Writing Diversified Characters

Hey all, Dani here.

A month ago I read an article by A.J. Hartley on the TOR/Forge blog about writing POC characters when you are not a person of color, and I bookmarked it as something to reference for a blog post. Now, since we’re in the middle of Camp NaNoWriMo, I figure that this is the perfect time to talk about characters.

For me, characters are what truly drive the story. Sure, yes, there are successful plot-driven tales out there, but the reason why I dive into a book and read through to the end is for the characters. I love following their journey and their adventures and seeing how they evolve and grow through the novel or the series.

But I can also admit that when it comes to my own stories, I am color-blind most of the time. It’s not that I don’t care about diversity. I like having a variety of characters from all sorts of places and cultures and backgrounds. It’s more that I tend to view the characters through their personalities and mostly ignore their physical appearance.

This is something I know I need to be more conscious of in future, and I’m trying to include those details, when the story warrants it.

I just don’t want to end up writing characters that are seen as racial stereotypes, which can happen when in this situation. And like A.J. Hartley comments in the article, I also don’t want to fall on the other side of the spectrum and just write the characters as if race doesn’t matter and then just give the characters “ethnic names” or casually mention skin color a couple times and think that is good enough.

Unfortunately I’m not from a very racially diverse area. I think when I was in high school the entire school district had maybe two people who classified themselves as African-American, and there might have been about 10 students who were of Hispanic descent. And in college I took an Anthropology course where there were a few African-American classmates and all I can remember from that class is a class discussion over items we thought should go in a theoretical white history museum and a black history museum. These aforementioned classmates listed off all these wonderful creations and cultural movements for the black history museum and then said that the white history museum should have whips, chains, etc.

Yes, I understand that these kinds of people exist in the world, and I also get that history is fraught with injustices and inequality and just nastiness. I just think there are better ways to handle the conversation today. Unfortunately as a society everyone seems so focused on spreading a negatively charged message, complete with anger, hatred, fear, and violence, and it ends up doing more harm than good.

Wow, okay, so now I’m just spiraling into a rambling tangent. Moving on.

I want to do justice to the characters and who they are inside. And considering some of the characters who have narrated my stories so far, skin color is not a factor they focus on. Tamesis, born a Resurrector before becoming the next Angel of Death, cares more about a person’s ability to do their job/duty. Thanos, who is Death, focuses on deeds and how people treat each other. Maybe for the Project Death series, Jules will have a different view, since she was a normal human until after her death.

And maybe this is also something I could potentially focus on with my Courts and Guilds novels as well. This series might even be fun to incorporate a diverse cast, since it is a science fantasy world, and there are so many possibilities

I think A.J. Hartley is correct in his article, when he says that all we can try to do is our best, and then be prepared for there to be complaints or backlash about how certain characters are portrayed.

So, if I have a more diverse cast of characters in the Courts and Guilds novels, then I also hope that I’m able to find a bit more diversity in my beta readers, just so I can get a better idea at how I am doing with character portrayal. I certainly don’t want to be insensitive towards people who already have to deal with so much in the real world.

If you’re a writer, how do you handle writing characters of different races, cultures, backgrounds from you?

If you’re a reader, are there any books you might recommend as being well-written while handling a diverse cast of characters?

Some quick recommendations I’ll mention: Borderline by Mishell Baker (POC as well as handling disability and mental health issues), The Great Library series–Ink and Bone, and Paper and Fire–by Rachel Caine (POC and diverse cultures), and More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera (POC and LGBTQIA).

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