Category Archives: Blog

Diversity in Fiction: The Right Way

Fresh off my most recent post about how not to do diversity in writing, I’d like to talk about how to do it right. Obviously, this is just my opinion. I’m not an agent, a publisher, or even a traditionally published author.

But I am a reader and I know good writing and well-written diversity when I see it, just like I know the opposite.

There are two kinds of diversity in writing and the difference really revolves around what the focus of the story is.

The first is the most obvious kind and the one we see the most often. These are stories that tackle the issues of minorities head on. These are stories where the antagonist is clearly homophobia, transphobia, racism, sexism, or something along those veins. These stories are about the struggle the character faces against society, family, friends, and even themselves at times.

I call this style Diverse Fiction.

There’s definitely a need and a place for this form of diversity in writing and I have no issue with it, but it’s not my preference and it’s not what I want to talk about here.

I want to talk about the diversity of having traditional genre fiction with diverse characters, an area which I refer to as Fiction with Diversity. This is an area of writing that is distinctly underrepresented in my opinion. I’m going to mostly focus on the prevalence or lack thereof, of LGBT representation in these areas.

I haven’t done expansive research into this area obviously but based on my own reading in the genre fiction that I prefer (science fiction and fantasy) I feel confident in saying that genre fiction is not a place where diverse characters, especially LGBT ones, thrive. There are notable exceptions, Mercedes Lackey was one of the first fantasy writers I ever read who had a gay character in The Last Herald Mage trilogy and more recently Ash by Malindo Lo and The Mermaid’s Daughter by Ann Claycomb. There have also been a solid number of books that contained side characters or even villains that were LGBT, but it’s exceedingly rare to see them star in a book and even more rare for the characters that do exist to have stable relationships or get a “happily ever after” ending to their story.

So how do you do diversity the right way in fiction?

By writing good fiction. That’s it.

One of the novels I’m currently working on originally contained a male love interest for my female lead. His gender wasn’t particularly to the plot whatsoever, I just needed a love interest as part of the general plot of the story. This story was started about 3 years ago, long before I realized the problem of the lack of lesbian characters in fiction. Once I started making that a focus in my work I realized that I didn’t particularly want a male love interest in this book.

It didn’t take much work at all to change the story. I literally just went through the previously finished sections and changed the name and the pronouns associated with the character.

Why?

Because in genre fiction, unless there is something plot specific about the gender of a character, there shouldn’t be any real appreciable difference in a story if you change a character’s gender. My character is still essentially the same person, just with a different outward appearance. She’s still a werewolf in love with a witch and they are both still trying to kill a monster that is terrorizing a town.

Nothing about that changes because she’s a woman or because my main character is now a lesbian.

This should be obvious, but let me reiterate. LGBT people (and you can apply this to race and gender and many other immutable characteristics) are not a different species from the “privileged” straight, white, male. The motivations for a character in genre fiction (as opposed to fiction in which the focal point of the story is the struggle related to the character’s diversity) should not be appreciably different because their gender, sexual orientation, race, or other physical aspect has changed. Psychological or physical disabilities are really the only area of diversity that calls for a change in behavior for the character, as a disability is going to change how they react to and handle certain situations in your plot.

Fiction with Diversity is an area that calls for a solid plot where the characters can be diverse or not and it wouldn’t take much work to retain the original plot and feel of the story.

Why?

Because minorities are still human beings, not another species.

The faster we all figure that out, the better.

 

The Problem With Diversity

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.