Loony’s Musings: what’s with the lack of diversity in YA speculative fiction?

So for some reason, I’ve noticed a trend in YA books regarding diversity: it’s mostly the contemporary books. There are a few speculative fiction books/series with diverse protagonists. Like these ones:

cinder the immortal rules

(the fact that I can only name two off the top of my head may also be due to the fact that I don’t read that much speculative fiction…but still!)

First, here’s a list of possible reasons why there’s quite a bit more diversity in contemporary:

1) Less emphasis on plot

A BUNCH of contemporary YA books focus on identity, discovering yourself, path to adulthood, all that philosophical stuff. When characters are marginalised or not “normal,” this creates conflict – and without having dragons or Dark Lords to battle with, this conflict is what creates a major part of contemporary books.

2) Characters are the main focus

This ties into the first one, but I think a lot of the time there is a stronger emphasis on character development in YA contemporary, because there HAS to be – otherwise there’s no story. While speculative fiction stories can have character development just as good, or much better than in contemp, by and large I’ve found this to be a trend.

3) Issue books

Some books focus specifically on “issues” like eating disorders, mental illnesses, racial struggles, sexuality or the like. They’re often meant to inform, or instruct, or show young adults that they’re not on their own in what we’re dealing with. For example, Ellen Hopkins’ writes these very well – her books are confronting, they don’t condescend to teenagers, and they feature a whole host of different diverse characters.

So how come this isn’t the case in speculative fiction?


I don’t have a definitive answer for this. Most protagonists in YA speculative fiction seem to be able, cisgendered, heterosexual and white.

So here’s what I would like to see.

I’d like to see diverse characters who are not defined by their race/sexuality/disability/mental illness. I want to see gay characters in stories that aren’t just about them being gay – stories that are speculative and focus on issues that aren’t just part of their sexuality. I want to see some badass chicks in wheelchairs. I want to see diversity normalisedso that people from all different situations can find themselves in YA literature. 

And a bit step in that, I think, is having more diversity in speculative fiction.

Not that I’m bashing books where the “diverse” aspect is a major part – those books have their place too, and it’s an important place. But I’d also like to see books where being gay or black or disabled is no different to being heterosexual or white or able.

There IS diversity out there – there is, but it’s hard to find. If we want more diverse books to be published, we also need to champion the ones that already exist.

Have you noticed the lack of diversity in YA speculative fiction? How do you think diversity should be portrayed in YA books? I would actually love to hear your comments because as a cishet, able white girl in Australia, I may be wrong about a whole bunch of things. I’m willing to admit that. I’d love to hear your thoughts 🙂


25 thoughts on “Loony’s Musings: what’s with the lack of diversity in YA speculative fiction?

  1. This is a good point. I’ve read a few books with the diversity that aren’t contemporary; there’s of course, The Lunar Chronicles that you’ve mentioned, Sister’s Red has a character who’s half blind, but I didn’t really enjoy that book much, The Hunger Games, but that was barely and The Sweet Trilogy has some pretty diverse characters, Kope is from more Eastern/European countries, same as Z, and Blake too, but they took some time to remember. I do think diversity needs to be throughout literature, not just contemporary, so great topic! 🙂

  2. Just thinking of the books I read, mostly spec fic YA, and I can’t think of much diversity beyond what you’ve already mentioned. It might be in part that white, straight, able-bodied authors are fearful of writing characters they don’t know a lot about. Or because I suspect authors write the characters they fantasize about. Not many people fantasize about being disabled. Plus, as you pointed out, they want to give their characters dragons to fight, not a disability. This doesn’t really apply to ethnic diversity, but once again, nobody wants to be the white guy who was unintentionally offensive. I think as our culture evolves, we will see more authors tackle these aspects of characters and do very well at it. It wasn’t that long ago books like Divergent, The Hunger Games, and even Harry Potter wouldn’t have been published because their content would be deemed too inappropriate for children. There is progress, and I hear the cry for diversity loud and clear everywhere I turn in the YA market. We just need for authors and publishers to hear it too. I also think we not only need books with diverse characters, but authors with diverse backgrounds. We need a few agents and publishers to realize that we are all demanding more from our literature. Posts like this are a good start!

    • You make a really really good point about authors (and actually my post on Saturday will be “writing diverse character”). So that’s a big problem. But I think if people set a precedent others will follow. There is definitely progress, and you’re right, we need to support our diverse authors too! Hopefully these things keep improving 🙂

  3. Adaptation by Malinda Lo is a sci-fi book about aliens that features a bisexual main character, and one of her love interests is an Asian boy. Malinda’s other books, Ash and Huntress, are both fantasy involving lesbian relationships. I haven’t read Ash, but I believe it’s a Cinderella retelling? The main character in Salvage by Alexandra Duncan is part-Indian and a sizeable chunk of the book takes place in future India. Obviously there is also Alison Goodman’s Eon duology, which takes place in a Chinese-inspired fantasy land, thus all of the characters are non-white. I think some/all of the characters in Marie Lu’s Legend trilogy are non-white as well, though it’s been a while since I read the first book so my memory there is a bit foggy. Also, the second book in the Partials trilogy by Dan Wells has a character who I believe was autistic? Possibly had Asperger’s? I’m not sure, but I thought he was a really interesting addition.

    I agree that there is MUCH more diversity in contemporary than speculative fiction, but I do think that it’s there if you look for it. I just wish there was more to choose from. After all, the ratio is still incredibly high in favour of white, straight, cis-gendered, able-bodied ladies and gentlemen.

    Also, not YA and I didn’t end up liking it very much, but The First Days by Rhiannon Frater is about a lesbian and a bisexual woman in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. Yay representation!

  4. Great post, it’s really interesting to see people’s thoughts on this. I think diversity does apply more to a contemporary novel than, say, a fantasy one, because as you said, usually diverse characters ARE the story line in contemp. novels, whereas a fantasy novel focuses on the main quest — or whatever the story is about, leaving less room for character development. Also as a writer, I’m afraid of writing diverse characters in case I get something wrong, and accidental offend someone, y’know?

  5. I’ve SO noticed and it drives me bonkers. -_- So this post is extremely well said. GO YOU. I think diversity in ALL books is incredibly important. And, to be honest, I’m tired of mental illness and being gay and having a disability to be the SOLE thing in a book. Why can’t they be in most books? They’re part of our lives. Why do they always get glossed over?? Gah. So yes, I’m 110% with you here. x)

    • GO ME indeed. I’m awesome. We know this. You’re so right! They don’t have to be the Big Problem in people’s lives. Many of my friends are from different cultural backgrounds – India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, China – or have different sexualities – gay and lesbian and bisexual. But they’re not the main things in their lives, or even ONE of the main things. We’ve got to stop treating diverse people as a product of their diversities, and recognise them as, first and foremost, people (which is what, I think, is the key to WRITING diverse characters).

  6. Thanks for this article, dear! You definitely have a strong point and I, myself, would love to read more diversity in speculative fiction (Filipinos unite, please?! The only Filipinos I’ve seen in a YA book are in the Contemporary genre, which is my least-read). I can understand some hesitance by authors… there is a lot of sensitivity towards these issues and many are afraid to write about one thinking they may offend those who are being represented through ill-informed research and whatnot. What the YA world needs, I think, is courage – courage to write about characters you’re not familiar with, courage to know about them, and courage to write their stories in their own stories. If that happens anytime soon then I will be a happy reader, indeed!

    Faye at The Social Potato Reviews

    • I’d love to read about Filipino characters as well! I have a couple of Filipino peers but I’d love to read more in YA books. There is definitely a sensitivity there, and in some ways I do understand that. But authors have written about a whole bunch of controversial issues, and there’s no reason to shy away from writing diverse characters (in my mind, at least).

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  8. I’ll admit that my NA speculative stuff isn’t that diverse. I agree that my planning tends to be about how to move the plot forward, not, as you say, ‘issues’. In particular, one book’s focus is on one location and two families/houses, which, since skin-colour is due to the climate, means that a lot of my characters are white. My antagonist has only one arm, though! That counts 😛

    I did have a protagonist explicitly said another character was too white for a guy, though. 🙂 I don’t like the implication that some books (less nowadays, happily) portray that white = perfect/better. As you said in another post (I’m reading them in email, so it might be after this one), my characters just turn out white.

    • And I don’t think there’s anything wrong than that! We’re told to write what we know, and if we haven’t experienced a certain race/sexuality/disability or WHATEVER, it becomes harder to write authentically. But it does seem to be something that crops up in speculative fiction more than anything else, for some reason.

  9. Diverse characters aren’t easy to write. I have cerebral palsy, so my main character has it and uses crutches, and it’s not easy even for me. I do wish there were more because it’s not like if you’re disabled you can’t do normal things.

    • That’s true. I think a lot of people are still scared to write diverse characters because they might get it wrong (even if you write from experience!). But you’re so right, disabilities don’t mean you’re not a normal person 🙂

  10. I think diversity amongst specfic books is a little less prominent than in contemporary, most likely due to the points you touched on in this post.
    Although, two books come to mind. The Beast of Callaire is a specfic book where the main character is of colour and is gay (WOO – diversity!), and also The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms which I guess is more adult, but the characters are pretty much all of colour, as well.
    I wish there were a few more sci-fi and fantasy books with a bit more diversity, but maybe we’ll see that in the near future. One can only hope 😀

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  12. I agree that diverse characters that are normalised are just as important as stories that are driven by a character’s diversity. I think Minho from ‘The Maze Runner’ is a good example of an ethnic character who is fairly normalised in the context of the story. Although he’s not the protagonist of the story, I’m still happy with him because his character has it’s own agency and personality, and unnecessary attention isn’t drawn to his race when the story is not about that.

    (Also, doesn’t that Julie Kagawa book at the top of your post feature an ethnic character? And then they put a Caucasian girl on the front cover instead? If so, *sigh* …)

    Great post! 🙂

  13. This is so true ! Diversity is really important, and the people who have the money to buy books and the education to read them do tend to be less diverse. In Trudi Canavans Magicaian books there are non straight characters, but they’re side characters. I think that the people who write books also tend to be whiter and richer and straighter. Diversity is important, and I’m not white, and I would love to see more of it in the fantasy books I love.

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