How Diversity Makes You A Better Writer
Living in Panama for nearly a decade, I’ve learned what it feels like to be isolated from the rest of society. Now I’m more or less at home and speak Spanish well, but when I first moved here and didn’t know the language. People stared at me, a tall blue-eyed blond girl, like I was a Sasquatch. I was a minority in a world of Salsa and juega vivo. I was gringa.
I hid in the house and watched CSI reruns because that was the only show on in English. I remember one time I was listening to the radio while waiting for my husband in the car, and in the midst of reggaeton and obnoxious screaming DJ, a song by The Strokes came on. I think I almost cried. I felt like I was with old friends. It was as if Julian Casablancas said, you are not alone American girl!
So what does this have to do with writing fiction?
“We all suffer alone in the real world. True empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with their own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.”
– David Foster Wallace
What Diversity Really Means
When attached to a book, the words ‘diversity’ and ‘multicultural’ usually make one think of race; but the scope is much greater. These terms also encompass gay and lesbian fiction, as well as books featuring characters with disabilities such as blindness or autism.
Writing diverse books is writing for real people. Heroines don’t always have to be beautiful and thin, and heroes don’t always have to have bulging biceps and washboard abs. Diverse books strive to develop complex iconoclastic characters that the world’s many individuals can identify with.
Brave authors and advocates, like the #WeNeedDiversBooks movement, are calling to attention the importance of diversity in literature. With the advent of independent publishers and authors, books that may have been held up in the traditional routes because they didn’t have mass appeal are finally being released into the world, creating niche genres for the enjoyment of all readers. Exciting, isn’t it? Go indie!
The covers and concepts of books are changing too, and more writers are realizing that in order to portray a compelling setting, diversity is key. Fleshing out unique characters is part of writing any good book, and even if a writer is not publishing in what would be considered a multicultural, gay, or other diverse sub-genre, he or she should still avoid token characters, stereotypes, and worn out tropes.
Tokenism is Not Diversity
What is a token character? “Tokenism is the practice of making a perfunctory gesture toward the inclusion of members of minority groups. This token effort is usually intended to create an appearance of inclusiveness and deflect accusations of discrimination.” Wikipedia
Token characters usually fill no other purpose in the story except to be there for diversity’s sake. It’s a lazy way of writing in minority characters; just sprinkling them here and there for a little variety.
Stereotypes vs. Tokenism
“A stereotype is a thought that can be adopted about specific types of individuals or certain ways of doing things. These thoughts or beliefs may or may not accurately reflect reality.” Wikipedia
Stereotypes are seen often in movies and TV shows. For example, the stereotype that women are poor drivers, that lesbians are butch, or that overweight people are lazy.
It’s important for writers to break these habits and stop perpetuating lazy characterizations that keep society from breaking shallow assumptions about others. Furthermore, these are tired and lazy devices that make a book fall flat.
Writing Diverse Books
It’s tricky to write without resorting to tokenism or stereotyping because it’s so ingrained in our culture most of us don’t know we’re doing it.
I may be a white writer, but the people in my life are diverse to the extreme. My husband is Panamanian, Greek and Chinese. I never think of it, but most people would consider ours an interracial relationship. When we stand next to each other we are like day and night. Most of my in-laws don’t speak English. Half live in Singapore and half live in Panama. Some of my best friends are L,G,B, or T. My little sister is blind and I have mixed cousins.
Still even I forget to deeply diversify my writing. I’m in the middle of revising my first series of novels, and yes, I have black, white, Asian, Latino, gay, and mentally ill characters. I’ve also got a cornucopia of freaks, but when I analyze their relationships closely, I see I’ve forgotten to intermix them in a way that truly reflects life–my life.
No one likes cookie cutter characters. They are boring and washed out. Furthermore, relationships between people and families are more complex than at first sight. Why don’t any of my characters have mixed cousins? How come the only blind person is on the sidewalk asking for change? Why don’t I give my MC’s crazy long Polish names like mine? These are the questions writers must ask themselves.
So writers, be aware of the clichés and take time to imagine a full palette of characters for your book and to research their backgrounds, their culture, and their experiences. Put yourself in their shoes. Draw from you own life. It’s probably more diverse than you realize. You owe it to your characters, to your writing, and to the modern generation of readers.
Diverse books ensure that no one will feel isolated from society. As an individual, when you find a book with characters that tell your story, it is like that old familiar song you hear on the radio that says…
You’re not alone.
Somebody understands you.
You have an important role in this world.
There are only a few days left of the campaign, so please consider assisting our efforts to diversify everyone’s bookshelf by donating to We Need Diverse Books fundraising campaign by clicking —> HERE – it’s vital, folks.
Christa Wojo (short for Wojciechowski) was born in New Jersey and raised in Florida where she fell in love with a handsome Panamanian and escaped the US in 2006. Since, she has lived a lush life in her wild new country, traveling with her husband and working as a freelance internet marketer.
Christa devotes her free time to wine, yoga, outdoor sports, and classic literature. She’s also mother to an epileptic Rottweiler, a mutt with a phobia of boots, and a Red-lored Amazon parrot who hates her.
When Christa’s not on the road, you’ll find her in dog hair covered yoga pants, writing from her home at the foot of Volcan Baru in Boquete, Panama. There, she either sips coffee or Cabernet and tries to figure out the meaning of life through the mysterious process of writing.
Christa Wojo is the author of The Wrong David and is working on a series of novels that explore abuse, addiction, art, and existentialism. She also runs My Sweet Delirium, a blog about creativity and assorted weirdness, and is developing a menu of internet marketing services for authors.