Things I Wish I Knew: 5 Things To Know When Writing Diverse Characters by Dahlia Adler

You might know Dahlia Adler as an author, a blogger, a Twitter enthusiast (follow her)–or all three! But I know her as an intelligent advocate of marginalized voices and talented writer of diverse stories. She’s our next expert in the “Things I Wish I Knew” series.

Writing diverse characters is a life skill for a writer. It starts with the complex question: how does any writer write about things that they haven’t lived? Writing a diverse cast of characters has always been important, but with the (much needed) push of the We Need Diverse Books campaign among other things I want it to be clear that diversity is not a trend. Diversity reflects the way we live our lives in the real world–we’re all different and everyone deserves to have themselves reflected in what they read.

For advice on writing a diverse cast, please hear from the one and only Dahlia Adler…

5 Things To Know When Writing Diverse Characters

1. Diversity is not a monolith. We hear that phrase a lot, but what does it mean, practically, when writing a character? It means throwing out your preconceived notions of “A character being Black/Latina/gay/blind/Muslim/Jewish etc. means This.” The one thing being marginalized means across the board is that the characters have likely faced microaggressions in their lives, and been made conscious of ways in which they are different from the most privileged. It does not mean they’re resentful, it does not mean they view the ways in which they are marginalized as a shortcoming or something they do not celebrate.

2. Listen and watch how people within a community talk to each other, without your participation. Consume media by that community for that community. That’s where your authenticity is gonna come from more than anywhere else. You can ask someone a million questions about their identity but those things that most strongly resonate are also probably so strongly ingrained, they’d never think to tell you. As an example of this, I always remember seeing an Asian woman on Twitter (I’m sorry, I wish I could remember who!) reacting to the way Jessica on Fresh Off the Boat cut fruit in the pilot episode. It was such a bone-deep familiar thing, but I don’t think it’s the kind of detail you’d ever think to express to someone who asked; you just see it and you know – this was written by someone who Knows who I am.

3. As important as “What must be in the depiction of a marginalized character in order to write it” is “What must not be.” When doing your research, see what those people are sick of seeing, are inaccuracies, are lazy stereotypes, are stories that have been done to death in one way or another. For instance, as a Jewish person, I am very, very tired of the Holocaust being the setting for all of our stories. Yes, it hugely impacted my life. But A) we are people beyond it, and B) it perpetuates a very monolithic idea of Jewish identity as being of Eastern-European origin, when in fact there are huge, important, thriving Jewish communities of North African, Middle-Eastern, Spanish, and other origins. Is it offensive to set a book during the Holocaust? No. But is it perpetuating things about our culture and its place in media many of us would like to stop seeing perpetuated? Yes, and that should be relevant to you if you are using our culture for your story.

4. Don’t throw one community under the bus for another. I see this a lot in queer literature, where there’s a bisexual secondary character who’s some “slutty” foil to lesbians, for example. Don’t do this. If your character creation is reliant on other people looking bad so your character looks good, you are unquestionably writing a weak character.

5. There will never be a unanimous agreement among the writing community about who is permitted to write what, so think long and hard about your values in that conversation, and also the people it most deeply affects. If you’re writing outside your lane, deeply consider what already exists by creators of that group and how you can support them as well. Deeply consider why you have chosen this perspective, and why yours is a necessary voice on it. And most of all, really deeply consider your readers and the importance to them of you doing your research and how you present them. The kids seeing themselves in your books. The kids who may be doing so for the very first time. And let them guide you most of all.

More About Dahlia:

I’m an Associate Editor of mathematics by day, a Copy Editor by night, and I do a whole lot of writing at every spare moment in between. I’ve also been a Production Intern and Editorial Assistant at Simon & Schuster, a Publicity Intern at HarperCollins, and a Fashion Intern at Maxim. (I’m kind of into that whole publishing thing.)

I’m the author of the YA novels Behind the Scenes, Under the Lights, and Just Visiting, and the NA novels Last Will and TestamentRight of First Refusal (March 15, 2016), and Out on Good Behavior (Spring 2016). For information on those books and where you can buy them, check out My Books!

I live in New York City with my husband and our overstuffed bookshelves, and you can find me on Twitter at @MissDahlELama and blogging at B&N Teens, The Daily Dahlia, and YA Misfits.

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6 Tips To Hook A Reader on Page One

I’ve read thousands of “page ones.” Very often I don’t read page two.

Sometimes all I read is that first page and I make judgements based on what I see there. As an agent and a reader my practice is that if I’m not connecting with the material I move on–and quickly.

I wish I had time to give writers (and their books) more of a chance but I can tell a lot by one page: sense of dialogue, setting, pace, character, voice, and writing talent–yes, usually all from one page. Five at the most.

So how are you supposed to get us past one page?

6 Tips To Hook A Reader on Page One

1. Learn how to balance what readers need to know vs. what you, as the writer, want to tell us. I can sense a writer who is trying to show off very quickly. It really only takes one paragraph to see that. A command of language is knowing how to write for your audience, not showing off how you can set a scene with a vocabulary that your reader can’t connect with. Showing off isn’t going to win readers over. It’s going to make the decision to walk away very easy. All the reader needs to know is who has a secret (see more at point 3). This tip is all about going back and editing your first page over and over again. Polished, but not so shiny that we think we’re reading a magazine ad.

2. Learn what “start with action” really means. We’re not asking every writer to start their book with a car crash. In fact, most shouldn’t! What we’re asking is to make sure that your book starts in a place where plot is happening, not merely an introduction to the scene or characters. The longer you take to drop some hints the more confused we are and that encourages people to put down the book. Action means movement of some kind: start of a conflict, effects of a previous conflict, or dialogue about new/existing conflict.

3. Let us know who has secrets; keep the reader curious. Every character must have a secret. It is linked to their stakes and why they must achieve their goal. Don’t underestimate the power of a secret. It could be something as small as what they were embarrassed by last week or something as big as a major mistake at work. And read this PubCrawlBlog post to learn more. Remember that characters need to feel like they had a life before we entered their world via the book, and that they’ll have an interesting life afterwards too.

4. Be wary of information dumps. The number one killer of a page one: more didactic text and backstory then we could possibly need. Instead of information dumping on us (remember we’re joining you at this exact moment–so what do we need to know to enjoy this moment as it stands?) try things like dialogue instead. Dialogue is a great way to get plot moving while introducing us to your world. If you’re tempted to give us more backstory or facts than we need (I don’t need to know where your character is from, their hair colour, or their sibling order) remember that there is a reason you started your book in this place and it should relate to the fact that their life changes in this instant. No facts are needed if you start in the right place.

5. Introduce characters on a need-to-know basis. There’s nothing more confusing than reading more than 3 or 4 names on page 1. Not only is it hard to keep straight the names themselves, I’m also thoroughly confused about which name matches which voice especially in dialogue. Be careful to only mention characters we need to know at that time. That will prevent the reader from putting down your book before we’ve even begun because they feel they can’t keep up.

6. Never assume a reader is going to finish your first page, first chapter, or whole book. Free time is a luxury these days. When a reader picks up a book that’s a huge statement about how they spend their free time. Dedicating 8-10 hours to your writing should never be assumed. So if you keep that in mind as you write and edit you’ll be in great shape to keep the pace moving and stakes high.

Perfect Characters as Default: Why this is problematic

Once Upon A Time pencilThe number of pitches, synopses or opening lines I’ve seen like this is outstanding:

[Your character’s] life was simple, quiet and perfect…until it wasn’t.

I’m being dramatic, but perfection as a default is firstly boring, and secondly I want to know where the humanity is, not the godliness.

Think about these tips instead:

  • I assume that we’re meeting your character at an interesting time in their life (or why else would you be starting the book here?): so get to telling us about it! Cut your opening line about perfection and ask yourself the tough questions: what is it the deep-rooted source of conflict for your troubled character.
  • Instead of your character being perfect (because no one is!) tell me about their background in struggle. For example: what made them blind to asking questions about their life or blind to the conflict that’s about to come in the next 80k words? What makes THIS moment the moment when things changed?
  • Just like people, we can’t assume characters had no life before we meet them. Your characters should feel so rich that they had lives before we start to read about them on the page.
  • If you think your character’s life was perfect before the (real or metaphorical) asteroid hit their world then I don’t believe you’re thinking deeply enough about their backstory.
  • Challenge yourself to think about your characters as living before and after the book is done. If you need help, use this blog post: 30 Questions to Ask Your Main Character. Or this funny one.

What novelists can learn from Serial Podcast

Anyone else get into the Serial podcast these past few months?

True crime, compelling storytelling, angle by angle each week–I was hooked!

Serial is the most popular podcast in the history of the format, 5 million downloads and streams. So what makes it so powerful? Let’s unpack it.

So what can novelists learn from the power of podcasts, and Serial?

1. Power of narrative. Everyone knows what great storytelling can do: make you cry watching a commercial, make a book unforgettable. Even the simplest stories, if done well, can bring you to the brink of tears. (Opening of Up anyone?)

2. Serialization format. Like Wattpad, Serial worked because we learn a little at a time which ends up contributing to the greater picture and brings anticipation with each instalment. Wattpad has had many success stories that lead to traditional publishing deals and is a great way for writers to see if they have what it takes to tell a story chapter by chapter.

3. Learning character motivation. One of the most interesting things about Serial was trying to figure out who had the motivation to commit Hae’s murder. People are complex (and your characters should be too) and there often isn’t a reason for everything. So how do you make characters 3D? Give them real life situations and life-or-death motivations. Everything they do should feel bigger than what’s on the page.

4. Universal themes. The reason Serial was such a big hit was that it touched on emotions and triggers that are universal in nature: love, loss, jealousy, revenge, friendship, secrecy, trust. Don’t try to make human nature more complex than it is. We’re simple in that we’ve had the same concerns since Shakespeare, and even earlier than that really.

5. (Un)reliable narrators. Who do you trust? Who is telling the truth? A classic dilemma in literature and in life. Do we really know anyone? How can you bring this dilemma to your writing and to your narrators?

6. Multiple angles. Serial had experts, friends and family weighing in. Seeing the act of murder from many people’s eyes makes you wonder which perspective is the most accurate one. Can anyone have an opinion worth hearing if they weren’t there? Think about how multiple POV can bring more to your book than a single POV.

7. Memory. Memory is a very strange thing. What do we really know? And if we don’t remember something does that mean it didn’t happen the way people tell us it did? Memory has had a long history in literature, but it’s always an interesting writing trope. Human’s don’t have perfect memory and it shouldn’t be surprising when your characters don’t either.

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Q: That’s what I took from Serial. What was your favorite part of Serial from a writer’s perspective?