Diversity In Books

About a year ago I noticed something about my books. I realised that all of my characters were white and straight, with the exception of the head teacher in The Boy With The Thorn In His Side. Or at least they were white in my head; obviously readers may have imagined them differently. I have to admit I felt a bit ashamed by this. It was never intentional of course, not to write about more diverse characters, it’s just that I’ve always lived in a very white area, where everyone I grew up with was white and so on. As for writing characters that were gay, this had also never occurred to me, I guess, because I’m not gay.

After realising this, I decided to change the ethnicity of my main character Elliot in Elliot Pie’s Guide To Human nature. It wasn’t a huge change. I just mentioned that his absent father was Indonesian, making him mixed race, with dark skin and hair, unlike his mother who has blonde hair and fair skin. Not much is made of this in the book. It did, however, tie in nicely with the hatred his mother Laura feels for the people who live in her claustrophobic neighbourhood, such as Tony, who likes to knock on people’s doors to warn them there are immigrants living behind them.

At the time, I spoke to a lot of other people about the topic of diversity in books. My daughters thought I was right to change Elliot’s ethnicity, and were quite appalled that all my characters so far had been white and straight. Other people said to change his ethnicity seemed a bit like a token gesture, and if he was white in my head I should leave him like that. I’ve since thought about the decision in other ways too. For instance, does a white writer have any right to write about a character who has a different cultural background to them? I would argue that they do, as long as they have done their research if research is needed. In this case, it was not. Racism is not an issue for Elliot, only his mother, who cannot stand the Little England mentality of people like Tony. His mother is in a state of despair about the state of the world, and for example, cannot understand the callous attitude people are having towards the refugee crisis.

I decided to leave Elliot as mixed race and think about it again later. If he persisted as blonde-haired and blue-eyed in my head, then I would change him back. But for me now, after about a million drafts, he is darker skinned than his mother, with very dark hair. He’s become this Elliot in my head, so I’m pretty sure that’s the way he’s going to stay.

While Elliot Pie was with beta readers, I took a break from it and wrote a rough draft of a YA novel about an alcoholic teenage singer. I’ve blogged about this story idea in the post  Untold Stories , as the original story was one I penned aged 16 and then discovered in an old suitcase under my bed. In the original story, again, everyone was white, straight and working class. In this new version, as I was writing it, the characters changed. One of the secondary characters became gay, and the main character, Bill became bisexual. Well, I say bisexual, but this is not entirely confirmed by the end of the novel, and he certainly doesn’t waste any time feeling confused or upset about what he is or isn’t. He just has a lot of fun kissing his best friends, one of whom is female and one of whom is male.

Now, again, why did I do this? I think there are several reasons. I think because diversity in books has been on my mind. It’s been on my mind because I too have noticed how many of the books I read contain, straight white characters and this has started to annoy me. It’s been on my mind because of my children, who are, to my great pride, growing up to be the sort of people who are accepting of anyone of any culture, ethnicity or sexual preference. In many ways, my children educate me on the issues facing the LGBT community. Plus, I feel that with recent political events, and the horrific rise of hate crimes against ethnic minorities and LGBT  people, we all have a responsibility to stand up for equality and decency and kindness.

With all this on my mind in recent months, it’s no wonder it crept into this rough first draft. It was not intentional, but rather an organic and natural progression. It felt right for the characters and added to their storylines hugely.  Have I got it right? Who knows at this point? I will see how it all reads once I get around to the second draft.

And as for Elliot Pie’s ethnicity, this still feels like the right thing for the book. So, what do you think? As readers, do you feel the books you read have enough diverse characters? Is diversity in books important to you? Do you ever feel certain groups in society or ignored,

So, what do you think? As readers, do you feel the books you read have enough diverse characters? Is diversity in books important to you? Do you ever feel certain groups in society are ignored, sidelined or stereotyped in literature? What about you writers? Do you write about diverse characters, and if you do, is it intentional or natural? Do you tend to write about characters who are similar to yourself? Or do you feel writers have a responsibility to open people’s minds up to other lives, cultures and backgrounds? I would love to know your thoughts, so please feel free to join in the conversation!

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21 thoughts on “Diversity In Books

  1. Reblogged this on Socially Abstract and commented:
    The first book I ever wrote was white washed with a couple bisexual characters. My second finished manuscript was mostly whitewashed (though one of the main boys is Middle Eastern in features, but that doesn’t entirely mean anything, given the subject). After writing the sequel to the first book I added a Japanese punk, a black former gangster, and a male gay couple. I didn’t go about it quite right and am still working with those characters to make them more authentic. But when I realized Tsingsei was homosexual a few thousand words into the story, it changed everything. It’s not a main plot point of the book, but honestly I am so proud of her bravery in a world as unforgiving as ours was a couple decades ago, maybe even more so. Diversity is important in books as it is in other mediums, because not everyone can relate to the straight white character.

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  2. The first character I remember creating, Caleb, was mixed, black and white, like me.

    Half my family is black. Through college and studying abroad I’ve made friends from Japan, Costa Rica, Mexico, the Philippines, Korea, India, and met people from a ton of other countries. I’m queer, like many of my closest friends.

    The idea having a purely straight white cast has never made sense to me, especially as a YA writer. Kids today are growing up with the most diverse groups of friends in the history of this country and it’s going to continue to be more diverse. It’s important to show how to interact with people of diverse backgrounds and that the people who experience those backgrounds are just as valid and beautiful as they are. Even if they grow up in predominately white areas, odds are they’re not going to stay there forever. It’s easier to teach kids than it is to reeducate adults.

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    1. Thanks so much for reading and commenting, and what a brilliant comment, too. This is the kind of thing my kids say to me, so you are totally right, they are already growing up in a more diverse and interesting society than some of us were at that age. And I do agree, particularly with YA books, there does need to be some degree of responsibility involved. The readers want to identify with a host of different characters, not lots of the same, so I thank you. Really valid point.

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  3. Run away! It’s trap!

    I’m mostly kidding, but not entirely. I think diversity in fiction is important, but it’s so fraught that lots of writers, me included, are timid about implementing or even discussing it. Whatever solution you pick someone is going to try and crucify you for it.

    I’m a minority ethnicity in my country (we don’t use the word “race” any more – ethnicity is about the group you identify with personally, not strictly blood), but the concept of ethnicity/race doesn’t feature very prominently in my real life, and so it tends not to in my writing either. The fact all my stories are set in fantasy worlds makes things a bit easier, I think, though I am cognisant of the fact my main character invariably belongs to a pale-skinned race. Because why not? The culture is entirely my construction, so to wrap it in a darker skin colour without good worldbuilding reasons would seem like dark skin for dark skin’s sake.

    As for sexual orientation, in my current work the main character knows the gender preference of about three other people, so it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch that they’re all heterosexual.

    I do plan to think about how I can increase the diversity in my future works, but the challenge is to do it in a sensitive and meaningful way, so we’ll see.

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    1. Thanks for reading and commenting! Yes, I agree, it’s an interesting subject and can leave writers unsure how to proceed. Not wanting to make their books more diverse for the sake of it, but for real, genuine reasons. I think once the ideas are in your head though, like you say, you may then start considering if for future works, just because it’s now in your thought processes, which makes it a more natural choice, I think! 🙂

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  4. For me, it’s not just a matter of portraying certain minority groups, but also how. I find myself consciously trying to compensate with more portrayals of a certain group if said group’s only representative is not that positive…

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  5. Hi, a bit late to this but I guess, having always invented characters with my sister, diversity has always been there. We got under the skin of those characters whatever that skin colour may have been, though mostly it was white. But I lived and breathed Hassan – a married gay Iranian! So I felt confident to write about him and I did know Iranians as friends and neighbours.

    Seaview Terrace has other gay characters too – Guy and Mark, again invented characters inspired by people I’d met. Bobbie in Break Point is gay, and I knew many people like this. At uni back in the 80s exploration of sexuality (whether in theoretically or otherwise) was de rigueur in some quarters and I have always been an advocate of Kinsey who said we can all plot our sexuality on a continuum! I also think sexuality is complex and more than who you are physically attracted to e.g. you might be more emotionally attracted or whatever to your own sex or some people are open to attraction in either gender.

    In Thalidomide Kid, Daryl is disabled, but I didn’t want his disability to be the raison d’être for the book. He just happens to be disabled which does have a big bearing on his life but his issues are also the issues of most teenagers.

    I have also written about a schizophrenic and had no qualms about doing so as I wrote it in the 70s. I have had both mental health and physical health problems, but that shouldn’t bar me from writing about ones I haven’t suffered from, I hope. I think people can get a bit too PC. I have some Jewish ancestry but does that make me an expert on all things Jewish? Hell no! I’ve also written about a mixed race poet in The Dead Club. His black ancestry is important in the context of the story but only as much information as is needed. But in Suckers n Scallies I wrote about ‘a mixed race’ bloke who was a minor character in a scene and the editor (in the previous paperback version ‘Sucka!) said as he was editing ‘is that ironic?’ meaning that I shouldn’t use the term mixed race and use black instead. I had to change it. People also said the same about Obama when he came to office that he was black and not mixed race. I didn’t think mixed race was offensive but obviously some find it so. I have cousins who are but their ethnicity doesn’t come into it really. They are just my cousins!

    I think if there is tokenism then people will spot it, otherwise it’s the characters that are important. I don’t think writing about who or what you know is wrong if they happen to be all white or all black. When I read Toni Morrison I don’t worry that her characters are all black, I just get lost in the story and the characters but obviously having a black cultural history will have a bearing on the things she writes about . Sorry, this has turned into a bit of an epic! But great to have this discussion. Thanks Chantelle!

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    1. Thank you Kate! Great to have you join in. Lots of your books have diverse characters in, so it’s really interesting to hear the history and inspiration behind this. I think you’re right; tokenism will be spotted, but having diverse characters is important and should be something we are aware of.

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  6. Am I being naïve in thinking that the old adage ‘write what you know’ is still true?
    I would only ever think of writing from the point-of-view of a white, straight and male character because that is all I have had experience of being.
    As to featuring non-POV characters that are other than white, straight and male then you have to do the best you can from second-hand experience, but I don’t see the point of shoe-horning in such characters just to fulfil some sort of diversity quota – surely a character’s ethnicity and/or sexual orientation should be primarily dictated by the story you are trying to tell..

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    1. Hi Mike, no I don’t think you should have to shoehorn in characters just to fill a quota. That would smack of tokenism and would no doubt show the writer is uncomfortable with it. If you are writing a story where you already know the main character is straight, white etc, then no, I don’t think you should change that at all, like you say, especially if that is all the experience you have. But if you have known or had experiences of other types of people, they may then enter stories as you construct them, if that makes sense?

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    2. Hmmm. Yes, there is a saying write what you know but then that would end up being an autobiography, wouldn’t it? Isn’t storytelling about writing from imagination too? If we all followed the adage ‘write what you know’ we would have no children’s books from the points of view of animals, we would have no Harry Potter or Adrian Mole, no young people would be able to write about older people and so on. I think if you can get under the skin of your character is more important than having first hand experience. I feel perfectly comfortable writing from a male perspective as the story demands, because all men are different as are all women! There is no one way to write from the point of ‘the other’.

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      1. Very true, Kate, Lots of my protagonists are males, as that is just the way they have come to me. And I recently read a fantastic book about a young white bisexual girl, written by an older black man!

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      2. Yes I was also going to mention your wonderful male protagonists too, Chantelle! I guess writing about what you know includes the culture, people you have known, places you have worked, people you have come into contact with, so secondhand is experience is fine. I suppose the further away from your direct or indirect experience the more research you might have to do or the greater the imagination you would need to draw upon! But many people also write wonderful historical novels, having never lived through the era. They just bring the era to life through extensive research and a large dollop of imagination! I’ve not read Hilary Mantel’s ‘Bring Up The Bodies’ but My mum speaks highly of it and I trust her judgement. I’m pretty sure Mantel didn’t live through the period of Henry VIII! But very interesting debate, and thanks to all contributors for their input

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  7. Yes this might be the most amount of comments I’ve had yet! Wonderful stuff and a really important topic to discuss. Yes, I think I tend to stay close to my cultural and economic background. I would struggle writing about middle class characters for instance!

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  8. I’m not sure that the race or sexuality of a character is important to me, as long as they are true to themselves and to the story. I certainly don’t like the idea of adding a specific minority figure, just because they are a minority figure. Better that they are born that way in the mind of the author.

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    1. Thanks Eleanor. I think it’s such an interesting topic. I don’t like the idea of sticking minority figures in for the sake of it either, but at the same time, I do think diversity in books is incredibly important in this day and age. tricky!

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  9. Even though I haven’t finished writing my book yet you’ve certainly got a point. My characters are naturally like me in many ways all are white but some female, some male. It has never occurred to me to include mixed race characters or gay characters. So why not am I blinkered? You’ve certainly made me think.

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