Diverse Characters – How Do You Write Them?
Diversity is a current buzz word in publishing. Publishers want books with diverse characters.
In 2013, when I thought about writing the first book in my Dancing Through Life Series, Dancing on a High Wire, I envisioned the character of Esther being black and thereby providing diversity. However, following the adage, “write what you know,” I decided to stick with white characters. Still, the desire for diverse characters remained.
Our Changing World
The America I grew up in was a white, male-dominated world, 1960-1970’s. Yes, there was the women’s lib movement and movement for racial equality for African Americans, but they had yet to make a significant impact on the social make-up of America.
Now that I’m in my sixties, I look around and see a significantly more diverse world. The seemingly unshakeable male white world of my childhood has expanded. We’ve had a black president and I foresee a woman president in my lifetime. The number of minorities in American society is growing thanks to immigration and the low birth rate among the white population. We truly are becoming a more diverse society, requiring more diverse characters. Hence, the character Letty.
Letty from Still Dancing to Freedom Dance
First Letty played a bit part in the second book of the series where she was Joy’s assistant at the dance studio. By the third book she was running the studio and in the fourth book she moved to New York to dance with the Alvin Ailey Dance Troupe. Now in book eight, Freedom Dance, she has grown as a character enough to warrant her own book.
Even before I sent her off to New York, I envisioned giving Letty her own book. But I struggled with whether I was the right person to write this book. Who was I to write a book with a black main character? And yet, who was I to create a world where all of the main characters looked like me? That is not the world I live in now in 2019.
Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place
We white writers are caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Damned if we do and damned if we don’t. How like life.
If we don’t include diverse characters from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, we risk being labeled as narrow-minded or racist. If we do, we are charged with cultural misappropriation—trying to use another person’s culture for our own benefit. What’s a writer to do?
Seeking Middle Ground
There is a middle way, though, and I hope I have achieved it with this book. To create characters as diverse as the world we live in. We do this through doing our homework. Researching the cultures and backgrounds of our characters in order to write them authentically. No stereotypes but complex characters with depth.
Another change I’ve noted over my lifetime that has been confirmed through research is that instead of race being the great divider between groups of people, economics is a greater divider. Thus, middle class blacks often have more in common with middle class whites than with blacks of a lower socio-economic level. Letty struggles with this, as she tries to find her place in life.
Besides this research, I paid a sensitivity reader, someone of the same race and background as my character, to read the book and look for errors, passages that might be considered demeaning, unfair or untrue for that racial group. The woman I hired has a similar background to Letty’s.
How do You Write Diverse Characters?
So, how do you write diverse characters from different racial and socio-economic backgrounds? With the same discipline and attention to detail that you write any character. Research, write, review and revise, then do again, until you get it right.
What has been your experience with writing diverse characters? What works for you?
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