Diversity is a topic that has become more and more important to me and is very close to my heart. That is why I will probably write about this theme more often, as I still have a lot to learn and will probably make mistakes. I still think it’s important to talk about the impact of diversity, because how else could we all get better with not recreating the same stereotypes again and again in our writing?
I don’t remember when it occurred to me that almost all of the characters, I’ve read about were white, heterosexual, cis, able-bodied, and hardly ever dealt with chronic illnesses or mental health problems. Thinking back now it seems strange that this occurred to me as normal as it in no way represents the world, we live in. It still felt a little innovative a few years ago if the protagonist was a strong female character, who was able to get through her story without falling in love with an even stronger male character. As I’ve mentioned before it’s still not easy to find heroines who are not defined through a love story with a male character, but today I want to focus on something different.
While characters who are gay or lesbian occur more often in fiction nowadays, they are quite often either reduced to being minor characters in the story or the plot centers around their sexuality in one way or the other. It may be that it is a romance, a coming-out story, or the story of coming to terms with their sexuality. I haven’t found many novels yet that have LGBT characters but focus on a completely different plot. There are some exceptions, of course, like for example the works of the brilliant N. K. Jemisin and her Broken Earth trilogy, which in my eyes sets an example of how diversity can be achieved while still telling engaging and breath-taking stories. In her novels, there are gay and lesbian relationships and transsexual characters that are not reduced to stereotypes but show a broad spectrum of what love and relationships can look like. She also leaves no doubt about what the characters are, which I highly enjoy, because I’ve had enough of authors beating around the bush, hinting their characters might not be completely straight while they are also never openly shown as anything else.
Another example I quite enjoyed was “Carry On” by Rainbow Rowell because even though here the gay relationship is a central topic it is not what the novel primarily focuses on.
Looking at my reading history I also notice that Black people and people of color often only play minor roles or are completely left out of stories. For a while now I’ve been consciously including more and more writers from different cultural backgrounds into my reading lists and so I’ve met a larger cast of characters from all kinds of cultural backgrounds as well, including Black characters and characters of color. Still, the fact remains that these are still underrepresented in popular culture. This becomes more obvious by looking at Hollywood movies than at books probably, but it’s still astounding how many of the fictional characters we meet are white men and women.
Disabilities or mental health issues are another topic that is often avoided when writing books. I know a lot more people with autism or dyslexia or diabetes or asthma or depressions in real life for example than I’ve ever read about in books. Also, I can think of only two main characters who used a wheelchair right now. I don’t understand why that is, because surely, every author aims to make their characters true-to-life. Why do we still shy away from giving them these kinds of character traits or qualities?
One argument that I’ve heard quite often is that people don’t think they can represent someone well who has these kinds of characteristics that are different from their own. People are afraid of making mistakes, of hurting people by giving them the wrong kind of representation. I can relate to that and I think it is reasonable and shows sensitivity to think like that at first. On the other hand, authors never seemed to have any qualms about writing characters who have a different gender or age than their own or different circumstances of life. Writing would be extremely boring for many authors if it was only possible to write about someone who has the same backstories as oneself.
And luckily there are ways to educate oneself. The internet is a priceless resource for finding people with all kinds of different lifestyles and experiences. It takes time and patience of course to feel informed enough to be able to write from the perspective of someone with a very different background and there are probably boundaries one should not cross. Some experiences are of course best told from so-called own-voices, people who have had a crucial experience. I do believe that these voices should be heard and amplified. Refugees for example should be able to tell their stories as I don’t think anyone could ever really understand what many of them go through.
Transitioning from one gender to the other is also a unique and very personal experience and I’d be very careful to make that the main topic of my book. These are only two examples but there are many more.
However not writing books about these very special experiences should not keep us from including for example trans people in our books. Luckily today there are people willing to do sensitivity readings, which means that someone who has had the same experience as a character in your book reads your story and tells you whether there are any passages that are incorrect or may be hurtful to the people concerned. I would always make use of this possibility, which of course has it’s price and should not be free as it is hard work just like editing.
If we include these possibilities in our writing process, I do believe that we can eventually create works that are drawn from life and are much more interesting and enriching.
One point I want to mention is that as diversity is such a broad theme, the aspects I mentioned here of course have little in common apart from the fact that all of them belong to minority groups and are underrepresented in fiction from my point of view.
In further posts, I would like to have a closer look at some of the aspects mentioned and try to find out why they have so little representation and why stereotypes are so often a problem here.
I’d be happy to read your opinion on the topic and, as I’m also still learning I’d be glad about any input.