This is a revised article that I first posted a few years back on my old blog after reading an article on racial diversity in speculative fiction. The question is being raised a lot these days about why main characters in books, movies, TV, and games all fit the same stereotype. If successful writers choose the same types of characters in their speculative fiction, diverse readers might not be able to relate. Therefore, there won’t be as many diverse readers of speculative fiction. Therefore, there won’t be as many diverse writers. Therefore, there won’t be as many readers—oh, right. I just said that. And thus we have a vicious cycle. So how do we break the cycle? How do writers come out of their own experiences to write about diverse characters in order to reach diverse readers, so that there is more diversity among writers of speculative fiction?
1. Appreciate how beauty itself is diverse.
First of all, question what defines beauty, not just in skin tones, but in body weight, shape, age, ability, and other terms. I think the only way we are truly going to increase diversity among fictional characters is for our real world culture to appreciate how beauty itself is diverse. It’s also helpful to remember that leading characters don’t have to be “beautiful” in order to be part of a beautiful story. The true beauty of a character design, just like with real people, is what’s found in the soul. Still, physical representation is important, so writers should reach for it where possible. Or maybe don’t reach for it at all and let the reader’s imagination fill in the blanks on occasion. Sometimes characters just come to us “as is” because that’s who they are. There’s nothing wrong with that. But as a writer, if your characters look the same, again and again, you should challenge yourself to step out of your comfort zone and try to see the world through someone else’s eyes. That is, after all, a writer’s job — to get inside the heads of lots of different people to tell their different stories.
2. Read beyond your comfort zone.
How does a writer step out of her comfort zone? Read beyond your comfort zone. When I studied literature in high school and college, most of the literary works I read were from British or American white authors. But in college I had to take one course on world and ethnic literature, in which we read literature by South American, Native American, Jewish, African, Asian, and Hispanic authors. By not being able to relate to the main character’s local culture, I learned about those cultures, and how their life experiences were very different from mine. At the same time, I saw how much we still had in common as human beings. This is the birthplace of compassion. This is what literature is all about. Be more diverse in your reading materials and authors read — in listening to what you receive — and you will be in a better position to understand and write about character diversity in your output.
3. Create diversity where there is none.
This is where speculative fiction writers can have a lot of fun because we don’t have to stick to humanity’s limitations, even though ultimately it is the human experience we write about. I write about elves, among other magical creatures. In some ways I wanted to stick very close to the original Norse mythology of the Prose Edda, so my elves would feel familiar. But in other ways I wanted to create my own interpretations and explore my imagined world setting. There is a debate among lore scholars about whether dark elves and black elves are the same race, and whether dwarves are actually gray elves or dark elves. The earliest records are unclear. So, I used that to my advantage when I created my own various elven races.
I also changed the meaning of “light” and “dark” where fae are concerned. In historic lore, the reason light elves were called “light” was because ancient people thought they were made of light, like spirits or angels. They are described as white, shining, and bright. Dark elves are depicted as amazing smiths of wondrous magical artifacts or cursed bringers of nightmares, depending on how you interpret the Prose Edda, so I decided to make my dark elves from “darkness” or “shadow”. I make it very clear in my books that my elves are not humans with pointy ears. Though they have humanoid features, they are very much a different, eldritch species. They are light or dark according to how they’ve been made of light or shadow and according to how they’ve adapted to living in light or dark places. They are also light or dark according to whether their magic is external and visible (wizardry crafted from the surrounding world’s Weave), or internal and hidden (sorcery manifested from the fae’s own mana). Maybe I will write more extensively on this in another blog on world building with races later, but for my purpose here, know that I’m talking about things much more important than skin color.
My “fae of light” include forest and plains elves that are snow white; desert jinn who are golden like their sands; dryads that are the colors of trees and live scattered across the land in isolation; seely and unseely faeries of rainbow colors from floating islands and meadows; and dark elves who have adapted to living on the surface wearing light elf illusions because they have been forbidden to live in the surface kingdom, but are not welcome underground in their former homeland. My “fae of dark” include subterranean elves that are blue-black like a raven’s wing; gray dwarves who live both on and under the mountains trying to remain neutral between the surface and subterranean kingdoms; and the blue-skinned merfolk who live in the ocean depths apart from the others. The surface fae can command the elements, and the sub-surface fae can command psychic powers. But, of course it depends on the individual as to what kind of magic he has learned from his environment, or what other conditions he’s working under. Which brings me to my next point.
4. Develop characters as individuals, rather than blanket generalizations.
Never set up an entire fictional race as being “good” or “evil” just because that’s what they are. That might have been excusable back in the ancient days of story-telling because people had a very small scope concerning the world around them. But modern writers need to break the mold of judging a person’s ethics based on appearances or nature and create characters whose actions speak for themselves. This is how real life really works.
I make this argument about heroes and villains all the time. If your hero is so perfect he has absolutely no flaws, not only is he difficult for real people to relate to, he’s pretty predictable and boring in terms of plot twists and personal challenges. Now imagine an entire land filled with duplicates of your hero. Likewise, villains who show a complete lack of compassion or loyalty toward anything become mustache-twirling, rule-the-world, two-dimensional paper dolls that make no sense. Now envision an entire kingdom of cookie-cutter-evil villains. Saying all dark elves, dragons, trolls, etc. are evil because that’s their nature is lazy … and yes, prejudiced.
Instead, think critically about what motivates antagonists to do what they do? Unless they’re true psychopaths, they usually think they’re making good choices for good reasons. And that complicates things. Each individual character needs to be developed in such a way that his decisions fluctuate between good and bad, so the result is more “cause leads to effect” than “good versus evil”.
With that in mind, mix it up, as to who screwed up. My novel goes all over the place with pointing fingers of blame and reaping victims who then perpetuate the cycle of blame, so that it’s impossible to say an entire group is good or bad. Of course the characters might disagree because they have their own prejudices. And in some cases they have “logical” reasons for them. But those prejudices become part of their personal challenges, to try to overcome those feelings to see that the truth really does come down to individual behavior.
5. Confront issues of prejudice without apology.
Problems never talked about are problems never resolved. Nobody enjoys talking about racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, nationalism, etc. But if we can’t confront it and talk about it, people will continue to be torn apart by hate. If you’re on the giving end, your frustration and malcontent will burn you from the inside out. If you’re on the receiving end, your life could be at risk. It’s the ugliest side of humanity. Not being able to accept and appreciate diversity is deadly.
If you are a writer, you can take advantage of the fact that fiction is often able to speak truth by using lies to talk about the tough stuff. I intentionally give my fae and humans prejudices in my books in order to address a theme that has plagued humanity since forever. Prejudice is something that shaped me, personally, as a human being for most of my life. And it’s been said that all of us have prejudices, even when we think we don’t. So, we must learn to talk about it.
Since speculative fiction doesn’t have to be a story about humans hating humans, readers can take a step back from being personally insulted to watch it play out from a safe distance … so to speak. Again, this is the purpose of all fiction: to record the human condition in ways that we can observe from the outside perspective, while relating from within. Fiction allows us to look into the mirror without being afraid that someone else might see our naked souls as glaringly as we do. Sometimes the truth is much easier to swallow when we see someone else experience it first. And then we can be inspired to apply what we’ve learned about their choices, good or bad, to our own circumstances.