Not all writers develop a full FBI background-check on their main and supporting characters and that’s okay. But when it comes time to edit your work and take a critical look at just how believable those characters really are, looking at the truth of diversity is essential.
It is said, “Don’t write what you don’t know.”
My response to this has always been, “If you don’t know what you want to write then research it ’till you’re blue in the face.”
It is said, “A white woman cannot adequately portray a black man in fiction.”
My response to this is, “Bulls**t.”
Now, let me explain why…
If said “white woman” grew up with a black male role model in her life (brother, father, best friend, uncle, long-time neighbour that’s practically part of the family – you get the picture) then I believe this particular writer has the potential to accurately portray that character. Either through personal experience or deep research, we writers have the ability to write beyond the structure of who we are as individuals.
The difference between a 2 dimensional character and a 3 dimensional one is the believability factor:
Is this character representative of a type?
Is this character representative of a real human being?
I touched on the “humanity” of our characters in part 1 but my focus remained on the general idiosyncrasies of life. I’m putting the spotlight specifically on diversity here because it can literally make or break a story. (This could also relate to character “flaws and quirks” but not in the sense that the diverse identity is the flaw but the result of this person’s early experiences can develop coping mechanisms that might inform an important flaw or quirk).
Whether a main or supporting character happens to represent some aspect of race, gender identity or disability, if you trivialize this aspect of your character then you also marginalize those readers who might identify with them.
I’ve been told by a lesbian (more than one, and a few gays too) that learning Dumbledore was ‘gay’ after the Harry Potter series was over did not endear her to either J.K. Rowling or the character since nothing truly representative of her lifestyle, heartache, and choices were flushed out. Everything J.K. attributed to being representative of this trait could have (and was) read or taken in a different way.
In her Darkest Powers Trilogy, Kelly Armstrong makes one of the male love interests (a main character) of Asian descent. The only reason you know he’s Asian is via a few hints of physical description – otherwise he is, all things considered, an American boy.
Now, there are two schools of thought with Armstrong’s case:
1) Her character is a bonified “American” child with no recent ties to the Orient and thus she is being true to the character because he is “fully assimilated”. That she is in fact attempting to show that regardless of skin-colour/race everyone is the same (wouldn’t that be nice?).
2) Her character is strictly representational by proxy. She could have swapped a white American boy in his place and the story wouldn’t have changed thus making his character’s race a “token” attribute rather than a meaningful plot point.
In the 70s when Captain Kirk was the first “white man” to ever kiss a “black woman” on T.V. it was considered ground breaking. The fact that Star Trek had a visual representation of a wide racial band of people living and working together in harmony in the future was enough – because it wasn’t the norm or the perceived norm in society.
In this day and age it’s imperative that we dig deeper.
We need to steer away from 2 dimensional and stereotypical representations of diversity and own them. It might be some small manifestation of religion or culture that is legitimate to the character that you leave hints of, or it might very well be the observance of coping mechanisms these diverse people live with. The sincerity of these moments in your work and the life of your characters does not need to overpower the main thrust of your story, but they should inform it.
Don’t be afraid to get personal with your characters.
Happy Editing 🙂
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