A Better Way to Write Diverse Characters
Ignoring diversity is no longer an option for authors…
Let’s face it—the world is diverse, and readers want to see that diversity reflected in the stories they read. And that’s a good thing! Not only does it push us to tell unique stories with varied casts of characters, but it also means more people will get to see their own experiences genuinely reflected in their favorite novels.
Of course, that’s not to say writing diverse characters is always easy, and many well-meaning authors have done more harm than good in the past. Add to that the current Black Lives Matter movement, and hopefully writers are thinking hard about how they write characters that don’t look like them. There is a way to do it well—but it requires learning to listen first.
Why We Need More Diverse Characters
- 1 Why We Need More Diverse Characters
- 2 The Problem With How Diverse Characters Are Written
- 3 The Consequences of Ignoring Identity: Pixar’s Brave
- 4 7 Ways to Write Characters That Don’t Look Like You
- 5 This Won’t Be Easy—But It Will Be Worth It
Let’s get this out of the way before anything else…
I’m a white American man, so it’s hard for me to fully grasp a lot of the suffering being expressed by the Black community, and by people of color around the world. Like it or not, we have a long history of hatred, cruelty, and oppression in my country, and it’s not something I’m equipped to unpack on my own. I have no magic solution, and I don’t think there are any.
However, the one thing I can talk about is storytelling.
That’s where my expertise lies, and hopefully it’s where I can make at least some small contribution to this movement. So, let’s get into this…
For the Sake of Your Craft:
Why should you care about writing diverse characters? Well, for starters, there’s at least one selfish reason: You want to write better characters. Multi-dimensional, fleshed-out characters equal better stories and happier readers, so it’s in your interest to learn how to write characters that may be different from you.
Better yet, this applies to everything from historical fiction to thrillers, fantasy, and sci-fi.
Even if your story is far removed from the real world, you’ll still have to write characters that are different from you and that see the world differently too. You’ll need to write them as more than a hollow caricature, no matter if they’re an alien from a distant planet or an everyday person from our real world.
Of course, there’s also a deeper reason, and it’s by far the more important one.
For the Sake of Our World:
Stories shape our world, from the stories we read in our favorite novels to the tales we tell ourselves. And, because of this, the dearth of well-written minority characters in the mainstream is becoming less acceptable by the day—whether they represent different races, sexualities, religions, genders, disabilities, or all of the above.
We need to see these groups represented, and represented well, if we want to change our society for the better.
“If you’re used to seeing people like you in everything you read and watch, it’s of course easy to claim that diversity doesn’t matter, that everyone is essentially the same… But the reality is, writing experiences, like writing anything else well, takes hard work, knowledge, nuance, and a willingness to improve.” – Mo Black, Yes, You Should Be Afraid to Write “Diverse” Characters
Don’t get me wrong, there are tons of brilliant POC, gay, Muslim, trans, and other authors out there producing awesome stories, but too few of these ever reach mainstream—and ultimately, this will never change unless all of us force it to change.
Listen, it’s easy to feel powerless in the face of everything going on right now.
There’s a lot of soul searching to be done in the months ahead, especially considering the incredible cruelty the BLM protests have put in the spotlight. We’ll all have our own ways of handling that, and that’s ok. However, I’m assuming you’re here because you’re a writer, and that means you have at least one power you can use for good—your writing.
Specifically, writing stories with diverse characters.
The Problem With How Diverse Characters Are Written
In the past, the advice for writing diverse characters usually went like this:
“Just write them like any other character and add female pronouns later.”
Swap “female pronouns” for any type of diversity and you get the gist. Basically, this advice came into vogue because readers were getting tired of characters that were blatant stereotypes. In order to create diversity without accidentally leaning into these stereotypes, writers instead wrote generic “white male” characters and then swapped some descriptions to make them more diverse.
On the one hand, I get that the intention here might have been good, but this just doesn’t work. Rather than working towards genuine improvement, these swaps result in flat, boring characters with a “diversity” sticker plastered across their forehead—not the meaningful change readers are actually looking for.
Fortunately, there’s a better way to write diverse characters, and it revolves around identity.
Think about it—your identity matters, even if you don’t feel it affecting you all that often. Society will treat you differently because of it, whether for better or worse, and the same is true for your characters. Other members of your cast will interact with them based on how they perceive their identity, and your characters will hold ingrained beliefs about themselves too. So, to truly understand a character, you have to understand their identity first.
This is why slapping a “diverse” label on a generic character is so obvious.
For instance, a gay man’s experience living in modern America differs from a straight man’s, or a trans man’s, or even a gay woman’s. Their unique combination of identities will shape how others treat them and how they live their life—and, if they never see this life experience reflected in the stories around them, it can be painfully isolating.
This is a plight too many minority groups face. They just aren’t represented in the stories we share, and when they are they’re represented in such flat, empty ways that it feels hollow.
If you don’t know how it feels to be sidelined like this in your favorite franchises, check out this article: If Stories Treated Straight Couples Like They Treat Queer Couples. As a gay man, I laughed out loud reading this, while also lamenting how accurate it was…
The Consequences of Ignoring Identity: Pixar’s Brave
The Story of Brave:
Of course, it’s easy to talk about these problems in the abstract, but what do they look like in an actual story? Well, enter Pixar’s Brave.
While I was collecting my thoughts for this article, I happened to watch this video essay—Brave was a Disappointment—by eliquorice on Youtube. It’s what inspired me to use Brave as an example for this post, so I encourage you to check it out!
You see, Brave sets itself up as a movie about the struggle between two characters’ opposing views of female identity: our protagonist, Princess Merida, and her mother Queen Elinor.
Merida wants to be a respected archer and fighter, while her mother is all about soft power. She’s a diplomat, and she expects her daughter to follow their clan’s traditions and enter a strategic marriage. This creates some intense and thrilling conflict between the two, as each tries to overpower the other through their own personal approach.
Then, the movie just kind of… falls off a cliff.
Not only does it abandon this fight over identity, but it picks up a mostly unrelated, slapstick plot where Elinor turns into a bear.
This bear plot consumes most of the story, while the fight over identity doesn’t come up again until Merida gets a brief scene where she says her mother was right and she’ll bow to tradition. Her mother stops her at the last moment, but the whole thing feels hollow—more like an obligation to address the beginning of the movie rather than genuine character development.
What Went Wrong:
So, what happened?
Well, Brave had some disagreements over its development, which resulted in its director and original creator, Brenda Chapman, being replaced midway through production with Mark Andrews. This could have (maybe) been fine on the surface, but Andrews specifically claimed that “gender has nothing to do with [Brave]”—which, based on the opening of the movie and Brenda’s own statements, couldn’t be further from the truth.
This is where that pronoun swapping issue comes into play.
Men often struggle to write female characters for a variety of reasons, but one of the biggest ones is that they claim “gender doesn’t matter.” Essentially, they’re forgetting to think about their character’s identity—they’re writing male characters, just giving them female pronouns.
This is what happened to Brave, and to so many stories like it.
Rather than tackle the complex issues of identity the movie set out to explore, Mark took the easy route and simply pretended these conversations didn’t matter. Not only did this rob audiences of seeing these two characters work through their disagreements, but it also robbed the movie of its potential. Complex issues are powerful when handled well, and this movie had all the makings of a deeply impactful classic.
Instead, what we got was a disjointed tale that couldn’t decide if it was about a princess and her mother learning to listen, or a generic male protagonist dealing with the aftermath of a transformation spell gone wrong.
Basically, the movie failed to write diverse characters and take them seriously.
So, how can you avoid the same fate for your own stories? How can you write characters that are genuinely diverse, even if they look or act nothing like you?
7 Ways to Write Characters That Don’t Look Like You
Read, Read, Read:
For starters, if you want to write diverse characters well, you have to read.
Read stories that feature the types of diversity you want to write—or just diversity in general. Better yet, try to read stories by people who actually share that specific identity, or stories that are highlighted by that community as truly representative of their lives.
You don’t have to stop at fiction either.
Read up on the history of these communities (specifically ones written by these communities themselves), be they ethnic, racial, religious, or anything else. As you read, be empathetic and try to recognize the biases you have. Rather than passing judgement, start by learning and listening. The more you can understand the history and culture that shapes these diverse identities, the more you’ll be able to write characters that genuinely represent them.
This is your character research, and it’s what will allow you to write lifelike, multi-dimensional characters—even if your story isn’t anything like our real world. After all, culture and history exist anywhere you go, whether real or fictional, and understanding how it shapes the real world will help you write more convincing fictional worlds too.
Think From Their Perspective:
Of course, very few of us are defined by only one identity. Just because a character is a minority or “diverse” doesn’t mean that that identity will consume their entire life. It might be extremely important to them, but it also might not be.
For instance, you may be writing about a female character who is an avid gardener and a professional chef—based on that description, you might assume food is the most important factor in her life. Alternatively, maybe you’re writing about a Black woman who struggles to live her life in peace because of her racist neighbors. Her identity as a Black woman will probably be central to her story, but what if I told you they were the same woman? That Black woman could very well be a foodie too, because she’s more than just her race.
Basically, try to flesh out your characters beyond a single identity, even if that identity is a core part of their story. Think about how your characters would define themselves if they were asked, versus how an outsider would define them.
While you need to consider how their society views them—whether positive or negative—that doesn’t mean you should think of them in such limiting terms either.
Make Your Characters Limitless:
Speaking of limiting our characters, a lot of writers fall into a trap when creating diverse casts. They want to write realistic people, but in doing so they limit who their characters can be.
After all, just because a character is female doesn’t mean they can’t be a famous general, or a Black character can’t become a Supreme Court justice, or a Muslim character can’t be an opera singer. Disabled people can be brilliant athletes, and trans folk can become beloved teachers.
While identity matters, we have to stop limiting our characters because of their identities the same way society limits real people. This is a big part of how storytellers can have a genuinely good impact on the world, even without writing stories where diversity is a core issue. By simply including diverse characters that aren’t limited by their particular identity, you’re also creating a positive representation of that group for others to learn from—all while adding depth to your own story.
Of course, this doesn’t mean their identity won’t affect their lives. As I keep saying, identity is important, which brings us to another point.
Don’t Just Swap Pronouns:
While your character’s particular identity may not be the most important trait they have in their eyes, it’ll still affect their life because of how other people view them. If they live in a world that treats them poorly or restricts what they can say and do because of who they are, they’ll have a harder path to achieve their goals, and their life will be different because of it.
However, this isn’t limited to minorities—we’re all affected by how society views us.
For example, society often tells women they have to be more emotional, subservient, or sexual because of their gender. Meanwhile, men are forced into the opposite mold, told they have to be physically powerful, aggressive, and emotionally cold. Both stereotypes are harmful, and these expectations will shape both female and male characters. This goes for any identity too, whether straight, gay, Black, white, Muslim, Christian, or anything else.
Don’t get me wrong, one side of the equation usually benefits from society’s views, but that doesn’t mean those views don’t still shape them. This is why you can’t simply write a male character and then swap the pronouns.
Male doesn’t equal neutral, and readers can tell when a character is artificially diverse.
This isn’t limited to real world stories either. Even in fantasy and science fiction, identity will still play at least some role in how your characters are treated or expected to behave by those around them.
Know Your Limits:
On the one hand, I firmly believe writers can write any character or story they want. However, I also know we all have limits—and we won’t always be well-equipped to write all types of stories.
It’s about balance.
Personally, I don’t think I would be the best equipped—at least at this point in my life—to tell a story about the experiences of a Black person, especially if that identity was a core part of their story. I still have a lot of learning to do before I get there, and that’s ok. On the other hand, I feel much more comfortable writing female characters, even though I’m a man. I simply have more life experiences that help me relate to the female perspective.
Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with that, and it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t include Black characters in my novel—but it does mean I know where my skills lie and that, at least for now, I should focus on listening to Black people’s stories, rather than trying to create my own.
Include Different Types of Diversity:
Fortunately, just because I don’t feel well-equipped to write Black characters, doesn’t mean I can’t tell diverse stories!
There are all kinds of diversity out there, meaning there are also tons of ways to write diverse characters. For example, even if you don’t have any racially diverse characters in your story, perhaps you have characters with different gender identities, religious beliefs, socioeconomic upbringings, disabilities, or sexualities. Use your imagination!
Don’t feel limited or forced to include a specific type of diversity. Instead, consider all the types of diversity that could exist in your cast and find the ones that connect with you the most. Those are the ones you’re most likely to write well, and to enjoy writing while you’re at it.
Finally, we come to the most important point on this list: Empathy.
Someone may be completely different than you, may hold entirely different views, or may have grown up a world away from you—but, there are still common threads that connect us all, regardless of our identities.
At the end of the day, 99% of people just want to find happiness and purpose, to love and be loved, and to live in peace and safety. That’s it. How they realize these goals is what makes them unique, but their core desires are the same.
So have empathy.
Think from your character’s point of view and consider their likes, dislikes, fears, desires, hopes, and dreams. Don’t think of them as a stereotype and don’t pass judgement on their differences. Instead, find the common threads you can relate to, and then consider how your life would be different if you shared their identity. This is the secret to writing truly compelling characters of any type. The more you can see the world through their eyes with compassion and empathy, the more you can genuinely represent them on the page.
As an extra note, because I can see these questions coming:
Yes, we should all strive to be empathetic, but there’s also a line.
Embrace others’ differences and accept that you may disagree, but know that if people try to persecute others simply for existing as who they are, you don’t have to accept their views. I vehemently disagree with white supremacists, but that doesn’t mean I should stop and say “well, I can respect your viewpoint.” That line exists, and they’ve crossed it.
So, show empathy, but also take care of yourself and accept that some people can be fundamentally wrong. At the end of the day, we ALL owe each other empathy, and unless we stand up for each other, we’ll never create positive change.
This Won’t Be Easy—But It Will Be Worth It
Right now the world is having a reckoning, or at least I hope it is. In my country specifically, we have a lot of growing to do, and it will take time and perseverance and a lot of trust.
None of us can change the world alone.
Still, I hope you can take heart knowing that you can make some small impact, simply by telling genuine stories about people of all types and backgrounds. Even if you aren’t comfortable attending protests or aren’t sure how to unpack your own thoughts just yet, your writing can still make a difference. Just focus on knowing when to listen with empathy, and I know you’ll do just fine.
Here’s hoping we have a much better world in our future. 🙂