Hashtag: Diversity in SFF

8 Sep

I know. I know. Who spells out “hashtag?” Well, I did, and I have a purpose for it. On September 4, Twitter blew up with #DiversityinSFF (and, yes, that link should send you to that Twitter discussion as it continues.) While I tweeted once about it, I spent quite a lot of time reading through other readers’ and writers’ tweets. Knowing it’s an important topic to continue, I thought I’d take a shot at it, encouraging others to keep the conversation going on their own blogs and websites.

First: two articles I’ll be referencing: 

1. One of my favorite articles was by The Book Smugglers: “SFF in Conversation R.J. Anderson on Diversity in Speculative Fiction.” If you aren’t familiar with her, she wrote Ultraviolet, and her protagonist is asexual, hence the diversity in speculative fiction. The reason I enjoyed this article so much is pretty simple: I found a lot of readers and writers only talking about race (which is important, of course) but diversity includes an entire list of groups of people living within society that don’t appear in novels as much, including but not limited to gender, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, race, etc.

2. Mary Robinette Kowal has created a great survey and discussion, and you can read about it here. (I’ve taken it, and it’s very concise and short.) But I will be referencing a comment later on.

Second: Diversity is really important, so why do writers seem to turn away from it? 

I have to clarify that I don’t think people turn away from it as much as they used to, but still: there is not as much diversity as you’d think there’d be with as many writers as there is out there today. This list is simply to discuss the common reasons writers seem to avoid diversity that I could find:

1. Confusion but respect for other cultures: Some writers truly stick with “write what you know.” That being said, adding characters outside of their sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, and/or religion can be overwhelming for some. Yes, you can research, but I think a lot of writers worry about the depth and honesty of that research. I think some avoid it merely on the fact that they don’t wish to misrepresent cultures they are not a part of. However, I think this barrier can easily be defeated because of the internet. There are plenty of places we can read and talk to people of other cultures to make sure we are going around stereotypes and defining a character with more honesty. (Such as R.J. Anderson wrote about Tumblr in her article.)

2. Nervous for repercussions/reactions: As Walt Fisher writes on Mary Robinette Kowal: “I have no quarrel with anyone writing, participating and expressing their viewpoint. I think it should be encouraged for all writers. That being said, I fear an overreaction.” I think this is really important, because I think this can be a huge hurtle for some writers. No matter what kind of diversity they are working with, the writer can be nervous of offending a group of people, and no one wants to offend anyone. But I think we need to remember, as writers, that we aren’t going to make everyone happy–no matter what group of diversity your character is. Some will love them, others won’t quite connect with them, and some might even hate them. You have to remind yourself to be true to your character, and, as long as you do that, the reactions won’t matter in the sense that you know you did it out of the goodness of your heart (and your characters) and not out of trying to make a certain group look bad or better.

Lastly: Something I learned about perspective from anime. 

Confession time: I love anime and manga. (I have to be in a certain kind of mood for it–like everything else–but I’m a fan.) And I came across an article that is now one of my favorites: The Society Pages: Why Do Japanese Draw Themselves as White? I really encourage everyone to read this before I discuss it, but I’ll try talking about it so you can understand it as if the link is broken and you can’t find it.

If you’ve ever come across manga (written) or anime (t.v) then you know these cartoons are filled with diversity, including sexual orientation and overall looks, but a lot of people have wondered why the Japanese draw them as Americans. “As it turns out, that is an American opinion, not a Japanese one. The Japanese see anime characters as being Japanese. It is Americans who think they are white.” The article continues with a vast description of why this isn’t true, allowing readers to readjust their perspective on characters.

This is what I learned from anime: Perspective of diversity matters as much as the creator adding diversity. 

Basically, it’s not entirely up to the writer; the reader has to notice the diversity for it to be present. When I talk about this, The Hunger Games comes into mind (and there’s a lot of articles about this.) For instance, many readers were surprised to find out Rue’s race, despite the descriptions in the novel. This is when it comes down to the reader. We have to stop reading as if every character is cut out of the same cloth. We have to read and accept the diversity as much as the writer who wrote it down. It takes two.

Now what do you writers and readers think? Have you written a character outside of your race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc.? 

I have, although I can’t share all of my examples because they aren’t published yet, but I can admit that it’s easier for me to write as a male than a female (which I am planning on talking about in the future!)

Thanks for keeping the discussion going!


34 Responses to “Hashtag: Diversity in SFF”

  1. Lilith Colbert at 12:33 am #

    I have never thought about these points, but great ones to bring up! Since I tend to write fantasy and sci-fi, most of the characters are of races and from places no one would know of anyway, yet I’ve never truly written a character as anything other that what we’d call “straight.” Maybe I should try….

    But WONDERFUL point on the anime article – I’m a fan of Jrock and have found people astonished how “white” some Japanese men look, even going so far as to accuse them of wearing foundation (which some in the VK genre do, but that’s another story).

    • Shannon Thompson at 1:26 am #

      It would be interesting to compare different groups from fantasy worlds with that of reality. Maybe there would be correlations. And, yes, I think trying to write outside of “straight” sounds like a good writing prompt for those you haven’t tried it before. I’m glad you liked the anime part as much as I enjoyed coming across that article. I haven’t listened to J-Rock myself, but maybe I’ll give it a try!

  2. hierath at 3:39 am #

    I have written from the POV of men, women, trans people, straight people, gay people, people of different ethnicities to me. I suppose in fantasy writing The Other doesn’t come with the same real-world baggage, you can write a world where slavery never happened or where no one has an issue with homosexuality. It’s very freeing. Why would I want to write about people who are the same as me all the time – how dull would that be?
    My recently published novel “The Art of Forgetting” is told entirely from the viewpoint of a bisexual male – I’m neither of those things, but people who’ve read it who are bisexual and / or male seem to have enjoyed it. 🙂

    • Shannon Thompson at 3:01 pm #

      Thank you for sharing! That is some great experience you have when it comes to writing from different perspective. Go you!

  3. wonderinggrace at 5:16 am #

    It’s not just SFF, either. But yeah, I was surprised at the amount of people who assumed Blaise Zambini in Harry Potter was black when the films had him replace Crabbe/Doyle (can’t remember which one right now). But I think some authors – some white authors, especially – shy away from describing their characters as one race or another, sometimes leaving only a name to go on. When I was fifteen, I wrote a vampire novel which involved a black vampire. I remember not being sure how, exactly, I could describe her. It goes back to your point about being worried to offend someone. In any case, I think an author needs to give the reader enough to go on to form a picture of the character. Sometimes that just goes over the reader’s heads, which is a shame. A really interesting topic, and as usual, you’ve given me something to really think about within my own writing.

    • Shannon Thompson at 3:03 pm #

      You’re right. It isn’t just SFF. I was only using that because it was the hashtag that led me to this conversation. But it’s all genres and many types of art. And I agree. I think a lot of writers are afraid of offending someone. Thank you for sharing your experience with your vampire novel. I think writers seeing how other writers have handled it will help and encourage others to try!

  4. prysma at 10:54 am #

    😆 This is the second time since I’ve been following you that you’ve done a post that I can answer by a post on mine.

    Anyway… my work is actually fairly diverse in some ways. Sexual orientation, gender identity, and related subjects seem to be a bit of a speciality, although I refuse to write the whole thing about those, if you get the difference. Race, well, I wander a bit away from white in my urban fantasy, but when it comes to my other-world work, skin colour and physical attributes vary wildly, so I suppose how diverse I am on that score depends on how you measure it: culture or physical appearance and, if the latter, which aspects of it? Religion? Actually, I tend not to include that much at all in any form, the glaring exception being an entire pagan community in northern Ontario; on the other hand, if a character turns up in my head insisting on one belief system or another, I don’t believe I’d bother to argue.

    I see it this way: if I can get inside the head of a werewolf, which required an immense amount of research into wolf behaviour and psychology so I could extrapolate what effect being a wolf sometimes would have, I can get inside the head of just about anyone or anything if I have access to enough research material. And oh yeah, these days, unlike when I created that werewolf character and had to keep hitting the library, there’s an awesome thing called the Internet I can use to find out about things that my local small-town library would never have bothered to carry – including finding communities based around that subject who might, if approached respectfully, be willing to talk to me about it.

    Forcing diversity into a story for the sake of having it there is when things start to get awkward (so does trying to force it out when the story calls for it). If it’s where the story leads, then do some research and go with it, and it’ll work out.

    And like I said in that blog post I mentioned about assumptions of gender and sex in writing: forcing everything into a rigidly traditional model (I was referring to the one subject, but it applies to any kind of diversity) just adds to the background culture that says “This is what’s normal” that makes anyone else an outsider. If we’re writing SFF, the ultimate “what-if,” then we should be exploring what there is outside that.

    Sorry this is a bit long and a bit of a rant, it’s a subject that matters to me. 😉 It’s definitely a subject I’d like to see acknowledged more. Now, let’s go do that survey and see if I can find my Twitter password and take a look at the rest of the discussion…

    • prysma at 12:43 pm #

      I told my partner about this, and she pointed out a major point of diversity that’s often overlooked: ability/disability, both physical and psychiatric.

      • Shannon Thompson at 3:14 pm #

        Those are great ones to add! Thank you for sharing. And tell your partner thank you for me 😀

    • Shannon Thompson at 3:07 pm #

      I think you make a GREAT point when it comes to forcing it just to have it being an awkward thing. That is a point I failed to mention, so I’m very glad you shared that, because I completely agree. And thank you for sharing your experience with research–such as the wolf. It’s interesting how some writers can be very comfortable creating made up diversities in fantasy worlds but stray away from using diversities from reality within a fantasy world. But I think, especially from your example, that writers should embrace that and understand it’s proof they can get into the heads of characters unlike themselves (unless they are a werewolf ha)

      • prysma at 3:58 pm #

        I have no doubt that there are some types of characters that I would have more difficulty getting into the mindset of, and that there are types of characters I’m avoiding without realizing I’m doing so. I admit I’m finding young urban characters a major challenge.

        On the flip side… I’m a cisgendered woman (ie, not transgendered, for those not up on the lingo), but playing with what exactly gender means is one of my favourite themes. Something I’ve learned from my transgendered info sources: there is so much individual variation within any given group that it’s hard to do anything outright wrong, in the sense of it being completely outside the realm of plausibility. To stick with the TG example, TG folks come in such an immense range of personalities, experiences, beliefs, opinions, etc etc, that as long as the character is handled with respect and not reduced to a single dimension or a cliche, there’s a vast amount of territory that falls within “plausible for a TG person”. Having a good grounding in the basic facts of life for someone TG is absolutely necessary (including scary stuff like suicide/attempted suicide rates, and what options they have medically, and for that matter the entire vast range of expressions of it and how they relate to the rest of the “queer community”). However, every individual is going to be different, sometimes radically so.

        Once you throw in magic (or advanced science) and non-real-world cultures, it opens it up even further, and the definitions become extremely fuzzy. One of the central characters in one of my novels (Lamia) is a sort of succubus-vampire supernatural, who has a very dangerous female form but also a male form that can pass for human even to normal means of detecting supernaturals. Gender identity? Um, there isn’t a box for that one even on the most comprehensive list I’ve ever seen, but that character seems to appeal to a few TG folks who’ve read it.

        I think my main point here is that no group is completely monolithic, and there’s always wiggle-room. There are going to be fanatics who scream that something is wrong but they’re highly likely to be going by their own mental image of what that group is supposed to be – and frequently, in my experience, the worst fanatics who scream aren’t even part of the group in question. Trying to claim that a particular action or belief or what-have-you is simply impossible for someone who falls within a particular group is, well… has someone talked to every single individual ever to fall within that group? People have various reasons for things they do and feel, and no single aspect of their lives generally determines it alone. Treat everyone with respect, do your research, but let characters be themselves.
        (oops… long again… 😳 )

  5. nancyrae4 at 12:21 pm #

    Wonderful post, Shannon. In answer to your question I’m tackling something new in my second novel. Two points of view, one male, one female. I’m comfortable writing as either sex, but the twist is the male is a different species. When I told Mom I wasn’t sure I could write from an alien/male POV, she said, “But, dear, remember. All men are aliens.” (Any guys reading this, please don’t take offense. You probably feel the same way about us!) That really made me think. Everyone is diverse – it keeps life interesting.

    I haven’t written same-sex orientation yet. If I do, I’ll stick to my one absolute requirement for all my characters: humor and wit. One last comment: diversity adds to a story, gives it depth and realism, but the message of the story is what matters.

    • Shannon Thompson at 3:10 pm #

      Thank you for sharing. It’s funny to me, because I originally had the same problem writing as a female (and I’m a girl, so riddle me that) but then I realized I was raised by males, so my tomboy-ness didn’t fit the girly lifestyle of the girl I first wrote from. I realized it came down to lifestyle rather than gender, and then I never struggled again. Just another thing to think about when you’re getting in to the “alien” mindset :] And I love your last comment. The message of the story is what matters.

  6. Read&Write at 12:40 pm #

    All along I assumed you are a woman but, I could be wrong, yeah? Without the lovely glamour shot on your blog, who would know, your name is kinda gender neutral. I admit I write with my own race and background in mind. I can write about a 52 year old white detective but, I don’t think I can write about a black female high schooler. Is that just acknowledging my weakness? I’m reading Amerikanah right now and have learned that other races/cultures are just as isolated in their thinking as whites. And then there is perception, like the Japanese manga characters. A black person raised by a white family may consider himself more white than black. Which begs the question of interracial children, how much white/black do you need to be white/black? You’ve opened a pandora’s box, which is always fun!

    • Shannon Thompson at 3:13 pm #

      Haha! Yes, my name is gender neutral, although people seem surprised when I tell them I’ve met more guys named Shannon than girls. I can understand not wanting or not being able to write from a completely different perspective, especially if your story doesn’t require it. But I think it’s a good idea to try a writing prompt where you include someone who is different. At first, including is probably easier. Then you might be able to try writing from that perspective. Just a thought.

      • Read&Write at 3:33 pm #

        A multicultural writing prompt would be fun! But I can also see how it might devolve into stereotyping. I read a book by Chris Cleave, Little Bee, about a Nigerian immigrant forced to go back to Nigeria and face imminent death. It would be interesting to know how he (or her?) pulled off the characterization. If it was all research or he had a personal relationship with a Nigerian that acted as “informant” for the book. Another interesting note; I read somewhere that a lot of gay literature/erotica is written by straight women. For some reason, I can see myself writing about a male relationship but I don’t necessarily know a lot of gay men, nor have I done any research. I guess love/sex is a universal enough theme that it doesn’t matter who’s in love with who.

    • prysma at 4:17 pm #

      (I seem to have run out of reply levels below your other comment)
      “I guess love/sex is a universal enough theme that it doesn’t matter who’s in love with who.”
      Yep, it is. Take it from a pansexual woman: the internal experience of love and attraction are basically the same regardless of the relative sex and genders involved. Same feeling of interest, same feelings of “what if s/he doesn’t like me,” and so on. The social ramifications and expressions of it change, though, depending on what the setting is: MM or MF or FM or FF (or transgendered in any of those places, as well) in various environments and circumstances are going to have different possibilities for how to act on it and what the consequences might be.

  7. debyfredericks at 12:54 pm #

    I had a similar experience to your last point, in that my first and third novels featured all non-white characters. (It was a made-up race, however, not one found on Earth, as I too was concerned about offending members of an actual ethnic group.) The characters are clearly described as brown-skinned with black, curly hair, and yet my white friends consistently visualized them as white. My take-away from this was that, no matter what WE imagine, the reader projects him/herself into the story.

    Which makes me wonder, in my other two novels with all-white casts, did black or Hispanic readers imagine the characters as black or Hispanic? And if not, why? Is it just a white-entitlement thing?

    • Shannon Thompson at 3:16 pm #

      I do wonder the same thing. If whites have been known to imagine whites, have other races ever imagines someone to be of their race when they were not? I will have to look into that.

  8. Jessica Burde at 1:11 pm #

    I very much understand the fears you mention. One thing that has helped me, is in the course of my research making friends with other authors and writers and being able to ask them, will you take a look at this? Is it problematic or disrespectful somehow?

    And if they tell me there are problems, I fix them. It doesn’t guarantee that I get everything right, but it helps.

  9. jncahill at 12:08 am #

    The book I am querying has a main character and other co-supporting roles that are of different races and genders. I once had someone tell me that I was being racist for writing about other races (huh?). I’ve written other ones with similar main or “big” characters.

    I’d love to see more diversity. I actually go out of my way to find these kind of books now.

  10. CL at 1:58 pm #

    This is a fantastic article–I hadn’t even realized there was a Twitter discussion surrounding it, so thank you for pointing that out. Currently, the book I’m writing is comprised of bi-racial gay teens and college kids, I think there’s definitely a severe lack of diversity in what we read, and I hope that this brings new stories to light, or sheds much-needed light on stories we’ve bypassed.

    • Shannon Thompson at 2:05 pm #

      I’m very excited when followers say things such as you did just now! I agree: there is a huge lack, and I’m very happy to see so many writers talking about it and/or practicing it within their own stories.

  11. Jevon at 9:15 pm #

    Easier to write as a male than a female? I am really interested in hearing more about that. Reason being that I’m thinking about writing a novel with a female protagonist, and being male, I wondered if I can express her thoughts realistically (as in, would a woman really think like that since it’s a fact that men and women think differently).

    • Shannon Thompson at 9:25 pm #

      I plan to elaborate on it very soon, but I think it’s mainly due to “gender stereotypes.” I probably fit a male’s stereotype more when it comes to emotions and such. I was raised by my father and brother, perhaps explaining why I’m not very girlie or have what people consider to be “girl” tendencies. I’m very much a tomboy, so this might be the reason as to why I find the male voice easier. I could suggest “embracing your feminine side” haha. Just kidding, but kind of true? I think I embraced my “masculine side?”

      • m. l. beals at 10:58 pm #

        I was always a tomboy as a kid, too, but I tend to write more women than I do men. Then again, I had some brassy grandmas leading the way, and in true write-what-you-know fashion, my leading ladies tend to be independent, almost aloof. I have written outside my race and gender a few times, and I rarely feel uncomfortable in another character’s skin. The only times I do feel awkward is when I am unsure if it is clear to the reader that this character is black, or Hispanic, or whatever she or he happens to be.

        That article about Americans seeing anime characters as white is odd, and sometimes difficult to get around. That little stick figure as default white guy sometimes extends too far, and even characters that are described as non-white non-guy get sucked into what is expected. I remember hearing some cover-art horror story in which a woman who had written a YA novel about a black girl found her advanced reader copy had cover featuring only the face of some white chick. She was told the book would sell better that way, and thankfully she put the kibosh on it until the cover was corrected.

  12. Anthony Dobranski at 1:11 am #

    The discussions of readers missing obvious racial or skin-tone descriptions put me in mind of the bit in John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar where you can program TVs to show you people in commercials as you want them to be; the character in question is a black man who favors white women as lovers, so in all his commercials that’s the racial mix he gets. People do this in real life too. We writers can’t force people to see what we want them to see; all we can do is be sure that the ones who aren’t already too deep in their own heads find things well-crafted enough to transport them into our stories.

  13. Anthony Dobranski at 2:44 pm #

    Just saw this article in today’s Washington Post – look for hashtag DiversityInGaming soon … http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-switch/wp/2013/09/11/here-are-the-lame-excuses-game-developers-give-for-not-using-female-characters/

  14. butimbeautifulose at 12:49 am #

    I think there really isn’t such a thing as equity in writing, you create what you want to create and that’s it. There’s no compulsion to be fair. But I also think it can be good for a writer to go outside their comfort zone, after all the whole idea of writing is to bring to your audience a perspective they might not have had – so diversity makes sense (essentially, going wider for characters, although you could go deeper as well).

  15. Aileen at 1:05 pm #

    That is a great tip especially to those fresh to
    the blogosphere. Brief but very precise information…
    Many thanks for sharing this one. A must read post!


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