Diversity in Literature
Happy Pride Month! In honor of pride month, this week’s post talks about the importance of diversity in literature and how to incorporate diversity into your writing, because we live in a diverse world, and the stories we read and write don’t always reflect that.
Diversifying your cast of characters helps you connect with your diverse audience of readers. People are naturally more invested in characters like them, and they are more likely to enjoy a story that they can relate to. Below are some things to think about ways to diversify your cast of characters in your writing.
Ethnicity and culture: Your characters can be from any part of the world. They can be multiracial, first or second generation immigrants, or naturalized citizens of their country). Your characters could stay true to their cultural ancestry and celebrate holidays accordingly, especially if they are permitted to skip school for religious reasons and have a community of people in their locality who also celebrate said holidays. Or maybe they live in the midst of a large community of people of a different culture where their holiday is not respected. In that case, do your characters continue to celebrate cultural holidays? If so, what obstacles might they face? It’s important to consider where your characters have come from and where they are now when building their ethnic and cultural identities.
Religion: The world has hundreds of religions, including subsets and forms of some. Some people are atheists, and some were raised to follow multiple religions. Many religions aren’t just a matter of believing in a particular deity; they are a lifestyle. They can dictate a character’s outlook, diet, and values. Also, not everyone follows every (or any) aspect of their religion, and some children are not as religious as their parents or elders. People may have had experiences that affected their relationship with religion, such as the loss of a loved one who only ever did good for the world or a change in one’s financial standing after reinvigorating one’s religiousness. Think about the impact of religion on your character
Body Type and Shape. Not everyone has a six pack (or a four pack). Not everyone is lean and muscular. Books and other forms of media tend to focus on characters with a very specific body type and shape, which gives readers the impression that there is one singular “perfect” body type. This is not true! People can be short, obese, and/or have crooked features—and they are still beautiful. Characters in books should reflect this diversity.
Mental and Physical Disabilities. A character’s disability may be the result of a birth defect, chronic illness, accident, or something else. The effect the disability has on your character’s life can vary based on their environment, lifestyle, and the severity of the disability. Think about the setting of your book. Are public places typically wheelchair friendly? Is mental health a taboo topic? Are there adequate resources (medication, education, etc.) for the mentally or physically disabled? Do your research about different types of disabilities, the outlook of different communities and cultures towards disabilities, and the development of new technologies to assist disabled individuals over the centuries.
Gender and sexual identity: Members of the LGBTQ+ community do make up a considerable part of the population. So, if all your stories feature only cisgender, heterosexual characters, you should reconsider whether you are accurately representing our world. Additionally, realize that the + in LGBTQ+ includes many different identities, and not all members of the community are gay or trans. Do your research when determining your character’s identities. For example, recognize the difference between asexual and aromantic and be aware of the large spectrum of gender identities.
Family dynamics. Not all children are orphans (despite what young adult literature would have you believing). Some live with both of their parents, some live in joint custody, some live with step parents, some are adopted, some are in foster care, some live with other family members, etc. Some families don’t have children. Some people don’t want to get married. Arranged marriages are a part of some cultures. Some children inherit last names from both their parents. Think about your characters’ relationships with their family members and how those relationships are impacted by their community, experiences, and culture.
Why is it that all fantasy books seem to be set in medieval Europe? Why do most characters go on vacation to France or mainland Europe? The world is yours when it comes to setting. Look at the world around you, and don’t be afraid to set your story in a place outside your comfort zone. When traveling, make note of differences between your home and other places. You don’t have to go to another country to see the contrast between different cultures; search for diversity in your own country or state. Or use online tours to teach yourself about the world around you.
Make use of mythology, clothing, food, and societal structures from different countries when world-building for your science-fiction or fantasy novel. The United States has a lot of Greek and Roman architecture, but many countries in Asia have a very different style of architecture.
Also, people live in urban, suburban, and rural areas (and each of those have their own spectrums). Think about your characters’ history. Many people in rural areas have lived there throughout their lives, which may limit diversity. What impact might that have on a newcomer? Many people in urban areas are immigrants. How do social classes play out there?
Consider how the lifestyle and quality of life of your characters depends on where they live. Diversifying the settings of your stories helps not only attract readers who want to feel connected to their homes and experiences, but it also transports readers to a world they might not be familiar with and helps them learn about their surroundings.
Doing it Right
Incorporating diversity into literature is important, but it is even more important to make sure you do it right. Do your research, and make sure you have a good understanding of how coming from a different background or having a different identity might impact the lives, values, or personality of a person. Talk to people who identify themselves in a similar way to the character you want to write about, and maybe even show them your writing to get their opinion.
Remember that a story about an individual from a different background doesn’t have to be a story about diversity or oppression. A character’s identity can be a casually mentioned part of the story (casual representation), a minor plot point or small obstacle, or the focus of the storyline.
Diversity in literature is important, not only because our world is a diverse place but also because readers tend to romanticize what they read. Writing books about minorities can help shine light on just how diverse our planet is and can help readers become more accepting of people who are different from them. For many readers who struggle to find characters they can relate to, books depicting diverse characters can help them connect and feel understood.