Writing Diversely From A Non-Diverse Standpoint

A few weeks back, someone posted a thought on Twitter that can be summarized as such:

Dear white people: Please stop writing minority characters into your books. You’re taking away readership from POC/minority writers.

I remember not being particularly caught off guard by the tweet. After all, it came from a writer who identifies as a minority writer in many ways (race, sexuality, religion…those are the ones I can recall at least). And part of me gets the point. There is definitely a gap between sales of books from white authors and from non-white authors, whether we’re talking about children’s book authors or otherwise. There’s a need for diversity in writing, not just in characters, stories, and points-of-view, but also in authorship. That much is very true.

And yet, I can’t do anything about the fact that I am writing from a white, straight, English-speaking, higher-educated male viewpoint. I want to write in a more diverse manner. It’s a goal I put forward for myself after publishing An Epilogue to Innocence.

I do think there are some things I did well in AETI. I tried to make the book less about good guys and bad guys and more about people — regardless of their gender, background, or religious views. Yes, religion, sexuality, gender, and mental illness were addressed in the book to varying degrees. And yes, there were shortcomings I had with the book. In particular, I wanted to find a way to make my future writing more diverse racially and culturally.

As an example, I recently wrote a story that I think has a lot of potential. The story is intended to introduce a larger world and as such, there are very limited deep details given about the main characters in the story that will be reappearing in later iterations of the story. You know, world building and what not.

One of the characters is supposed to be a woman of Filipina descent. I actively chose not to introduce this facet of her character in the first section[1] of the story because I didn’t want her race to become the focus of her introduction. While her race is part of who she is, in the world in which she exists, what causes judgement and discrimination is not race — it’s something else entirely[2]. Yet, at the same time, I feel as though it’s not only important that I have an understanding of the discrimination that any minority individual goes through in order to write my story effectively, but also in order to grow as a writer, I need to better understand how to write characters who are culturally different from me.

So I look to you, my readers, for advice. Many of you are also fellow writers, hence hoping to pick your brain on this topic. How do you write more diversely when you write fiction? What tips, tricks, and recommendations would you have for me as I look to become a writer that writers not just about those I know, but also those I hope to better understand?

11 thoughts on “Writing Diversely From A Non-Diverse Standpoint”

  1. Samantha Clarke

    I think the idea of asking white writers not to write POC is basically identity politics gone way way too far. That’s like asking male-identifying writers not to write female-identifying characters. Or straight people not to write gay characters. I mean should you be extra cautious? Should you write what you know? Should you make centering and lifting the voices of the marginalized a focus from whatever platform you hold? Of course! But I don’t at all think this means you can’t or shouldn’t write characters who are POC. That falls in line with the whole “white people should just show up and shut up” mentality which I disagree with as a flat rule–your voice and your potential intersections of oppression don’t disappear just because you’re white, even if your struggle is less than that of POC.

    If an Armenian is in one of your stories one day and is written as a whole, real character (which I trust they would be because that’s just how you roll), I would be the opposite of offended. Sometimes the angriest people are the loudest, and we’re kind of at peak “everything comes down solely to identity” in liberal and leftist circles right now, I think in part as a response to the racism and sexism of the right. But I think it will swing back a bit to encompass you and realize the value in what you do, which in my opinion is high. I’ve always appreciated the various diversities of your characters and I for one will have your back if people give you shit for it!!

    -Your Very Opinionated Friend

    1. AbsentElemental

      The more I hear the anger, vitriol, and lack of objectivity from extreme voices on both sides, the more I think that American society is slowly forgetting that everyone is first and foremost a person. We seem to have this tendency to look at groups of people other than ourselves in a monolithic manner. There are very few situations in which that’s a good thing.

      That aside, I am still trying to figure out how to better add diversity to my writing and how to do so fairly and objectively. I think that the right answer involves a lot of research, interviewing, and reading on my own (that’s all just to start). But direction is always appreciated from anyone.

      1. Samantha Clarke

        My number one tip is try to spend time in circles of people like you’re trying to write about. Casually…an interview is great but nothing beats just living among people for an attempt to understand their world!

        1. AbsentElemental

          Good tip for sure. I do like the formal structure of interview people — particularly IM/email interviews as I have a text record of the interview and can always ask follow up questions on direct quotes. With that said, I also understand that people don’t always show their truest selves in an interview, so it’s not a foolproof solution.

  2. As a reader, I would hope that the author is getting information from authentic sources. So if you’re writing about college- then you would hopefully have gone to college, visited a college, talked to someone whose gone to college. If you are writing about a POC but you aren’t one- talk to a POC, ask them about their experience, etc. There was a scene on a TV show that tons of people criticized (a man watched his child brutally murdered) because he wasn’t “emotional” enough. But the actor talked to a psychologist who had many patients who dealt with that situation and he based the scene off of those conversations. I appreciated that it was based on true life rather than an assumption from people who weren’t actually close to that situation, and would want the same from any writing.

    1. AbsentElemental

      I’ve tried to do my best to research for many of the stories I’ve written. In my book for example, I spent quite a lot of time doing interviews with those afflicted with mental illness for stories like Tia and Use As Directed. In the case of other stories (like Soma), I did minimal research in favor of focusing on the emotion that came out of the story itself.

      In the writing I look to be doing in the future, I feel as though research will be critical to fully capture how the characters I’ll be portraying would actually feel. While I might be able to get the high-level feelings correct, I can guarantee that my separation from these topics will not allow me to speak totally accurately to them without interviewing, researching, and the like. My hope is that I can write in a talented and competent enough manner that those emotions come through correctly and fairly.

  3. Much like Samantha said, I feel like the tweet is part of identity politics gone way too far. Diversity, is of course, a huge issue right now. There definitely needs to be a bigger push for diverse authors, but a writer shouldn’t be restricted to explore only what they represent.

    As far as actually writing diversity from a white, cis-gendered perspective, this is probably one of my biggest struggles. Moreso in fantasy novels where I am world-building, because they don’t necessarily follow the same rules. I’m still looking for answers on this issue. I want to be able to represent many people in my writing, but I want to make sure I do it in a way that makes them feel good about it.

  4. It’s not white people writing about POC that’s the issue, it’s that a lot of times they write them as tokenized side kicks or they just fulfill stereotypes and give bad representation. If the author actually bothers to do it right, then its fine.

    1. AbsentElemental

      I definitely agree. That’s part of the reason the original tweet bothered me so much. Casting any character as a sidekick solely because of their race, gender, sexuality, or any other defining factor is incredibly frustrating as a reader. Furthermore, it’s belittling to anyone who is part of that defining characteristic — not to mention it does no good in forwarding the cause of diversity in fiction. My goal as a writer is to avoid that very pitfall.

  5. Pingback: When You Give Up What’s Yours – That Tiny Website

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