Writing Diversity

I’m very big on diversity in writing, particularly when it comes to fantasy and science-fiction.

Our dominant, mass-media-driven culture is keen on portraying “normal” (=”good and right”) in very restrictive terms. (I’ve talked about this elsewhere.) With humanity still struggling with our tragic history of hatred and bigotry and many of us trying our best to get past that (unfortunately, far too many seem quite content to wallow in it), value judgements disguised as entertainment only undermine the slow climb towards equality.

That said… “political correctness” kills creativity.

Before you lynch me or stop reading, please understand. I’m not advocating that you portray prejudice and bigotry and hatred and all the countless “isms” as good things. In fact, our job as writers is to challenge the “isms” and show what the alternatives can be. Writing should show and celebrate the amazing and endless variety that occurs within humanity – and explore what can lie outside of that, when we’re playing with the supernatural or extra-terrestrial or otherwise non-human.

Just to make it clear where I stand as I’m writing this, I have a personal history with prejudice. I’m a woman. I’m overweight, as the result of multiple factors, “self-control” not being on that list. I’m disabled, my disability is invisible, and is a mental health issue. I have been within a low income bracket my entire life, with an exception under a year long which exacerbated the mental health problem enormously, and for a substantial amount of my adult life I’ve been on various sorts of social assistance. I’m neo-pagan, on my own rather eclectic path which has been dismissed by other neo-pagans as “not a real path” to go with the general mainstream stereotypes. When I first came out as not-heterosexual, I got a rainbow of reactions: “You can be lesbian but not bi,” “You can be bi but only if you’re serially monogamous,” and more recently, “Being bi is okay but only clearly male or clearly female, no trans.” The most important person in my life is a transwoman with mobility limitations and chronic pain. For that matter, I’m Canadian and continually run into the frequent assumption from south of us that the entire English-speaking world is American or at least knows specifically American geo-historical references and bows to American cultural superiority. Anyone want to count up how many of those factors have put me on the receiving end of “isms” both in person and the cultural background noise? It sucks. Yes, I’m white, so racism isn’t one I’ve had to deal with personally. I am acutely aware that being the victim of one sort of prejudice does not mean that you are going to be any less prejudiced about something else – some of the nastiest prejudice against pansexuality and transgender are lesbians and gay men, for example, and the list could go on for a long time. Therefore I’m not going to say that I’m not capable of being racist or otherwise prejudiced. I am saying that I know how it feels to be the target and I loathe the feeling and I do my best to never inflict it on anyone else – in person or in my writing.

Last night and earlier today, I went looking online for ideas on other ways to describe physical characteristics of characters – skin colour being a major one. If I’m creating descriptions for the “default” forms of a group of supernatural shapechanging beings who prefer to see themselves as sisters, despite having no gender and anatomy being changeable, I’m certainly not going to make them all fair-skinned blondes or, for that matter, pale-skinned Goth-types. Variety is a wonderful thing.

Here’s the conclusion I reached from the various “helpful” sites for writers and creative folks out there:

  1. Having an all-white cast is racist. Having an all-white cast with only one or two non-white characters in minor roles is tokenism and also racist. (Okay, fair enough, although I’d argue that there are settings that would make anything else rather forced and implausible.)
  2. There’s a long list of colour words that one should apparently never use for skin tone because they are unforgivably offensive and racist. There are, however, no true synonyms for most of the words in question, thereby requiring a change in meaning as well as in terminology or, alternatively, long and clumsy attempts at describing a given colour around a word.
  3. Thus, if you have a character whose skin colour isn’t a factor in the story and you decide, for the sake of being inclusionary, that this cool and important character should be non-white, you can run face-first into the issue of description. That’s before you get anywhere near things like speech patterns and the endless list of cultural influences. And speaking of culture, there’s the dilemma of creating other-world or supernatural or extra-terrestrial cultures without ever using anything that’s been included in one or another real-world culture ever, because apparently that’s not inspiration, it’s cultural appropriation.

This particular trap does not exactly encourage people to be more inclusive, despite the claims of the sites in question that they’re trying to help people to be more diverse and sensitive. If anything, this whole approach is more likely to scare people off the idea entirely: better to just not have non-white characters than to do it wrong and offend someone, and better to just stick with pseudo-medieval-Europe for other-world cultures because it won’t offend anyone.

So. How, exactly, is someone from a smallish city that is predominantly white, and who grew up in a rural area even more emphatically white, supposed to be racially inclusive in my work without stepping on toes? I simply refuse to go looking for people to be friends with based on skin colour; that’s as abhorrent as refusing to be friends based on skin colour. I think the perspective of what life is like for someone who is Native or black or Asian in North America is going to be rather drastically different depending on which part of North America one is dealing with, which limits the usefulness of looking for someone online to talk to. In my admittedly limited experience, people locally who are non-white do not talk differently, barring English being not a first language, and are likely to turn up in any income bracket and in a wide variety of fields. The ones that grew up in this area do not behave significantly differently from white or other non-white folks who grew up in this area. Am I claiming that there’s no racism? Of course not. Sadly, it exists. So do sexism, homophobia, ablism, etc etc, none of which I’m confronted with on a daily basis and none of which define my life or my identity.

The best solution I can come up with, personally, is to extrapolate from my own list of “isms” and my experiences within those groups.

What it comes down to is this: there is so much diversity within any group that there is an extremely broad range that lies within the bounds of plausibility. Every group is made up of individuals, who are going to have varied personalities, interests, beliefs, opinions, skills, experiences, history, prejudices, and so on and so forth, usually including about whatever it is that defines the group to begin with. People within marginalized groups are frequently pleased just to be recognized as existing and treated with respect; most of the people who scream about the proper way to refer to this or the appropriate terminology for that or the politically correct way to do the other are not even part of the group that they’re so stridently “defending.”

Therefore, here’s my personal solution to creating diversity in writing:

  1. Do some reasonable research about the relevant background and issues, which can include talking to people or reading up on it, but should not include TV (especially daytime talk shows) or movies or other mass-media,
  2. Treat the character as an individual and not as a cookie-cutter one-person embodiment of an entire group, stereotyped or not,
  3. Make the character internally consistent, taking into account what you’ve learned from your research about probable experiences and factors, but also the specific setting and any history that you know of,
  4. Treat all aspects of the character with respect, and I’m including villains (eg, if your villain is gay, don’t slam them for being gay, slam them for being the villain and doing bad things; if your villain is a woman, don’t act like she’s a villain because she’s a woman, because there are a whole lot of non-villain women out there; substitute adjectives and traits at will),
  5. Remember that there is more to your character, whether hero or villain, than any single trait, and that what makes that character who they are is the unique combination of and interaction between all of their internal traits and their external experiences,
  6. Be true to the story the way it needs to be told, but tell it responsibly and with thought for what message it could convey.

If you do that, then as I see it, you’re doing it right. There is an enormous difference between “You got the technical details about X wrong,” which can happen despite the best of research, and “This character behaves in ways that are impossible for someone who falls within group Y,” which is inherently unprovable if you follow the steps I listed.

Will people get annoyed anyway? Almost certainly. But then, there are people who get offended by pretty much anything. It is just not possible to please everyone. If the people I’m offending are the ones who are complaining about lack of diversity but then set highly difficult or impossible restrictions on how to do it “right,” well, I’m okay with that. My characters, however, will continue to come to life, and rather than conforming to anyone’s idea of what it means to be a woman, to be trans, to be disabled, or to fit into any other box, they will be individuals who do their own thing and are unique – just like the endless range of people in the real world.


  1. All the “this is right, that is wrong, this is how it should be” opinions of people all over the world is why I prefer reading fantasy novels – completely made up, can’t be compared (but sadly still judged), & just allows me to escape the everyday woes of my sometimes-dreary life!

    • Obviously, any writer still needs to be responsible for what they say – there’s no such thing as “just fiction” as a cop-out for encouraging all the nastiness in the world. But, yes, fantasy among other things should be an escape from what-is into what-could-be and a way of exploring new ground. Life is frequently tough. Creativity of any kind is a major way to balance that. It can get us out of black-and-white Kansas into bright-coloured Oz.

      A world where writers are crippled by a constant fear of offending someone even while creating characters and using cross-cultural material respectfully, and with creative folks of other kinds in the same boat… yeah, now there’s a future to look forward to. :roll: No wonder I spend so much time in my own universes…

  2. Even in fantasy, there’s a lot of criticism of authors who appear to have “all-white” or “one token PoC” casts of characters. Every year on the NaNoWriMo boards, there’s at least one thread on this in the fantasy forum, and almost every year it ends up getting shut down because of how it devolves into personal attacks. It seems like on the one hand, you’re supposed to have multi-racial casts, but on the other hand it’s a no-no to mention skin color and appearance.

    So what this writer does is I just present my characters as people, as they appear to me – whether they’re on the lighter side or the darker side of the range of skin and hair colors (or even blue; I have some blue people, and no they aren’t elves or smurfs, they’re humans, and I portray them as such) and describe them as accurately as I can when a physical description becomes necessary, without falling back on cliche and stereotype.

    And there are differences that go beyond skin color – even among people supposedly of the same “race,” there are deep physical and cultural differences between ethnicities within that race.

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