Why is diversity in literature important?
To understand why this is a problem, particularly in young adult and children’s literature, we need to look at some statistics:
- Approximately 3.3% of children’s books in America feature African-American protagonists. 2.1% are about Asian-Pacific Americans, 1.5% about latinos and a measly 0.6% about Native Americans.
- 57% of popular children’s books have male protagonists while 31% have female protagonists.
- Approximately 2% of children’s books feature disabled characters.
- Less than 1% of YA novels have LGBT characters. (This was in 2011 and the numbers have increased since then, but not by a huge amount.)
The purpose of books, especially children’s and young adult books, is for escapism and seeing the world through new eyes. But the statistics above show that young people are still seeing the world primarily through the eyes of straight white males with barely any characters that they can relate to. Unless a writer states it clearly, then most readers will automatically assume that the character they are reading is a straight, white, able bodied male. In a world where equality is more important than ever, literature isn’t exactly promoting it.
Excluding these groups in literature teaches them that they are not loved within our culture and society; that they are not worthy of sympathy and admiration. This is just going to lower their self-esteem and likely turn them off writing a book themselves.
Publishers and editors make claims such as non-white protagonists don’t sell as well or that boys don’t want to read books about girls. This attitude puts a lot of writers off as they worry that their books won’t be picked up if they include a non-white protagonist or write a book with a female character for the male demographic. But it seems more likely that publishers are underestimating their audiences or not giving minority characters a chance. Hopefully the rise of self publishing will change their minds but no matter how you publish your book, having a non-diverse cast is just going to continue this trend.
Lack of disabled characters.
Disabled characters in fiction seemingly exist only to gain the reader’s sympathy or to be an inspiration for non disabled people. This type of literature leaves young readers misinformed about disabled people. Writers seemingly forget that disabled people don’t spend all their time obsessing over their condition and hoping for a cure. Even worse is using suicide to kill off or write out the disabled character, implying that death is more preferable than living with a disability. In real life, disabled people go through many issues not related to their disability.
In one of my university classes, a fellow student was writing a children’s book about mental illness and found that there was only one that she could use for her research. Imagine a child who is facing the issue of mental illness in the family but finds only one book to help them through it.
Gay characters in YA literature.
While there are a growing number of gay characters in literary fiction, the majority of YA books still have the old attitude of ‘pretend they don’t exist’. Authors have even been asked to remove gay characters or make them straight to get their books published. Where then are the books to help teenagers through issues with their sexuality or gender identity? Or can teenagers just not have books about normal gay couples having normal relationship issues?
If a gay character is allowed in a book, they will only be there to perform one of a few plot devices:
- Go through a lot of angst, usually related to a coming out drama, and die a horrible death.
- Be a token gay and not actually have any relationships, romantic or otherwise.
- Remind the audience at every possible moment that they are gay, such as being attracted to every single man they see.
How to write diverse characters.
When you realise this problem, it’s normal for authors to think ‘do I have the right to write a book about these groups and their issues?’ I went through the same thing. While it’s perfectly acceptable for people outside of the above groups to write about them and the issues they face, they should be aware that not being a part of them will make their representation less authentic. They will have to do a lot of research and probably talk to people who have faced the issues they are writing about. These are sensitive issues for many people so they need to be handled in exactly the right way.
How you write diverse characters will depend on the type of story you are writing. If it’s a historical setting then attitudes to certain groups will be very different. Look into what demographies lived in your location at that time period. (For instance, medieval Europe wasn’t as white as many people assume!) Don’t think that a place or time period with a majority of a certain skin colour means your entire cast needs to be that skin colour.
Even so, it’s not a good idea to ignore the issues of the past for the sake of political correctness. Attitudes of the past may have been wrong but we must at least acknowledge that they existed. You can write strong, well written historical characters without turning them all into time travelling feminists.
Fantasy should technically be a lot better because you can technically do whatever you want, but a lot of fantasy is still populated by the white male demographic. As much as I love Tolkein, you only need to look at the cast list for The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings to realise what a problem this is. Remember that fantasy doesn’t have to be an exact replica of medieval Europe but it still a great platform for exploring themes of prejudice and ‘otherness’. Think about how the culture and history of your world will have shaped people’s attitudes.
But the simplest way to write diverse characters is not to worry about writing diverse characters. Just focus on writing good characters then decide later if they’re going to be male or female, straight or gay, black or white, disabled or able bodied. You’ll find it gives your novel more personality and a much wider readership appeal without having to worry about offending someone. A person’s heritage, gender and sexuality are all important parts of who they are but they don’t need to define their personality or become a plot point.
Some important things to remember:
- Avoid cliches such as describing a character as having ‘almond shaped eyes’ or ‘honey coloured skin’.
- Try the Bechdel test and see if your novel passes.
- Don’t fall into the trap of using disability as a plot device to make the character ‘quirky’ or put them through an ordeal.
- Don’t forget about your minor characters and ‘walk on’ characters – waiters, bartenders, postmen etc. You may have accidentally forgotten to give them any diversity as well.
- While coming out of the closet is an important part of a gay person’s life, it’s been so done to death that writers seemingly forget that anything happens to gay people afterwards. Stick to this plot thread only if you have something new to say about it or can come at it from a fresh angle.
- Never feel pressured into changing your characters for the sake of sales. You are writing a book for your readers, not for the marketing department.
Some great resources:
- The ‘We Need Diverse Books’ campaign.
- A comprehensive list of children’s books with disabled characters or to teach children about disability.
- TV Tropes is a great resource for writers and can teach you what to avoid in your writing. But I warn you, you will get addicted!
- A great ‘writer’s toolbox’ from Writeworld.
Writers, what do you think about diversity in YA literature? Which books handle it best and which are the worst offenders? How do you write a diverse cast in your novels?