Writing Diverse Characters

Many of my friends and family live diverse lives. Yeah, I have the cis-gendered, heterosexual, white and able friends/family, but also those of different backgrounds, sexualities, gender identities, ethnicities and abilities/disabilities. So my writing reflects that. Here are some examples.

In The Daisy List, the main character’s mum suffers from cancer. Her best friend Kevin is half-Taiwanese, and her friend Niff has African heritage.

In The Ballerina Painting/ Blind Spot, there are two main characters. William is blind, and white. Ashley is deaf, and Indian. One of their friends (I can’t even remember her name!) is a lesbian.

In Wanderland, the story I’m plotting right now (the name might change), Alice is Asian and is paraplegic, meaning she gets around in a wheelchair.

I’m not listing these things so I seem all noble or anything (although that’s true as well).

Most of the time, these characters occur to me as they are – I don’t change them just so that they can be more diverse.

I totally understand that writers are afraid of writing diverse characters. Afraid of offending particular groups, or not getting it right, or portraying it incorrectly. But I’ve always thought of my characters not as a product of their “diversities” but as, first and foremost, people.

My characters aren’t just deaf or blind or Indian or gay or paraplegic or sick or Taiwanese or fighting depression. They’re also complete people who live with these things, who deal with these things – often, they’re not a huge part of who they are. I mean, being white is not something I think about every day. It just is.

I have the luxury of not being a published writer. I can write what I want without fear of offending everyone. I know that’s a real pressure on published writers.

But as readers, we have a certain power. Readers are just as diverse as writers. If authors get something wrong in a book, we can speak out and say hey, this isn’t right. We don’t need to condemn writers for getting things wrong, because at the very least, they’re paving the way for more diverse characters in the future.

And it helps to research as well – not just to look things up on the internet, but talk to people similar to who you want to represent in your stories. That helps with authenticity. Hazel Grace was inspired by Esther Earl, but Hazel is her own character.

We are not our labels. Diverse people are just people.

And if we write them that way, that will shine out. We might get things wrong – I’m sure I’ve got things wrong even in this post, which I’m really nervous about. But if we can help correct and expand knowledge, then that will show in YA fiction. Hopefully.

Writers! Do you write diverse characters? How do you do this sensitively?



21 thoughts on “Writing Diverse Characters

  1. Hey, don’t worry! I loved this post 🙂 It really made me think — that I don’t really imagine my characters most different from myself. (Apologies; unfortunately, it’s the truth!) Mostly on the outside, though: fair white skin, reddish/brown/blonde hair, glasses, maybe slightly crooked teeth, a scattering of freckles, a little on the tallish side. You get the picture. All of my characters have their flaws, that make them a bit different than myself. A few of them I’m currently working on (lol), can’t seem to keep their mouths shut. And several can’t seem to open them! I tend to kill of their family members and make them seriously ill, or close their hearts and make them bitter. But unfortunately, unless you count the two novellas I wrote last year where one character was French and then another was Australian (I love Australians’ accents, by the way! OMG! I listen to Markus Zusak interviews over and over again just to hear his accent!) I loved this post, though. I’m going to try to make a change in this soon, though, haha. So thanks for that, Emily 😉 (Wow this comment was long!)

    • PHEW. I’m so glad. And for a long time I was the same as you – at my old school, most people were exactly like me, and I didn’t imagine anyone more diverse. Most of my stories from when I was younger feature white people who are average and…well, boring. Oh goodness, how weird that you like Australian accents. They sound awful! I wish I had a more interesting accent, like Irish or something. That would be cool.

  2. I loved this post, and I’m so glad you’re writing about Asian characters! I myself am Asian, although I live in the U.S., and I don’t think there are enough books written about Asian people who live outside of Asia and interact with non-Asian people… And I have definitely never read a love story centering on an Indian girl!
    Have you heard of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks Campaign? They’re supporting exactly the same thing! (http://weneeddiversebooks.tumblr.com) <– their site, if you want to check it out.
    Thanks for the lovely post,
    Sabrina ❤

    • Yay Asian characters! There are so many people with Asian backgrounds at my school. Lots of stereotypes about Asian parents, let me tell you 😛 I don’t think I’ve ever read a love story with an Indian heroine…how weird is that?

      I have heard of that campaign! That’s how I decided to dedicate this week to diverse books, actually 🙂 it’s such a wonderful campaign.

      • Yes, me either! I just don’t get what’s wrong with Asians, but outside of historical fiction, they just don’t seem to exist in the literary world, which actually really bugs me 😦

        And #WeNeedDiverseBooks is really the best! I love how they support all kinds of diversity! 😀

        Thanks for writing this post, it really helps make a change in how we view our literature.

  3. This is awesome that your books keep diversity at the top of mind without centering everything upon it! I think it’s true that a lot of authors fear representing the people they may not know about well in their books, or they’re afraid no one would like to read about them. But I love how everyone is keen for more diverse books.

    • Being at a school with so many diverse people helps 🙂 writers are definitely scared, and I’m scared too, but hopefully we can all help learn about each other through honest attempts to create different types of characters 🙂

  4. I get so so scared trying to write diverse characters…particularly trying to deal with things I haven’t personally experienced. I WANT TO. Because I find it intensely interesting to research and read and watch movies and kind of immerse myself in other people’s lives. BUT. What if I write it wrong? I recently read a book about a diverse topic I knooow about and they handled it quite badly. 😐 It put me off the book and the author and everything. *sigh* So I’m fully aware the pressure that’s on authors!

    But omg. WANDERLAND? You’re killing me. Please. Just write that book so I can devour it.

    • I know, it’s hard. I’ve lived such a sheltered life and I will never understand some things. But I think we empathise more through reading (and writing), and focusing on the individual has helped me. Plus research. And sensitivity. And all that jazz.

      Wanderland! It’s my working title, yes 🙂 plus I’m planning for it to have crossovers into other fairytales/classics, so that should be fun. I am ridiculously excited to write it.

  5. I think Aussies tend to write a lot more diverse books naturally because we’re such a multicultural country, and we’re all so accepting of others. It’s wonderful to see that you’re writing such wonderful characters that aren’t forced into it! I can’t wait till you publish your books Em, I’d be first in line to grab a copy 😉

  6. “My characters aren’t just deaf or blind or Indian or gay or paraplegic or sick or Taiwanese or fighting depression. They’re also complete people who live with these things, who deal with these things – often, they’re not a huge part of who they are. I mean, being white is not something I think about every day. It just is.” Amazing-ness. Your stories sound pretty awesome too. I’d like to read them! As for me, I don’t really know if I write diverse characters. They just… happen, I guess…

  7. I think you got it right when you said that you don’t think about being white – it just is. I think that’s the best way to write diverse characters. They’re not a commodity, and they wouldn’t be walking around yelling ‘I’m diverse’ to all the characters in the book, so I think the best way to right them it just to write them. Their diversity is simply one aspect of them as a whole.
    Lovely post, Emily! 😀

    • That’s my thoughts as well. I don’t think diversity should be used just a plot device (which, unfortunately, it sometimes is). But gradually publishers and writers and readers are getting the message that we need more diverse books, so I’m sure the quality, sensitivity and thoughtfulness of these books will get better 🙂

  8. I don’t think lack of diversity is a white-people thing: people tend to write what they’re familiar with, it’s all over the world!
    There are diverse books, but not enough, and often it’s ALL about diversity when there’s a diverse character. I think you mean that when we write about diverse characters, don’t solely focus on, say, their skin color or sexualities, because that’s just a little part of their lives, right? I’d definitely like to read more books like that!

    Just out of curiosity, how do you decide the nationality or the uh…disability of your characters? I’m pretty surprised to see Taiwanese and paraplegic! (Okay, I’ll admit that, I’m just surprised and a bit happy because I’m also a Taiwanese and there’s finally a Taiwanese in a book.)

    • Well, also I’ve heard from POC authors who write about white characters, because that’s all they’ve read about – THAT’S the normal for them, which is just so so sad.

      That’s exactly what I mean! With many people (many, not all) it’s not everything, or even a big part of who they are.

      Sometimes I choose based on people I know in real life – I have an uncle in a wheelchair, many many friends with Indian/Sri Lankan/Asian heritage, and Taiwan is somewhere my dad used to go a lot for work. 🙂

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  11. “Most of the time, these characters occur to me as they are – I don’t change them just so that they can be more diverse.”

    This here I think is key. Writing diversity for it’s own sake may help the cause, move it forward, but it isn’t changing the way of thinking necessarily. The ultimate goal would be to create characters who naturally occur to us in whatever form they take. This is how I develop my characters, but unfortunately there isn’t a lot of diversity. I think I need to intentionally branch out and read more books that have diversity which will then change my thinking and allow me as a writer to see the world through eyes that accept diversity as an everyday occurrence in life as opposed to an anomaly. Great post!

    • It definitely took a long time for me. In primary school, I don’t think a single one of my stories featured characters different to me. But spending time with diverse, awesome people has made me realise pretty quickly that the stories with characters DIFFERENT to me are much more interesting and fulfilling to write.

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