Adding Diversity To Your Story Correctly (Maybe. Sort of. Hopefully.)

I’ll start this one honest – I don’t know. I don’t know the right way to do it. We could type back and forth until our fingers ache about whether white people can accurately portray people of color, if it’s okay for straight women to write a gay male romance, if men know how to actually write women, or if it’s more ignorant to omit diversity entirely. These are tough topics with valuable arguments on each side. And while I’m not in a position to answer these debates,  I am in a position of writing diverse characters…so it’s something relevant to my work. I am still unsure about a lot of this, mind you, and this is one area of my writing philosophy that is constantly in flux.

Paradisa includes POC characters, a cast of about 50% women, a disabled character, a gay character, and a literal pantheon of pantheons. In addition to showing real minorities the respect they deserve, I have to present a few thousand years worth of revered gods and spirits in the proper light. In other words, I’m being very careful not to give all the glory to the “white world” deities. Gods from all faiths must show that they can be equally heroic, or toxic, as the next.

Here is my universal approach to diversity in fiction: Anyone can be a hero. It doesn’t matter your race, your age, your gender, your sexuality, or your health. It is important that minorities and women have characters they can look up to, relate to, and say “hey, she’s like me!” It’s important that POC aren’t cast as villains 90% of the time. It’s important that bisexual characters aren’t just portrayed as sluts. It is important that minority and female actors can find good starring roles in Hollywood, and not constantly be reduced to “the terrorist” or “the girlfriend.” It is important that women have stories of their own instead of stories that just prop up male characters. It’s also important that minorities and offbeat women are included in our societal standards of beauty.

And as an author – even a white, straight one – I feel a responsibility to contribute to this. Cause if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate problem.

One of my protagonists, Clara, is a 21-year old girl, half-Iranian and half-Irish. And yes, Clara’s journey does include some people thinking that she’s weaker for being a girl, and she does tackle a few Middle Eastern stereotypes. But for the most part, this is about representation only. What happens in this story to Clara is truly not dependent on her race or gender because it could happen to literally anyone. The important thing is that Clara’s diversity is simply evident, and that she proves heroism is not defined by your appearance or heritage. I try to do the same with Connor, whose attitudes, heroism, personality, and choices are the important parts of his character. These may be influenced by the disadvantages his skin color or sexuality have impacted upon his life and shaped his perspective, but that’s background stuff. Much like I do not walk around thinking how my experience as a woman has shaped my every bias, Connor doesn’t contemplate it either. Like any person, he simply is who he is.

SHOULD I write POC characters like Connor and Clara if I am white? Is mere representation enough when that representation is glossed by a situation that doesn’t entertain the struggles of race and sexuality? Well, I don’t know for sure. All I know is that I’d rather be critiqued for doing diversity wrong than for whitewashing the world. And in my case, I think the diversity errors would be rather subtle, and would perhaps be described as “your characters get through life as white straight people do. They don’t encounter enough of the challenges that real POC/gay people do.”

That being said, I’m careful not to overstep boundaries….because if you go too far in the other direction, then you get too close to home. I would be very, very bad at writing a book like Push (the movie version was Precious). A story about the minority experience, which is meant to represent true-to-life struggles, would be inappropriate for me. I feel like if a man tried to write a story about a princess who learns to ride dragons and save her kingdom, because ~*Girl Power*~, fine. If he decides to write about a woman who deals with sexual harassment and the wage gap at the workplace…maybe not. I’m not saying that it can’t be done. It has been done, and done well. But often, quality can’t save you from everything. People still debate whether it was Tarantino’s place to write Django Unchained. Even people who think it was a good film are sometimes uncomfortable with the idea that a white dude made it.

I would not feel comfortable tackling that. I would not feel comfortable writing about, say, a gay teen’s struggle with coming out to his parents. I barely feel comfortable writing from the POV of an anorexic character in my upcoming NaNoWriMo novel. Yes, I know we write about things we haven’t experienced all the time – what it feels like to get your arm cut off, for instance. Or how it feels to be in a car accident. How it feels to have a loved one die. But those things still could happen to us, and we could consider what we’d do in that situation. I cannot be a man, or black, or gay. Try as I might to truly empathize, to truly put myself in those shoes, I cannot. I cannot turn off the privileges and disadvantages I’ve carried in my perception for my entire life. I can recognize the bias, but that does not mean I can accurately see through it. Additionally, misrepresenting something like a broken bone does not harm anyone. Misrepresenting the life of a minority would bring me great shame.

It’s also important to make diversity feel natural…which brings me to Cassandra Clare. Just about every character in the Shadowhunter universe has some element of diversity. There’s a part-Indonesian part-Dutch bisexual warlock. One of the main Shadowhunters is gay. The protagonist is a redheaded female.   Jewish. Another is biracial. I’m sure at least one of her characters is overweight/curvy/something promoting body positivity.

But something bothers me about Cassandra Clare, aside from the whole fan fiction plagiarism thing that I will never let go. Her diversity feels forced.  Arbitrary. It feels like she’s trying to be cool and edgy by making every character diverse to the point of being, frankly, unrealistic (which is pretty darn hard to do when you’re writing about NEW YORK). It’s like for every character, Cassandra reaches into her “hat of diverse traits”, pulls out at least two, and smashes them together. But I think the real issue I have is that she flippantly writes about social issues like racism, coming out, slut shaming, etc, from the perspectives of her diverse characters….and it all comes off rather tacky and cliche. Very close to the “overstepping your boundaries” thing I mentioned earlier.

A  final point – invisible representation does not count. No one cares about finding out Dumbledore was gay after the fact. If a tree fell in the woods, and all. Mostly, I’ve  encountered this in Artemis Fowl. In Holly Short’s opening description, her skin is mentioned as brown. For the next eight books, her skin color is never mentioned again. For that, most readers assume she’s white. This is a really common problem, actually, like when people who read The Hunger Games thought Rue was white for some reason (I’m not even getting into Katniss’s race. That’s murky. Rue is specifically described as having dark skin). You almost have to beat people on the head with your character’s lesser-represented elements in order for them to truly absorb that the character they’re reading is not “white/straight by default.” I blame readers for this more than I blame the author…but as authors, we should be aware. Make this stuff visible.

So in summary, my philosophy (again) is 1) representation matters above all else, 2) don’t overstep your boundaries, 3) don’t make it arbitrary, and 4) make it visible. I’m not sure if this is a functional philosophy yet. It’s still a work in progress and I’m sure it’s flawed. When it comes down to it, we’re all problematic. But the world is a diverse place and your book should be too.

Advice On Beta Readers – Yes, They CAN Be “Too Harsh”

This is a long one, folks.

As writers, we prepare ourselves for inevitable truckloads of criticism. This may come from editors, agents, family members, or some jerk on Good Reads. It’s important to develop thick skin, and to realize that harsh truths help us improve.  I don’t believe that writing “what’s in your soul” automatically deserves publication, or that “there’s a reader out there for everyone.” I believe in formulas, literary traditions, and that being skilled in your craft is what makes you worth reading outside of your friend circle.

That being said, “too much criticism” can happen. And so can wrong criticism.

For my whole life, my dad has been the patron saint of red pens. Even when I was 11, he wasn’t afraid to rip apart what I’d written. Honestly, he’s probably the reason I never finished anything until I started writing fanfic. Whenever I got excited about a new WIP, or gave him the first couple chapters to read, he popped that balloon of joy and brought me down to the realism of “hey, this plot makes no sense and your characters suck.”

As an adult, I felt I could handle his harsh words. More than handle them, I felt like I needed them. That I’m ready for them. And as I’ve been writing proficiently for a while now, I felt like I’ve escaped many obvious pitfalls he noticed in my childhood writing.

However, as I just received Dad’s 100% negative and perplexing critique of my first 30 pages – and the notice that he’s basically given up reading the book and he’ll probably be skimming the rest – I came to a disappointing and important realization: just because criticism is harsh doesn’t make it good.

For example – my father claims to “rarely invest mental energy in ensembles where six politically correct and diverse characters do the work of one protagonist.” That is obviously a matter of taste, but he makes that claim like there’s something wrong with stories like Independence Day, X-Men, Jurassic Park, Star Wars, or The Goonies. Shoot, even one of my –our – favorite movies is It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World. These are the stories that shaped me as a storyteller, and keeping that tradition alive is not a flaw. It’s not even a choice. It’s the heartbeat of my work.

Not to mention the  overt sexism, racism, and homophobia in such a statement. My protagonist is a half-Iranian gay man. His sister is half-Iranian. One of my characters has a severe leg disability and walks with a cane. Another one of my protagonists is an attractive, seductive woman who is just as powerful, good, and important as the virginal sister character. First of all, representation matters. Period. Second of all, these aren’t arbitrary characteristics thrown in for diversity’s sake. In the case of Hephaestus and Aphrodite, that’s just who they are in the lore. In the case of my human protagonists, Connor and Clara, their diversity is realistic (rarely is an American just ‘white’ these days) and both their heritage and Connor’s sexuality tie into their character arcs. Connor was a Special Forces soldier who got hit with the consequences of DADT. It’s not exactly the type of gay character that’s often represented, and that fall from grace is what kicks his story into motion. Additionally, their mixed religious heritage contributes to Connor and Clara’s open-mindedness about the mythological figures they encounter.

So I must realize that it’s not my story’s problem if Dad wants to make one all-powerful 45-year-old white dude save the day by himself. I am interested in writing about the dynamics and relationships between people, not just a single flat hero solving some plot points. This is something I know I must stay true to.

Thus, beneath the cut, I have a few more words of advice when it comes to picking beta readers – and how to be a good beta reader.

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