Book Talk: Writing Diverse Characters

I came across this video, which relates to a few conversations I’ve seen circling the Twitter #WritingCommunity in these past few weeks regarding writing diverse characters (specifically POC).

This video is about 20 minutes, but I think that regardless of your race, it highlights the key issues regarding representation in media and how to do it properly.

When I saw certain threads regarding this topic, and please note that I am not calling anyone out, I was a little disappointed in the comments people made about why they avoided writing characters outside of their race. Many people felt it would be inappropriate to attempt writing a character outside of their own race because “they don’t understand the experience.” No one is telling you to write a story about racial prejudices. The questions were often simply, is your main character a different race than your own, or do you include other races in your work. The colour of your characters skin doesn’t have to be the main focus in your story.

In fact, I find it annoying (not always but a lot of the time), when a show or book put so much emphasis on the race of a character, versus their actual personality. It stunts character development and shows a lack of understanding.

I believe it was an interview that I watched this Chiamanda Ngozi Adichie, back when I took African Lit’ in university, who talked about how as she was a child she would read western books and all the characters were white. So she thought, that that was how it was supposed to be. Characters in books were white.

Here’s the video here:

As she states in this Ted Talk, it really shows how impressionable children are and also highlights and issue that I remember another author, Jenna Moreci mentioning on her Instagram, when she discussed some of the fan art she had been receiving of her characters. She mentioned in the post, that it frustrated her when people drew her characters who she described to have a deep tan and thick curly locks and brown eyes, were being drawn as pale, blonde-haired and blue-eyed. She was baffled by how readers completely ignored the character descriptions, and automatically interpreted the characters as white. She posted beautiful illustrations that she had created by an artist, showing how the characters looked based on her descriptions. Many readers were shocked to see that this character wasn’t white, and were confused because that wasn’t how they pictured him. Jenna didn’t want to make a big deal about race in her novels because the characters race was not essential to the plot. However, and this is just my interpretation as someone who participated in this conversation on her post, she and many others in the comments seemed disappointed by the fact that when an author doesn’t shove “otherness”…and I hate using that word in this case, but I will…and cram it down their readers throats, it goes completely over peoples heads because “western books are about white people.”

Unfortunately this isn’t uncommon. I myself grew up reading books about white people aside from my favourite Robert Munsch book and the ones I was forced to read during black history month.

Yes, I said forced, because growing up the only books at my school with black or mixed main characters were about slavery. Yep. You try being the only “black” person in your class during black history month, while your class is reading about slavery and relearning about Harriet Tubman for the millionth time. The teacher just turns to you and goes, “So what do you think about this?” as if you were paying attention. Dude, I’ve heard this same lesson for the first 8 years of my education. I tuned you out when you started saying “coloured folk.”

I’m backtracking a bit here, but I want to talk about the Robert Munsch book because honestly, it meant so much to me as a little girl. I saw myself as the girl in that book. The book was called Wait and See. The girl in the book, although both her parents were black (unlike in my own family), had bubbles in her hair and it was braided in two like Pippi Longstocking. She styled it just like me! I loved it so much that every time I would read it, I would pretend that I was her and I was making all sorts of birthday cakes and coming up with these absurd wishes. I’d even read it to my little sister and tell her that the baby in it was her.

Simply having illustrations with a character that looked like me, made me feel so happy, during a time where I honestly didn’t pay any attention to race. At that age race honestly wasn’t something that I paid any attention to unless someone asked me why one side of my arm was white and the other side was brown…to which I answered, “Because my Daddy has white skin and my Mommy has brown skin.”

Also, if you don’t know what bubbles are, because my sister and I realize that they’re no longer in style, here’s what they look like:

Honestly, I’m surprised these haven’t made a comeback. They’re so fun and cute! I loved doing mismatch colours. One side had orange and the other blue, or pink and purple.

Anyway, when I started to write my own stories, I like Chimamanda, wrote about white people, unless of course a character was loosely based on one of my friends. I honestly didn’t see a problem with it at the time, until my brother asked why everyone I drew was white. The drawings in this case, being of characters from the book series I wrote when I was in seventh grade. My only response was, “I don’t know…?” because it wasn’t something I did unconsciously. I simply wrote a story and imagined the cast of characters as white people. They could literally be any race at all, but they weren’t.

It wasn’t until I heard Chimamanda’s Ted Talk in University that it all came together.

Initially I don’t think I noticed it because I’m half-white and half-black. I don’t look at myself as a singular race. I never have. I embody two races and two cultures. Growing up I watched Full House and I watched Fresh Prince. I loved The Proud Family and Kim Possible.

One thing I often thought was strange was how in movies where characters had relationships like my parents, the two families always fought about race…that…that was just…honestly films with interracial couples that only focus on racial issues bother me. I haven’t read a novel with an interracial couple yet, but I have heard that sadly…it is often the same. I’m not saying that we should ignore these experiences, I’m just saying why can’t we have a romance where two people are of a different race or culture and not make the entire thing about race and culture. Why can’t it be your typical person A meets person B and they fall in love kind of story?

The other reason why I don’t think I noticed the lack of diversity in literature, and also the reason why I myself mainly wrote white characters growing up, is because that is what English literature looked like. As I said before, the only books aside from the Robert Munsch one, that I read about black people were about slavery. The only books that I read about Asian people…well at least here in Canada…were about David Suzuki. I’m not joking. It sounds absurd now with all the sudden representation in literature and film in the last 5 years…but seriously. Unless it was like manga, I didn’t read anything about people who weren’t white.

Now like I said, I’m not here to call anyone out. I’m guilty of doing this, but I am also fully aware of why people subconsciously write their characters this way. I can understand the concept of not wanting to tell a story that isn’t your own experience…however, being of another race doesn’t make your character who they are. There are so many different layers to this.

The hopeless romantic is still a soft hearted, falls hard, lives in their own fantasy world type of person.

The warrior is still strong, fighting to survive and constantly adapting to their situations.

Their race has nothing to do with these aspects of their personalities.

I also don’t think it is necessarily appropriate to purposely fill your novel with a diverse cast of characters, for the sake of it, or because it is currently “trendy” or what literary agents are looking for. And yes…I have seen literary agents and publishers specifically say they want stories with POC main characters. Being inclusive shouldn’t be a way to make money…but whatever.

What I’m saying is, by trying to force diversity into your work, you will end up taking away from the story. I’ve seen this happen and it completely blew up in the authors face.

What happens is you end up with a bunch of dangerously problematic stereotypes, which takes away from your writing and shows a lack of creativity.

Now, you might be thinking to yourself, but how can I write people outside my race? And even if you aren’t thinking that, well…you’ve probably seen that question come up in writing circles or across the web.

The answer is simple, just write a character the way you normally would. Don’t suddenly make them crave fried chicken, or be obsessed with bubble tea, or love na’an bread. If you are writing a character, you write them as a person, not as a stereotype of a group of people.

If you haven’t already, I highly recommend watching both of those videos along with videos about literary tropes and misrepresentation all across the board.

I also hope that you do understand that just because it seems “trendy” right now to have a diverse cast of characters, doesn’t mean you should write diverse characters for the sake of being on trend. In my personal opinion that can be even more problematic than not being diverse at all.

A favourite artist of mine, Shiroi Room isn’t black but she draws black characters. I have two of her illustrations and they are beautiful! The one I have in this collage is the “Party” one.

What I mentioned above still applies to other forms of art, not just literature. Just because you don’t know how to draw braids or twists yet, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. How will you learn if you never give it a shot?

All in all, I wanted to discuss this topic in regards to literature (and media as a whole), because representation does matter, and to me it is baffling that myself and other authors like Chimamanda fell into this subconscious mindset that all western literary characters have to look a certain way.

As I told my niece in a drawing tutorial I made for her, you can make your characters look however you want. They can even have purple skin and green hair.

Just treat your characters with care and consideration.