Diversity Is More Than A Checklist

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“Diversity” is one of those leading terms in the writing world right now. Issues related to the call for diversity are complex and many-layered and come into play on every level of the publishing industry. Today, I’m only focusing on the layer of characters within a story.

White is the default setting.

Maybe you read differently. That’s fine, but you have to understand that the vast majority of your audience will believe your characters white, heterosexual, and cisgendered until you prove them otherwise. Sometimes that proof requires reiteration.

Diversity is not a checklist.

The call to check all the boxes can be a siren song when you want to make sure your story reflects a varied and complex world. I get it! Representation matters, which means that including characters from various ethnicities, religions, sexualities, and gender representations matters.

But throwing in everything and the kitchen sink? Please don’t do it for the sake of doing it.

Representation matters.

I can’t stress this enough. But how do you portray these characters? Is the black woman always angry or the gay character only every in abusive relationships? Some stereotypes have become so ingrained that we use them without realizing it. After all, problematic portrayals can be worse than no portrayal.

Going back to that whole ‘diversity is not a checklist’ thing…

I have subjected far too many people to my current novel project at varying draft stages. My most recent round of feedback included a note that I only had heterosexual romances. I had already known this and wanted to change it, but couldn’t see how without altering other dynamics, messages, or themes important to me.

An absolutely amazing note called out the gendered balance of power, and this I hadn’t seen at all. While my characters overall have decent gender parity, and despite a female protagonist, I’d given the majority of the power to male characters.

This bothered me. A lot.

I sat with it and struggled with it and couldn’t find a good solution. None of the potential changes I concocted worked for the story.

Then last month I was down in Portland, Maine for my nephew’s high school graduation. At the hotel, I stayed up late each night we were there. My niece fell asleep and I attempted to speed-read my way through the novel.

It hit me like a sledgehammer: what if I make this one character female? The character was currently a slightly effeminate old man, so I wouldn’t even have to change much beyond pronouns.

Follow the bunny trails.

Following the ‘what-if’ bunny trails, I realized that I would then have a trifecta of women in power (loosely following maiden/mother/crone archetypes) to offset a trifecta of men in power. See the symmetry? It makes the story stronger.

But as I read and the what-if’s kept flowing, I discovered one key difference in the gender swapped versions: the effeminate old man presented as asexual (which often happens to older characters to the point of being problematic – asexual characters are vastly underrepresented, but older characters have sexuality stripped away). My old-lady general, on the other hand, would have a female lover. Her partner came in the form of a side character who had been necessary and problematic plot-wise from the very beginning. In each of the many, many drafts, this side character fizzled and vanished by the end.

This romance allows me to tie her plot-thread back into the resolution. It becomes a cleaner, more satisfying story.

I didn’t add these layers to check off boxes. But once I saw how the story needed these elements, it became stronger, richer. The added diversity also adds depth and cohesion.

That’s how I know my story needed it.

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