The Dos and Don’ts of Diversity
Diversity. Recently this buzzword has ignited conversations about representation of minorities and marginalized people in media. Television, movies, books … for a long time, variety wasn’t always readily available, and those who created diverse works often found it difficult to make their voices heard. Now, with campaigns such as #WeNeedDiverseBooks, diverse books and the need for more of them has become the hot topic of conversation at many book conventions, and online in blogs and social media.
As a romance novelist of color, I’ve spent my career endeavoring to craft novels that portray women of color in nuanced ways. Since making this my platform of sorts, I’ve found myself being invited into many spaces to have discussions and help lead panels on the topic of diversity. While taking part in these discussions I’ve noticed one prevailing issue among writers: many are afraid to step out and write about people who are different from them for fear that they will offend. I often find myself faced with the question of how to write about people who are black, Hispanic, gay, Muslim, disabled, etc., without offending an entire group of people.
I have never subscribed to the notion that you should ‘write what you know’. Writing about something you don’t know can be a thrilling learning experience! After all, I am not a surgeon, but having written about one, I learned some fascinating things about surgery.
Here are my list of dos and don’ts when it comes to writing diverse characters.
DO avoid stereotypes.
Of all the dos and don’ts, this one is the most important. While people love to see themselves represented, there is nothing more insulting than reading or watching a character who embodies every harmful stereotype of your race, religion, or sexual orientation. What’s the big deal, you might be wondering? You might even argue that stereotypes have some basis in truth. While stereotypes might seem like something to laugh off to some, to others they are quite harmful, when they are the only representations of who you are that exist in the world. How many times have we seen movies about sassy black maids, extremist terrorist Muslims, sexually awkward, nerdy Asian men, or overly effeminate gay men?
When crafting your characters, stop and ask yourself: Where are my opinions, thoughts, and biases about people of this race, religion, or orientation coming from? If everything you know about a person of color comes from what you see on T.V. or in movies, I think it’s safe to say you might be building your characters based on stereotypes. It isn’t your fault that these are the only representations available at times, however, it is up to you to dig deep and reach further than the surface-level presentation offered by popular media. My next ‘Do’ will have a valuable resource you can utilize to help in this.
DON’T exoticize or fetishize your characters.
It is natural for us to be fascinated by people who are different from we are, especially if we don’t spend a lot of time around certain types of people. Yet, sometimes that natural curiosity can lead to us fetishizing aspects of a person’s appearance that are simply normal occurrences for them. Sometimes, in writing minority characters, we tend to exoticize them, marking them as ‘other’ in our descriptions. The goal in writing diverse characters is to present them as everyday people—which is what they happen to be. So, you’ll want to avoid describing people in a way that compares them to objects, food, or animals. Calling someone ‘exotic’ seems like a compliment, but all it does is set them apart from everyone and emphasize that they are ‘other’.
DO ask questions and do your research.
As the saying goes, there is no such thing as a stupid question … except for one that goes unasked. Many people seem nervous to reach out to people who are different from them to ask questions. However, there is no better way to learn something you don’t know than by asking someone who does. Most people I know are happy to share their beliefs and experiences with others, as long as the question is posed in a way that conveys your need to learn. I have many author friends who reach out to me to ask if their portrayals of African-American characters are offensive in any way, and I am always happy to give them my honest opinion. Better to ask, than risk offending many people with what may seem to you as a small misstep.
If you do not have friends or acquaintances that fall within one of the minority or marginalized groups you wish to write about, remember that the internet is full of valuable information. There are blogs dedicated to cultures, races, and religions that are a quick search and click away. One of my favorite resources for writers is a Tumblr blog called Writing with Color. They post many insightful articles about writing diverse characters. While ‘color’ is in the title, do not be fooled. The writers approach every aspect of diversity, from religion and culture to sexuality and physical ability. You can visit Writing with Color to begin your research here: http://writingwithcolor.tumblr.com. There is even an option to submit your own questions, which the admins will answer in a long form blog post!
DON’T whitewash your covers.
I cannot stress this enough, as it is a personal pet peeve of mine. It is also a practice many publishing houses have engaged in over the years, and it strikes a nerve (with people of color and people with plus-size figures especially). If you write a diverse character, one of the best things you can do is declare it proudly on the cover of your book! As a woman of color, there is nothing I love more than finding a book with a beautiful, professionally made cover featuring a woman who looks like me. All people of color feel this way, because there are so few representations of us in the world, and standards of beauty in society don’t always make room for us. The same applies to plus size men and woman, who often tire of seeing people’s body’s Photoshopped to look slimmer, or worse yet, picking up a book about a plus-size heroine that has a model-size woman on the cover.
While it does take a lot more effort and work to create covers portraying your diverse characters, it is not impossible. If you are an independent author, slogging through stock photography sites can be tiring. Finding that perfect image becomes even more daunting when you factor in the diversity of your character. Fortunately, the diversity conversation means more businesses are offering better choices when it comes to photography and cover options.
It was with the lack of diversity on many stock sites in mind that I struck out to create a stock site devoted to diversity and inclusion. Mosaic Stock features many different types of models, and over 2,000 quality images in multiple genres. We also offer affordable pre-made covers and media branding packages! Visit us to search for that perfect image, and remember to sign up to get 20% off your first purchase (by clicking the big red button on our homepage): http://www.mosaicstockphotos.com. Can’t find the image you need? Sign up to for our alerts to be notified when we have new stock! Or, consider booking us for an affordable custom shoot. Payment plans are available and we allow our clients to customize every aspect of their shoots with us.
DON’T be afraid!
Writing is already a very personal and daunting experience. Our stories tend to be close to our hearts, and putting them out into the world can be a nerve-wracking experience. Writing about something you aren’t familiar with can be scary at first, but the experience is so rewarding in the end. Supporting diversity requires vision. It requires boldness. It requires us all to step outside our comfort zones and embrace the unknown. The lessons we can learn from such a process are vast.
Image credit: Pixabay