I #SupportWNDB – The Series: Being A Better Writer Means Being Diverse

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How Diversity Makes You A Better Writer

Christa Wojo

 

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.

#SupportWNDB


 

Christa Wojo

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.

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14 thoughts on “I #SupportWNDB – The Series: Being A Better Writer Means Being Diverse

  1. Excellent post!
    Sometimes, people around me narrate to me stories and events, asking me to include them in my book, in any form I want.
    I’ve come to realize that we are surrounded by a reality that is surreal and we should definitely use it because it’s what actually happens in people’s lives. People are not two-dimensional. They are three-dimensional and it is this third, weird, unusual, awesome and unexpected dimension that I strive to learn. Keep writing, you have great points! Plus, your life in Panama sounds really interesting! 🙂

    • You are so right, Nick. Life is surreal. People are even more bizarre. It’s beautiful, and we need to honor that.

      Thanks so much for the compliments. You are on my list of top bloggers, so I’m very flattered! And yes, Panama is an adventure. A diverse one, at that.

  2. Reblogged this on My Sweet Delirium and commented:
    A special thanks to Madhuri Blaylock for giving me the opportunity to participate in her series for the We Need Diverse Books campaign. I think it will be an amazing success! They’ve raised $179,836 of their $100,000 goal. Almost double!!!

    Please go contribute. The campaign ends tonight at 11:59 pm. We need diverse books and authors. Let’s make it happen.

  3. Reblogged this on A.R. Rivera Books and commented:
    I totally agree. Diversity in writing is important.
    There is no other way to learn what its like to be some one who is nothing like us. To get to know a person whom we have nothing in common with, yet find out we can still understand eachother.

  4. So true but so difficult to make the characters come alive. I have been fortunate to have been immersed in the world of diversity since high school (many, many years ago). Writing compelling contemporary crime fiction would be impossible without both good and bad guys of all sorts, shapes and attitudes. It is, after all, reflective of reality. The trick is texture.

  5. I got my lessons in diversity being raised in Newark, New Jersey, a cultural melting pot being so close to Ellis Island where all nationalities migrated into the USA. I went to Synagogues. holy roller black churches, christian churches, etc. I spent time with my diverse friends. went to their homes, learned their ways and traditions, ate their foods and joined them in their different ways of life.
    I am Catholic and Italian. I loved the differences and even at a young age, loved to learn more and be part of different cultures. So diversity was a natural to me. When I met my husband, he was raised in an area that was predominately polish/ catholic, I believe there was a Ukrainian family nearby. haha. He never had the wonderful opportunity to experience that kind of diversity. I realized later on in life what a wonderful education I had gotten living in that neighborhood. The one thing I learned was we are all different, but not different, we all want the same things in life.
    Do not shy away from diversity, embrace it. It enriches your mind and makes you more tolerant and understanding. It will also, help in your writing as it broadens options and adds more interest to the story,

    • You are lucky to have experienced so many cultures. I think part of the problem is many people do not venture too far from their usual group either because of geographical or social barriers. Now that we’re becoming more of a global community, I think that will change.

  6. When the diversity talk is brought up, everyone automatically assumes race. It’s great that you brought up the point that diversity is not just about race. Hardly anyone thinks about disabilities and mental disorders. Reading this post reminded me of something I’ve read in a history chronicle. In Eastern Roman empire, they punished rebels of noble birth by blinding rather than execution.

    In the 11th century Byzantine Empire, General Nikephoros Bryennius revolted against emperor Botaneiates but he got defeated in the civil war. The emperor had him blinded as a punishment. Botaneiates was later overthrown by Alexios Komnenos, who took the blinded general Bryennius into his service. Even though Bryennius had lost his sight, he was a genius strategist, so the emperor took him along to his battle campaigns. General Bryennius was able to devise strategies by listening to the sounds of the enemy forces during sieges. He knew what shape the enemy armies were in, form the sounds. He was a better strategist and martial expert than many men with sight, thus he remained in the military service for many years.

    Emperor Alexios Komnenos got afflicted with gout in his later years and was not able to walk, yet he still went to battle campaigns -carried on a litter when he was in too much pain to ride- and won glorious victories, for he was a supreme genius and didn’t need an able body to win.

    There are many such examples in history, one only needs to read and research.

  7. Another point about diversity I need to bring up: In the Fantasy fiction genre, the overwhelming majority of the authors are westerners, so the settings are usually western (Medieval European culture and background). Some authors try to write eastern cultures but they end up being poor approximations. The culture and the mindset of the characters is still quite western. They live in the desert and have dark skin, but they think like a westerner (Anglosphere/European/North American etc) so it’s one level up from the tokenism issue you mention in your post. I think eastern and African authors should be supported and promoted. I’d very much like to read fantasy fiction written by an eastern author. We have Saladin Ahmed, and he’s pretty good, but we need more.

    I’d like to rad fantasy novels written with an Eastern mindset (Asian, middle eastern, etc) by authors who were raised in those cultures. Western authors write simulations of it, for the sake of doing something different, but it’s not like a story written with the true eastern spirit.

  8. I’m glad you brought up the blind general. My sister is blind and I plan to incorporate some really clever, tech savvy visually impaired characters in my books to come. I’m also surprised to hear about the emperor afflicted with gout. My father and husband and grandparents all have it. I never even thought of creating a character crippled by gout. Great idea!

    I agree about the Eastern mindset you talk about. I notice a few differences between my American mindset and the mindset of my Chinese and Panamanian in-laws. To find out why they feel and act the way they do, one must learn a great deal of history. To adopt another person’s true mindset is difficult, if not impossible. This is the challenge of writing diverse characters.

    Excellent points, Leona. Thank you!

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