#WritingTips Diversity Is VITAL, But Be Genuine

16 Mar

The word diversity is being thrown around a lot in the publishing world. Agents are asking for it, readers are requesting it, and publishers rejoice in it. As am I. Rounding out literature with realistic and varied groups of people is vital and wonderful and exciting and overall, beautiful. The world, after all, is made up of many different types of people. So should books.

That being said—and a lot of my articles are inspired by my full-time editing job—I am quite shocked when I hear questions like, “Should I make my main character a person of color, LGBT, have a disability, and/or be a part of an underrepresented religion to fit the market?”

Um…

Face to desk.

The quick answer to that question is a resounding NO.

Diversity is not a “fad.” It’s not a bullet point on your novel’s checklist. It’s not an aspect to treat like a trendy topic, and it’s most definitely not an afterthought.

Diversity is a fact of life. Diversity is all around you. Diversity is found in your friends and family and co-workers and strangers at the coffee shop. Diversity should appear in literature just as naturally as it does in real life. If you’re forcing it, there’s a likely chance you’re probably adding to the stereotypes and clichés that are even more damaging than leaving diversity out.

Case and point:

Avoiding LGBTQ Stereotypes in YA Fiction, Part 1: Major LGBTQ Stereotypes

Race in YA Lit: Wake up and Smell the Coffee-Colored Skin, White Authors!

Writing Tips: How NOT to write disabled people

Yes, we need more diversity. We need more people of color in hero roles and LGBT protagonists and characters with disabilities. We need to see a variety of religions and cultural norms and languages and backgrounds. We need varying body types and personalities and dreams and ambitions. We need more characters that are just like everyday people, but we need to be true to our stories. That means being honest. It means researching. It means taking that time to talk to those who represent the cultures we wish to write about. As authors, we need to communicate effectively and efficiently. We need to stay true to our work—not force in characters just because—and we need to love our characters because they are our characters, not because they were warped to fit a trend. Diversity isn’t about being trendy. Diversity is about being genuine. It’s about celebrating the unique characteristics of all types of people, so that readers can rejoice and relate to the stories they read. On top of that, diverse stories help teach acceptance, shape understanding, and encourage friendships to those outside of their own “box.” Diverse stories are a result of a diverse life.

So go out there and explore your world. Meet new people. Listen to their lives. Discuss topics and real trends. (Like fashion and movies and Pilates.) Get to know all the people around you, and who knows? You might find they inspire you to create a character just like them.

Favorite Go-To Article About Diversity: Diversity Writing Tool-Kit. She basically links to a million places to get in-depth knowledge about numerous topics.

Favorite (Recent) Novels Featuring Diversity: Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon and Lady Midnight by Cassandra Clare. Both of these wonderful women tackle diversity with genuine grace. You can read both of my 5-star reviews on Goodreads by clicking the titles. I highly recommend both books, but Everything, Everything is contemporary, while Lady Midnight is urban fantasy and a part of a much larger series that I recommend you start with City of Bones. She has diversity throughout her entire Shadowhunter series. I had the absolute joy of meeting Cassandra Clare last night. She signed Lady Midnight for me, and I took home some awesome Shadowhunter runes.

I also met Cassandra Clare, just last night! She is the greatest.

I also met Cassandra Clare, just last night! She is the greatest.

Soon, I’ll share my own experience with writing and diversity. As an example, my next release is a YA duology: Bad Bloods features illiteracy, LGBT characters, deafness, people of color, PTSD, and disabilities, such as one character who only has one arm.

I didn’t force any of these aspects. In fact, the cast was inspired by real people I have met (and Barbie dolls, but that’s a different story you can read about here). Talking to those in the groups I was writing about was vital. Don’t be afraid to reach out. The world is waiting.

~SAT

P.S. Today is the day my mother suddenly passed away in 2003. You never know when your life will change forever. Take a moment to say I love you today. Thank you for changing my life, Mom.

My mother and I on Christmas, 1999

My mother and I on Christmas, 1999

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22 Responses to “#WritingTips Diversity Is VITAL, But Be Genuine”

  1. Shadow's Sunshine March 16, 2016 at 12:19 am #

    You lucky lucky girl. I so want to meet Cassandra Clare so bad. I received my signed copy of Lady Midnight last week. I love her.
    Can’t wait for your new books to come out!!!!

    • Shannon A Thompson March 16, 2016 at 12:20 am #

      I do feel very lucky! I’ve always wanted to meet her, and this was my first opportunity to attend one of her signings. She was super sweet. I hope I can attend another signing one day. 😀 I also feel lucky to hear you’re excited about Bad Bloods. 😀 Thank you!
      ~SAT

  2. Danielle March 16, 2016 at 12:49 am #

    This is a great topic. My novel in progress has a character who uses hearing aids. I work in HR in the disability industry so was wondering if I was being forced about it. But in truth, I didn’t include this character feature purposefully, it just sort of happened. I was writing about my main character having trouble sleeping, and the secondary character expresses brief sympathy about it. The main character notes to herself that she appreciates the kindness and attempt at empathy, particularly since the secondary character has openly admitted to never having trouble sleeping due to being able to switch her hearing aids off (and apparently having no thoughts once her head hits the pillow…lucky).

    What I think is important is that the person’s disability is just a small part of their whole being, unless it is integral to the story you want to write. I hope that my character will be way more memorable for other things such as her wild dating life, love of yoga, shyness that’s at odds with her outward appearance, and her vehement pursuit of cheering up my protagonist through hard times.

    A tool that may help some people in being respectful in writing about disability is the “What’s hot and what’s not” guide. It’s an Australian tool that’s updated yearly. Of course, you have creative license. But for those who really want to know what’s currently acceptable it can be very helpful. I use it for my work all the time.

    http://www.dontdismyability.com.au/__data/assets/file/0010/339076/NSW004_DDMA_ZCARD-PG-01-FOR-WEBSITE.pdf

    • Shannon A Thompson March 16, 2016 at 12:59 am #

      A great share and story example! I love how you bring up that you want your character to be remembered for aspects beyond her disability. All too often, I see new writers define a character by their disability, rather than allow it to be a part of the overall picture. Thank you!
      ~SAT

  3. Charles Yallowitz March 16, 2016 at 6:16 am #

    I’ve actually asked myself those questions under times of stress. Part of the reason is because you see people turn on stories that have no diversity. So there’s a sense that you need it to avoid getting into trouble, which forces some characters into existence. Everybody wants that character to connect with, but it seems like there’s a trend to look for those with physical similarities instead of just mental and emotional. It could easily be the vocal minority of the Internet, but it’s a loud one.

    From a fantasy author perspective, the diversity issue gets really confusing. When writing, I think of different races as elf, human, dwarf, halfling, orc, etc. Sexual orientation doesn’t come into play for me either. If the character turns out to be gay then that’s what happens. So I’m actually thrown off when someone complains about me not putting in the real world diversity. Like I said before, the current environment of people taking offense so easily puts a lot of authors on edge. So some will turn to tokenism or go too far to one side.

    • Shannon A Thompson March 16, 2016 at 4:25 pm #

      I definitely understand the “on edge” controversy part of it, too. I think a lot of authors felt that way with everything that happened with J.K. Rowling’s release of the U.S. History of Magic. Diversity can be a sensitive and scary place to explore, but in the end, I think it should be embraced, and there are great places – like the articles above – that go into detail about how to tackle the topic respectfully. 🙂
      ~SAT

      • Charles Yallowitz March 16, 2016 at 5:30 pm #

        Honestly, I totally forgot about her releasing that. I saw it getting a lot of attention for a few days and then things died down in my feeds.

  4. Arietta Charles March 16, 2016 at 7:24 am #

    Thank you, this is a great article. Everyone is talking about this but few people are discussing how and why. I read a book a while ago with a main character who had a very minor condition . The author probably didn’t think twice about forcing this into the character but, as a person who has the condition, I was put off. The author obviously hadn’t so much as run the condition through Google let alone spoke to anyone who had it. They got it completely wrong. It was simply a plot device that they twisted to suit their needs. I really liked your emphasis on being respectful and knowledgeable. I honestly hope that doesn’t get lost in the diversity movement. It’s all so important.

    • Shannon A Thompson March 16, 2016 at 4:27 pm #

      Thank you for sharing your story! Your story is exactly why authors need to strive to be genuine, because it is damaging and offensive to “represent” something falsely, and it’s so easy to avoid, especially today when we have Internet forums where you can talk to anyone from any background pretty easily. Thank you for reading and commenting!
      ~SAT

  5. koehlerjoni March 16, 2016 at 12:28 pm #

    Your mother would be proud of the woman you’ve become.

  6. Molly Seay March 16, 2016 at 12:32 pm #

    Thank you for this article! I hate the idea of diversity just to have a checked item on a list and can’t stand a badly written stereotype. That said I wonder if some of the ones calling for diversity actually want a true characterization of a minority. In the first book you edited for me some of my betas didn’t like that she was a black woman who acted black. I think they wanted her skin to be not white but her life to be more like her white peers. More betas did appreciate her being authentic though, and those who appreciated the characterization did admit there was a lot they didn’t know about being a black woman. More diverse characters are needed at least to open the conversation of race and culture beacuse that’s the only way to combat racism, but it should never be forced.

    • Shannon A Thompson March 16, 2016 at 4:37 pm #

      Thank you for reading and commenting! I think you bring up an excellent point many need to consider and discuss. As an example, let’s take another issue. I read a lot of books where parents die. Those children don’t react how I did, but I don’t get offended, because their situation is different from mine, and even if it were the same situation, people still react differently. My brother and I, for instance, had very different emotional reactions to our mother’s death. That being said, I think the same can be said about race, disabilities, LGBT characters, etc. Two black people are not going to act the exact same. Two lesbians are not going to have the same feelings/experiences coming out. Two people in wheelchairs are not going to have the same story about what happened and how they feel about it.
      Readers need to be open-minded to the characters, including those that feel like it might have misrepresented them. It might have; that characters could’ve been the perfect character for someone else. (As an aside, characters are supposed to be characters. Just like we should not judge one group of people for one person from said group of people, we need to take that stance with characters as well. Ex. One Chinese character does not represent all Chinese readers. They simply represent themselves.)
      Maybe a part of the reason for that reaction is our lack of diversity, though. There’s been such a long, hard struggle to see diversity in literature that now that we have it, the readers from any particular group immediately want the first character they see to embody them and only them. Hopefully, we can take a step back and allow the diverse characters to be diverse themselves. 🙂
      ~SAT

      • Molly March 16, 2016 at 5:23 pm #

        Exactly!

  7. inkstaind13 March 16, 2016 at 3:43 pm #

    I loved everything about this blog. Thank you for it!!!

  8. Petite Breaux March 16, 2016 at 6:29 pm #

    You are doing such a great job Shannon with your writing. Your mother would be proud of you. May she continue to r.i.p.
    Looking forward to more of the diversity subjects.

    • Shannon A Thompson March 16, 2016 at 6:35 pm #

      Thank you. 🙂 I’m looking forward to continuing the discussion too.
      ~SAT

  9. Lisa Orchard March 16, 2016 at 7:12 pm #

    Great post, Shannon. I’m sending you positive vibes on your day of rememberance. I’m so sorry for your loss.

    • Shannon A Thompson March 17, 2016 at 5:53 pm #

      Thank you for reading and commenting! I appreciate your kindness.
      ~SAT

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. March’s Ketchup | Shannon A Thompson - March 30, 2016

    […] 1. Diversity is Vital, But Be Genuine: I tackled the topic of diversity in fiction this month, mainly because I’ve been DYING to discuss this issue for a while now, but I didn’t feel like I had a lot to add to the conversation until recently. As an editor, I heard a controversial question about forcing diversity, so I discussed why it’s so important to be genuine when writing your novels (and how you can be genuine). […]

  2. #WW Tackling Diversity in YA | Shannon A Thompson - May 11, 2016

    […] I wrote the article Diversity is VITAL, But Be Genuine, and I received a lot of questions about my personal experiences with tackling diversity in my […]

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