Diversity in Fiction: Crafting Characters Respectfully

I’m not one to go seeking out hot-button issues, but the truth is when we don’t address underlying, systemic problems of all the ‘isms’ in our culture (from government programs, to housing applications, to writing fiction–) they continue to hold power over and harm other human beings. So, I’m discussing today how we, as writers, can be not only sensitive to the characters we create but the effects of their existence on our world. After all, stereotypes exist because we fail to see them in all the subtle ways they permeate our lives. As ethical and compassionate people, we should work towards burning down those untruths as much as possible, even in our own work.

I’m not going to stand on a soap box and preach without starting with myself. I’ve probably, in my ignorant and un-learned past, created characters that simplified the complexities of a human into certain traits. I’ve tried not to. I tried to craft my characters as strong, independent and powerful, more tuned to their personalities than their physical traits. But there were still subtle things, I wasn’t even aware of at the time, that filtered from my limited white experience. As I look into rewriting this character, I am constantly questioning how I can do better.

We all should. We owe it to the character, to the reader (and to the world) to examine our writing and go forward with an eye to our own hidden (and not so hidden) biases or ideas.

The best advice I can give you is to strip yourself of any cloak of magnanimous “equality”. Start by reading some real, hard to stomach, but necessary soul-exploring books on the complexities of race and gender equality, the reason systemic problems exist, and how we can best eradicate them. Talk to people from every background, attend classes, lectures, and forums, open discussions of others’ experiences. Do it with an open heart, and a willingness to accept your part in the system. Have the dedication to do something about it.

When we are invested in writing characters different from ourselves (race, gender, religion, sexuality, age etc) one of the best things we can do is RESEARCH. In the expansiveness of the Internet, so much good information, written by diverse voices, can be found. The ones most important (and really the only viable ones) are those written in their own voice, about their own experience.

I also encourage you to talk to as many other people of all walks of life as you can. (And not just to research for your work…do it for the benefit of your humanity and compassion.) While I DO NOT advocate for you turning your ‘one black friend’ into your go-to for all questions about a diverse, varied and culturally rich part of our world (it’s not their job or duty to educate you), don’t shy away from respectful and honest conversations that come up, especially when they happen from immersing yourself in different situations and events from a standpoint of open mindedness and learning.

Above all, when you are writing diverse characters DON’T, for the love of god, assume that by describing their skin color/religion/orientation that you’ve described their character in total. DON’T stereotype them. DON’T include diverse characters just for the sake of checking off a box.

DO make them unique to their upbringing, their experience, and their situation. DO describe all of your characters equally and in rich and expansive ways.

I’ve always believed that good storytelling is universal. And in our connected and dynamic world, it would be a shame to only write one kind of person. But care for your characters and the people they may or may not represent. Here are some good resources that may help:

Good luck and don’t be afraid. Just be respectful, compassionate, and educated.

Divinity

First…an important disclaimer: this post isn’t about sugary egg whites. (Might I suggest Pinterest? You can find anything on that fucking site. Good Ol’ Fashioned Divinity)

No, this post is about an often-divisive subject, so if you’re easily offended, PLEASE keep reading and stretch that narrow mind. I promise your brain won’t fall out, no matter what the bumper sticker says.

This week’s post was inspired by my daughter’s study of religion in her 6th grade Social Studies class. What I can deduce from her thoughts on the class and the homework itself, there’s a definite sway towards Christianity happening.

And that sticks in my craw.

I have no problem with her learning about religion in school.

But I do have an problem with one religion being given more attention than the rest.

I have no problem with kids of other faiths sharing thoughts and ideas about their beliefs, in fact, I encourage the exchange of ideas.

But I do have a problem when other kids criticize my daughter because we deliberately do not attend church. Persecution, even from the under 12 crowd, should not come as a shock in our current state of affairs, and yet witnessing it happening to your child first hand for something so deeply personal makes me ill.

I choose not to attend church.

It doesn’t not mean that I don’t know about world religions, or hold any misgivings about what they espouse.

On the contrary, I minored in Religious Studies and majored in Anthropology. If anyone has a good handle on different peoples, cultures, and faiths, it’s me. It’s because of this knowledge, that I don’t practice Christianity. I could write an entire book about the whys and why nots, but that’s a discussion for another week.

So when my daughter asks if its wrong that she doesn’t attend church I have to take a deep breath and explain…

No. It is not wrong.

Your dad and I decided when you were born, that we would let you make up your own mind about what you believed. If you ever want to go to church, I will gladly take you. I will also ask that you attend other services in other religions, so that you can understand them across the board.

I would like you to believe in something, whether it be divine intervention, natural energies of the earth, physics, magic, god, goddess, Zeus, Harry Potter, Giant Donut in the sky, or aliens…as long as whatever you believe makes sense to your heart and feeds your soul.

Because religion practiced out of fear of eternal punishment does not do those things.

Because religion that bases its forgiveness and kindness towards others on if they’re judged worthy of these gifts, does not do those things.

Because religion that puts you in your place, makes you feel less than, or takes away your autonomy or ability to chose what’s right for you, does not do those things.

In other words, I want you to understand that Divinity resides in you. The system of belief that you surround yourself with must honor this Divinity.

Because you are the Divine.

Your brain is capable of phenomenal things. It visualizes and conceptualizes. It controls your body, it’s thoughts, your will and it drives your existence. It’s so amazing that it can create gods, and myths, and religious systems, and therefore, god is in all of us and we are god.

So You Are The Divine.

And when you understand this, you will also understand that so is everyone else.

Divinity resides in all of us.

(I call this the “Everybody loves their babies and mommas” theory. No matter what faith, race, ethnicity, country, political party—all of us love our babies. All of us love our moms. Not a one of us wants harm to befall those we love—no matter if we pray five times a day towards Mecca, or say fifty Hail Mary’s for last Saturday night).

We all benefit by recognizing the divinity in one other and understanding the connection we share.

We would not hurt the divine.

We would not alienate them for what they do or don’t do on a Sunday morning. We would not spew hateful rhetoric in their faces for who they love, or for how they show their divine, or the color of the carton they’re contained in.

We would treat them worthy of their divinity just as we would treat ourselves in ways worthy of our Divinity.

So gentle readers, I don’t care if you worship in a synagogue, a church, a temple, a meadow, or in your boxers on the couch watching Star Wars all Sunday morning (Side note, Star Wars; highly Buddhist…look it up, fascinating stuff. Buddhism and Star Wars.)

I don’t care how pious you are or what percentage of your paycheck you’re throwing into a golden plate every week.

I care that you are honoring what should be the cornerstone of every religion; treating others as you would like to be treated. Loving one another. Forgiving one another.

I care that you stand up when you see injustice. When you see someone hurting another, when you see someone defiling the divinity in someone else.

That’s all that really matters.

That’s what the beautiful divine in each one of us is for.

So study the religions, know what they’re about and what they espouse. Then come back to your own heart and, as Whitman once so artfully wrote,

“re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book, and dismiss whatever insults your own soul;”

Stay Divine.