Character Diversity Workshop
|16 min read



This week we are focusing on the topic of diversity and how it applies to your writing. For this article, your panelists from the week 1 Live Characterization Discussion Panel are back to share out views with you.


What are diverse characters, and what does it mean to have diversity in your stories?


DamonWakes 


It’s hard to pin down exactly what diverse characters
are because nobody, fictional or otherwise, can be diverse on their own. An individual character in a book might be considered to contribute to the diversity of fictional characters in general--by representing a minority that’s underrepresented in fiction as a whole--but whether or not the book’s cast is diverse will depend on who the other characters are and how they differ from one another.

It’s good for fiction as a whole to feature a diverse range of characters: it’s interesting to read about different characters with different backgrounds, and it’s boring to read about the same character again and again and again. However, when you’re thinking about the world within a story, greater diversity isn’t necessarily better, and characters can be diverse in many different ways. Even the kind of character who readers will have undoubtedly come across before--the muscle-headed barbarian who speaks in monosyllables, the mad scientist who tinkers with forces man was not meant to understand, the cop who shot a child he thought had a gun but was actually a toy--can be useful if they only appear briefly and you want the reader to immediately get a picture of who this one-off character is. After all, if they’ve appeared in other stories then they’ve already been introduced.

When thinking about diversity within a story, it’s also worth thinking about focusing on particular kinds of characters. The Harry Potter series has been praised for including a large, varied cast of characters, but that cast is overwhelmingly made up of teachers and pupils at one particular wizard school. This is perfectly acceptable: had the books also included a variety of significant muggle (non-magical) characters or given more attention to pupils from other schools, the story would also likely have been less focused and therefore weaker. If you look, you will notice this in a lot of stories: no matter how diverse the cast, the characters will nearly always have something crucial in common with one another; the thing that the story is actually about.

In this way, characters can contribute to the diversity of fiction as a whole, they can contribute to the diversity of their own story, or they can draw attention to one particular element of that story through a lack of diversity.


Why is character diversity important in storytelling?


illuminara 


Ultimately, this gets back to the foundations of why we as a human race tell stories. We want to communicate ideas, spread knowledge, share secrets, engage with our contemporaries, entertain, inspire, call to action, and move people. Sure, you can do most of those things without telling a story, but stories are powerful because they connect with people on an emotional level. In order to make this connection, people have to relate to the story and feel like it’s their story, like they are a part of it and it was made for them. They have to see themselves or a version of themselves in the story so that it speaks to them personally as well as to the universal emotions in all of us. If some are singled out or left out, stories lose a bit of their power—or a lot of it.

With all the ideologically and emotionally charged politics at the forefront of social discourse right now, it’s easy to think diversity in stories (or in anything) is about being politically correct and trying not to offend certain groups of people we want to support our work. As creators, of course we find this daunting because we generally want as many people as possible to like our work. However, we can also feel strongly that it’s our right to choose how we tell our own stories (They Won't Even Read You) without undue influence from politically charged fandoms, activism, or whoever’s yelling their opinion the loudest. But this type of thinking is entirely missing the point.

Diversity in storytelling isn’t about making everyone happy or trying to pass some arbitrary standard like the Bechdel Test, the Mako Mori Testnor the LGBT Fans Deserve Better pledgeWe should certainly pay attention to them, but they exist to make a point about the current state of our storytelling more so than to become golden standards that magically qualify a story as “diverse” or “feminist.”

Diversity is important because it builds trust in your readers. As Steve Almond put it, “All readers come to fiction as willing accomplices to your lies. Such is the basic goodwill contract made the moment we pick up a work of fiction.” But this trust is all too easily broken. Yes, fiction is by nature fantasy, but it must be believed to have any impact at all. Fiction is a lie that tells the truth.

If we perpetuate a falsehood in our fiction that is so obviously spotted and easily scrutinized as the pandemic under-representation and misrepresentation of real people in our society, we break this trust and people no longer come to our stories as willing accomplices to our lies. The goodwill contract is broken. When this becomes the rule rather than the exception in the stories of our society, it impacts the economy of stories as a whole. Storytelling itself can begin to lose its power due to this widespread skepticism and mistrust.

We are at the point now where the blatant disregard for diversity and the true representation of our audience has begun to poison our opinion of storytellers and the stories themselves. That’s why now, more than ever, diversity is something we can’t take lightly. We need to pay attention, judge for ourselves what we believe is a fair representation of the audiences we are trying to engage with, and tell the truth in our stories.



How to create authentic characters of different races, ages, cultures, and genders


queenofeagles 


Before you can make an authentic character, you must make sure his/her race, gender, or culture comes over as authentic too. Every social group has its own characteristics and, if you use them well, your character will be a believable representative.

The first step is to know the physical traits and looks of your character’s kin. An eighty-year-old granny might find getting out of a chair a herculean task, while her grandson can hardly sit still. The environment affects your character as well. Is his race living in the mountains? The desert? Forestland? His physique should show. Don’t forget clothing: they are different for each social group as well.

Then you need to know how your people of interest behave. Consider their language (don’t forget curses--they can tell a lot about someone’s background), their society, religion, important values, customs/traditions, and knowledge. These things are mainly determined by culture, but don’t underestimate age. Eighty-year-old gran might have seen wars, hippies, the first computers, and who-knows-what. She has a lot of experience, but might be stuck loving the good old ways. Her grandson, though, looks at the world in a more innocent way, but he also learns new skills in a heartbeat.


Carl and Russell from the movie Up are good examples of old versus young. You can easily tell which one is the youngster and which one the elderly man even if you wouldn’t have a visual to show their age.

Making child characters is difficult, but here are some tips to help you: How To Write Child Characters.

Gender is something special. There are physical differences of course, but does it run deeper than that? I think this depends mostly on culture. Look at the one you have in mind: would your culture allow it if men and women swapped roles? Even in our modern society, where genders are supposed to be equal, has its biases. It’s a topic too broad to discuss here, but you can listen to this podcast if you want to know more: Examining Unconscious Biases.

What helps with all of this is fieldwork. Go meet the people you are interested in and try to get to know them. Even if your folk does not exist in our world, it might overlap with some of ours. This is not going to help everyone of course; a grown man stalking teenage girls is just asking for trouble. Luckily, you still have the internet. Not just Wikipedia, but forums that attract your culture of interest can be a great help too.

So, let’s say you know all characteristics of your social group and you have copied that to your character. Good! Now comes the most important part: change them.

Your character is not a stereotype--he is unique. Look at the diversity of the dwarves from the Hobbit movies. There are thirteen of them running around, and despite them all being dwarves, you can easily tell them apart. Even if you have only one representative of a social group, these unique traits should show. Keep it within limits though. A dwarf is still a dwarf, so don’t give him pointy ears.


How to diversify your characters' personalities


C-A-Harland 

If you put four people in a room and ask them the same question, you will get four different answers. This is a simple fact of human nature; no matter how similar we may be in other areas, we still find ways to differentiate ourselves from those around us.

When we talk about diversity, people tend to think of race, gender, religion, etc. But it’s also important to note diversity in characteristics and personality. This means characters who have differing opinions and objectives, even if they are similar in other ways. Even if characters share many traits (such as if they are family or school friends), there will still be diversity in their thoughts and opinions. Learning to identify and highlight that will make your story deeper and more engrossing.

Having this kind of diversity is important to make your characters stand out on the page. Literature does not have the same advantage of visual mediums (graphic novels, TV, movies) which can use size, shape, colour, and clothing to make their characters look separate. We writers need to rely on something more subtle, our character’s voice. The thing that makes them unique and differentiates them from the others in the crowd.

Personality diversity can be as simple as giving your characters differing opinions on an issue. It can be showing them to react differently to a scenario (e.g. the “cautious” one who is tentative and wary, versus the “bold” one who is brazen and carefree). A simple example of this is Sam and Dean from the TV show Supernatural. The two main characters are both white males, of a similar age, who even dress similarly. To make these characters not be completely interchangeable, the writers gave them very different personalities, using the tropes of the “brains” (Sam) versus the “brawn” (Dean). These tropes bleed into the characters’ other personality traits such as the way they think, speak, and react to various situations. Giving them a different approach to each scenario they enter means the viewer can get a more diverse experience.

Other examples are showing your characters to interpret something different ways; such as a jaded, world-weary character who interprets a kind offer from a stranger as a trap, versus an innocent and trusting character who sees it as a blessing. As in the example above, in the movie Up, Carl, a 78 year old grouch, sees the giant bird as a menace. Contrast this with Russell, a young child, who sees the bird as a new friend.

These small details can also act as character reveals, as our opinions and responses are formed by our experiences. Contrast is a powerful tool in all mediums, and the more you contrast your characters’ traits, the more they will stand out and stick in the reader’s mind.

Diversifying your characters’ personalities will make them feel vivid and alive. It will help your readers to identify with each one individually and allows you to reveal more about those characters by contrasting them to others.


Workshop Challenge

Pick two characters of diverse origins and personalities. Write a short scene from the point of view of the first one. Now write that same scene from the point of view of the second one. How does the scene change in tone and/or events because of the different characters?

Upload your scenes as a single deviation and submit it to the June Characterization Workshops gallery. Every submission gets you an entry into our June prize draw.



Discussion

What does diversity in storytelling mean to you, and how much thought and planning do you put into writing from the perspective of a diverse cast of characters? What’s one method you’ve used to create contrast between your characters?


Don’t forget, commenting on other people’s workshop submissions will get you entries into the draw as well, so go check out what your fellow NaNoPlotMeisters are doing.



Skin by Dan Leveille
Comments58
anonymous's avatar
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InfamousPigs's avatar
InfamousPigsProfessional Interface Designer
Hi there Hi!
Congratulations! This piece has been featured in our Monthly Roundup 
Thank you so much for writing and sharing.
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Lurenko's avatar
LurenkoHobbyist Digital Artist
Don't forget that a personality has to shine through all of those little details. Esh, I have a hard time doing that.
C-A-Harland's avatar
C-A-HarlandStudent Writer
Don't think of the personality as separate. It is intrinsic to the whole. The way your character thinks, feels, and reacts, as well as their likes and dislikes will all factor into creating their personality. Having characters with varying personalities helps to create diversity, making those characters unique and interesting. You may find that you've already been doing this more than you realise :)
Lurenko's avatar
LurenkoHobbyist Digital Artist
I see.
Alpanu's avatar
AlpanuHobbyist Writer
Character diversity is always a problem, because the writer is only one person and therefore, their characters often bear the traits of their author. Their experiences are the author´s experiences (practical or theoretical), their opinions are the author´s opinions etc. A great help to fight this unification is, for me as the author, have simply my mind open; that means, for example, not to cling to only one explanation of some certain fact, but to be able to try to explain it in another way. A great character diversity is shown in the X-files series (I am watching it currently so sorry....) as there is a giant difference between the main characters, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. I am sure you know what the show is about so I am not going any deeper.
I am the author of fantasy and sci-fi stories so you can imagine, how important the character diversity is there. As I am not trying to push my personal views of the characters into my readers´ minds, I describe the external look only in rare occasions. In fantasy, it is not needed anyway - you know well how elves or dwarves look like. Instead of this, I am trying to bring thoughts diversity into my stories; as I mentioned above, explaining certain situations with different views. At least in the theory, because, and I have mentioned that above, I have big troubles in diversifying my characters. But I am working on it.
With my sci-fi stories, it is the exact opposite, as I am creating my own races, planets, planetary systems etc. There is a proper description of the outer look necessary, no matter if it is about characters or planets or spaceships or ....

The diversity in my works is often based on the society status - a ruler, the subjects, .... It is quite easy to write actually. It becomes difficult only when you try to create a complex universe with many races that are too different from each other yet you have to find something that unites them, some "golden middle path". It is quite useful to write somewhere the basics of each race: the outer look, the basic laws applied in their society, the technical advancement etc etc. And - do not be afraid to change something what was working in the previous chapters but it is not working anymore.
C-A-Harland's avatar
C-A-HarlandStudent Writer
You're right that keeping an open mind really is the only way to do this. Writers have to be ready to do their research and also be willing to ignore the stereotypes so as to get a true idea of what they are trying to represent.
Alpanu's avatar
AlpanuHobbyist Writer
Indeed! It is bad that many writers I know are not that patient to do a proper research and always rush their work :-(
Vixenkiba's avatar
VixenkibaHobbyist General Artist
Another super interesting article! Thank you all!

Character diversity is important to me, but I hadn't given it much real thought yet while reading a book. Most of the times, character diversity comes as something so natural while reading, that you just don't even really 'recognise' it. Character diversity is what makes a story look and feel natural, at least when it's done in a good way. So, in that sense, I guess it means a lot to me, because without it I would find a story utterly boring ;)

I don't have any method for creating diverse characters, nor do I know any method. I only know that I already have a bunch of characters that are very diverse in personalities and opinions, and, I don't know, they just already were diverse from the beginning. I guess one of the challenges I always have for myself in a story, is to include a romance between two characters that are very different in a lot of fields; that can be age, political standing, job, personality, race, culture, and to try and make it work. It's a lot of fun to write about two very different characters falling in love with each other's differences. 

Oh yes! I do have a few methods where I check if the contrast between characters is high enough. I perform the following test/meme on my characters:
Character Traits Meme

It's super handy, and while it works better for one character than the other (especially if your character ages a lot in the story and changes political sides/opinions), it is still damn handy. 
C-A-Harland's avatar
C-A-HarlandStudent Writer
I absolutely agree with you that when done well, diversity isn't even noticeable. It just blends in with all the other elements and feels completely natural. Because, of course, the real world is diverse, so it's what we actually expect. It's only when writers fall down and create a cast of clones that we start to notice the flaws.
Setting yourself challenges to create two really different characters, and have them find a common ground is a great idea, and one that will surely flex your creativity muscles.
AzizrianDaoXrak's avatar
AzizrianDaoXrakHobbyist Writer
Diversity in writing means...many things. It means difference in a lot of ways. My current novel is told from the perspective of several different characters - which means figuring out how to change up the voice I've written in slightly (It's in third person, so I don't want to overwhelm the narration with a completely different perspective each time). 
It means including cultural diversity - I have been annoyed by fantasy stories set squarely in medieval Europe, and ignored the fact that even in Europe, there were the influences of other places and environments. I take very seriously the technological influences of other places, and in creating the continent have worked hard to reflect more than just a Euro-centric approach, even to a fantasy universe.
Some diversity stuff is more "political" diversity, I guess you'd call it? As I was writing I thought about a blog post from a black woman who had grown up thinking Hermione Granger looked just like her - because Rowling only ever really described her frizzy brown hair. I have deliberately tried to create characters that anyone can identify with. As a result, very few of my characters have any description of skin color, I've got queer and genderqueer characters, and I'm currently working on how to effectively write a character who had been a great warrior but loses the ability to walk. (Speaking of which, if anyone knows of some really good resources on the topic, please let me know!)

When I'm writing my characters, I find I do best seeing how they react to the same events differently. I have ideas about each character's temperament and goals, but seeing them come up against the same obstacles or against each other really helps to shape their differences more effectively - and hopefully will do the same for the reader. I do worry that one of my characters - Rurik - has been called cliche by someone who read my current progress in the story. I've been thinking, since then, about how much this matters. Cliches can do a great deal for us, at times, and one of the main things I have tried to weave into my story (sometimes less subtly than others, for example I have specific chapters called "Memory" where someone in the world is telling a folktale or legend from my universe) is that the repetition of certain stories or certain kinds of stories has power. Sometimes a story is at its best because we already know its soul, on some level, because its part of this great human memory. But at the same time, I think this familiar image of a classic, honorable knight that Rurik represents may actually be a myth in his own head; he made one tremendous, terrible decision that haunts him, and I think it's possible that what distinguishes him from other honorable knight characters is that he tries to fit that cliche, in hopes that it might erase his past.
C-A-Harland's avatar
C-A-HarlandStudent Writer
Those are some great methods you've got there. Putting your characters in a difficult situation and seeing how each reacts is a really good way to dig into their individual traits and find what sets them apart.

It's difficult to completely avid cliches, especially since (as you said) they came about for a reason and can in fact be useful. The trick with handling cliches is to try and find a way to put a spin on the "ordinary". Find some unique element that makes your character or story stand out from the others. Check out our previous article on Cliches and Why You Should Avoid Them for more ideas.
AzizrianDaoXrak's avatar
AzizrianDaoXrakHobbyist Writer
Ah! Thank you very much :) I will definitely check that out
VivaFariy's avatar
It gets boring to read about the same character in every story. Also, within one story there definitely needs to be different types of people. In life every person you meet is different, so why would you have three characters who are pretty much the same person but with one or two differences?
I do a lot of character creation for role playing, and even though each character is for a different group, I try to make them different because all people is different. I give them each a different background and life story, and that shapes them into a unique person. Two people who grew up in completely different households are not going to have the same personality, opinions and viewpoints.
If they have the same background, like two siblings, I just make sure to give them different likes and dislikes, which makes different personalities. Except, I just realized that in real life I know a few sets of twins who seem to like the exact same things, but then they each have their little quirks. Everyone has a quirk, a bad habit, something small and unique about them. Adding those things really help diversify characters.

I'm not so good about having characters who are diverse in race and stuff like that. Diverse on a larger scale. I've even noticed that I've only role played one male character, and my protagonists are usually female, because I'm female and until last year I hadn't really interacted with many boys. That's not a bad thing, but now I'm trying to write more male characters. I don't really know how to write as a character who is very different from me, but that is why you create a detailed background so you understand where that character came from.
C-A-Harland's avatar
C-A-HarlandStudent Writer
Writing from the POV of someone quite different from yourself can be a great way to explore different ideas and also can be a lot of fun. Creating a character background is a good way to go about this, as you said, because it can help you to get into the person's head and understand who they are.
Vexisss's avatar
VexisssStudent General Artist
I have a lot of trouble with diversity, uniqueness of characters, voice, and overall separation of points of view of different characters. This really helps! Thank you for writing this! ^w^
I love that you include more in diversity than the typical gender, race and sexuality themes that I see in tutorials/articles like these. There is a lot more focus around depth and reader interest, and helping make the story and characters unique through their diversity, and not just making them different for reviews. The links are great, and I love the site that you link to in these!
Have a great day/night! Hoping to see more of these :)
C-A-Harland's avatar
C-A-HarlandStudent Writer
You're welcome, and we're so glad you found it helpful. I hope this helps inspire you to try out some different styles of characters. :)
Vexisss's avatar
VexisssStudent General Artist
Definitely! I'm definitely seeing some ways I can incorporate this advice :)
TuesdayNightCompany's avatar
Diversity just means obvious distinctions between characters, as shown by their dialogue (everyone chooses words differently) and actions.
I'm not the best at voice diversity.  I try in every single one of my stories but they never feel truly unique to me. They behave differently, for sure, but I have difficulty truly separating them by dialogue alone. My characters are not samey-same but they don't quite punch you between the eyes with "wow, these characters are really unique from one another!"
I don't think about a "method" for diverse characters. I'm interested in the way various people think -- I just start writing and resolve their personalities that way. I am just the worst at writing jerkwads, though. Assholes, bitches, and jerks. They elude me.
C-A-Harland's avatar
C-A-HarlandStudent Writer
Sometimes you as the writer can have the hardest time seeing the differences between your characters, as you have a much more in-depth overview of them than your readers do. If you're ever uncertain of whether or not your characters stand out, the best thing to do is hand your work over to a beta reader and have them tell you who stood out and who blended in. Which characters were memorable, and which ones got confused with others. 
TuesdayNightCompany's avatar
Oh, I have to involve other living beings in the stuff I presumably write for other living beings to ultimately read?
Gross.
Zara-Arletis's avatar
Zara-ArletisHobbyist Writer
I'm still working on building diversity in my fiction. I tend to start my characters with broad archetypes based on the genre and type of story I want to tell, then I get into the background and motivations. If I've got a clear picture in my mind, the characters develop on their own paths and everything is peachy. Other times, I find myself going back into the text to revise, remove, replace, or significantly edit the character, especially dialogue.

I really think this is one of those areas in story writing where it helps to have good critique, an outside opinion that can view the text without the creative context. -If they pick up on the characters as diverse and organic, it's golden. If not, it's back to the desk for me.
C-A-Harland's avatar
C-A-HarlandStudent Writer
I absolutely agree with you on that second part. Getting a fresh set of eyes to look at your story can sometimes be the best way to be sure that your characters come across as diverse and also believable. 
BATTLEFAIRIES's avatar
Youknow I should probably start with saying thank you for the reminder that diversity does not only mean including minorities, because by now that's all I can think about when it comes up. I do think though, that it is the most challenging aspect of the whole concept - to make out for yourself where you stand on the matter, if you're not yet convinced of the need for inclusiveness after illuminara's few words on the topic there.

I only need to think of the favour I'd be doing the one LGTB+ person who reads my story, or the middle-eastern woman, or the heavy girl, to want to include a character like those who is more to the story than just being gay, middle-eastern or fat. Besides, it's interesting from a writer's point-of-view to see where going for the atypical option will lead you, what oportunities it presents and how it might make for a more memorable reading experience.
I've enjoyed, on two separate occasions, writing about an elderly person: for me, being only 31 (and terribly uninteresting), that is still pretty much unexplored territory and an interesting pair of shoes to imagine myself in. This is also true with people who have backgrounds of oppression and persecution, loss, or just bad life decisions - because for all the characters I write, I require to have some measure of insight in their minds, to figure out for myself how they would react, speak, and reason. Once I get to that point, characters pretty much write themselves; that's an amazing thing to see happening.

I admit, mind, that my number one method of creating new and diverse characters is giving in to the appeal of trying out something I haven't had my hands on yet - whether that is starting out with a challenging concept (like writing an old, male, cynical man), a 'but what if they -' question or wanting to include a specific minority I think I didn't see a lot yet. When it comes to picking a gender, I try to pick those arbitrarily depending on what the last person I wrote about was, and so go back and forth between men and women. I would very much like to say I include gays a lot, but hardly any story I write revolves around romantic feelings so those preferences hardly ever come up. I think it is important though, when it does come of it, that gay and lesbian characters aren't attracted to everybody they meet. That's not what happens with heterosexuals, either (though you could argue that some fiction writers can't seem to abide single men and women alongside one another without ending up in a relationship).

Anyway I think it really pays off standing still and thinking consciously about the very basic choices you make for your characters - whether they should be men or women, beautiful or plain, smart or dim, likeable or grating. By now there are so many cookie-cutter characters out there that it can really be a breath of fresh air if you make something like a medieval, axe-toting, hooded executioner a woman instead of a man - it tends to stand out to the point you might tell yourself, 'that's so cool, I think I want to draw a picture of that'. It fires the imagination, gets people to really see that moment before them. And I think that is a great tool to have for writing engaging fiction.
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