Here’s How & Why You Need To Write Diverse Characters
At any given point in time, one can concur that literature has played a vital role in the development and progress of a society. This holds true because books essentially form and represent the essence of society. Therefore, works of literature that represented diversity can be credited for facilitating a more inclusive society. In early times, books that contained strong female characters provided momentum to the feminist movement. Similarly, African-American literature provided the world with a first-hand narrative of slavery from the victim’s perspective. Diverse characters present diverse realities that inspire and sensitize the readers towards a more educated and inclusive future. Hence, writing diverse characters is something that every author must seriously consider.
While writing a book, fiction or non-fiction, character development is pivotal. While you are working on your book, it is good to check if your work recognizes and represents different people from different walks of life. It is the year 2020 and we are striving towards creating a society that recognizes different people from all races and identities. It is advisable to check your privilege and identity before you set out to write diverse characters. One effective way of doing this is through the ‘Power Flower’ method. Power Flower is a very common exercise practiced globally in anti-oppression training. In order to follow the exercise one can either download or make their own Power Flower. The diagram consists of three layers of petals. The first layer (inner-most petals) represents the various divisions/segments that exist in a society such as race, gender, religion, etc.
The second layer of petals includes your own identity such as brown, female, atheist, etc. The final layer (outermost petals) should show the social identities that experience the highest level of privilege in society. This will give you a fairer idea in terms of where you stand with respect to different identities in society. It will ideally make the author more aware and conscious of their writing.
Why is it important to write diverse characters?
If you look at some historic and current events that are protesting for a cultural change towards a more inclusive future, you will notice that literature plays a huge role. Even today, if someone who is trying to understand feminism reads The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir (1949), they would possess valuable insights on the marginalized gender of the society. They would also relate and understand the struggles faced today at a fundamental level.
Similarly, we all know about the brutality of the India-Pakistan partition from documented partition literature. However, we know about the plight of women and their suffering during this era through works of writers like Saadat Hasan Manto. Through his short stories, Manto spoke a lot about the trauma and suffering that the women faced as the result of the partition. These are issues that are specific to women who become victims of war crimes and communal violence. If writers like Manto did not involve diverse female characters in their stories the world would have missed out on a very important narrative that requires to be heard.
We have Dalit literature that gives a detailed account of the issues of casteism in India along with other minority groups writing about their struggles. Then why should we write characters that are out of our comfort zone and reality? The answer to this very popular question is twofold and simple. First of all, even though there are niche authors that write about specific groups and communities, they are never seen in the mainstream media. If every writer attempts to include diverse characters in their work it would mean more representation in the limelight. Secondly, readers are also actively seeking diverse and layered characters. People are bored with repetition and the same-old storyline. It would be beneficial to introduce your readers to a more inclusive world of literature.
How to write diverse characters? The Dos and Don’ts!
It could be extremely daunting and stressful to write characters belonging to identities whose experiences you are not deeply familiar with. This essentially means writing a character that does not belong to your race, gender and religious identity, and sexuality. In such a case you don’t want to sound ignorant or racist while working on your plots and characters. The following will navigate you through the process of writing authentic diverse characters:
1. Introspect/recognise your own identity
Irrespective of whether or not you relate to your religious or ethnic background, they do form a part of your identity. This is the case because the perception of society towards a person is highly influenced by their different identities. It could be helpful if you write down everything that forms a part of your identity in society including things like race, sexuality, gender, religion, and privilege. After this observe how you are treated differently than a person who comes from a different background. Write down these differences and study them. Furthermore, imagine yourself as a character in someone else’s book and write down how you would ideally like to represent your identity and narrative. Now that you are more aware of the nuances of your own identity, write another’s with the same level of precision.
2. Research Research Research!
Here is the thing, if you do not research your characters deeply then you are doing them and their represented identity a disservice. If you are a cisgender person you should not write trans characters according to your understanding of them. Rather, you should educate yourself on the community with the help of people from the trans community. Uninformed people making content on marginalized communities poses more threat to the community than good. More often than never, they reinforce stereotypes that make it highly tough for people from that particular community to live. A documentary called Disclosure on Netflix recognizes the same in the matter of the transgender community.
Research is paramount and one could never say this enough! There are different ways through which you can ensure that your research is foolproof. Talk to people of the community that you are writing about. Discuss your ideas with them and look for shortcomings. Check for stereotypes. Talk to activists of the community who have dedicated their lives to the cause. Ask the right questions without being intrusive. Recognize what kind of representation is required.
Another important aspect of this process is to read the works of people from that community. For example, if you want to write about African women then read books by female African authors like Chimamanda Adichie. Adichie does a beautiful job writing about strong female characters of color in her books like Purple Hibiscus and We Should All Be Feminists. These books recognize the struggles faced by people who are female and African. Nobody holds a singular identity. Human beings are layered and complex. However, now and then, each of our identities dictates the other aspects of our lives. The research will help you to write a nuanced, well-rounded character.
3. Individuality of the character over their diverse identity
You can be a man and still do justice to the female protagonist of your novel. Khaled Hosseini does a brilliant job on the same in A Thousand Splendid Suns. The story runs on two strong Muslim female characters set in Afghan society. The book successfully narrates the story of Mariam and Laila as individual complex characters with several layers. Their religious and gender identity does not surpass their individuality. However, it is important to note that through the lens of the characters, the readers can see and identify issues pertaining to gender inequality and religion. This helps the reader to relate to the character irrespective of the differences in their backgrounds on more common humanitarian grounds.
Similarly, a straight man can write a great love story about two gay men. Call Me By Your Name, which recently became super popular as a motion picture, is written by André Aciman. The story was received as a heart-aching love story by a very wide and diverse audience. The story revolves around two gay male leads, Elio and Oliver. However, the story would equally resonate with a straight or female homosexual person. The story highlights the essence of a blooming romance in the lives of two individuals. Again, the story does recognize the limitations faced by the LGBTQIA+ community through the lens of the characters and their experiences.
The basic idea behind the above-stated examples and rules is to NOT write diverse characters just for the heck of it. Do not use a community’s struggle as a tool for your story. It is important to deal with and write these stories with utmost sensitivity and recognition. Ask yourself if the character is still relevant to your story if you remove their identity from the picture. If the answer is no then you need to work on their character development. Similarly, do check if the arc of the character in the story represents the experiences of the community they come from. If the answer is no, you know the drill! There are several pages dedicated to creating more inclusivity and diversity in the literature scene. You can follow them in order to have a better understanding of what people mean by representation and diversity. These pages also include community-specific content. Some of the examples of the same are Book Riot, Feminist Frequency, CBC Diversity, Diversity in YA, and YA Pride. The onus to write better by educating themselves lies with the author. Writing and researching more diverse characters will facilitate personal and professional growth.
Moreover, currently, the literature world is more favorable than ever for inclusivity. Books like ‘Call Me By Your Name’ with a gay protagonist is receiving commercial success and mainstream popularity. Similarly, authors of color are flourishing too. Authors like Chimamanda Adichie, Arundhati Roy, and Haruki Murakami have a wide audience. There is a significant shift happening in the literature world where readers want to consume diverse, complex, layered, and nuanced characters and perspectives.
It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength.– Maya Angelou
Authors hold the same responsibility too.