Writing Diverse Characters: Are You Really Damned If You Do And Damned If You Don’t?

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In every field of life, diversity has rightly become our focus. Employers are championing diverse workforces. Even filmmakers are thinking about this. And, us writers are well in the thick of it, too. In fact, you could argue we have one of the hardest jobs. Not only do we need to think about diverse characters, but it’s also down to us to bring them to life. A filmmaker can hire a diverse character to portray their experience. You’ll have no choice but to assume an identity which isn’t yours. And, that can be nerve-wracking to say the least.

Done wrong, attempts at diversity in fiction can open a minefield. And, authors such as Lionel Shriver know what happens when that mine goes off. Back in 2016, she gave a controversial speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival. Within, she spoke about the freedom of fiction writers to delve into issues of which they have no experience. As you can imagine, this didn’t go down well. Though that probably wasn’t helped by the sombrero she wore throughout…But, Shriver’s point is interesting. It explores the problematic position of fiction in this age of diversity.

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Often, this can seem like a matter of damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If you fail to represent sexual differences and a racial spectrum, you come under fire. But, as Shriver’s disgrace proves, it’s also insulting to assume you can adopt the voice of a minority you don’t belong to.

So, what’s the secret, and how can you find the middle ground? In truth, it seems this comes down to the right approach. But, what is that, and how can you achieve it?

Assumption makes an ass of you

Perhaps the best lesson we can learn from Shriver, is that assumption is never wise. To assume the voice of a different experience is to make mistakes. Instead, research what your character might go through. If you’re writing about an immigration experience, you need to know every last detail of the process. That includes wait times on Visas, what happens in medical examinations like those carried out by USHP medical services, and the attitudes of other people. The best way to get issues like these right is to talk to someone who’s been through them. You might not have the authority to write about this, but those people do. And, trying to put their voices into your fiction is perhaps your best option.

Avoid stereotypes like the plague

Whatever you do, don’t fall into stereotypes. It doesn’t get worse than this for causing offence. Your research should help a little. Remember, too, that we’re all human. That doesn’t change based on race, sexuality, or ability. If you’re reaching for stereotypes, you can be sure you’re doing diversity wrong. The color of your skin doesn’t impact your actions. Your sexual orientation doesn’t make your relationships alien. Writing fleshed characters is all there is to it. And, with a bit of luck, that’s something you already know how to do.

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