What are diverse characters, and what does it mean to have diversity in your stories?
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?
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 Test, nor the LGBT Fans Deserve Better pledge. We 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
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
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.
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.
DiscussionWhat 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.