Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Writing Diverse Characters

Even as I wrote that title, I broke out into a sweat. I'm a privileged white lady. I'm not supposed to talk about this stuff! But I'm also a writer, so I'm supposed to talk about this stuff!

It's common knowledge that there is a lack of diversity in YA (and many other places). We need more stories with people of color, different faiths and sexuality to both star in and write stories for teens and young adults. I'll admit, most of my early manuscripts are a whole bunch of white kids doing white things. Those books were terrible, for many reasons, that being one of them, because it made my work inauthentic.

I grew up in Arizona, and half of my friends, coworkers, classmates, were Hispanic. Speaking with a librarian friend, she asked me, "So did you put a black person in your book to make it diverse?"

"No," I said. "There is a Mexican doctor and a Native American girl in my book because it all happens in Arizona." I let the place and the time direct my cultural mix because that's what's real.

But they were secondary characters. I was still too scared to make any of the leading characters POC because ya know, I'm a white lady, and I see all the negative opinions swirling around white ladies writing diverse stories.

Maggie Stiefvater, All the Crooked Saints.
Keira Drake, The Continent
Veronica Roth, Carve the Mark

Now please note, I haven't read any of these. From the sounds of it, mistakes were made. But Maggie Stiefvater's book isn't even out yet and people are already waggling their fingers. Maybe we should give her a chance? Especially because she's Maggie Stiefvater, and her work is, for the most part, incredible?

Which leaves me with a lot of questions:

It's pretty common for me to write about things I'm not. I've written about doctors, space travelers, police officers, dads, brothers, soccer players...I did my research, and I'd do the same for writing about anything else I didn't fully understand.

So can writers of color not write about white people? Can men not write women characters?

I remember, way back when, I read Wally Lamb's, She's Come Undone. The entire time I was reading, I thought Wally had to be a pen name, or a nickname, something short for Wallamina (I didn't say I was smart!) Then I get to the back and see a picture of some white guy who wrote this wonderfully emotional story about an overweight girl.

That's what I want. I want to be able to write about a young black girl and have people think with every word that the author has to be black. That, to me, is authenticity. That, to me, is really stretching your imagination as a writer. And that's what stories are all about--becoming someone else.

But when you're trying to write something true, there are going to be things you don't want to hear. I wish there wasn't racism or sexism or hate in the world, but there is. And if I were writing about a struggling young twenty-two-year-old, fresh out of college, starting her first job, some suit-wearing bigwig would definitely pop by her desk, drop a stack of paper on her, and say, "Make two copies of this for me, Honey."

It doesn't mean I'm sexist. I'm just trying to paint a true picture of the world, and that really happened to me. But does that mean it happens in every office? God, I hope not, and I think that's another thing to remember. My twenty-two-year-old white girl story is not representative of EVERY twenty-two-year-old white girl story.

My former roommate said the most profound thing to me once. "You shouldn't not tell someone's story because it's sad. You SHOULD tell it because it's sad." And I especially love the double negative. She's absolutely right, though. It's the stories that make us sad or angry that make us think. I don't want to read fluffy stories where everyone loves each other and rainbows burst from our eyeballs...so I'm not going to write them.

The key, that I mentioned above, is research. Sensitivity readers. Avoid cultural stereotypes. Stop and think if what you're writing is a true experience or what you THINK is a true experience. I recently hired a sensitivity reader, and she pointed out a couple of improvements I could make to my gay character. I made them. It was two lines of additional copy, but that could mean the world to a reader.

1 comment:

DRC said...

It's difficult times when people have to sit back and think 'can i write a convincing coloured protagonist seeing as I'm a white author', or 'CAN I write a coloured protaginist BECAUSE I'm a white author? Is that going to upset people?' It has been, and I think it will be a delicate subject for some time to come. But you are, foremost, an author, and if this diversity is needed for the story then that's how it has to be. It's the same with genders and everything else. Stephen King nearly trashed 'Carrie' because he believed he couldn't write a convincing teenage girl, but it was his wife, Tabitha, who dragged it out the bin and told him to continue it - with her female input when needed - and look at it now? I also wrote a short story from the POV of a cat. Never been a cat before so I just wrote and hoped. It was accepted in an anthology so it must have been convincing lol...i think key is research and avoiding all tropes.