Let’s talk about diversity in writing.
Personally, I am all for it. I follow the #OwnVoices tag on Twitter and I’m working on my own personal project of bringing fiction with lesbian main characters in them to the world. I want to expand that option for all readers and I’m all for anyone expanding the diversity of published works and breaking out of the stereotype of the straight, white, male protagonist that is so heavily represented (especially in science fiction and fantasy, which are my chosen genres). I enjoyed a great number of those more WASP-friendly novels when I was growing up and I don’t hold them as inferior to more diverse options in any way, but more choice is a great thing.
So where does the problem I mentioned in the title come in?
The problem starts when you let the push for more diversity control every aspect of your writing, to the point where you are more worried about diversity than whether you are telling a good story. The problem comes when you have a story to tell, but you second guess yourself about the lack of diversity in the story to the point where you decide the story isn’t worth telling. The problem comes when I witness an aspiring novelist decide to shelve a novel that sounds fantastic, that was years of work in the making because it’s not diverse enough. Even if the book has a more WASPy direction I would think this was ridiculous, but when the book has diversity of gender and sexual orientation throughout the story already, I find the concept even more absurd.
Let me be clear, the only thing that dictates if a story is worth telling is if you want to tell it. Maybe no one will think it’s worth reading or publishing, but if you want to tell it, it’s worth writing.
A story should be about so much more than ticking the right number of boxes on a diversity form, but that’s just what this writer let themselves believe. That a female, lesbian lead just wasn’t enough diversity. They needed more in the story to somehow help even out the deficit of representation in the publishing industry.
Writing diverse characters doesn’t work like that. If every book is required to have a gay, trans, interracial, wheelchair bound main character that struggles with bipolar disorder (or your ensemble cast has a quota to fit into one or two of those categories each), because your book is running in some sort of “oppression Olympics”, then you have probably stopped caring about good writing and whatever your plot originally was meant to be. At that point, your book is more of a laundry list of exposition to establish the lack of privilege your character has, rather than a story that entertains and informs.
I fear for publishing and the future of writers if an emphasis is placed on how socially disadvantaged you can make your characters, rather than how you tell a story. I’ve read enough polemic discourse, in both fiction and nonfiction, to know that it doesn’t make for an entertaining read and it doesn’t have the impact or influence that the writer wanted most of the time. If you want to change the world through writing, try not beating people upside the head with a 2×4. Work a little more subtly.`
After all, when was the last time someone read Ayn Rand and actually changed their mind because of it?
Figure out the story that you want to tell.
If that’s the story of the lesbian, trans, Hispanic, with the missing leg and how she saves the world, more power to you.
But if it’s not, that’s okay too. Don’t let anyone tell you that your story isn’t worth telling because it isn’t diverse enough. Stop worrying about whether your character needs to check enough boxes to make them less privileged and just focus on writing a good story. Don’t be afraid to write diverse characters, but also don’t fear to not write them. Make your story and your characters as diverse or non-diverse as you want (but I won’t complain if you subvert the white, male protagonist stereotype), just write a damn good story that touches us somehow.