Being diverse in our writing to add greater depth to our stories

It’s guest post time and today I welcome back fellow writer and blogger, Simon Farnell who discusses diversity in writing.

Being diverse in our writing to add greater depth to our stories. Image of little wooden pen people from Pixabay bay

Before I start, I want to say thanks to Ari for letting me guest post, but onto business.

A while ago when I was planning out a story I noticed something that bothered me. My characters were not very diverse. Whether that’s because what I see every day are people from the same kind of background or whatever.

It bothered me that my first thought with them was to go white – straight. We cannot ignore the simple fact that we live in this day and age is societies that are diverse, whether its race, sexuality, personal opinion societies are rich with all kinds of diverse people.

For me as a writer, I have had to ask myself the hard question of whether or not I’m representing this diversity well enough in my stories.

I don’t know if you the writers reading this have found the same thing so I thought that this would be a great topic for Ari’s guest post.

If we start with something simple like people with differing opinions, it seems to be the case these days that where there is ‘difference’, people are put into ‘boxes’.

If you’re, say, a Brexit supporter you’re said to be some kind of anarchist if you’re not then it’s like you’re against democracy and some kind of leftie softie.

The reality is far different in both cases and there is this vast middle ground in between these two extremes.

This ‘boxing’ up of it is fine to start within a story but to continue it without exploring the middle ground of the opinion is where the strength of a story lies.

To use a recent analogy look at Thanos, his character has been so well thought out – portrayed as extreme mass genocidal maniac when the story digs down into this character he feels that what he’s doing is a real benefit to the universe and far from being unfeeling he actually has a great degree of respect for all life, which is why he feels he has to wipe out half of all life (it’s kind of ironic I know).

I don’t think for one moment that any kind of genocide is in any way the right way to go, but there are points where one actually empathises with him as he has lost everyone on his home planet and knows that if this had been done then his race would have survived.

Moving for universal extremes of opinion into something more down to Earth let’s look at other races here on Earth.

Take for example, if you wanted to write a Chinese character into a story – how could this be done with some authenticity? One aspect of the Chinese is they don’t like to lose face when realising this aspect of culture it could be possible that if you needed a character with that kind of personality trait they could be written in as a Chinese character.

This makes the characters and the plot like a big jigsaw puzzle. With different plot features needing different characters and the diversity of humanity more than able to fill the holes.

Black Panther has been widely heralded as a great film that has done a great deal to capture African culture (sorry I keep going back to the Marvel universe).

In that story was a huge array of characters, of opinions mixed into the story to deliver something which was very special.

The story also succeeded in being very plausible and that for me at least is where I would have to work hard to actually have diverse characters that are plausible.

Then there’s the kind of the diversity that I find difficult, sexuality and gender identity. This is only from the point of view that I have to put myself in place of that person and try an accurately and respectfully represent their particular perspective.

Someone I know on Twitter recently made the point that didn’t know of any bi-sexual characters being written into stories. There were gay and sometimes transgender characters but not bi-sexual.

From this, it seems that societies perception of bi-sexuals is not really that endearing. All kinds of stereotypes, false assumptions about them seem to be around even from fairly recent times.

It would be so easy as writers to pick up these stereotypes and write them into a story and completely misrepresent them.

In the days of Star Trek: The Next Generation sexual diversity was very much ignored and even though this was an 80’s / 90’s series seen generally as a progressive forward thinking Sci-Fi show it wasn’t that progressive.

There was one episode wherein an alien symbiosis, a man became a woman and as such the main character that had fallen in love with the previous host couldn’t love the new one.

The line if I remember correctly was that “humans have a limited ability to love,” which I’m not sure was true or fair even for the time. There have been lots of suggestions about producers not wanting to explore those waters, but whatever – as writers now we can.

If you want to think about it in a different kind of way, it’s a bit like a marketing exercise to reach out to those with characters that you’re putting into your story – it makes sense.

Now comes the ‘but’… Turning a story into a tick box exercise of including a bi-sexual African that is a Brexit supporter isn’t necessarily going to do the job, neither is having most of the human race in your story – so where’s the balance?

This is something I have to work on in my writing and I’m still exploring this but please let me know – have you found similar issues in your writing? If you have overcome them or have any views on this then I would love to hear them!

About Simon

Photo of Writer Simon FarnellMy name is Simon Farnell, I’m an engineer, creator, free thinker and writer.

For far too long I had ideas and nowhere to put them for the world to see, that’s why Planet Simon was created.

I’m an experimenter, explorer and fascinated by the world around me and the people in it.

My exploration goes further than the known universe and expands out to universe’s I’ve created in my mind and put onto the creative canvas.

Planet Simon Website   |   Simon’ Blog   |   Twitter   |   Wattpad

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Big thanks to Simon for being today’s guest and sharing his thoughts on diversity in writing.  Please check out his links and if you have any questions, please leave them in the comment section below.

Happy writing

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24 comments

  1. My characters aren’t all that diverse. It’s something I’m trying to change, but it’s hard to write like someone else when you’ve never experienced it. I’m trying though. Great post!

  2. I was born and raised in Northern Washington about a half hour drive from Canada.I moved to Eugene, Oregon where I have lived since 1994. In a nutshell I live in an extremely white part of America. When I write, I tend to write about people I know. But that doesn’t mean I have to.

    A writer must try to create a balance in diversity but at the same time it cannot be forced. Not only will it hurt the story it will turn off the reader and that is the last thing we want to do.

    Thanks, Simon. Good stuff.

  3. As a white-straight writer, myself, one thing I noticed again and again from the authors of the ol’ sword-and-shield fantasy books, is because so many of them are based around northern medieval Europe, they say putting a bit more diversity in central roles wouldn’t be “accurate”.

    I personally don’t subscribe to this, which is why Rick Riordan is one of my role model authors. Since my fantasy (with sci-fi mixed in) WIP called for a mild climate as part of worldbuilding, due to a certain weather event in it, this allowed for some significant diversity that aren’t shoehorned in or “token” (including several named PoC of a fictional culture that directly contribute to the plot, one’s basically a 2nd protagonist). Still took quite a bit of work, but it’s been worth it 🙂

    1. Thanks for your comment. There is no reason, in a FANTASY book, that may be based around Northern medieval Europe that diversity couldn’t be included.

      If they wanted to write something historically accurate about a specific time and place then maybe the lack of diversity could be explained.

      But these people aren’t writing about small select areas in a specific place and time that may be less diverse, they are writing fantasy fiction… and even using the medieval period as their base means nothing as it was not “lacking in diversity” as many writers seem to think.

      I’ve heard great things about Rick Riordan, I will have to check out his work.

  4. Diversity is a strange thing. My character Will Diaz is all for it. He’s respectful of others peoples belief systems, sexual orientations, and the like.

    But there’s something odd here. He’s the product of many different bloodlines but is mostly Hispanic. He always felt it was being shoved down his throat and since he’s the most rebellious individual you’ll ever meet, it manifested itself in some rather odd ways. He was raised around the Spanish language yet about the only Spanish he knows is the bad words. That said he’s fluent in German and Russian and could at least ask direction and understand the response for where the bathroom is in Chinese.. He claims to have issues learning languages. That’s a lie obviously.

    He loves different foods, and often talks about eating at the table of people in the Middle East, Italy, Germany, Spain, England, and Korea. While he loves Chili, tacos, and such, he turns his nose up at some of the more common dishes of his native culture.

    He loves to travel and has been all over the world. Yet, he wouldn’t go to Mexico, even on vacation.

    Someplace in this guys head there’s a disconnect. RJ points it out to him in Dead Friends.

    Let’s just say he’s a lot more receptive of other cultures and thought patterns than the one’s he was raised around (and is probably a bit poorer of a person as a result).

    As for sex in my stories, I stay out of my characters bedrooms. The closest I’ll go is the consequences (like a murder or a divorce).

  5. It’s funny you mention that episode of Star Trek: TNG because I was just think of that one in regards to how progressive, yet narrow sci-fi can be. In the end, even stories about the future are colored by the time in which they’re written. I also remembered the one with the androgynous society that “reprogrammed” the citizen who felt she was female. Literature (and all forms of media) should tackle those subjects.

    And diversity can mean lots of things. While I appreciate when a cast of characters has a diverse background (sex, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, body type), I think including diverse voices helps. I agree with Yari’s comment that reading diversely will help make it more natural. Great post!

  6. Diversity is great, as long as it isn’t forced. For instance, I grew up in a Hispanic household. I’d rather a writer leave out a Hispanic character than include one that is all wrong (maybe full of stereotypes or not quite genuine, or confusing Mexican culture with Dominican culture, which can vary, etc). Of course, that’s just my preference. I can only write from my point of view.

    If you want diverse stories, read diverse authors in a variety of genres and topics! There is a ton of great work out there, especially in the indie world. There is no shortage of books 😉

    Yari

    1. Thanks for reading, Yari. I agree with you re diversity being forced. I have read some stories where there was definitely a level of tokenism and it was so noticeable either because the race was mentioned constantly every time the character appeared and/or stereotypes was used.

      I think we run the risk of making things worse if we crowbar in characters for diversity sake. It should be natural and reflective of the location, time period etc.

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