentically?
When writing about characters who are very different from yourself, be thoughtful in the way you portray them. This portrayal should be based on reality (either through your own experience or your research) rather than on common stereotypes.
You also want to be careful not to write a character who embodies so many stereotypes that she comes across as a caricature rather than a realistic human being. This type of portrayal can be offensive to members of that particular demographic.
Many self-published writers these days hire “diversity readers” or “sensitivity readers” to check their manuscripts for anything inaccurate or offensive in their portrayal of diverse characters. If you choose to diversify your cast of characters, you may want to consider taking this step, as well, just to be sure you’re not stepping on any cultural toes.
Does it align with my personal or religious beliefs?
In his wonderful guest post on Joanna Penn’s blog, The Creative Penn, author Bharat Krishnan shared a list of five tips for incorporating diversity in your book. Tip #1 especially hit home for me: “Be true to yourself. Find the boundaries within your own life and write about them with authority.”
As valuable as this advice is, I would take it a step further and say you have the right to set your own boundaries.
You have the right to make decisions for your novel based on your personal convictions or religious beliefs rather than what society dictates. Your novel is your novel, and no one else should have any say in the characters you choose to create.
As writers, we have the freedom (and, arguably, the responsibility) to portray and promote our own ideals and beliefs…not someone else’s. And, honestly, those stories are best written by writers who fully embrace those beliefs, anyway. So write your own story, and let them write theirs.
What if my book’s not PC enough?
The simple answer (though you’re not going to like it) is that it never will be. Political correctness is a moving target; you can never tell from one day to the next what’s going to be PC and what’s suddenly going to be taboo. And, unfortunately, no matter how “woke” you are or what you write, someone will be offended by it.
But, my friend, those you offend probably aren’t the people you wrote the book for, anyway.
The best you can do is write from your heart. Pour it out onto the page and hope it connects with your readers in some way. To encourage them. To make them laugh. To make them cry. To help them heal. To open their eyes or minds or hearts. So don’t waste a second worrying about who you might offend with your novel; focus instead on who you want to help with your words. They are your audience. They are the reason you’re writing your story.
In closing, I want to reiterate how wonderful and valuable diversity is, both in our society and in literature. If you feel called to include more diversity in your novel, then I applaud you for that (and look forward to reading it!). But if you don’t – for whatever reason – then please do not allow the current clamor for diversity in literature to dictate what you write. Instead, just focus on writing a great story with characters who will captivate your readers. Honestly, that part’s hard enough on its own.
Have you included diversity in your work in progress? Tell me about it in the comments below!
In case you missed it: Last week, I shared a few tips on how to write about characters with medical and mental health conditions. If this is an element in your work in progress, then don’t miss this post!