Character diversity

I’m not sure if it’s just the online “circles” I hang out in or if it’s a wider thing, but lately I’ve seen a bunch of commentary and criticism on character diversity (or the lack thereof) in YA novels.

I think as authors we have a tendency for our characters to reflect the people we’re surrounded by in real life, and for most people the folks we hang out with tend to be racially similar to ourselves. The majority of our friends and acquaintances are also physically- and mentally-average, simply because people with physical and mental differences tend to be the minority. Most authors (at least most of the YA authors I know) are white, and so the books we read tend to be populated by able-bodied, mentally-average white people.

Part of this bias is probably subconscious; we don’t really realize that we’re modeling our characters after our circle of friends, the people we’re most comfortable with. But I think part of it, too, for many writers, is a fear of writing about someone who is not them, a worry about offending people by getting it wrong somehow. (This is perhaps somewhat ironic since writers have no issue with writing a character of the opposite sex.)

(Another worry I personally have is that the skin colour or other minority attributes I give a character will be linked up to the personality/background/etc of said character and interpreted as some sort of subtextual commentary by me the author, even though it’s nothing of the sort. But that’s a slightly different kettle of worms.)

I know I was guilty of a lack of diversity in my first few novels, for all these reasons. I finally started trying to create a more diverse cast of characters in my fourth and fifth novels, with Stars being my most diverse so far (fortunately aided by the nature of the setting and cast). It definitely requires a bit of conscious effort and mental retraining.

DiversifYA is a new blog started up by Marieke Nijkamp (also of the YA Misfits) and Alex Brown, dedicated to discussing diversity in YA fiction. They’ve started out by presenting interviews with a number of writers who identify themselves as a minority in some way – in race, physical ability, mental health, sexual orientation, etc. The interviews are honest and open and, I think, a great way for writers (and everyone else) to get to know a little bit of what it’s like from their point of view. Definitely worth checking out!

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The last few weeks I’ve been wrapped up with moving and getting settled into a new house, unpacking and addressing problems and all that stuff that comes with a change of address. I haven’t really had much chance to do a lot of writing, much less blog posts, but I’ve got a few links and things stored up that I hope to catch up on over the next little bit. :)

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2 responses to “Character diversity

  1. Seabrooke, I meant to comment upon this way back when you first posted but I saw the post at work & I can’t comment from my work computer (so I forgot).

    But since you’ve obviously been otherwise occupied, I now have time to get in here and comment! (I hope your move has been going well).

    I definitely feel like I’ve seen a lot of posts about this, as well as a lot of posts about how female authors are perceived/respected. I do think these are both topics that makes the rounds in writing circles, and right now it seems like they are particularly on peoples’ minds. Lately I’ve also seen some agents specifically say they’re looking for main characters who are gay/lesbian, so it does seem to be a hot topic right now.

    Honestly I think its kind of neat that we see so much attention being paid to issues like this, although I suppose the flip side is that the reason we see these issues is because it is a real problem, but I do like that we are the type of community that at least questions this and tries to improve upon the current norm.

  2. I was glancing over your blog and saw this entry. This is something I didn’t realize I had a problem with until recently. I think writing in the fantasy genre helps some, because you can make your own races and (sort of) avoid some stereotyping.

    For my WIP, my sister (who’s an artist) helped me with my main characters’ concept art/look during my brainstorming. I originally had a cast of basically all-white people, and she insisted on darker skin for the main guy. Gradually I was brainwashed, and out of that grew a whole culture and conflict that wouldn’t have been in the book at all if I’d stuck with pale skin all around.

    I really enjoy working with and meeting people who are from a different culture than me, which does lead me to hang around minorities (though not as much as I should/would like). In my future projects, I’m hoping to find more ways to continue to develop a more colorful cast.

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