We all know that it’s desirable, and necessary to create a society of open-mindedness and acceptance. So why, in 2014, is fiction with diverse characters so hard to come by? In my perusals of the bestselling bookshelf, I’ve found that protagonists are mainly comprised of white, heterosexual, ‘attractive’ characters. That’s not to say that there aren’t books with beautifully diverse characters and concepts (because, trust me, there are many gems out there), it’s just that compared to the norm, they are in short supply.
Before I jump headfirst into the issue of ‘diversity’ in literature, let me say that I’m not condemning authors and the way they write. A big part of writing is the freedom to express one’s inner musings and designs without risk of conviction. So, please, write to your heart’s content about what you want- but all the same, take into account diversity.
What I classify as a diverse character is (but not limited to) someone who:
- comes from a rich and distinct culture
- doesn’t fit into society’s limited idea of “beauty”
- is racially and ethnically diverse, in both appearance and manner
- identifies with a different gender, sexual orientation, etc. (essentially, the LGBTQ community)
- defies the standard for gender (example: women taking up leadership roles)
- is emotionally varied (in other words, a character who has real emotions, vulnerabilities, and strengths)
- has disabilities (whether it be physical or mental)
Obviously, diversity isn’t limited to just race, though race does play an important factor. We live in a world swimming with different cultures, languages, values, and mindsets. So why shouldn’t literature reflect this? As the renowned English crime writer, D. L. Sayers, said:
The vital power of an imaginative work demands a diversity within its unity; and the stronger the diversity the more massive the unity.
Diversity doesn’t diverge characters: it unites them. It’s a bringing together of the beautiful, the ugly, the easy, the tough, the different and the similar elements of life. Writing is in many ways the most powerful relayer we have. When we read, we are impacted. We are impressionable creatures, and whether it be voluntary or not, we absorb what we read. That’s why diverse characters are so important.
This is important in all literature, but especially so in YA. May it be fantasy or science fiction, historical or contemporary, young adult books play an essential role in shaping the younger generation’s minds. Being a young adult myself, I always get excited when I come across a book with a main character of Middle Eastern descent, or one that centers around the life of an individual who is genderqueer. The reason? Life is diverse. The world is diverse. And it’s about time that people start growing up accepting this fact.
Above all, diverse characters shouldn’t be written for the sole purpose of being ‘diverse’. They should be written as people. I’ve come across many novels that throw in a few diverse side characters just to make some statement about ‘culture’ or ‘society’. This is all well and good if done in moderation and good taste- but if you are going to incorporate characters like this, make them more than just a message. Make them people.
When it comes to diversity in fiction, there are no end of arguments and comments that can be made. I could go on for another ten paragraphs about the lack of diversity in fantasy alone, or detail the reasons why some writers don’t feel ‘qualified’ or ‘obligated’ to write diverse characters. But perhaps I’ll leave all that for another post.
In the end, write what you want to write- just remember to write widely and diversely.
Do you think there is a need for diverse books and characters? Do you try to write diversely?