There has been an online campaign calling for greater diversity in literature over the last few months. Roni Loren of the Huffington Post argues that authors are scared to write diverse characters into their books. Is it really fear that stops them? Or do they just write about what they know, because they think they can write best about their own experiences? I think the main problem lies much more in the lack of diverse authors and not in the lack of diverse characters.
A writer must not play it safe when it comes to the topic of their book…
The adage says that a writer can write best about the things they know. Every great novelist, screenwriter, songwriter and poet writes from their own personal experiences. For instance, Ernest Hemingway states that no story can be bad if it is true and was experienced in some way by the author. It is no coincidence that literary scholars discern Tolstoy’s personality in every character he ever created. Also, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is original because it was inspired by her Native American ancestry, and by events she may not have lived through but was closely connected to through her grandparents. To mention a lighter and more contemporary example, every one of Taylor Swift’s songs are exclusively about her personal life, because that’s what matters the most to her, as our own do to all of us.
Writers don’t write about diverse characters often because they are scared to get it wrong and offend others. They are scared of getting bad reviews and losing their audience. There is a very simple solution for the problem: research. As a Renaissance history student I spend my days (and often my nights) reading and writing about places I have never been to, about events I have not participated in, and about people I have nothing in common with. Since my academic and consequently personal well-being depend on researching things I know little about, I consider research incredibly important. As Loren says, a writer must not play it safe when it comes to the topic of their book. However a writer must tread as carefully as possible when it comes to researching, especially if they write about something they have never actually experienced themselves.
It matters little that an author includes characters with diverse racial backgrounds if they use stereotypes and exclude people with certain body types and interests.
We need writers from diverse backgrounds writing about their own experiences. We need black men to write about their experiences with racism. We need Hispanic women to tell us about their lives in a society dominated by white males. We need members of the LGBTQ+ community to remind us that love is love, regardless of gender, and we need young adults from harsh familial or financial backgrounds to contradict our simplistic views on poverty or domestic abuse. What is even more important is that we need these writers to all write about diversity inside their own social, political or cultural group. Because diversity does not just come from ethnicity, sexual identity or purchasing power; it comes from ideology and experience. In my opinion, it matters little that an author includes characters with diverse racial backgrounds if they use stereotypes and exclude people with certain body types and interests.
What I am trying to say here is that it is much more important to encourage diverse writers to write about their own experiences properly, than to get straight white men to write about gay, black and female characters. If we had more diverse writers, you would not need to worry about getting things you know little about, wrong. However, I do not want to discourage anyone from writing about diverse characters. Just do your research properly and then there is no need to be scared of anything.