While I write main characters that nearly live within my own experiences, a novel full of people like that is blind to the world as it is. Furthermore, this is fiction! If I can’t portray Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of integrated communities here, then what’s the point? But writing a diverse cast is full of pitfalls, such as stereotyping, tokenism, blindness, and appropriation, not to mention that there’s bound to be some conflict around privilege between my characters if I’ve written them authentically. Here are some practical tips to help you write a diverse cast.
#1 Research Your Setting To Reflect Its Demographics
Creating supporting characters makes me unueasy, because if they aren’t contributing to the plot or the main character’s development, I am going to cut them before the final draft. They have to be useful, and I feel guilty about that. Throw in diverse characters, and that’s how we end up with tropes like the Black character always dying first in horror films.
Once I’ve listed the characters necessary for the plot (by function, not personality), I check the demographics of my chosen setting. For example, my latest manuscript is set in Milwaukee, which according to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2010, was 44% White, 40% Black, and 17% Hispanic or Latino. Therefore, my cast is split pretty evenly between Black and White characters, with a smaller percentage of Hispanic or Latino characters. I avoided any other race or ethnicity, because the percentage would amount to one character, if that. Having just one character of any demographic increases the chance of stereotyping and/or tokenism.
Demographics do not typically report on the gender spectrum or sexual orientation, so another method must suffice. For gender, the majority are male or female (so most novels should be split almost 50-50), but other genders should also be represented, in multiples, if possible. There are exceptions to the gender division, based on your setting or plot, but if you don’t have a good reason why the novel is not representative, reconsider your breakdown.
While the vast majority of people report as heterosexual, populating a setting with only heterosexuals perpetuates a reality that never existed–except in select novels and media. Again, populate your cast to fit real demographics. If you’re writing fantasy, we’ll discuss how demographics apply in my post in two weeks, though the standard rule of going for multiples still applies.
Setting is important in other areas as well. For example, if your novel is set in Boston and none of your characters are Catholic, know that you are telling a minority narrative. Do your homework!
#2 Read a lot.
Of course, filling a quota or “coloring in” your cast isn’t enough. If you want to write characters of color, you must read authors of color. If you want to write women, you must read women. If you want to write LGBTQIA, you must read authors who are LGBTQIA . If you want to write neurodiversity and ability, you must read neurodiverse authors and authors with disabilities. If you want to write Muslim characters, you must read Muslim authors. If you want to write working-class, you must read working-class authors.
And I don’t just mean one book.
I mean oodles.
And I don’t just mean fiction.
I mean non-fiction too.
There are tons of great resources for finding titles in any genre. My favorites are We Need Diverse Books for children’s, middle grade, and young adult books, and Read Diverse Books for adult books. Use them.
#3 Be honest.
Ask yourself these questions before you proceed:
- Now that you’ve chosen some demographics, will the characters act basically the same as originally planned? If the answer is yes, this is blindness, and you need to read more.
- Do you have beta readers in mind that share some demographics with your characters? If not, make some new friends or save up to hire cultural sensitivity readers when the book is completed.
- Can the reading you’ve done sufficiently replace first-hand experience? In other words, is this your story to tell? Sometimes our supporting characters and their plots can overshadow the main plot of a work-in-progress. If you’re getting the sense that the story would be better told by one of the supporting cast members, then it may not be your story to tell.
#4 Write woke.
Writing a diverse cast takes a fine hand, because many stereotypes have some grounding in reality. If they’re abandoned completely, readers criticize the writing as inauthentic. If they’re upheld, readers criticize the writing as stereotyping and therefore inauthentic. In short, damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
That’s why I advocate having multiple people from the same demographic. For example, in my manuscript, there is a family characters who are Mexican or Mexican-American, depending on the generation. I’ve put in bold where each character departs from stereotype.
- A wise, matriarchal abuela who runs a taqueria, but is also a passionate entrepreneur who doesn’t put up with any crap.
- A mama who looks out for her children and has power in her tears.
- A male love interest who is sensitive, overweight, and works in the trucking industry.
- A widely respected female professor who excels in potion work and is confident.
Most of theses characters are a mix, and that’s the goal. If a reader tries to build an argument that I haven’t done my homework or that I’m being disrespectful, they’ll have to deal with the entire demographic in my book. Of course, all of these characters are also essential to the story. They weren’t created just to fulfill some quota. The rule that all characters must serve the story and/or the main character’s journey still stands.
Try writing about your cast in this way: “So-and-so is an POSITIVE AUTHENTIC DESCRIPTOR HERE, but also HAS THESE OTHER CHARACTERISTICS THAT ARE EITHER ATYPICAL OR DIRECTLY COUNTER NEGATIVE STEREOTYPES.”
That’s the difference between authenticity and stereotyping–authenticity celebrates positives; stereotyping remembers negatives. Blending well known positives with additional details that counter or challenge makes for well-rounded characters. This is something that should be done for all characters. While not airing negatives may feel inauthentic, I would argue that those are well known to the point of cliche. I’ll talk about this more in next week’s post on diverse settings.
When describing your characters, Writing with Color is the go-to resource for describing people of color in ways that do not reduce them to fetishes or inanimate objects. They’ve also expanded their offerings to discuss gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, religion, neurodiversity, and ability as well.
As you write and revise, don’t forget to write woke. You’ve populated your novel with diverse characters, and that means that privilege will come up. Watch how your characters with privilege treat other characters in the book. You need to know when, where, and why they are and aren’t oblivious to their own privilege, because your diverse characters certainly will.