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 Testament, Right 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!