Monday, May 11, 2015

Diverse Authors vs. Diverse Characters

I didn't intend to do a "series" on diversity, or to even address it again, but a couple interesting points/questions were brought up in the comments of my Diversity vs Exclusion post last week.



The short version of each was:

1. The diversity of the authors is less important than the diversity in the stories.
2. No one should write characters of a diverse population they aren't part of.

Obviously, these were raised by different people, as they contradict each other.

I don't have anything brilliant to say about either. This post is more because I want to know what people think about this. Which one is true? Are both or neither true?

On the diversity of the characters being more important than the diversity of the authors, the question becomes: Why does the call for diversity exist? Why does it matter? What is the most important aspect of it?

Perhaps answering questions like those will make things clearer. Diversity more accurately mimics real life. When you go out, you probably don't just see Caucasian folks. (I guess that depends upon where you live.) And even if you think everyone near you is heterosexual, there's a good chance you're wrong. Every time you go out in public, you're surrounded by a sea of humanity made up of different colors, different personalities, different financial levels, different needs, different problems, different pains. Every single one of us is different in a variety of ways, but then we're also the same in many ways. This is how we can write characters that are different from each other--they're all similar, too, and they likely have pieces of the author in them. We bury the humanity we know in each person we create, switch it up, swirl it in. Each creation is a beautiful thing, a different way of bringing a life into the world.

For every individual, the world revolves around ourselves. My world revolves around me. Yes, it also revolves around my kids and my husband, sometimes even my extended family. But at its base, my life revolves around me. I'm the center of the universe. To me. Not to anyone else. Because they're all busy being the centers of their own universes.

Yet, when reading a book we lose ourselves in the characters. Our lives suddenly revolve around them. Their lives become ours. We become someone of the opposite sex, someone from a different planet, someone of a different color, someone with a different love, someone with a different struggle.

If those characters don't resemble us, can we still lose ourselves in them as completely as if they're more like us in ways we identify with? Can we be friends with those secondary characters if they don't feel familiar?

You tell me.

I don't feel one is more important than the other. They're both important. We need diverse authors, because we need diverse voices. We need characters. We need stories. We need them to represent all people from all walks of life. We should know other people's stories and experiences, because it broadens our worlds. How can we understand other people if we don't hear from them? The more we open ourselves up to someone else's world, the more we can come around to understanding it, and when we understand things, we tend to fear them less, to suffer less apprehension about our worlds in general. Who doesn't want that?

I think this post has become long enough, so I guess this has officially become a series. I'll address #2, writing cultures other than your own, next Monday.

What do you think? Why do you think diversity matters? Does diversity matter as much as creating good characters and stories? Is writing diversity more important than having diverse authors? Or vice versa? Why?

May you find your Muse.

*Question Mark image by Gayane and Mohamed Ibrahim on clker.com
*Northern Hemisphere Globe by OCAL, clker.com




26 comments:

  1. Another great diversity post. And you already raised the question that I would have asked - why do we always call for diversity? If you have diversity in your book because you genuinely want to, and it fits the story and the character, that's great. But if you feel like every single one of your stories HAS to have at least one black person, and one Mexican person, and one Asian person, etc., just to fill some kind of imaginary quota, then you're doing it for the wrong reasons.

    Also, the main character of one of our books was black (the zombie story), and the main character of my newest tale is half black, half white. We didn't go into it saying "Okay, let's make this about a black guy." It's just the way these stories came out, and I'd hate to think that someone would criticize me/us for writing about a black character simply because I'm not black.

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    1. It does concern me that this "call" is out there, so more people might start feeling like they HAVE to (much like those who don't write the story they love, but the one they think agents are looking for). If people do it because they have to, I suspect the quality of it will make it worse for them having done it versus having just written what came naturally to them.

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  2. I agree with everything in the above comment. My characters pick for themselves what race, religion, etc. they are. I don't. It's up to my story and my characters. They come to me as they are. And I relate to them, just as I can identify with diverse characters in books I read.

    And I don't think we have to be part of a diverse population in order to write about them. That seems silly to me. Does that mean I can only write about white people? I have a Hawaiian half brother, an Asian sister (adopted), a black brother-in-law, half Asian-half black nephews, and a Puerto Rican brother-in-law. My family is very diverse and I love it! I also like writing about diverse characters. I don't feel that just because I'm not part of those populations that I can't write about them and write about them well.

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    1. My characters come to me as they are, as well. Trying to change them to be something they aren't would be detrimental to what I'm writing. I'm sure we pull characters from the experiences we've had and the people we've met. Someone who hasn't met anyone from a diverse population is living a very sequestered life.

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  3. It would be so great if it didn't matter but even in the animal world, they're aware of differences and hostile to strangers even if of the same species. Are humans intelligent enough to overcome their prejudices. Not yet but every little dent in those fears is a small step forward. Visual media has improved on presenting more realistic diversity when will written media catch up?

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    1. Visual media is improving. I don't think it's at a great point yet, either, but there is change rumbling through it. And it certainly appears to be ahead of written media. It makes me wonder if that's the direction things typically move (visual media forging ahead while written catches up.)

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  4. I don't think you have to be white to write a white character or black or write a black character or whatever. That's ridiculous. As long as it isn't forced and there's a little bit of research behind it that doesn't feel false, then it's ok. Just write the story as it is.
    I do think they need more diverse authors though, especially in the mainstream.

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    1. Something I didn't ask, but wonder, is what needs to happen to get more diverse authors? Why aren't there more diverse authors already? Does the current author makeup reflect the population? I don't think it does, but I couldn't say why.

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    2. I don't know. I think maybe if more people wrote diverse characters, then people won't be so prejudged against diverse authors? Not sure. The current author makeup doesn't reflect the population, not even close. I mean, take fantasy or sci-fi for example. VERY, VERY few non-white authors. Actually, especially sci-fi very few non-male authors. It's a problem. :/

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  5. Agree with Brandon and Bryan. You don't have to be diverse to write diverse, nor do you want to throw those characters in just because.

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    1. I agree, as well. We all live a diverse life, different than our neighbor's. Maybe we need to reach a point of comfort to improve it.

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  6. I think it all depends on the writer. Each writers' vision of their work and characters differ. Though, I personally relate to a story no matter what race or culture the character is from. All of us can relate to certain phases in our lives, no matter what race you are, for example falling in love. Writing fiction should be fun and give you the freedom to write what you want, without having to bring politics into it. So, I say write what you want and not what you have to to please everyone. Great post.

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    1. Great point on phases in our lives. The human experience shares so much in common that there will always be issues everyone can relate to.

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  7. I think the idea that you can only write what you are is... more than a little silly. If I'm a white guy, does that men I can only have white guy characters? So no female characters. No characters of other races.
    Sorry, that just sounds like a boring book.

    I can't be a diverse author. I can include diverse characters.
    Without even trying.
    I mean, Tib is bi-racial because it made sense. I did it without consciously thinking about it and didn't realize it, even, until my wife asked me about it, because, to her, the character didn't come across as a typical white kid. I think that's a good thing, since I was a mostly typical white kid.

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    1. Agreed. If we can't write a different experience than our own, what's the point in fiction?

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  8. I think that with the right research a writer can write just about anything. It requires hard work, of course, but just like an actor can play any role if he/she puts enough effort into it, so a writer can write of any people/culture/ethnicity. If we all wrote about ourselves, books were a lot more boring. ;-)

    Of course, the farther away from your reality the characters are, the more work you need to put into it if you want them to ring true. maybe spend sometime with similar people, talk to them, take notes on how they talk, what gestures they have, etc. I find research to be the most fun part of crafting a story. :-)

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    1. I do love me some research! Sometimes a little too much. A lot of authors like to people watch, and there's a reason for that. Characters are based on real people. When I say that, I don't mean my character x is based on this specific person y, but more than each character is a combination of different people we've seen or interacted with.

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    1. Uh oh! For some reason it deleted both comments.

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  11. I agree with many others that you should write what you want to write no matter who you are. I've always had diverse characters in my books because I come from a family with a diverse background so it was always important for me to include diversity of all kinds in my books. :)

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    1. I also agree that we need to write our stories and characters as they come to us. These are the stories of our minds and hearts.

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  12. Good discussion!! I, too, feel you should write what you're inspired to. If that means a different, race, religion, sex, etc., don't let fear stop you. Do it respectfully and your readers will approve.

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    1. The thing is, I think everyone has written someone of a different sex, right? Why do we do that comfortably, but not the other categories?

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  13. Really sorry about the double comment deletes. This is what happens when I write fast while I comment, and I go back and think, I don't know if I'm making sense here!

    As I was saying...What someone regards as "rules" for writing about diversity are what I consider suggestions. On the two points you mentioned, I disagree with the notion you must be from a certain group to be able to write about that group.

    Reading through your previous post on diversity, I agree with your sentiment about wanting your work to be accepted on its own merit, not because you're female or have a certain ethnic background. That said, I think if a publisher or agent asks about the inspiration behind a story with a diverse theme, I don't think it'd hurt to mention that you found inspiration from something in your personal background.

    There's a lot out there about incorporating diversity into fiction, and it was insightful to see your thoughts on this topic, Shannon.

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    1. Whoops, I should have come down a little farther before responding to the one up there!

      I would definitely share the inspiration if asked about it. That's a good point.

      Rules in writing are definitely made to be broken. Every rule out there is breakable. It's funny that we try to drape these rules over something that is meant to be an act of creative expression and creation.

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