How to Make Your Characters Realistically Diverse
There’s a reason that “own voices” fiction is such a prevalent trend in literature right now: people want to see stories and characters from a variety of backgrounds, cultures, and experiences. Of course, authors should always tread carefully when writing about characters from backgrounds other than their own – but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done!
On the contrary, authors can and should include diverse characters in their works. Making them well-rounded and realistic is just a matter of following the right process. With that in mind, here are four crucial tips on how to make your characters realistically diverse.
1. Conduct thorough research before you start
This one should be pretty obvious, but it’s worth stating for the record: unless you are writing about a minority character based on your own experience within that group, it’s critical that you do some research before you start.
Of course, the method and nature of this research will vary depending on what you’re writing. If it’s bona fide historical fiction – say, about an era when a certain group of people was oppressed or abused, and you want to ensure your depiction is realistic – you’ll conduct research in a traditional manner. For example, John Boyne spent many years researching the Holocaust before penning his novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. You might also consider speaking to present-day members of that group, so as to sensitively portray past events that likely involved their ancestors, and may still affect them today.
On the other hand, if your book is set in the present day, all your characterization research should consist of personal consultation. In addition to your friends, read articles about other people’s lived experiences so you can reflect those sentiments in your own work. Here’s an exemplary instance of a white author depicting an African-American character’s nuanced relationship to her identity, from Hank Green’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing:
Maya was the most effective talker I knew. It was like she wrote essays in her brain and then recited them verbatim. She once explained to me that she thought this was part of being Black in America. “Every black person who spends time with a lot of white people eventually ends up being asked to speak for every black person… and I hate that. It’s really stupid. And everyone gets to respond to that idiocy however they want. But my anxiety eventually made me extremely careful about everything I said, because of course I don’t represent capital-B Black People, but if people think I do, then I still feel a responsibility to try to do it well.”
2. Describe your characters thoughtfully
Another important part of creating realistically diverse characters is subtle yet clear description. While some authors do take the route of keeping their characters’ identities vague, readers tend to appreciate unambiguous representation.
However, this doesn’t mean stereotyping, nor does it mean that you should constantly talk about any indicative part of a character’s identity, like the color of their skin. Simply mention these characteristics when they come up organically, and trust that your readers will register and remember them.
Also, though it might seem like a minor detail, carefully naming your minority characters is paramount – especially if they’re a main character or end up recurring in future books! One of the best ways to do this is by using a name generator with designated settings for names in different languages. You can also look up common baby names in a particular region or language, or simply ask people you know.
3. Include different types of diversity
In addition to racial and ethnic diversity, it’s important to include other kinds of diversity as well: characters of different socioeconomic status, religious beliefs, sexual orientation and gender identity, and varying levels of ability versus disability. If all that sounds overwhelming, don’t worry; not every character has to be a minority in every one of these categories. Indeed, having just a couple of characters who aren’t 100% white, straight, cis, and able-bodied will really boost the diversity and authenticity of your story.
Some of the best books in recent memory to achieve this have actually been children’s books, such as R.J. Palacio’s Wonder and Cece Bell’s El Deafo. Both works revolve around young protagonists with disabilities who struggle to fit in with their peers, ultimately becoming more confident but still wishing that society viewed them differently – a realistic journey for anyone who has ever experienced discrimination against some part of their identity. Indeed, for almost any kind of diversity you might include in your work, this is the correct balance to strike.
4. Employ sensitivity readers
Our final tip ties back into #1, in terms of consulting people who have actually lived through the experiences you’re writing about. Sensitivity readers come into play when you’ve finished (or have made significant progress on) your story and want someone knowledgeable to check for inaccuracies or stereotypes. When writing about diverse minority groups, having a sensitivity reader is an absolute must.
The critical thing to remember about sensitivity readers is that, if they point out something in your work that needs to be changed, it doesn’t mean you’re racist/sexist/etc. – it just means you’re not a total expert on this particular subject. But they are: that’s why you hired them. In the same way that a professional fact checker scours your work for factually incorrect details, a sensitivity reader surveys your work for culturally and contextually incorrect details.
Indeed, this process is all about trying to do the right thing. If you put in the effort to research, write thoughtful, nuanced descriptions, and check in with readers who actually come from those backgrounds, your characters should turn out 100% diverse and realistic. You don’t have to do everything perfectly right off the bat – you just need be willing to learn.
Savannah Cordova is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Savannah enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories. She's very interested in how culture affects our craft, especially in regards to trends and taboos. You can read more of her work on the Reedsy blog.