How To Write Diversity Well

Diversity can be a really hard thing to add to your story. It’s stressful! If you’re anything like me a few years ago, you’re worried that you’ll do it all wrong and people will hate your story. Or maybe they’ll even hate you! When you say this to other people, they might shrug you off and claim you’re being silly, but your concerns are 100% fair. I’m here to tell you that it’s normal to worry about diversity. In fact, with the way people on the internet can act sometimes, I’d be surprised if you weren’t scared!

But you don’t really have anything to worry about. Diversity has become this big, scary word, but what we mean by it is pretty simple. I think it’s a pretty bad term because it makes it seem like minorities need to be added to a story. It makes minorities seem weird or other, which is the exact opposite of what diversity should be doing. It’s about connecting people, not making them feel further apart! So many many people bite their nails about representation that it makes me feel like we’ve gone about this in the wrong way. Until we come up with something better, though, we’re stuck with what we’ve got.

It’s about time that someone gives you some proper, easy-to-follow tips on how to make your casts diverse. That’s what I’m going to try my best to do! So sit tight and relax. It’s a lot easier than you’d think!

Why Make Stories Diverse?

Before we can get into how to make your stories diverse, let me answer the question many people are too afraid to ask: why does it matter? It’s fair enough to ask that question! You’re allowed to be curious or confused. It doesn’t make you a bigot. The most important thing is that you’re willing to listen to the answer and keep an open mind. That shows that you care, and that’s the first step.

Although many minorities have been fighting for representation in stories for a long time, it’s only really become a popular idea recently. Many people have grown up not even thinking about it. Heck, I’m mixed race and I didn’t realise that there were barely any non-white people in Harry Potter until a few years ago. You can bet that I asked why it matters when I first found out about it, too. It’s a new concept, so it needs to be explained! Don’t let anyone shame you into thinking you shouldn’t ask. Just ask the people who are here to answer your questions (like me), not just random people who are trying to get on with their lives.

Well, there are plenty of reasons why you might want to make your story diverse. Some of these reasons help you; some of them help the minority communities you’re writing about. It might be worth thinking about these so you can get a good idea of what you’re helping to achieve.

Diversity Sells

Let’s be honest: you want your story to get reads. As we’ve seen in recent years, diversity sells! Black Panther made more money than Avengers: Infinity War mainly because so many people were happy to see a largely black cast. They’re both great films that I love as a comic book fan, but for a lot of viewers, watching a superhero film set in an African country was what sold it to them.

Although it might seem selfish, money is the reason why so many production companies are now making their stories a lot more diverse. Hollywood isn’t a moral beacon. They do what sells because it sells. We aren’t going to ignore that here, either. You are allowed to want to get more reads, and diverse stories are going to help you with that. It’s not racist or bigoted to point this out. What is bigoted is avoiding diversity on purpose even when you know that it would help your story just because.

You Help Your Fellow Humans

The media has ignored some types of diversity for decades now. In particular, you can see this with disabled and mixed people, as well as members of the LGBTQ community who aren’t gay or bi. Of course, other minorities are still not done well or often enough, but you can probably list all the films you know with a trans woman in them on one hand. Things get even worse when you realise how badly some minorities are portrayed even when they do get screen time. Eventually. With the way films are the moment, you’d think that all Russian men are psychopaths, all gay women hate men and all black people are in a gang.

We can change the way that we write about people. If we can make great, diverse content, the media will follow us. They’ve already started! Does that sound like a big ask? Probably. But you don’t really need to do anything other than making your minority characters important, different and interesting. Every time you make a character who is more than a minority or a plot device, you’re doing a great deal of good. You’re helping them to be seen as just as normal as straight, white, cis people.

Diversity is Realistic

I’ve seen so many people argue so hard about making their stories diverse. They’ll say something like “but diversity just isn’t a thing where I live”. I’m here to tell you that it is and you just haven’t noticed it. Either that, or you’re living in an openly bigoted area, or choosing to stay away from anyone different. This isn’t Nazi Germany! Very few places in the world still have segregation. It just isn’t an excuse.

Here’s why: diversity means so many different things. Yes, you might live in a country with fairly little ethnic, racial or religious diversity. Sure. There are places like that in the world. But that’s not the only kind of diversity you’ll find. Even though Putin might like to pretend otherwise, gay people exist in every country in the world. There are disabled people in every country. You can’t avoid that one. You might not be used to the way that diversity is portrayed in the West, but I can promise you that your country has its own version of diversity.

Ok, you might not be close, personal friends with anyone from the minority groups you want to write about. I’m not going to judge you for not having a black friend! But to the people who say “I don’t know any minority people”, I say: are you honestly telling me you’ve never met anyone with a disability? An older person? A child? Someone who isn’t in your social class? Seriously, that sounds so unrealistic. I think there’s probably a lot more diversity in your area than you realise, and it might be a simple case of it being so normal that you don’t even notice.

It’s a Great Writing Exercise

Diversity doesn’t make a good story. I can tell you that right now. The fact that Shakespeare doesn’t have many black characters doesn’t make his work any less great! And packing diversity into your story doesn’t hide the bad points. However, being able to write about other social groups well is the sign of a good writer. If you can get it right, you’re showing that you can put yourself into your characters’ shoes and make them seem real no matter what. That’s an excellent skill to have.

When I hear “I don’t know how to do diversity”, what I hear is “I’m not so confident about my abilities as a writer” or “I don’t have that skill yet“. If you don’t think you have the skills yet, it’s amazing that you’re willing to learn something new and grow as a writer. That shows that you’re very open-minded! That’s another thing that will help you become a better writer. Writing diverse characters is one step on the journey to becoming a better author.

While I can’t promise you that diversity will 100% make your stories better, I can say that it is a great place to start. It’s a lot harder to make a realistic character when they aren’t just you with a different name. Once you are able to do that, the chances are that you’ll have boosted your characterisation abilities massively.

Make Your Story Unique

If you can put in a little extra effort to add minorities into your story, why wouldn’t you? Why would you want to make your characters have the same race, nationality or sexuality as not only each other, but so many other stories in your genre? Why not take the chance to write about a new experience or two and make your story unique? We all see different people in our daily lives. You have the chance to show how you see the diversity around you and make the story new and fresh to the audience. Most stories are told from a similar point of view. Shifting this gives you the chance to make something new!

Imagine how new and different Dickens’s stories were when they came out. They were about the working class — a group of people who rarely had their stories told in literature before that. He broke some serious ground by showing the struggles of a social class that had always been there, but was almost completely new to the literature world. He broke even more ground by showing that loads of the struggles they faced were relatable to the rich and the middle class. Now, who is one of the most memorable writers of the 1800s? The hundreds of writers who made yet another story about middle class problems or Charles Dickens?

When you make your stories diverse, the possibilities for representing a new experience are endless. There are so many different minorities who would appreciate some good representation. And who wouldn’t want the chance to make their story remembered for years to come? Do something new with your world and change up the perspective. Your story deserves it.

How to Do Diversity?

Ok, so you’ve accepted that diversity is great for your stories. Perfect! But you’re still no closer to knowing how to do it well. Don’t worry! You’ll get there! This list might look long at first, but don’t let that scare you! Diverse casts take some more thought than you might be used to, but they are worth it in the end. You just need to make sure you have a good starting point and an open mind. I have faith in you!

There is No Default Person

One of the biggest problems with diversity at the moment is how it’s treated by the public. We act like straight, white, cisgender and able-bodied is the “default” state of existence and that being a minority is something we “add” to or “change” from that default. Not only is that untrue, but it also really hurts diversity and inclusion. No one wants to be seen as an added extra or a weird other. We’re all humans, at the end of the day. The default state of a person is a person. It’s as simple as that.

When you start to imagine this default state, it is very easy to start seeing diverse casts as political messages all the time. It’s even easier to start treating minorities as means to an end or just numbers. If you have that mindset, you’re probably not going to get very far with positive inclusion. I’m sorry to say that, but it’s 100% true.

Not every black character needs to be a message about race. They can exist in stories because they exist just like white people. Of course, diversity is going to seem like some big propaganda message if you’re living in the delusion that being black, or gay, or disabled isn’t normal. It is! It’s just a different kind of normal. A different reality to yours, but no less real.

So I’m asking you to do something huge first: I’m asking you to change the way you see diversity. If you can do that, writing well is so much easier.

Stop Thinking of People as Diverse

People are not diverse. Casts are. I make this mistake all the time when I’m talking on the Episode Forums, but I need to stop now. If I’m going to make any sense at all, I need to start calling the people “minorities” and the casts “diverse”. It’s not like there are magical races of people who can sprinkle their magic diversity dust on your stories. It’s about including lots of people from various groups. That probably sounds like a silly difference to you, but there is a method to my madness.

You see, diversity includes straight, white, cis and able-bodied, so long as they aren’t the only people in the cast. I like to use Black Panther as an example. Interestingly, it’s not that diverse as a film in its own right. Don’t hate me! Let me explain! The cast is mainly made up of straight, able-bodied Wakandans. Even without thinking about things like sexuality, gender and disabilities, I can factually say that there is not a lot of racial diversity. There is a tonne of ethnic diversity, since there are different tribes of people, but they are almost all black. In a huge cast, I can think of three white people. Adding white people to that film would make it more diverse, not less.

But I wouldn’t want to change the cast of Black Panther. Why? Well, it does add diversity when you don’t think of the film as sitting in its own little bubble. If you think of the film in a vacuum, it’s not very diverse, but for the MCU (the Marvel Cinematic Universe), it adds a black hero. That adds diversity to the company, not the film itself. Taking all of the white people away from the company would make it less diverse.

Character Over Minority

While it is important to add minorities to your story, if you make them nothing more than a minority, that’s not good diversity. That’s why I cringe whenever I see topics on the forums that ask people what race they should add to the story to make it “more diverse”. They get replies like “well, maybe you should add a Syrian man and a Thai woman”. That’s not diversity. That’s treating people like boxes to tick! It’s artificial!

I can’t help but ask them what purpose their minority characters have in the story. If they’re there just to be diverse, you’re not doing your story any favours. It’s kinda like having a party and inviting random black people you don’t know just so you don’t look racist. You end up looking a lot worse! Plus, you don’t get the time to know them like people. Treating a minority as a person should always come before treating them like a minority.

So instead of spending time thinking about what kinds of people you can add to your cast, try thinking about and making the charater in this order:

  1. Their purpose in the story.
  2. Their personality.
  3. Strengths and weaknesses
  4. Friends and family.
  5. Struggles and achievements.
  6. Minority status.

Yes, minority status should come last when you’re a new writer. This stops you from being too focussed on the fact that they’re black or gay or disabled. Instead, you’re looking at them as a person and an important part of your story. You might find that you find what makes them a minority at an earlier point, but don’t think about it until you’ve done the other 5 steps. When you get more experienced as a writer, you can change this up. For now, though, this is a great way to start.

Work on Characterisation

One of the biggest fails for diversity is always going to be 2D characters. I mean, I personally hate them for all members of your cast, but I will admit that people notice it a lot more with minorities! Why? Because often when minorities are 2D, they are just walking stereotypes for their minority group. That, or they are only in the plot to serve the straight, white main character. By that I mean that they don’t have a personality, hobbies or anything. You don’t know what they do when the MC isn’t around. They just go off and sit on their own in a dusty closet when they’re not in a scene for all you care. They are defined by the MC! You can probably see why that doesn’t sit well with a lot of people.

As soon as you treat minorities like humans, you show that you’re giving the topic the care it deserves. Even better than that: you’re showing that you don’t think all members of one group are the same. That they can have strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes. No one is defined by their status as a minority, so don’t make it seem that way in your story. Let the reader know that you do care about your minority characters. Your story will be a lot better, too!

I’m going to write another post in the future about improving your characters, but one of the most important things you can do is plan. Careful planning helps anyone! Think of goals for every single one of your characters in a scene. They shouldn’t just be there to talk to and help the MC! Treat every character like the MC of their own story, even if you don’t have time to write about it.

Give Them a Relatable Story

Building on the last point, you want to make sure that your stories for the characters are relatable. There are so, so many stories out there about gay people, for example, that are just about the characters being gay. That’s not a real plot. I’m sure you wouldn’t read a story where the only plot point was that a character was straight. It would be boring! Stories called things like “my lesbian lover” make me want to close my app down completely! Yes, minorities exist. Yes, we’d love to be represented in the media. However, we want to be represented as people with struggles and goals, not just as minorities.

Stories about the experience of being in that minority group are important, of course, but if you’re new to diversity, they’re probably not the place to start. They take a lot more research and care than just adding minorities into your story, and most of the time, it is best to leave them to members of that group. I’m not saying you can’t know what it means to be, for example, black as a white person! I’m just saying it’s a lot harder for you to get that experience right in your writing.

So instead of trying that, it is better to focus on giving your minority characters a story that isn’t just about them being a member of their minority group. If you want to write a love story about two gay women, why not try giving it more of a plot than that? The best plot for a new writer is one that people outside of the minority group can relate to, at least a bit. Their stories don’t need to be about the fact that they’re a minority!

Do Research

Of course, you should never fall into stereotypes. You should make your characters people before they’re part of their minority group. However, there are things about being a minority that will affect us, and you should keep those in mind when you’re writing. That’s why it is so important to do your research! The beauty of good representation being able to show that people are individuals and members of their group at the same time.

When you’re doing your research, there are a few things you need to think about:

  • Customs and Traditions.
  • Things that Unite the Group.
  • Beliefs.
  • Struggles.
  • Idioms and speech patterns.
  • Languages.
  • Routines

There are great and not-so-good things about being in every minority group in the world. Make sure you research both. It’s not good to romanticise or demonise minority groups, so make sure that you get a good, well-rounded picture of the group you’re writing about. Of course, you don’t need to make them adhere to every single detail. Most people don’t follow every single custom of their country. Also, make sure that you research ethnicities and nationalities, not races.

This is probably the easiest with religions. There are customs that you can add to people’s daily lives that don’t have to dictate their personality completely. For example, if you want to write about a Muslim character, you could have them not eat pork and go to Mosque on Fridays. The women don’t need to wear hijabs for you to show that they’re Muslim! You just need to look up the religion a little and discover that there are many things that make Islam unique. For trans people, hormone pills are a real part of many lives, so it would be realistic and helpful to potray that!

Ask Questions

If you’re writing on an app like Episode or Wattpad, there are loads of people who would be happy to help you! Don’t go badgering anyone at all. Imagine if someone came up to you randomly and demanded you tell them how to write about your country! You’d probably be a little confused and very stuck. You haven’t had the time to think or prepare for the questions!

There are people out there who post that they’re willing and happy to help on the forums. On Episode, I made a list of people who you can go to with your questions. They’ve all volunteered to be on there and they are all happy to answer your questions. This is a great way to help add to your story, because you can give them examples of your own characters and ask them how you can build and improve your story. With their help, you can make some great characters!

No question is a stupid question. I’ve had people ask me things about being British that I never even considered before, and it made me think about my identity in new and interesting ways! If you’re worried about seeming silly, try looking at the advice that the person has given before so you won’t repeat questions. It’s better that you ask than getting it wrong in your story!

Ask Specific Questions

I’ve seen a lot of threads out there which say something like “tell me about your religion”. The person means well, for sure! They’re not really helping themselves, though. I mean, the people you’re asking are only human! They don’t know what would help you with your story! And when we ask them to give us more info, we’re often given an answer like “I don’t know. I just want to know about your religion”. It’s a noble feat, but a hard one for us! Those parts of our identity are complex and they can be looked at in so many different ways!

To take some time to think about the questions you want to ask. That shows that you care about the answers and you’re not just trying to waste our time. It means that you’ve thought about how the character’s identity might have an impact on the story. That’s what we appreciate! Even if you want us to give you some facts you’ve never thought of, starting with a few questions helps us to understand where you want us to go with the info.

If you don’t have any questions and you’ve actually taken some time to think about them, try giving us a description of your character and what you want them to do in your story. That way, we can give you tips and info on how to make their identity fit in the story, and let you know if there’s anything we don’t think would work.

Be Open to Feedback

Everyone makes mistakes from time to time. I mean, diversity isn’t an easy thing to get right! There are so many cliches and stereotypes to watch out for that it can seem impossible to start with. I’ve fallen into tropes many times without even realising it! And that’s okay! But you need to be willing to listen and learn from your readers. Most of them won’t hate you for doing something they don’t agree with. They’ll most likely tell you what’s wrong and (if you’re lucky) how to improve. Then, its up to you to take that on board and learn from it.

You don’t even have to agree with them all of the time. The most important thing you can do is thank them for their feedback and give them a polite reason why you disagree if you do. If you don’t think they’ll respond well, try just the thank you. You won’t look bad if you listen to what minority people are saying to you and actually consider it, even if you don’t agree. It’s when you close your ears to all their feedback and claim you know better that things start to get sticky.

It is important to be able to take feedback, though. While it’s your story and you’re in charge of how it is written, it can be really easy to dismiss anything that isn’t praising you. When was the last time you accepted someone’s points and used them to change your story? Can’t remember? Well, that might be a sign that you’re too stubborn or defensive over your characters. Then I’d say that now is a good time to look back over all the notes you’ve received and work out which changes won’t kill you or go against your ideas for the story.

Learn the Cliches

This is a work in progress. No one should ever expect you to know every single cliche off the top of your head. No one should expect you to avoid them at all times, either. This is especially true when you’re just starting to write! Cliches can be a useful tool if done right. I love it when stories throw all the same cliches at me and then change them up when I least expect it! This gives you a chance to say to your readers “you were expecting this character to act in this way, weren’t you? You were expecting it because they belong to that minority group.” It’s a fun and subtle way to challenge people’s inherent biases (or the things they just assume about a minority person) without seeming preachy. Plus, it can be great for the comedy factor!

But some cliches are bad and should be avoided. When you’re writing about a minority character, it is a good idea to have a quick check of what the bad cliches are for them. Here are some examples of cliches that you should either avoid or change:

  • The woman who is always the damsel in distress.
  • Disabled people who are suicidal and self-hating.
  • Useless gay men who only know about fashion.
  • Asian women who do nothing but cry.
  • The Arab terrorist.

There are plenty of others that really control how people are portrayed in the media, but this is a great place to start. Some cliches are bad and used way too much. There are others that are neutral and can become great when used well. It’s a good idea to think about cliches and work out when, and how, to use them well.

Heroes, Villains and Everything in Between

Writing diversity well means making the roles minority characters fill diverse, too. You can’t just have all of the minorities as the good guys! It’s not realistic! There is no group of people on Earth that is made up of only nice, heroic people. It would be silly to see things like that! Plus, it’s not the best for people’s mental health. No one should ever be told or made to feel like their minority group can do no wrong, that they are always the victims or that they’re always evil. Humans are all different! It doesn’t matter if you’re Hindu, transgender, disabled or Ethiopian! One of the things all humans share is that we have the choice to be good, bad or something in between. It’s a good idea to show that in your story.

That’s why it’s crucial to cast minorities in all kinds of roles. We don’t all think and act the same, and showing that we can all be good or bad people is very realistic. When you change up the roles of minorities, you show that you understand that they aren’t all the same person. There’s no better way to show that we’re all human, in my opinion!

So ignore the people who tell you that all minority characters have to be good role models. People need examples of what they can become if they aren’t careful, too. Show them that their life choices matter. Give them warnings! Just make sure that you don’t have one and not the other. If all of your villains are black or all of your black characters are villains, you’re gonna look pretty bad.

There Will be Criticism

So hopefully you now have a good understanding of how to write diversity well. Take as much of this on board as you can and make sure that you think a little before you write. I’ll leave you with a little word of advice, though: you will get criticism. You see, bad characters are always awful, but people notice them a lot more when they’re minorities. With so few minority MCs out there, you can bet that there are even fewer good minority MCs! People are really aware of how we write the stories we do when POCs or other minorities get involved. It’s a good idea to keep that in mind.

But don’t let it freak you out, either! People are so in tune to minority MCs that a good character will be a lot more likely to get noticed and praised. You just need to find the right balance between showing that your characters are human and showing you care about their identity. We all make mistakes! The first step to good diversity is showing you care.

Happy writing!

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