Three Tips for Writing Diverse Characters
We live in a diverse world with people of different ethnicities, nationalities, gender and sexual identities, physical and mental abilities, and faiths. If we're striving for authenticity in story-telling, our writing should reflect that diversity. But how do you create diverse characters without stereotyping? It can be challenging to create realistic characters who reflect cultural groups. Here are three tips for doing it well.
1. Read. Read fiction and study how other authors portray characters. What do they do well? What aspects of the character's life do they trivialize or fail to acknowledge? Read non-fiction too--books and articles on diversity, especially those written by people inside the culture you wish to portray.
2. Be respectful and genuine. Be careful with character descriptions, avoiding stereotypes. For example, if it is relevant to mention a character's skin color, don't use language that makes the person sound like a drink at Starbucks (i.e. coffee-colored skin). It’s cliché and offensive.
There's no need to mention race or skin color every time a character appears, either. Sometimes authors feel the need to remind us that a character is not white, and yet, the ethnicity of white characters is rarely (if ever) mentioned. White is often the default, a symptom of the lack of diversity in literature.
Focusing only on race, rather than showing us other aspects of a character’s life, can make a character seem flat, one-dimensional. Characters from ethnic minority groups should be just as fleshed out as white characters. The character must serve a purpose too—don’t just throw in a character of color because it’s a trendy thing to do.
If your character is multi-ethnic, think about how that affects the character's life. Does that character fit in one culture more than another? How do others in the story see those characters, and how do your characters see themselves?
Likewise, be careful about dialogue. If your character's first language is not English, or if the person has an accent or uses certain idioms, you might highlight that with select words or phrases, but you don't want to overdo it, creating a caricature instead of a realistic person. The more authentic your characters, the more believable your story will be. If you stereotype or trivialize characters, your readers will be less engaged.
3. Get perspective. Take a step back and think about your work critically. If a member of the group you are portraying read your novel, how would they feel about it? Respected? Marginalized? Fetishized? If you have a close relationship with someone in that culture, consider asking that person to read your manuscript and provide honest feedback. It is better to consult with an expert on a population than to write based on incomplete or biased information and publish work readers find offensive.
Are your characters diverse? Include a description of your unique character below and we can workshop it together. What advice do you have for other writers?
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
MELISSA ESKUE OUSLEY is the award-winning author of The Solas Beir Trilogy, a young adult fantasy series. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her family and their Kelpie, Gryphon. When she’s not writing, Melissa can be found hiking, swimming, scuba diving, or walking along the beach, poking dead things with a stick.
Before she became a writer, she had a number of enlightening jobs, ranging from a summer spent scraping roadkill off a molten desert highway, to years of conducting research with an amazing team of educators at the University of Arizona. Her interests in psychology, culture, and mythology have influenced her writing of The Solas Beir Trilogy.