Some Thoughts on Writing Diverse Characters

I am a middle-aged (or at least approaching), white, cis-het man. I’m upper middle class, and I live in the American Midwest.

You would be hard-pressed to come up with a more demographically precise human representation of “The Man” than myself. It’s fair to say that I won the lottery when it comes to privilege. As a writer with that sort of background, the past decade or so has been interesting. There are a lot more discussions (and arguments) about diversity—about who is writing and who is being written.

What “The Man” Worries About

A blogger that I follow recently posted about some of their concerns around wanting to write characters from other cultures, and worrying about getting it wrong. Is it fair to write about other cultures because you’re interested, or is that cultural appropriation? How do you write about someone different without accidentally falling into stereotypes? Is it somehow wrong to even want to tell those stories, when they don’t “belong” to you?

I’ve struggled with some of these questions myself. I happen to be the owner of a half-finished novel populated entirely by people from China and various parts of Africa. It’s a book that I began partly because I thought it would be interesting to explore a sci-fi future where China has become the world’s leading super-power, supplanting the USA (as many have postulated it eventually would). Likewise, the African Union, with many political and economic ties to China, supplants the EU in many ways.

I started writing that book years ago, before I spent much time thinking about the challenges of writing characters who are very different from myself, and before I really noticed the modern English-speaking world  openly debating these kinds of questions. One of the reasons I haven’t finished it is precisely because of those questions.

This post is not a sad story about how hard it is to be a writer like me in this day and age. I think it’s fairly obvious that my background still gives me advantages in the world of writing and publishing. I certainly believe there are much stronger headwinds for writers in a wide variety of marginalized groups.

The questions I’m interested in exploring are personal, and honestly, self-serving. What should I write, and how can I do it well?

What Should I Write?

The first big question is whether I should even be trying to write diverse characters—that is, characters with backgrounds significantly different from my own in terms of race, gender, sexuality, ability, or various other attributes.

To me, this is more a question of extent. We are all different from each other. Writing anything from the perspective of a character who isn’t myself already requires that I step out of my skin and try to understand a different perspective. Science fiction and fantasy already have a certain amount of this built-in.

However, there is obviously a spectrum of characters that are more or less similar to me. For example, my protagonist in Razor Mountain is the same ethnicity, gender and orientation as me, lives in the same region, and has a very similar job. If I start to change those things, like the characters in my older unfinished novel, where do I start to get into dangerous territory, and what exactly makes it dangerous?

The critics of all things woke might pose this as a defensive question: when do I run the risk of being canceled? But that misses the nuance of asking why someone might be upset by what I wrote. Writing a character becomes “dangerous” when I start to speak for someone in an arena where they are different from myself. This is where I run the risk of getting it badly wrong. People who are similar to that character may then feel alienated or even attacked by my inaccurate portrayal of them.

On one hand, I could simply avoid writing any characters that I think might be “too” different from myself. But if we say that nobody should write characters very different from themselves that doesn’t much help to better represent a variety of people in our literature, and it forces writers to create an artificial box around themselves to contain and limit all their writing.

This seems to me like a fearful way forward; supposedly safe, but ultimately bland. On the other hand, inclusion for the sake of inclusion is equally artificial. If I’m going to write a character, it should be because they interest me and fit the story, not to meet a quota or feel good about myself or “do the right thing.”

I don’t think it’s a good idea to be afraid to write characters that are different from myself, but I understand that I need to take responsibility for being accurate (in all the complex ways that can be interpreted). It’s also not my job to tell someone else’s story. A story that is largely about the experience of being gay or being black is almost certainly better told by someone who has lived it.

How Can I Do It Well?

That brings me to the next question. If I am going to write diverse characters, how can I do it respectfully and well?

First and foremost, do the research. Write like a journalist. Things presented as facts should be factual. If I’m going to write about characters living in a sci-fi future version of China, I had better learn as much as I can about what it’s like to live in China today, and make some smart extrapolations about what it might look like in the future.

Maybe unintuitively, I think the same principles apply to understanding people. This kind of research consists of listening to the people within that group. Find interviews or things they’ve written. Thanks to the internet, it’s possible to find people and make friends across the world more easily than ever before. It’s not uncommon these days to hire specific readers for feedback, although that feels a little uncomfortably transactional to me.

The big traps for someone like myself are the temptation to inject my own opinions and feelings into different characters instead of being honest to real perspectives. There are a lot of tropes and stereotypes floating around, often created by people very similar to myself. Primary sources are vitally important. Also, no group is a monolith. It’s worth exploring different viewpoints within a group, if you can find them.

Final thoughts

Ultimately, I see writing diverse characters as an issue of respect. Flippantly writing characters that fulfill tropes and stereotypes is not only a disservice to people who identify with those characters, it’s lazy writing. I think it’s good that we’re having these conversations, and beginning to elevate a greater variety of voices. We all benefit from that, and our literature is richer.

There are a ton of great resources out there, but I’ll link to a couple here, and they have their own lists that will get you started down the internet rabbit-hole: