On (Not) Making Assumptions About My Characters

Photo credit: harshxpatel on Flickr
The first eight novels I wrote featured white, able-bodied, neurotypical, cisgendered, straight protagonists and love interests. It makes me more than a little cringe-y thinking about it.

Over the years, the internet (namely Twitter and tumblr) and campaigns like  #weneeddiversebooks, Diversity in YA, DiversifYA and Disability in Kidlit really opened my eyes to the assumptions I was making about my cast of characters without even realizing it. And for that, I’m seriously grateful.

It used to be, when I started brainstorming characters, I never really gave much consideration to their race, health, sexual orientation or gender (beyond the binary, at least). It’s not that I was deliberately cutting diversity out, it just hadn’t even occurred to me that there were more options to consider.

Now I make a point not to make any assumptions about my characters before I start brainstorming. By keeping an open mind, I’ve been able to come up with a way more diverse cast of characters for my more recent WIPs, something that’s occasionally scary (because representing minorities well is just as important as representing them at all) and pretty exciting.

Diversifying my work is something that’s become increasingly important to me, but I think the other side of the coin is to make sure you buy books with diversity in them—after all, not supporting the diversity that’s already out there is pretty counterproductive.

So some great books with diversity that I’ve read (or whose series I’ve started to read) and recommend include:

Also on my TBR list: 

Now I want to hear from you—do you have any diverse recommendations for me? And have you ever made assumptions about your characters?

Twitter-sized bite: 
Do you make assumptions about your characters while writing? @Ava_Jae talks diversity and keeping an open mind. (Click to tweet)

6 comments:

1000th.monkey said...

'Beautiful Music' was a great book, it definitely made it into my short-list of 'books I will read again'.

Medvekoma said...

I don't like forced things, be it a forced romance or forced diversity. It makes me back away from a story. Really. Showing diversity is one thing, but making a cast of people whose sole personality revolve around their so-called disability... that I find horrible.

Featuring no minorities is just as bad as featuring too many (when it comes to a real-based setting, of course). Both bend reality.

Also, the stereotypical "diversity". I need a foreign person, let's make the evil scientist come from Germany! Who other could give wise advice than the old native-american shaman or the buddhist monk?

I would like to mention mentally impaired people. They are incorrectly represented in most books, lots of authors confuse the diseases and symptoms while trying to create the so-called diversity.

What I think would be best? Look around. Count the people, their traits, and stick to realism. If your manuscript has a cast of more than a hundred people (mine does for certain reasons), you can diversify the cast using real measures. And don't forget that there are "famous" and "forgotten" minorities. Characters in povetry, alcoholics, people with impaired sight, introverts, analphabetics and so on. And don't forget to build the character first using the trait, and not build a character upon the trait itself!

Kim said...

Agreed.


For me, just like with most things, if it doesn't make a difference in the plot, I don't think it should be harped on. Being a minority myself, diversity for the sake of it puts me off more than anything. It's good that authors are trying to reach out, but do it too much and it also has that effect where, if not for someone pointing out that that chair looked weird, you wouldn't have found it weird. Keep it natural, keep it real, and if it isn't something that plays a huge role in terms of plot, please don't make such a huge deal about it.

Ava Jae said...

Good to know! I've heard many great things about it. :)

Ava Jae said...

So...I kind of have mixed feelings about "forced diversity." One one hand, I totally agree that it doesn't need to be harped on either way—just because a character is a minority doesn't mean it's necessarily an issue in the book (and therefore, doesn't need to be constantly pointed out). So that I totally agree with.


On the other hand, I've seen people say that putting diversity in a book where there isn't a specific reason for it is "forcing" diversity (not saying that's what you two are saying, but I've seen this argument made). With that argument, I disagree, because that would be implying that there's a reason why minorities exist in reality, when actually, diversity exists because it exists. There doesn't need to be a reason why a person is any one (or mix) of minorities, and saying otherwise kind of implies they need some kind of justification to exist, which is way off the mark.


So while I don't think there needs to be a reason why you include diverse characters (beside, maybe, that you want to reflect reality and represent equally, which I think is a great reason), I totally agree that characters are characters first and their minority status absolutely isn't the extent of their character. They're people with personalities and should be treated as such.


Great discussion, you two! Thanks so much. :)

1000th.monkey said...

I also touched on this subject as well:

http://1000thmonkey.blogspot.ca/2014/04/thoughts-on-diversity.html



From growing up in a very diverse city, this is a subject that I haven't really thought about a lot, but this campaign has certainly made me re-examine how I present characters/etc in my own writing.


I think it is tricky to get that happy-medium between intentionally creating a diverse cast, and it seeming like every type of background possible has been crammed in.


Definitely no easy answer, but simply raising awareness moves things forward :)

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