Friday, April 1, 2016

4 Fundamental Errors in the Diverse Books Campaign (And How to Fix Them)

Diverse books. It sounds like such a nice thing. It sounds like an all-inclusive, colorful, eye-opening, interesting campaign.

It sounds like it, but it's not. I do think that people wanted it to turn out that way, though. In fact, I think that a lot of people think that it did turn out that way.

But when you look at the "we need diverse books campaign," and I mean really look at it, it's clear that something has gone horribly wrong.

Now, before you decide to throw me into the Petranaki arena, give me a chance to explain. Here are 4 errors I've noticed in the diverse books campaign, along with some suggestions as to how to fix them:
Error #1: It's not as diverse as it professes to be. People seem to think that populating a book with gay characters and African-Americans makes a book diverse. It doesn't. Yeah, shocking. See, it seems that, when people think of diverse, they're thinking of hot topic minorities. Currently, those hot topic minorities are gays and "people of color," a term that people seem to think is synonymous with African-American (fun fact: it isn't). Okay, so a few books throw in Latino and Islamic characters. And, as we all know, the world is completely made up of African-Americans, Latinos, gays, and Islamics. It's not like we're missing any groups of people. Pfft. Please. Look at us. We're so diverse.
     Solution #1: Go outside and look around. Then write down what you see. As long as you have eyes and don't live in Antarctica, this is probably what you'll see: People. Pure and simple. You'll see human beings, not people labeled as minorities or hot topic issues. Go put that in a book. Write about the girl who likes to play the violin who also happens to be Samoan. Show the man who is getting his Masters in biology, likes cream soda, is half African American and half Mexican, and goes to mass every Sunday. Tell us about the young man who loves video games, enters in skateboarding competitions, and is struggling with his sexuality. Your characters should be people first. Don't try to define them by one part of their life, such as ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, or religion. Yes, those are important and help shape people's personalities, but people are more than their labels. So open your eyes and start looking at people as people, not as "diversities." 

Error #2: It's being exploited as a sales point. I can't tell you how many books I've read that won awards, got great reviews, are of "critical acclaim," and also happen to be some of the suckiest stories I've ever read. I rub my eyes, stare at the pages, and try to figure out how in the world this book got so much attention. And then I see it: the Asian and lesbian supporting characters and the main character (conveniently both religionless and without ethnicity) that learns to be accepting of everybody. Clearly, that's what makes a good story. It's not as if plot line, dialogue, or writing style have anything to do with it. Duh. Should've caught that earlier.
     Solution #2: Don't just blindly follow a trend because it gets sales now. If supplying diverse books is really your passion, then go after it with all of your heart. Good for you. But if you're just throwing in so-called diversity to get a publisher's attention, stop. Not only will those aspects feel forced in your story, but you're going to be selling your soul to the whims of the publishing industry. Yes, I said whims because here's the truth: if disabled dogs was a hot topic right now, that's what publishing houses would pretend to be caring about, not diverse books. Harsh? Yes. Disgusting? Definitely. But that's how it is. So instead of joining them in their exploitation, go and write something that you care about, not what the publishing houses are telling you you should care about.

Error #3: The diverse books campaign is always right. Have mercy on the poor soul who dares to point out its flaws, especially if said person happens to be white or straight. Whoops. Did I just write that out? Uh-oh. I think I did. *runs and tries to find a place to hide* Seriously, though. as I sat down to write this, I realized that if I mentioned that I'm a 1/4 Mexican, have Lyme disease, and attend a college that is about as diverse as any one place can get, my words would suddenly become a lot more credible to certain people. And that's just wrong.
     Solution #3: People need to be allowed to disagree with one another. People should be able to voice their concerns about having their six-year-old child surrounded by books featuring homosexuality without being shouted down as a bigot. If diversity is such an important topic, then shouldn't it be important enough for people to be able to sit down and have adult conversations about it? I think so. But what do I know? I just have a working brain, something that doesn't seem to count for much these days.

Error #4: Diversity is often shoehorned into a story. I think this is largely a result of error #2 and 3. In an attempt to fit the current market and not come across as square, writers are starting to frantically plop minorities into their stories. I just recently read a book (Six of Crows) that had a supporting character that was gay. This character was awesome. He was actually my favorite character in the entire book. But the author kept hinting at the fact that he was gay, over and over and over again, even though it had absolutely no bearing on the storyline. I couldn't help but think that the author was just trying to fill some sort of diversity quota without taking the time to consider how it fit into the story. I keep running across very similar mistakes, such as times when an author feels it necessary to keep pointing out that a character is black or Islamic, though doesn't ever stop to point out why this matters to the story (or the character).
     Solution #4: Make it matter to the story. This goes back to solution #1. Write your character as a human being. Tell us who he/she is and explain how their "diversity" affects them in the storyline. Maybe your character is extremely feisty though slightly insecure, something that is connected to the fact that she has a birth defect that makes it difficult for her to talk clearly. This defect is part of her, just like the fact that she's good at karate and adores her dad, so make that part of the storyline, not a weird "oh yeah, she has a speech impediment" add on. Or you could take a different approach, one that I learned from Ursula K. Le Guin. In The Wizard of Earthsea, the main character is brown-skinned and his best friend is black. This is mentioned a few times in passing, simply because that's how the people in her world looked. She didn't make a big deal out of it. She just wrote it that way because that's what's real: In our world, there are people with dark brown skin and black skin, so why shouldn't they go into her fantasy novel? It gave her world a very realistic feel. All that to say: Your characters "diverseness" should matter to the story and make sense within it rather than being something you can use to make your story seem open-minded and hip.

Now, I am fully aware that the stance that I have just taken is not extremely popular. But I didn't write this post to be popular: I wrote it because this is a problem that bothers me, and because I see a lot of potential in the diverse book campaigns that is being wasted. I'd like to see that change. Who's with me?

Is my assessment right? Completely wrong? Why? I would love to hear your thoughts on the diverse books campaign. All I ask is that you keep your comments thoughtful and respectful. Also, it would be nice if people would read my post in its entirety before leaving an angry comment, but that might be a little bit too much to ask.

Related articles:
Challenging Writers to Write Stories with Meaning
7 Cliche Characters in YA Fiction That Need to Stop
Writing What You Want to Write: Why You Shouldn't Follow the Current Writing Trends

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38 comments:

  1. Kudos to you for standing up and saying these things! I totally agree that as soon as people start going after an "ideal" in their stories such as diversity, they start losing, big time. Characters are ultimately people like you and me, and should be treated as people, not as caricatures to meet a quota. Love this post, thank you for sharing it!

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    1. Thank you so much, Emily! I think it's always good to write about something you care about, but when you allow yourself to focus on it too much, your view becomes narrow and it shows in the story. =)Glad you enjoyed reading my post!

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  2. Preach it sister friend! I have had issues with this "campaign" from the very beginning, and you've outlined the main issues beautifully!
    Someone once accused me of "only having white characters" in my fantasy...the main characters (female and 2 male) live in essentially a Scottish highlands landscape. The ones that live on a tropical Island? I modeled them after the Aztec's, only they have white hair(paired with golden tanned skin) and the royals have purple eyes. The ones that live in the desert and are nomadic? Modeled after the roaming Arab communities from the Middle East and northern Africa complete with dark skin, hair, and eyes.
    It made sense to have them that way. It fits the story. Don't write something in "just to have it there" it has to contribute to the story. Just as there are decisions on plot, setting, and dialogue there are choices to be made carefully with characterization.
    Good on you for putting this out there!!

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    1. I love your process for creating characters! I do the same thing....I have desert elves in my book who are modeled after Native Americans (reddish skin, dark eyes). I considered using Arab influences, too, so it's fun to hear that your desert people are shaped after them. =) I agree that characterization and appearance need to be chosen carefully so that it fits in the story well and adds to it rather than detracts by feeling forced. Thanks for the great comment!

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    2. Accusations tend to fly left and right sometimes, that's true. I was once attacked for not having Black people in my modern Russian setting. The fact that there are essentially no Black people in Russia, but there are plenty of other ethnicities, didn't convince anyone. I was told that I "must", end of story.

      And that's just crazy. First of all, you don't tell a writer what they must or must not write. And then, having cardboard placeholders in place just for the sake of
      "diversity" won't make any story better. Or diverse, for that matter.

      Also, it does sound extremely weird when you ask an author: "Who is your character?" and they respond with something like: "A Vietnamese intersex cis bisexual woman!" I mean... she's a person, right? Being Vietnamese or intersex or bisexual doesn't define her.

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    1. Hah! *stares down from pulpit* Thank you. =)

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  4. Absolutely agree! Great article, Hannah.I feel like a lot of this campaign just comes across as pandering. If we do as you said and simply look outside, we write something true,meaningful and diverse quite easily.

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    1. Exactly. I think this is a simple topic that people have made extremely complex. People are people. Period.

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  5. I like how passionate you are about this post, and your solution #1 when you said, "Your characters should be people first." Great post!

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  6. Agreed.
    I've actually gotten one thing out of this push for diverse books. I realized there was no good reason for my characters to all look European, which I think has added a bit of richness to my story world. It's not stressed at all, just a few little mentions of the way things are.
    And I decided I should have some girls among my brigands and that is now central to my story. Now there is few men among a bunch of girls. Besides I got one of the best characters ever.

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    1. How cool! I do think this campaign has a lot of good ideas behind it. Like you said, it's forced people to be more thoughtful with their creation of characters. I love that it helped you discover one of your best characters yet!

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  7. Great post! Do you have any "diverse" books that you would recommend?

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    1. Thanks! I personally love The Joy Luck Club. I also grew up on Scott O'Dell. I know he's for a younger audience, but I love that he wrote so well about Native Americans and Mexicans. Girl Waits with Gun (features Austrian immigrants) is great. That being said, I don't ever go out of my way to read "diverse" books because the books that are labeled diverse are often not diverse at all. =)

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  8. I completely agree! Diversity is an important issue, but people handle it so incorrectly.

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    1. Yep. You pretty much just summed up my thoughts in a single sentence. =)

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  9. Kudos to you for having the gumption to say this.

    I love diversity in books, but it's like this: if it's a token character I don't want to see it. It feels like author is just trying to rack up brownie points for inclusion. Both of my main characters right now are minorities (at least, they're minorities in America). But I picked their ethnicity because it felt right for the character. Period. Not because I want a pat on the back for diversity.

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    1. Yes, token characters just feel so wrong. My book also has characters that would be considered diverse, but I didn't even realize this was the case until just recently. They fit into the story, so in they went. Sounds very similar to how you came up with your characters. Good for you!

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  10. YAAAS.

    As someone who often gets reduced to "the girl in the wheelchair," that label is a neon sign flashing above specifications my head, while "writer" and "animal lover" and "geek" labels are little post-its no one ever reads.

    We don't need diverse characters; we need characters who happen to be diverse. I love when characters are like me (and really super not like me, for that matter), but it always ends up being THE point of the plot, or a negative trait that gets "offset" somehow by magic powers or something.

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    1. I love your comment. I have Lyme disease, and I don't like being thought of as "the girl with Lyme." Obviously, you feel the same way about being "that girl in a wheelchair." We're more than that. I'm hopeful that books will start portraying us for who we are, not one specific thing like a health problem. Thanks for the insightful comment!

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  11. Yes, sadly, I also came across stories in which I could easily point out the add-ons, so to speak - there to serve a specific purpose, which - again, sadly - sometimes did lead to awards. I like to think that these writers fool no one that matters and that the awards thus awarded are worth very little. Very interesting post, Hannah.

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    1. Yes, it's a bit frustrating when the add-ons are so obvious and yet the story is still heralded as an award-winner. It's good to know that I'm not the only one who is able to notice the add-ons...and recognize that those add-ons are not helpful. =)

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  12. Another great post and I'm so happy that you voiced this concern. I totally agree with it. People are people and the diversity should be there because of the story and not to serve some status quo.

    I haven't read Six of Crows yet, but I had similar feelings about certain characters in that author's other series. And nothing is more irritating than a shoehorned, token diversity character. I'm a HUGE fan of diversity in books. I love learning about new people and new ways of thinking, but it seems like this strange need for political correctness is infecting the entertainment industry (whether it be books, movies, or TV). It's sad and rather insulting because no one really learns anything in the end about people, they only learn that if you have the right color skin or "physical condition" that you get special attention. How does that help anyone.

    By the way, I loved your reference to The Wizard of Earthsea. Le Guin is such a phenomenal writer to emulate. Her stories are all about "people" and the human condition which can apply to everyone on the planet.

    Keep writing inspiring posts Hannah!

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    1. Exactly! The "political correctness" wave is starting to bother me. It seems to be making things worse rather than better. We're so afraid of saying something wrong or stepping on somebody else's toes that we just stay in our own little corner and don't talk things out. I wish people could recognize that we are all different and have our diversities, yet we can always find common ground because we are all human beings.

      Glad you liked the Le Guin reference! I was blown away by how well she handled her characters. Thanks for the comment!

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  13. When I finished reading that, I wanted to give you a big hug. Sadly, I was on the other side of the planet, so here's a virtual hug. Thank you for standing up and saying these things, or sitting down and typing them. I am particularly bothered by the whole 'you're not part of a minority, so you don't get to talk' thing. I actually am part of a minority. I'm a Jew. We are 0.2% of the world's population. It doesn't get much more minor than that. I also have Irish, Russian, Moroccan, and French ancestry, and on top of all that my nationality is Israeli. But because I have white skin, I am automatically classified as white and forbidden to have an opinion on racial issues. At the same time, I am more likely to be criticized for not having enough racial diversity in my stories. Talk about a rock and a hard place.
    I think there is a fifth problem with the diversity campaign, and that is that it actually inadvertently reinforces stereotypes. Because writers are under a lot of pressure to populate their stories with characters of every race, religion, and sexual orientation, they do a minimal amount of research on these cultures. I notice this most in books with Jewish characters. Often it seems as though the writer googled Judaism, cherrypicked a few customs and factoids, and then moved on to telling the story they wanted to tell in the first place regardless of how the plot contradicted or insulted real Jewish culture and beliefs. A culture is a complex thing, rooted in generations, sometimes millenia, of history. You can't take pieces out of context and honestly claim to be promoting cultural diversity.
    I think that there is nothing wrong with only writing stories about your own cultural experience. After all, that's what you know best. But if you are interested in a different culture and you want to use it as the basis for a story, you have to research it thoroughly, and I don't mean get every book with the word Islam or China in the title that your local library has. I mean talk to real live representatives of that culture. If you are respectful about it, most people would be happy to discuss their beliefs and customs.
    Thank you again for your wonderful and brave article.

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    1. Tamara, I love this comment. *returns virtual hug* I also don't appreciate getting lumped into the "White" zone. "White people" are just as diverse as people with other skin colors. It's always funny to me that people don't see it that way.

      I also liked your comment about how deep and complex cultures can be. It's important to research certain cultures in order to write about them, yes. But you simply can't have a full understanding of a culture without speaking to somebody who exists in that culture. Not only does it make the story richer, but it's also amazing to learn about other people and their lives.

      Also, random comment, but I've grown up with a fascination for Israel and Judaism. I'm Christian, which is closely linked to Judaism, so I've always enjoyed delving into those two religions. I'm constantly learning about Israel through my reading of and seeking to understand the OT. It's a beautiful culture and fascinating country. So it's beyond cool to me to have a Jewish blogger friend who lives in Israel. =) Thanks for the insightful comment!

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  14. I totally agree! Emphasizing someone's race, even in appreciation, continues a culture where race matters, which is the opposite of what we should be striving for, and our books should reflect that. Thank you for writing this.

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    1. YES. I think culture and traditions specific to peoples do matter. But skin color? No. And emphasizing somebody's race as their defining feature? Absolutely not. People are more than the race they belong to. I'm glad you enjoyed the post!

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    2. Just hopping in real quick to say I agree with with kitkat2266 is saying!!

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  15. YES! I esp. love point #1. Characters should be people first, you are so right. Great post, Hannah!

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  16. Thank you so much for writing this. I totally agree. I was actually thinking in depth about this topic the other day while driving. (Probably not the safest thing for me to do. :P)

    By the way, Jesper was one of my favorite characters, too, but I also felt like his homosexuality was just thrown in there for points. Having him develop a crush on the other boy quite clearly showed his sexual orientation... Bardugo didn't need to keep mentioning it!! Let characters be PEOPLE first and foremost.

    Also, one of the conclusions I came to during my oh-so-deep reflections in the car: If you have to force yourself to include diverse characters, you're not actually fixing the problem. The problem is that writers don't open their minds often enough to the *possibility* of writing different kinds of characters. If you're taking inspiration from the real world – which has an overwhelming variety of personalities, appearances, and worldviews - then you will *naturally* end up writing about diverse, unique characters. But if you're taking most of your inspiration from stories that have already been written, then you'll just be recycling ideas – and characters. (Which is my theory as to why so many characters are cliché.) The solution is to open our minds more and let ourselves be inspired by the real world... not to arbitrarily throw in diversity to make ourselves look inclusive. Because it's not inclusion; it's fake, and it almost draws more attention to the problem rather than fixing it outright.

    Or in other words... the problem is a limited imagination. :) We need to expand our imagination and our potential for inspiration. Forcing diversity is the opposite of that; it's the sign of an imagination that is still limited.

    When we open our minds, diverse characters will naturally come to us. We won't have to seek them out.

    (Also, there's no shame when the characters that naturally come to us are NOT "diverse". :P)

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    1. Wow, how did that comment turn out to be so long? O.O

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  17. Thank you for writing this post! I actually didn't realize their was a campaign for diversity in books... I promise I don't live under a rock, but I'm so not familiar with some aspects of the writing world.

    What I DO know and have issues with is the political correctness at the expense of brain cells running rampant in our world. I don't like being told I'm bigoted or can't understand someone because of my skin color (white/really pale)... And I'm Christian. So I'm wrong. (Rolls eyes) I'm actually quite used to being thought odd/weird because of my faith, being home educated and liking things that aren't mainstream (firearms/shooting, for example).

    I loved the simple point of characters being people first. People are unique. I love figuring out who they are and how they think. (Real and in books!)

    As a side note, I really hated that one of the only things that seemed to be pointed out about Star Wars: the Force Awakens was the minority/diversity leads. Excuse me, but I'm pretty certain women are about half the population. ALSO... That means you completely focused on skin color vs Pol Damron's piloting skills, Rey's incredible mechanical skills and how she is practically a mini Han... Ok, stepping off soapbox.

    I think that stereotype characters for the sake of diversity is weak writing. I don't SEE color when I look at people. I see PEOPLE who look like themselves.

    Thank you for standing up (or sitting down!) and being bold in speaking (typing) about this issue.

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  18. Argh!! *THERE, not their. Face palm.

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  19. I think it's important to notice how wide the spectrum of diversity is (as said in #1). Most people belong in the minority at least one way (not all of those are underrepresented, but many are). I have kept that as a guideline while writing human characters for a long time: as long as "most people are in the minority in at least one way" applies, I know I'm on at least somewhat safe waters. There's a story I've been writing, scrapping and rewriting for a long time (big project, and perfectionism keeps getting in my way, but there's time to polish it, I'm still young) and while it is set in a rather racially homogenous country, I have explored other ways to reflect the diversity of reality. I also created a mostly female cast for my superhero story (I love writing superhero stories, they allow blending scifi & fantasy tropes), because female superheroes are often stereotypical strong and sexy asskickers.

    Which brings up my other point: strength. Way too often the token member of minority (especially in the case of racial minorities, but not only) is the comic relief or otherwise played for laughs, showing them as a source of fun, compared to the majority who are portrayed as to be taken seriously. Different people can be strong in different ways. In that big story project of mine, over three years, I've tried to write characters showcasing those strengths without making them idealized saints. (Not listing their names, going on first-letter basis again because I'm quite shy about them and not sure if I want to get connected to this if I ever publish the story):
    -T has Asperger's syndrome. She is also very intelligent, out-of-the-box thinker with absolute devotion to her cause. On the faults' side she's a lonely, selfish know-it-all.
    -E is in a wheelchair, a good judge of character, perceptive, and keen to notice others' problems and feelings. She is naïve and often has too big expectations.
    -K is mute, a good leader, straight A's student and a devoted friend. And very secretive. And ruthless to herself.
    -H is dying of cancer. She's a courageous girl who wants to make a difference before her death. She tends think of others as superficial, and envy a lot.
    -A is genderqueer, fun-loving, rash person with street smarts and quick wit. Tends to resort to street justice and go against the system whenever possible.
    -S is a competent, competitive lesbian woman who tries her best to please others, often to doormat degree.
    -M is an atheist, contracting her family's wishes, and she always tries to make the world a better place with her own two hands and thinks it is her best reward when she can make others laugh. A big drama queen.

    While writing what is above, something crossed my mind: when you think of it, there's a lot of groups who don't get proper treatment in fiction (proper treatment meaning being portrayed as multifaceted, and without overemphasis on what makes them a member of the group in question.) One less obvious group that doesn't that comes to mind: bullying victims. Another: neurodivergent and mentally ill people. Perhaps I am just sour as a bullying victim with Aspergers's syndrome. But I don't think I've read a book about a bullying victim whon isn't either a damsel to be saved, or the protagonist in a rags-to-riches story which has an event that suddenly stops the bullying with next to no mental scars left from it. Mental disorders are often portrayed stereotypically, as well (the entire life/character arc revolving around the disorder, which often isn't the case in real life). Overall, the issue connects to the larger issue of stereotyping and putting people in boxes, when characters could simply be fished from a single big box labelled "people".

    This has become one long messy mess of thought process tidbits. Thank you whoever took time to read this piece of my mind. And sorry if there were any mistakes in my English.

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  20. Now this is an interesting post and very well done to. And it's made me think about my own writing. Originally all my characters for the story that I am in the middle of editing were white and straight and of course because I was 13 when my mind gave birth to the story the protagonist looked like me and behaved like someone I aspired to be (terrible I know). Fortunately after losing the first 13 year old teen angst draft and doing a lot (I hope) of growing up all my characters have been given a do over. I've made most of my protagonists ethnic minorities and have tried to turn stereotypes around. I'll list the characters just to see what you think of their outlines, not by their first names in case if I ever get published and this word vomit gets discovered.
    C- black and in the sequel will be dealing with some serious mental health and family issues. Clever, sarcastic, stubborn, brave, someone who is always thinking in terms of the big picture and is quite ruthless towards her enemies (although given what was done to her and what they will do to her they kind deserve more than what their eventually going to get).
    L- half Hawaiian, half Israeli bisexual and observes both Judaism and traditional Hawaiian religion (I've tried to combine the two so that they make sense next to each other, will be dealing with mental health issues brought about by guilt in the sequel. Kind, sensible (ish), fiercely loyal to her friends, and daring.
    R-blacks gay and suffering from PTSD. Highly intelligent, funny, caring, bit of a cruel prankster and to curious for his own good.
    P-Half Indian half Chinese gay polytheist. Makes a lot of his decisions based on his religious beliefs, cautious, a romantic sweetheart and speaking of which the moral centre of the group.
    I-Black, sharp, cunning, stubborn, charismatic and kind.
    M-Turkish and will zoom down the dark path of depression in the sequel. Funny, selfless, brave, kind, though kind of a pain in the ass.
    In all honesty the reason why I, a white person decided to create these people was because I kept reading and listening too all these stories where young ethnic minority people struggled to find positive representation within the media and books. Besides I figured that words aren't just weapons, they're also tools to create empathy and compassion and given that I realised that a lot of white people will even subconsciously rather pick up a book that has a Western sounding name than an ethnic minority one so I figured why not use my writing to create empathy for disempowered people and try to elevate the voices of said disempowered people. What is interesting though is that it took a while, and this process is still taking place, to ensure that I didn't make the character's arcs all about what they are . In fact I've still got one ethnic minority antagonist who is a stereotype (oops). I'll go back and change him soon. Funny thing is though, all my antagonists, barring two, okay, one after I've done some editing, are all white. It's accidental but I think it works, after all, if the story gets published it will be interesting to see other white people's reactions when they read about ethnic minority hero's and white antagonists who do in fact carry some awful racial supremacy issues with them.
    Sorry for the complete word vomit but after reading the post I had to get it out.

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