diversity in fiction

There’s been an ongoing discussion about diversity in fiction for years. I’ve been following along, taking notes like a good little researcher. I’m invested in the SFF field in particular, but I catch ripples through the blogosphere when something blows up in realistic fiction, which is frequent.

I saw one going around this week about a blogger who (very politely but very stubbornly) insisted that diversity is cool and all, but it’s not cool to ask writers to diversify their casts if they don’t want to, because they should write whatever they want and it’s better to leave people out than write them poorly (oh and also if anybody tried to debate her she’d auto-block them). This kind of statement crops up a lot, and I think I even had a knee-jerk reaction like that when I was a teenager and first tip-toeing into writing discussion boards (“but what if I do it wrong!!”)

But then I read more about it. And also I grew up.

Fiction writing is a weird profession. Unless you are writing solely for yourself with no intention of publication, there is always a second party invested in your work: the audience. So as a writer you’ve got to be totally passionate and put your heart and soul into your work… AND you’ve got to be willing to let it go afterwards, to calmly assess criticism, and, if you want to appeal to your target audience, to listen to what they want.

I see some writers getting up-in-arms defensive about the lack of diversity in their work, but if you took away the political climate surrounding race (you shouldn’t, it’s important, but if you did), then what makes this different than any other constructive criticism? Are you opposed to all writing advice, or only writing advice about character-building? It’s a very odd blind spot, to me.

Consider this way of couching the same critique: “All of your characters are very similar and it makes for a bland read.” This should concern you. It is very lazy writing. Everybody in your book shouldn’t sound the same and have the same background. If you’re intent on improving your craft, one of the vital areas is characterization.

This applies to both realistic and fantastic literature. Your book takes place in New York City, but everyone is white? Um, unlikely. Your book takes place in Georgia and everyone is white? Come on now! If you can research the geography and the food and the history and the sights, you can spend some time researching who lives there. I guarantee it’ll result in a more engaging, authentic environment.

As for fantasy, you can make up whatever you want! You aren’t even in the situation of respectfully portraying a real culture, so all you’ve got to do is have basic awareness of the tropes surrounding color and then be a good creative writer and use your imagination to come up with something else. “Be creative” is basically the job title, after all. You actively choose every element to include or exclude.

And if you understand all of this, and you go out of your way to set your story in a very specific time and place that has an isolated white population that never interacts with anybody else–well, okay, that is definitely your prerogative. But maybe ask yourself why you’re going to so much effort to set up a situation in which, oops, it would be “unrealistic” to include anyone else.

This is how representation begets representation. I’ve never heard a female author whine that she doesn’t like to write male characters because she isn’t a man and doesn’t want to portray them incorrectly. There aren’t panels about how to write three-dimensional men. Why? Because there are already so many examples to mimic. Anybody who reads books can cobble together a male character without breaking a sweat, simply by mix-and-matching characteristics they’ve seen before and then adding a little backstory. What makes diversity challenging for some is that it means extra effort, extra research, extra reading.

When people say they wouldn’t know how to do it, so why do it at all, to me that’s code for “Not only do I never write outside my comfort zone, I never read outside my comfort zone.”

And if we’re not doing this because we like reading and we want to contribute new stories for other people to read, what’s the point?