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!