Seven Lies You Believe About Diversity in Fiction
February 13, 2018
For your next novel, try adding in a gay, bipolar Latin American waitress who, despite having been abducted before, still does not believe in aliens. That’s good diversity.
Or is it?
The diversity argument is one that I’ve followed for a while. Exercising diversity in my WIP, Corvus has always been important to me. For a lot of people, diversity in fiction is a hot, hot topic. On one side of the coin, people say that if you fail to include members of the LGBTQ+ community or certain races in your novel, then you’re a homophobe and a racist, while others say that if you do include members of a certain community or a racial minority, then you’re pandering. So what do?
I’ll tell you what. First off, stop listening to radical opinions. Here’s my [mostly] level-headed assessment of diversity in fiction and some of the myths we’ve been led to believe and how we can change diversity in fiction for the better.
Diversity is ONLY about Sexuality and Race
When people talk about diversity, they usually refer to one of two things: race and/or sexuality. While these two things play a huge part in diversity, they aren’t even half of the matter. There are other things that matter such as age, gender, disability and health, political opinion, religion, and hundreds of other categories. Furthermore, characters that all act the same, look the same, believe in the same things, and who have similar voices or names are simply not diverse characters.
Diversity is an incredibly important tool to create a level of realism in novels and other works of fiction. If you’re not learning from and thinking about it while you write, then you’re making a mistake. Creating characters that are different from each other adds a layer of realism to a world of fiction.
Implication is Diversity
2017 was a rough year, and among the things that made it hard to stomach was the Beauty and the Beast live action remake. So if you don’t remember, there was a huge uproar because Disney was very excited about the so-called “exclusively gay moment” (a term that gives me an exclusive cringe moment) for the character of LeFou in the upcoming movie.
To many people’s disappointment, Disney’s promises never came to fruition. To make matters worse, other characters picked on LeFou’s implied sexuality to make the audience laugh. If not told by Disney the intent of LeFou, the audience could come to other conclusions regarding his actions. We are, after all, only made to believe that he’s gay because the other villagers pick on him for his stereotyped effeminate nature, which doesn’t mean anything. The fault was that this character that Disney bragged was their first openly gay film character, was not openly gay at all.
Another instance of this was when Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was made into a broadway production. People were confused that a black actress (Noma Dumezweni) was cast to play Hermione. When asked about it, J.K. Rowling replied by saying that she never wrote anywhere that Hermione wasn’t black, which bothered people as she was taking claim for diversity that wasn’t canon. If you have a minority character and want readers to know that they’re a minority, then something needs to be said. Bottom line, diversity doesn’t count if you don’t explicitly make it known.
Only White Characters? You’re a Racist.
This makes me so mad. As I said in the intro, people say this about every possible subset of people, whether we’re talking about disability, race, sexuality, gender, or mental illness (the list goes on). You know yourself, and if you aren’t including a group of people into your work because you hate them, then that’s something you need to work on. If you’re not including groups of people because it wouldn’t make sense, or fit, then you’re not a homophobe, an ableist, or a racist. You don’t have to scramble to include everyone. That’s not very genuine.
This is especially true in the historical fiction genre or if you’re writing a story that takes place in a different country where immigration is uncommon. In historical fiction especially, it may not be plausible to include certain races. Your story has to make sense in the end, but do try to add diversity where you can.
Diversity is not necessarily about inclusion, but about realizing and acknowledging that there are other people in the world besides whoever you and your characters are. Repeat it. Share it with your friends. Tattoo it on your ankle
Including Minority Characters Makes a Statement
So let’s talk about pandering. The March 2017 film Saban’s Power Rangers is a recent film accused of doing so. For many of us, this franchise held a lot of nostalgia which opened it up to mass criticism. In this film, they rewrote Billy Cranston to be both black and autistic, while Trini is Latin American and struggling with her sexual orientation.
Some people were upset that the Power Rangers franchise had made a “statement”. While Power Rangers has always strived for diversity in the franchise, they did go further this time. It was frankly nice to see different kinds of inclusion from them. People often like to make the “statement” argument, especially when diversity is shown in children’s shows. It’s a shame, because children should learn from a young age to accept not only others that are different, but also themselves.
First off, your motivation for including characters of certain groups should never be to pander or “catch” a certain group. And including a character of a certain minority group doesn’t make you you a champion for them. But with that out of the way, it’s never a statement to include minority groups. That’s crazy talk.
Queerbaiting isn’t that Bad
Masterpiece Classic’s Sherlock is everything. It’s actually a really great show for the most part. There’s only one thing I hate about it: the queerbaiting. Gatiss and Moffat, the show’s creators have turned this show into a cult favorite with one simple trick: For four seasons, they make the audience question whether John Watson and Sherlock Holmes actually have feelings for each other. Watch it for yourself, it’s real. After the first three seasons, it became clear that what might be an interesting direction to take the show in, was actually just queerbaiting. Additionally, Gatiss and Moffat deny ever writing Watson and Sherlock with the intention of implying a romance. But like I said, watch it for yourself.
What is queerbaiting? Queerbaiting is when a fictional work tricks the audience into thinking a character is a part of the LGBTQ+ community or that a same-sex pairing within the show will eventually become canon, but the writers have no intention of actually following through with the promises made. Instead, these characters serve to drive fans to interact with the show via social media, thusly making it a viral phenomenon. Pretty brilliant, if not morally misguided.
Queerbaiting has made shows like Sherlock and Supernatural extremely popular. They’re good shows, but queerbaiting isn’t okay. Also, as we talked about earlier, implication isn’t diversity, so queerbaiting is simply tricking your audience into thinking that a work of fiction is more diverse than it is.
Minority Characters can do no Wrong
Downton Abbey and I have a complicated relationship. I watched the show into its fourth season, became frustrated (with several things), and stopped.
If you’re not ready for spoilers, then skip ahead.
Thomas Barrow was one of the butlers on Downton Abbey. He was the villain for several seasons, and coincidentally, he was also the only gay character. In the fourth season, he sexually assaults one of the other butlers. Now, realizing that they’ve demonized their only gay character on account of his sexuality, the writers realized they were stuck in a bad situation, so they had the other characters forgive Thomas for what he had done, because hey, it’s not a big deal.
But it was. Two things here: having your only minority group character cast as the villain can put you in some pretty rough waters, so if it’s necessary, include other characters of the same group in good or neutral positions. Additionally, minority characters are people, and people do bad things. Don’t be afraid to write characters of all kinds from every position from very good to downright evil.
You Can’t Write about a Minority Character Without Regarding their Issues
When you add a new character in, it’s important that you think about adversity or marginalization they might experience. Even if your character is a straight white male, he might be a victim of ageism or even sexism. Consider what your characters might go through. These are important things to talk about because they’re often a part of life for these characters.
I’ve also heard people say that if you’re going to talk about a minority, then you have to tackle the big issues they deal with. While it’s great to write about a character who wants to defend their rights or come out of the closet, it’s just not necessary. Minorities aren’t defined by the color of their skin, their disabilities and illnesses, or sexualities. These are people with full lives and you may consider that they’ve already gone through big milestones in their lives.
Avatar: The Last Airbender has been one of my favorite shows since I was a kid. If you watched it when you were younger, you might remember the character Toph, who is blind. While she struggles occasionally with her disability, she has hs mostly learned (prior to her first appearance) to draw power from it.
If you want to cover big issues for minority characters, then more power to you, but you certainly don’t have to. Representation is about showing different and diverse groups of people through fiction. Minority groups are not defined by a struggle they commonly face.
There are a lot of myths concerning diversity in fiction. Radical opinions on either side cloud the subject of diversity. As writers, we want to create worlds that mimic reality and are fully immersive. If we fail to add certain groups of people, then we’re failing as writers. Take another look at your outline or book. Do you have enough diversity and representation? Making room for characters with new adversity and that add diversity brings new life to not only your novel but also the current climate of fiction.
Check back next Monday for a great blog post from Anna!
What are your thoughts on diversity in fiction? Do you have a favorite character from a minority group or community? Leave a comment!