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Make it Real: Building Diversity in Fiction

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Diversity - Character Diversity - Diversity in Fiction - Minority Main Characters in YA Fiction - Novel Conclusions Literary Blog - Christina Gerstle - Christi Gerstle

Colourful Army by Maistora via Flickr

Traveling over the holidays has gotten me thinking a lot about diversity.  Everywhere you go, the people are different and diverse and represent different parts of the country in a wide variety of ways.  This is especially obvious traveling through airports.  At LAX, everyone was in a hurry, and I even spotted an older woman wearing serious fur and heels.  At 7am.  In Houston, passengers moseyed rather than striding along with urgency.  In Florida, a significant chunk of stout older ladies with big earrings, East Coast accents, and too-tight leopard print clothing edged everyone else out of their way.

A female YA author* recently wrote a tumblr post about character diversity and how most YA MCs (main characters) are usually pretty, straight white girls without any physical impairments.  First of all, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writing about those girls (and I personally find it obnoxious when people say “cisgender” — just say straight, people, OMG.  It’s like saying Caucasian or African-American instead of white or black.  It’s snotty.).  However, I do think it’s important to include representations of more than one type when you’re writing.  In fact, as a white girl in Southern California, I find it a little twilight-zone-esque when there are only white people around.  Here in LA, I’m definitely in the minority, and I notice when there’s no diversity.  I was up in Yountville near Napa with family on Black Friday, and my mom said, “Isn’t it weird that there only seem to be white people here? I wonder why.”

When I was teaching, I didn’t have any white students at all, and I struggled to find good books with minority MCs.  Also, I refused to include books in my classroom that were pro one race over another.  People who exclude all races but their own are just as bad as the KKK (I’m looking at you, MEChA and Ta-Nehisi Coates).  Suffice it to say, we read a lot of Walter Dean Myers.

Despite the lack of minority characters in popular YA, I would posit that it’s our duty as modern writers to include them when possible and as modern readers to ask for them when possible.  Having different types of characters encourages young readers to open their minds, in addition to the fact that if every one of our characters were just copies of the same character over and over with different names (cough*Heinlein*cough), it would make our stories pretty flat.

There are many different types of diversity, not just skin color.  In Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, we find Nazis, Jews, Communists, and working class Germans all together in one book, creating conflict.  In the Harry Potter series, Rowling brings us “pure bloods” and “muggle-borns” to create an overarching conflict through the series.  Additionally, she brings in characters of different ethnicities (Dean Thomas, Parvati Patil, Cho Chang, etc.), and makes a point by having their ethnicities not matter a whit.  In the Hunger Games series, the characters represent a variety of ethnicities and backgrounds and use these backgrounds to work together against the Capitol, especially in Mockingjay.  You can also find minority MCs in House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer, Bless Me Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya, Romiette and Julio by Sharon Draper, Flight by Sherman Alexie, Monster by Walter Dean Myers, and Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George, among many others.

Which books have you read that represent diversity well?  Have you read any interesting blog posts/articles about character diversity?

*I can’t remember which author wrote this post, only that this post was linked on Cassandra Clare’s tumblr and may have been Holly Black, Sarah Rees Brennan, Maureen Johnson, or Ally Carter.  Or some other female YA author.  I spent 45 minutes digging through Cassandra Clare’s tumblr trying to find it.  If you know which tumblr post I’m talking about, please link it in the comments.

About Christi

Writing in SoCal.

23 responses

  1. I don’t believe writers have a duty to do anything. White girls probably write about white girls. Toni Morrison writes about black girls. Writers are told to write what they know, then they’re told to force diversity into their books, then they’re told that they don’t write realistic minority characters. I don’t believe it’s up to white authors to write about every other type of person. Should we have a rule that black people must include a token white good person in their fiction? Or a Chinese author must have a Russian Catholic in his novel?
    This sort of thing gets out of hand quickly and becomes a lesson in intolerance and stifles an artist’s creativity. So someone who writes about an entirely Black community is akin to the KKK?

    Sorry but I really disagree with police state rules for writers.

    • Diversity is not just about ethnicity; it’s also about diversity of character, like I mentioned in the post. It’s not about “police state rules” for writers — it’s about making the decision that we are going to include people who are not carbon copies of ourselves in fiction.

      • I get your very valid points and understand that your weren’t just talking about ethnicity. It’s just that most discussions about diversity mention “white girls” or “white boys” as if it’s a sin to write exclusively about them. You used white girls as your example and that’s what I was reacting to.

  2. I read “Buddha of Suburbia” by Hanif Kureishi during university, which is about colloquialism, displacement, and liminal spaces through the eyes of a half English, half Indian boy growing up in ’70s England. I highly recommend it!

    • I’ll have to check that one out. A really great book I read about displacement was Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok, about a young girl who emigrates to Brooklyn from Hong Kong and encounters some crazy challenges along the way — a fantastic read. Thanks for the Kureishi recommendation!

  3. I like reading books with diversity because they are more realistic. Yes, writers write what they know but very few, if any, have not experienced diversity in their life.

  4. Good post. I agree that it would be great to see more diversity in fiction (especially YA), making it more representative of our wider society.

    I also like your examples of The Book Thief, Harry Potter, and The Hunger Games. Diversity doesn’t have to be a blunt object over the head (i.e. this is my black character; this is my Indian character), and can help introduce another layer of conflict within the plot, again, more like real life.

    Personally, I think that modern writers are writing stories with diverse characters, but “modern” publishers simply aren’t publishing them, on the unfounded belief that readers won’t buy them. It’s the same reasoning for why we get so few movies with female leads, despite the fact that whenever there is one, it usually does no worse than any other movie, and sometimes much better.

    On an unrelated note, “cisgender” and “straight” are not synonymous. Cisgender is the term used to describe someone whose assigned gender (i.e. when the doctor announces “It’s a boy” or “It’s a girl” at birth) matches the gender the person perceives him-/herself to be. It is the opposite of transgender, and has nothing to do with sexual orientation. Both cis- and transgender people can be straight, gay, bisexual, or what have you.

    Also, people who refer to themselves as African-American often do so out of recognition of the fact that they’re only “American” because their ancestors were forcibly removed from Africa. Some might perceive a criticism of a cultural group’s desire to preserve what little of its historical roots that it has knowledge of as “snotty”.

    • I didn’t realize there was a different perception of the word “cisgender” vs. “straight” — thanks for shedding light on that! I also appreciate your note about African-American heritage. Thanks for visiting, Janna!

  5. A nice pair of books is Eon and Eona by Alison Goodman, which creates a historical fantasy world based on China and Japan, rather than the more typical Western European trope. It is interesting that the main character, Eona, whose face is visible on the second book’s cover, is depicted as White rather than Asian. I have thought about that for a while, and wonder if the publisher did that for broader audience appeal — which I don’t think is valid. I really like that the characters are non-White, especially the handsome young emperor, Kygo. As you write, Christi, bring on the diversity!

    • I’ve never heard of those, but I love books that delve into history and fantasy. It is interesting that many characters are given whiter representation on covers than within the books themselves.

  6. I don’t think that every story requires a mix of ethnicities, but I do think that every bookshelf and every classroom does. And they’ll only get there if people write such stories and publishers publish them. As you say, the average American lives in a more diverse community than every before.

    I happen to very much like books by Nancy Farmer (pretty much all that I’ve read), and loved The House of the Scorpion. Her The Eye, the Ear, and the Arm is another great novel with a predominately non-White “cast.” And I also was heartened by the multiethnic angle of Mockinjay. Julie of the Wolves is great, but not for the age I usually see it recommended for. I’ve liked some of Sherman Alexie’s work, but not all (and I haven’t read Flight).

    More “diverse universe” favorites: many titles by Lawrence Yep, Lisa Yee, Joseph Bruchac, and Christopher Paul Curtis. I enjoyed the graphic novel American Born Chinese very much, Island of the Blue Dophins, and Haroun and the Sea of Stories, too.

    While I think the diverse literary universe can include characters who may have different sexual behavior/identification than would have been typical in books 10+ years ago, I think that should just be one aspect of the character. The character’s presence in the novel should be for more than promoting a political agenda. That’s just tokenism. Unfortunately, most (not all) such characters I’ve read recently are put in a political context not a personal or literary one. And it should be convincing (in one recent case, I read an example that was very clumsily done).

    Part of what I liked about The Book Thief was that the characters were all human–you could hate their politics, you could find them infuriating in all sorts of ways–but the overall direction was accepting humanity in every person. I think characters should be written like that–with all sorts of characteristics, the most important of which is their humanity (which is why I hate flat, uniformly bad, melodramatic villains).

    • You’re right — the fullness of the character is the most important thing. Showing differences and still being able to accept a character’s humanity is a sign of gifted writer. George RR Martin does a great job of that; he shows us the humanity of many of his villains as well as the deeply flawed side of many of his heroes.

  7. I try to include diversity in my books, and when I do, I hope I’m capturing the voice well. Sometimes it can be difficult to step out of our own cultural bubble.

    • It’s definitely hard to step out of our own cultural bubble. That’s why I like light science fiction; I can create a culture slightly different than the norm and use it as a lens to look at characters’ humanity.

  8. Awesome post! This is such a tough issue and we all need to be aware of it as writers.

    • It’s a hard issue to tackle without attracting criticism. Even if we talk about it clumsily, it’s better than not talking about it at all. :-)

  9. Thanks for this post and your desire to call attention to the issue. CBC Diversity specializes in posts about diversity: http://www.cbcdiversity.com/

  10. As this is the time for wearing woolly bonnets, I thought this was a novel way of thinking about different people – Good!

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