Writing diverse characters, step 1: read diverse books

This summer I participated in a lot of conversations about increasing diversity in the publishing world, most of them on Twitter(where you can follow me @DiannaLGunn), and all of them with other writers. I’ve also read dozens of articles about the importance of representation, mostly at The Establishment and sometimes at Terrible MInds.

Many of these articles and conversations revolved around accurately representing a specific group of people. Sometimes an entire chat will be devoted to dismantling a certain trope and offering techniques for getting around it. Other chats discuss a broader subject like the overall treatment of LGBTQ+ chats.

What very few chats talk about is the diverse books that are already out there. The publishing revolution has already begun. Thousands of diverse books already exist, and I’m not talking about books written in completely different parts of the world or in different languages. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of diverse books are published on a daily basis in America, Canada, and the UK, the places where most of the authors you know come from. But you’re going to have a hard time finding most of them on a bookshelf because the diversity exists in small presses and self publishing. 

How do I know these books are out there? Well, I’ve spent the past few months interviewing authors with diverse casts(focusing on books with LGBTQ+ characters) and almost every author who has approached me is self published or works with a small publishing house. A couple have even been published through small presses that only publish LGBTQ+ stories. Most of these authors have also published multiple diverse novels. Others are working on a series featuring a diverse cast. The point is, they’re telling stories the big five publishers aren’t–and they aren’t the only ones.

It’s been said a million times that writers also have to be readers. Successful authors will tell you to read widely both inside and outside your genre. I’m telling you to take it a step further. Seek out diverse books. Find the small presses devoted to sharing the diverse stories big publishers aren’t prepared to take a chance on. Read their books religiously. Look for novels with every type of character. Even better, create a reading list with diverse authors telling stories rooted in their cultures and experiences.

There are many different ways to learn how to write diverse characters–and we must use several if we want to be authentic to each character–but it starts with immersing ourselves in diverse stories. If we continue to read exclusively books about straight white people who live in straight white worlds our minds will automatically create more stories about straight white people.

How do I know this? I live in the most multicultural city in the world and I have at least as many LGBTQ+ friends as I do straight friends, yet almost all of my stories revolve around straight white women who live in white worlds with castles and kings. Diversity only came into my books when I read diverse novels. Part of this was because I didn’t want to accidentally offend anyone, but it was mostly because the stories I thought up always came with well formed white characters who lived in white worlds. If we don’t read diverse novels we internalize assumptions about what fantasy & science fiction should look like. 

Is there an ideal number of diverse novels to read? Probably, but like most things in writing the answer is highly individual. You might want to alternate between highly diverse novels and more traditional stories(I’m doing this right now, and all the books on my current list were chosen to help with different aspects of my novel). You may decide to intersperse them randomly throughout your reading list. The important thing is that you make a list and actually read them.

Not sure where to start? Check out some of the authors I’ve interviewed:

Claudie Arsenault

L. Taylor

Heather Rose Jones

Taylor Brooke

Amelia Smith

Already know some great diverse books? Share them in the comments section below!