When people ask for diverse books it’s with an attitude that assumes it would be easy to fix the problem. Why would it not be easy? Just swap a white protagonist for a brown or black one, and make him female, right? Not quite, and though I have the privilege of being a “black author” in that I can write about black people in whatever way I so please—without scrutiny—when it comes to women, it gets complicated.
Writing What I know (Men)
One of the biggest praises I get from men when it comes to my books is that I write men to be authentic of who we are. You would think that being a man would make this automatic, but I read a lot of books written by men where the male characters are stereotypes as opposed to what you would find in a real person. My portrayal of men comes from a long history as a relationship blogger. When you’ve been forced to dissect why your gender does certain things—and behave certain ways—for as long as I have, you will find that it more than influences your writing. So, as you can imagine, many readers love my men, or hate them because they want the ideal caricature.
My book “The Factory” comes to mind, when I take the reader into the mind of a stripper-loving, money-chasing, young hustler who pretends to be a “nice guy” to the people he works with. Women in my life that have been taken advantage of by a character like this, HATE the book, and boy did I hear about it. Hell, due to it being written in first person, I was accused of it being a biography (shoot me now), but that was a reflection on them, not me.
What did I hear from men that have read the book? They LOVED it. They either know a guy like him, or they had similar perversions, thoughts, or aspirations when they were younger. If I wanted to make him palatable to everyone, I would have just written another tired, gangster (thug with a heart of gold) stereotype. How boring.
Writing What I Sort of know (Women)
I don’t second guess my male characters whenever I create them, but my female characters, whew, I go through a lot of internal conflict whenever a story is finished. What are the questions that come about when I finish a book?
- Are all the female characters merely there to make the men better?
- Is every woman a hero?
- Was I too afraid to make them complex, even if it’s a protagonist?
- Do my female characters have a point, besides being women for the sake of it?
- Are my descriptions of women all based on sex, or do they come off as human beings?
Part of the reason I go through these questions is because I want to stand behind every story I write unapologetically. If a woman is a villain or an antagonist there are people who will take issue, but as the creator I want to be able to argue for my decisions intelligently. The same goes for creating magical tokens (which I loathe more than anything else in stories), they aren’t realistic, and I normally see them as a quick-fix to the diversity issue.
This has made me realize how difficult it is for many of us to branch out and make our books include everyone that represents our cosmopolitan reality. We’re in an age of backlash, and after hours, days and months spent working at a story that is meant to entertain, the last thing we want is for someone to ignore said story in order to focus on the way we handled a particular character.
But sometimes you just have to say “—- it,” some people will take issue with you writing about a non-white character or a non-male character just because you look a certain way in your author profile. I say, write your story and be inclusive. Just because one critic says that “describing people’s color using food is wrong”, does not mean that it is true for everyone. The one thing I lean on is being respectful, and if I make a mistake and hear about it, I listen, research it for legitimacy (as opposed to personal gripe) and adjust if needed for the next set of stories.
If you have seen my catalog, you will see that I have more female protagonists than male (as of this writing). This has not been something I’ve set out to do as an agenda (I promise) … my stories simply come to me and I write them. What I do work on, however, is making sure than my secondary players are diverse in every way possible – unless the location and time period says differently.
Nike… Just Do It
So, don’t be gun shy about diversity. Better you try and end up being wrong.
If you want authenticity, find diverse people to be around, and take them for what they are, beyond face value. Movies and books (irony I know) are not a good substitute for real people. Tokenism and stereotypical characters are born from lazy assumptions. It is also lazy to take someone written to be one race and then change said race to fit an agenda, despite the cultural differences reflected in the story.
One of the things that I’ve always loved about Science Fiction is that it gives us a chance to bypass “culture” and create worlds of our own. This should mean more opportunity to diversify characters in a safe, non-offensive way, but I still see writers that are afraid to take advantage of this.
At the end of the day it is YOUR book, but if you’re like me and you want to be more inclusive, just be brave and Nike, people like me will thank you for it.