Very few of us set out to intentionally write misogynistic or racist things. Some people are horrible, true, but the rest of us? We are products of our society, and as a result, we may all occasionally fall victim to misogynistic, condescending, or racist/white-washing thinking. I’ve certainly done it. I distinctly remember once remarking off-hand how “I’m a total female, because I suck at directions,” and then immediately thinking, “Why did I word it like that?” I wrote all of Prodigy with almost exclusively male walk-in characters–soldiers, doctors, etc–before my editor pointed out my blind spot to me. I make inane mistakes like this all the time, and every time, I slap myself mentally and make note of it.
The thing is, it happens to all of us, and it doesn’t automatically make you a bad person. But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive to write diverse, feminist fiction. I’ve listed below some practical, beginner guidelines to run your manuscript through, to see if you’re on the right track. (NOTE: This is a very, very general place to start. There are tons of great places online that delve deeper into the nuances of diversity and feminism, such as Diversity in YA and Feminist Frequency. The first practical rule of writing diverse fiction? Read up!)
1. Flip your characters’ genders/races/orientations. I do this early in my stories, usually before I’m a third of the way through a first draft. Tally up your female characters and compare them to the number of males. Tally up your PoC/LGBT characters and compare them to your straight white cast. Is this ratio horribly skewed toward the latter? If so, take your straight white cast and try flipping their genders and sexual orientation, and switch out their race. Does this suddenly give your cast a sense of reality? If you don’t want to do this, make sure you have a good excuse. i.e. Is your story set somewhere other than Earth? Is your book about a specific group of people during a specific time/place in history? (i.e. An all-boy boarding school? Upper class families in Victorian England? A Viking clan in 8th-century Scandinavia?) Even in these tightly limited settings, you should still be able to have a healthy female:male ratio and an opportunity for diverse characters. The point is that you must consider these options. Make your choices consciously, with good reasons.
2. The Bechdel Test. This can be a thorny one, largely because the test isn’t always accurate and more of a guideline than a hard and fast rule. (For those who don’t know the Bechdel Test: is there a scene in your story where two females have a conversation that isn’t about a man?) The point of this test is that if your story has a healthy female cast, there should be an opportunity where two of them can talk to each other. Now–there are plenty of works that don’t follow it and are beautifully feminist, while others pass the test and are vapid and don’t respect women at all. However, if your book doesn’t pass it, know why, and be conscious of it. (i.e. Your book is like Castaway, and there is only one character in it. Or maybe it’s The Blue Lagoon and there is only one boy and one girl. Or maybe there’s a specific plot reason why there is only one girl, i.e. The Maze Runner.)
I was rather ashamed of myself that my own book, Legend, didn’t pass this test. June exchanges a few sparse words with Kaede during their duel, and maybe a couple with Day’s friend Tess, but otherwise? Not a Bechdel Test-passing scene in sight. Even her one substantial conversation with another lady (Kaede) is about the fate of Day. Her brief conversations with Commander Jameson are about her brother, Metias. I mean, I’d like to think that I was writing a feminist book. How could I not have a scene with two of my ladies talking about something other than a man? I know it’s just a guideline, but still–even now, I think back on how I could have structured this better. Now I am fully aware of it for my later books. And that’s really what all these exercises are about. Awareness.
3. Tropes. Do you have a “Magical Negro”? A “Dragon Lady”? A gay character who dies for a straight character? Does your Hispanic character have a Mexican accent and use Spanish slang? Is your Asian character a nerd, a gangster, or a martial artist? Is your African American character the comic relief sidekick who dies halfway through (or a gangster)? Is your “strong female character” strong only because she has traditionally male characteristics? Again, you CAN have these characters, because they DO exist in real life–but unless they’re in there for a reason (i.e. novels about specific race/gender issues, or satire), you run the risk of looking ignorant. Make sure ALL your characters–yes, including your female, PoC, and LGBT characters–are human. June, for example, is super-tropey in the “perfect kickass girl” sense, but I’d like to believe that what makes her interesting and 3-dimensional is her Sherlockian sense of logic even in the midst of panic, her occasionally insulting and cold demeanor, and her soft spot for her older brother. Tess is a shy and insecure and naive little girl, another trope, but she can also be quite spiteful and petty, and she is not afraid of blood. Tropes can be hard to avoid because there are SO MANY of them, and you’re bound to end up with a few, but be aware of them as you’re creating your characters and try your best to push them a little bit outside of the box.
Just know this: we all mess up from time to time. But do not be afraid to tackle female/PoC/LGBT characters. Is there a chance you might go horribly wrong? Sure. Is there a chance that people will crucify you for it? Yes, and probably rightly so. Diversity and feminism are topics that your writing should treat with utmost care. But! This should not intimidate you to the point of not trying. Female/PoC/LGBT people are just that: people. We’re humans. Write us with the same confidence you apply to your straight, white, male cast. As with all good writing, do your research. Read up on diversity and feminism. Run your draft by people that you trust to notice these types of issues. Then, be brave, put those characters in, and let it out into the world. Contribute to diverse, feminist fiction. It is far better to try and fail than to ignore diversity altogether.
Do you have additional suggestions for checking one’s manuscript? Sound off below!
Marie Lu is the author of the New York Times bestselling Legend trilogy. She currently resides in Los Angeles, where she spends her time writing and stuck in traffic.