Wednesday, September 9

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, September 09, 2015 10 comments
Photo credit: Prawny from 
Last year, a handful of authors began an initiative called "We Need Diverse Books" to raise awareness about  the lack diversity in traditionally published children's books. Librarians and educators have joined them. In their mission statement, they clarify what they mean by diverse:

We recognize all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities*, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.
*We subscribe to a broad definition of disability, which includes but is not limited to physical, sensory, cognitive, intellectual, or developmental disabilities, chronic conditions, and mental illnesses (this may also include addiction). Furthermore, we subscribe to a social model of disability, which presents disability as created by barriers in the social environment, due to lack of equal access, stereotyping, and other forms of marginalization. 

Whether or not you agree with their assertion that the types of people listed above are underrepresented, and whether or not you like their language for describing the issue, the group certainly has statistics on their side, at least when it comes to kidlit. And you don't have to look far in our world to see the problems created when various groups misunderstand and mistrust one another. Literature can be a bridge for building cross-cultural understanding and empathy.

Perhaps you don't write kidlit. But do you write nothing but characters who resemble you in most ways? If so, it might be time to rethink that.

It's true that some communities are fairly ethnically homogeneous. But even they will naturally contain some of the  groups mentioned above. (I'd note WNDB doesn't discuss the ageist bias against elderly characters).

So how does one go about building fictional worlds that aren't Mayberry or Stepford?

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

Learn what the stereotypes are

It can be easy to think we're successfully diversifying our casts by including a brainy Asian best friend or a wise wheelchair-bound mentor. But both of these characterizations are based on standing stereotypes about these groups--that Asians are naturally top scholars and that disability brings magical powers of wisdom or observation. Stereotypes can be hard to identify in our own thinking because they are ingrained expectations and ways of interpreting situations that are constantly reinforced by majority culture. They are the "beam in your own eye" that prevent you from seeing correctly (to quote from Matt 7:3).

A good place to start educating yourself is the TV Tropes "Magical Minority Person" page, which describes numerous stereotyped depictions of diverse characters often shunted into supporting roles.

Read diverse books

You very well may have to go outside your genre to find work by authors of other ethnicities, or at least to bookshops outside your neighborhood.

Listen to the cadence of books translated from other languages. Look for diverse thematic concerns. What values are rewarded and vices punished in communities unlike your own?

Expand your study

Do you find yourself drawn to particular cultures and subcultures? Read all you can about them, and seek out all their modes of creative expression. Learn all you can about historical shaping forces and how those play into a culture's self-concept and dreams for tomorrow.

Think about how what you learned could press against or defy certain stereotypes about that group. Consider what traits might marginalize a person even in that minority, and what traits would mark him/her a "winner" or leader.

Listen and ask

If you're able to get to know individuals that belong to the minority group you'd like to depict, be genuine and vulnerable. Don't treat them like lab specimens. Ask them questions you would any friend you'd want to know more deeply and be equally willing to share your own stories.

Where did you grow up? What was that like?
What did you love and hate most about your childhood?
What do you like to do for fun as a kid?
What careers did you aspire to?
Who were your heroes?
How did you fit in or stand out in your family, school, neighborhood?
What "borders" have you had to cross in your life? What has that been like?
What bugs you about mainstream media portrayals of your neighborhood?
What do you wish outsiders knew about your community?

If you develop a character based on your friend's stories, let the friend beta read before you finalize your manuscript, to ensure your depiction isn't off base.


It's difficult to do another culture justice until you've inhabited it yourself. There's only so much that reading books, watching movies, listening to music, and even interviewing can provide. If you find you want to take the big leap and write a protagonist from a group to which you don't belong (versus a supporting character), it may be necessary to live for a time among that group. Actually walking through a neighborhood, learning its smells and flavors, feeling your heart thump at its dangers or soar at its delights--those experiences will give you the most realistic details to use in your work. Otherwise, you're likely to resort to stereotype and trope.

The people you meet and observe day after day will provide the best characterization details, the most accurate lingo for dialogue, and the most compelling backstories. Just be sure to create composites of several real people, or disguise them by changing key details (age, gender, appearance).

Have you written characters outside the cultural groups to which you belong? What tips would you add?


  1. I don't have any tips to add, but I have written supporting characters outside my own culture. They are usually just added in as I think of my character interracting with the. Unfortunately, one of my main characters is an organized crime leader, and racist, to a point, so putting in people of color sometimes seems stereotyping. But I do have a variety of diabled and elderly, so hopefully that satisfies diversity.

    Great tips Laurel.

    1. So this is the kind of guy who'd avoid being around other enthnic groups. I think it could be interesting to see how someone like that would cope with a character from a group he derides playing against his expectations.

  2. Excellent post! It's so important to be aware of what/who you are writing and the real world. I'm lucky in that I'm a teacher and am around kids/parents from a variety of cultures every day. I've learned a lot that way, but I still do research!

    1. You're fortunate to have potential beta readers too, which can help you avoid gaffes that upset people.

  3. I agree with all of this. My everyday experiences have led me to write diverse characters (in a variety of ways: disabilities, ethnicity, culture, etc.). I did research and talked to people as well, but ultimately, my characters formed subconsciously because I no longer keep myself in a community (or bubble) of sameness, as I did years ago. Portraying characters as real and not stereotypes is a must.

    1. Living in a diverse community definitely is a help. And having a desire to see more kinds of people represented in our work can't be bad either. I feel like I have soooo much to learn, having grown up in rural, very white community.

  4. I have created characters that are not "like" me, and I've sweated while doing that. A white middle-aged woman putting words into a black or chicano teen's mouth is a challenge. So I don't do it lightly. One of the hardest things to understand is our own culture, our own deep seated cultural biases, so I try for awareness of that, then I write with caution.

    1. Excellent point. I found the TV tropes site really, really eye opening for understanding some of those biases. It is tricky when there are some who believe no one has the right to even attempt representing a group they don't belong to. One would hope that with careful research, observation, interviewing, then collecting feedback, a nuanced portrayal is somehow possible.

  5. Great thoughts. One of my favorite series actually took place in ancient India. You don't get much more diverse than that. Here's my only hold up with the stereotypes: I thought they were way blown out of proportion until I lived in NYC. Suddenly I began to understand that they exist for a reason. I'm not saying they're 100% accurate, but aspects may be. In that regard, I think we have to be sensitive specifically to the work we're writing and what attitudes (especially multi-generational ones) actually exist for that group.

    1. Interesting point. It brings to mind the idea that every culture/subculture/ affinity group has a filter through which it interprets behavior. So while someone from the deep South may find New Yorkers "rude", they feel they are honest and forthright; they, in turn, might view "polite" Southerners as fake and manipulative. Each culture values different things (tact vs. authenticity) and judges other's behaviors in alignment with those values. That is something one must always keep in mind when creating ANY character. No one has a perfectly objective view of anyone else. Understanding value systems is essential.