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Why You Need to Include Diversity in Your Novel

The last time I wrote this article, it didn’t save and instead published just my brain-dump notes, lol.

Let’s try this again! 🙂  I have re-written the article and double-checked that it saved.

So, today’s article is all about diversity in your novel and why it’s important.  It was a recent article by guest writer, Simon Farnell, that made me realised I had never gone back to this one.

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What Does Diversity Mean?

In the basic sense of the word, Diversity means differences, variety.  It refers to how non-uniform a group of people are.

A council made up of only men would be considered lacking in gender diversity, however if those men were made up of different races and ages then they would have diversity in those aspects.

Understanding what diversity means can help you when creating your novel.  Too often people think they need “more diversity” and in doing so, just add in more of one factor.

For example, if you are writing a novel where your characters are almost all highly-educationed, white men, throwing in several highly-educated black men does not make it diverse.  It only makes it somewhat racially diverse (but not much).

I’ve seen the word diversity used under the notion that a novel should have more black people or more women.  Of course it should, however it should also have people of different ages, sexes, races and other factors.

Let me use this brilliant Tumblr screenshot to explain.  It is discussing diversity in Hollywood, but it works for writing.

Tumblr Image: What Diversity Is Meme. Goldfish Crackers used to explain diversity

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What Level of Diversity Does my Novel Need?

I can’t answer that.  Only you can.  You have to look through your novel and see where you might be lacking in diversity.

If you are writing a YA, then you most likely will have many of your characters around a certain age.  However, if you are setting your novel in modern day, there are likely those younger characters will have interactions with older people.

Whether that’s parents, bus drivers, teachers, bosses, neighbours etc.  So you don’t need to just have a whole book full of teenagers.  Unless it’s a Lord of the Flies type book.

However, be aware of stating “oh my book needs to only have [insert a single diversity type] because [weird reason].”

Some reasons may be legitimate, however, again I’ve seen people use locations or time periods to complete remove certain diversity types.  And yet, historically, this isn’t as accurate as they think.

As always, do your research if you are story is set in a specific location or at a specific time.

Take the time to consider all your characters, main, secondary and the odd singular/side character.

  • Are they all mostly one group?
  • Have you focused too much on one diversity factor and none others?

We see it all the time in movies, TV shows and sometimes books where there is a whole cast of able-bodied men and then one woman, you know, to make it diverse!

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So I Should Make my Characters Diverse for the Sake of it?

I never said that, however, you should consider why your novel may lack diversity.  We often (but not always) reflect things we experience in the real world, into our creative works.

If you live somewhere where there is not a lot of race diversity, it can become unconscious for you to mirror that in your work.  However, if you are, for example, writing about characters in New York City, then this would not be consistent with that location.

If you don’t have much interaction with people who have disabilities, you may not think to include them.  However, they are part of every society so would your novel or series really be realistic without them?

People do not always write novels lacking in diversity on purpose.  It’s often is done without thought.

But, like how you need to go back and edit and think about what you’ve written, you need to think about the characters you’ve created, the world they are in and what your diversity looks like.

This is why creating a Character Spreadsheet is a great way to do this.  By keeping track of all your characters, and their different aspects such as gender, race, age, class (for want of a better word), religion, ableness etc you will be able to see at a glance if you are lacking in diversity.

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Making your Characters Diverse

Here’s a some things to consider when creating diverse characters

Race and Ethnicity

Originally, “race” was believed to be in the DNA and science categorised different races based on this.  However, science now recognises that genetically there are no different “races” and instead it’s more of a social construct.

“A race is a grouping of humans based on shared physical or social qualities into categories generally viewed as distinct by society.” ~Wiki

~ ~ ~

“An ethnic group or an ethnicity is a category of people who identify with each other based on similarities such as common ancestry, language, history, society, culture or nation. Ethnicity is usually an inherited status based on the society in which one lives.” ~Wiki

Think carefully about where your novel is located, consider the time period and consider the characters you have created.

Are they racially and ethnically diverse?

A quick point – writing a novel with only white and/or black characters, does not really make it racially diverse.

Age

Unless there is a really good reason, your novel should feature people of different ages.  And despite what Hollywood may make you believe women do exist above the age of 30.

Age is actually an important factor.  It is not just the length of time a person has lived, we mark out points in our life stage:

  • infant
  • child
  • teenager
  • young adult
  • Adult
  • Senior citizen
  • Elder

We also mark out development degrees, whether that is physical or mental and also things such as legal responsbility.  Here are a few things where age plays a role:

  • Consent
  • Contracts (legal / marriage)
  • Drinking
  • Driving
  • Requiring a legal guardian

Disability and Disorders

“Ableism is discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities or who are perceived to have disabilities. Ableism characterizes persons as defined by their disabilities and as inferior to the non-disabled. On this basis, people are assigned or denied certain perceived abilities, skills, or character orientations.” ~Wiki

I included the above quote as I felt it was important to be aware of.

People who are differently-abled are a part of society, like everyone else, and as such should be represented in media, including written works.

Now, there are different types of disabilities and disorderes that can affect people differently especially as things like age or societal-acceptance can play a part.

Also, this is not just about including a character who requires a wheelchair.  Disabilities and disorders are not restricted to just physical ones.  There are disorders and disabilities that are not always clear to the eye.

Have you created any characters with disabilities or disorders?

Sex, Gender and Orientation

Consider the characters you have created, are you leaning heavily on one specific sex or gender?  Have you written all your characters as straight?

Again, consideration for the sex, gender and sexual orientation of your characters should be given some thought.

We are seeing a lot more LGBT+ fiction being written, however, there is still a lot of (for what of a better word) mainstream fiction that seems to be lacking in this diversity factor.

I did have a conversation once were someone told me they didn’t feel comfortable writing a character as lesbian because they didn’t want to write that sex scene.

After a little bit more dialogue I figured out that writing the sex scene was how they would “show the character was a lesbian”.

Someone’s sexual orientation is not the be-all and end-all of their character.  A sexual scene is not required to show a sexual perference.

Another point, the current full acronym (I believe, apologies if I get this wrong) is LGBTQIA+ with the breakdown of this below:

  • Lesbian
  • Gay
  • Bisexual
  • Trans
  • Queer/Questioning
  • Intersex
  • Asexual

The + symbol at the end is to represent the other sexualities, sexes and genders that are not included in these letters.

I added the details of the acronym to help give greater consideration if you are creating characters with sex, gender and/or sexual diversity.

Wealth & Education

One of the diversities that is often not considered is Wealth.  We may not (technically) use or refer to the class system, but the wealth factor is still very real.

A person’s wealth has impacts and effects.  It can effect where they live – whether that’s on the streets, in a council flat, in a mansion (or anywhere in between).

Wealth can effect many things such as health (if you are in a country with private healthcare), education (if it’s not free), job opportunities (often affected by the education issue).

Wealth levels have perception impacts.  People treat others differently by where they live, how much they earn, their education level even the clothes/brands they wear.

How people view and thus treat other people depends on both parties’ wealth and education.  A millionnaire may view a homless person a specific way, just as a homeless person would view a millionnaire in a specific way.

Whether your characters have, for example, financial privilige or are improverished will have an impact on them and their opportunities.

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Important Things to Consider

Don’t just force it

Yes you should view your story through a diversity lens to see if you have got a little too much uniformity.  However, that does not mean you should change every character to tick all the boxes.

Just think more carefully about why your characters are the way they are, the more you start to catch yourself falling into the trap of lacking diversity, the more you will naturally start to rectify it.

Don’t throw in everything

It’s unlikely that your novel will have a large cross-section of society.  So throwing in every single diversity factor isn’t the answer.

Like I said above, it’s not about ticking all the boxes.  But you should consider a least a few diversity factors.

If you are writing a series or trilogy, or just have a large cast of characters, diversity plays a bigger part as the likelihood to have a greater collection of diversity factors becomes a larger probability.

Avoid tokenism

Tokenism is the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to be inclusive to members of minority groups.

For this, consider the above goldfish cracker image I showed earlier.  Having one character of a different race for example, does not make for diversity.  It is most certainly a type of tokenism.

Representation is important

It’s important to the people being represented and it’s important to people who need to see others, different from them, represented.

Here’s a great article that shares 5 Reasons Why Representation Matters.

Use a Sensitivity Editor

Sensitivity editors are gaining traction.  Let’s make a quick point, sensitivity editors are NOT here to censor anyone.  It’s about making sure that things are represented authentically.

Having a sensitivity edit done will often check things like races, religions, genders, disabilities, disorders etc.

These edits are to help make sure you are not writing anything offensive, innappropriate, misguided etc.

Please note this does NOT mean you can’t write characters who are misguided, racist, ageist, etc.  There are people in the world like this and characters can reflect society and cultures.

However, if you are writing about a race, age, sex, gender, sexual orientation etc that you have zero personal knowledge about, then a sensitivity editor can make sure what you write is authentic.

Ask People

Following on from my last paragraph, if you are wanting to write characters who are different from you in regards to diversity factors then seek to learn.

Want to write a character of a different race?  Speak to people of that race to get their insights, their experiences that can help you to understand how your character.

Want to write a character with a disability? Speak to people who live with that disability to find out how it affects them in their life to give you a greater depth of your character.

A quick note – make sure you reach out to people who would be representing of your character.

For example, if you are creating a young Latina woman character, don’t ask for advice from an older Latino man.  Just because he is Latino does not mean he would have the same experiences or understanding due to his age and gender.  While he could give some advice, it would be better to speak to someone more closer to your character.

The same goes with any diversity factor.  Don’t ask a 30 year old advice on writing a character who’s 80 years old.  Unless you need it from a 30 year old’s perspective.

Also, avoid biases, avoid stereotypes – ask people, be polite, listen to what they say and ask thoughtful but respectful questions and always ALWAYS explain why you are asking them questions.

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Happy writing

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Why you need to include diversity in your novel. Image: Vector image of figures in a rainbow of colours

19 comments

    1. Thanks Lorraine, so glad you enjoyed it. I was glad I got back around to rewriting it. I hate losing articles because the desire to rewrite them is so low I just end up dropping them entirely, but I felt this was an important topic.

  1. Excellent post and suggestions. I have a character spreadsheet for my WIP to keep track of ages and names, but you suggest some invaluable additions. The novel’s diversity evolved with the plot and not as token tropes, but I have struggled to get all the elements right.

    My MC ‘told me’ that she had to be a queer/lesbian police detective. I set the story in North Wales, UK so the MC and other characters are Welsh – a race who for centuries have been ‘oppressed’ by the English, even though in the majority. MC’s sister is deaf and an integral part of the plot. MC’s partner is of Tamil (South Indian) extraction but brought up in South Wales. [I’m a hetero WASP but I lived in North Wales.]

    1. Thanks for reading, I am glad you found this useful. Oh yes, I know the feeling, I think a character spreadsheet or profiles are invaluable to keep track of everything.

      Ahh yes, was there anyone my people didn’t oppress? We English certainly got around, sad to say.

  2. Wonderful post! I pretty much agree with every single point you made.

    I tend to consider time and place when adding diversity in my stories. I’ve lived everywhere from the east coast to the west (U.S.) and the Caribbean, big cities to rural middle-of-nowheres, so depending on where I set my story, that’s the diversity I include. I never force it ~ it just happens.

    I’ve been inhaling your blog lately! Great topics 🙂

  3. I think the advantage of writing books as opposed to writing screenplays, for example, is the ability to describe a person without fully describing a person. In that way the reader can truly include herself in a story because as a woman and a Latina, my biggest complaint is not seeing myself reflected in a movie, TV show, etc. In a book that doesn’t insist on giving overly detailed descriptions of physical characteristics, I can insert myself and my friends.

    1. I understand what you mean, it can be good to create an undescribed character that allows people to slip themselves into that skin and see the Mc as they wish.

      I think the only issue with that is if the book is made into a movie, then it would almost definitely be cast as a white person. (As if they don’t do that for most already).

      I think the more we can include specific characters with different diversity aspects, the more movies might actually start having better diversity because it becomes easier to push when the original source has it specified (not always, but I always think there’s a better chance)

      1. I have to admit if (however unlikely) that any of my (when they are finally published) books get made into movies, I would insist on being involved in order to keep accuracy and integrity to the story otherwise it’s a no go. So many great books are trashed by movie producers thus losing them a ton of fans. That’s why Terry Pratchett’s movies always did well, he had some tinkering involved. Makes a diference

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