Writing Diverse Fiction: A Practical Guide

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!


18 Responses to Writing Diverse Fiction: A Practical Guide

  1. Triona Dolan Oct 23 2013 at 7:11 am #

    Hi Marie,

    I absolutely LOVE this post!!! I’m outlining my NaNo project so it couldn’t have come at a better time.

    I think you’re totally right! These are things we need to keep in mind when creating balanced stories.

  2. Natalie Aguirre Oct 23 2013 at 7:55 am #

    What an AWESOME post, Marie. So right on. And thanks for sharing your own struggles with this.

  3. Susan Dennard Oct 23 2013 at 9:20 am #

    I love this post. Just LOVE it. Thank you so much for these great guidelines. I’d never heard of the Bechdel Test, but WHOA. I love it. *Love* it.

  4. Erin Bowman Oct 23 2013 at 10:45 am #

    Marie, I ADORE this post. I’ve been fascinated by the Bechdel test for ages. I think it’s a great way to identify flaws (or successes) in stories, but not a be all end all. Example: Legally Blonde passes it, which makes sense–that movie is all about Elle not needing a man and making her own future. Then again, HP 7.2 fails the test, as no two female characters ever have a FULL conversation. Just a lot of “not my daughter you B,” or “I always wanted to use that spell.” And I personally think Rowling was fantastic at crafting well rounded women who were independent and headstrong. Heck, I think YOUR novels have one of the strongest, independent female leads around. Failing the Bechdel test doesn’t mean the story failed to represent women appropriately…

    I recently saw a conversation on twitter around Pacific Rim (which actually failed the Bechdel) that suggested a Mako Mori test. Does the story have:
    1) at least one female character
    2) who gets her own narrative arc
    3) that is not about supporting a man’s story

    Honestly, I think this serves a similar goal as the Bechdel–Taking a good look at how female characters are portrayed, and asking if their existence is there outside of the male characters. And any of these tests can be extended to look at how race, sexual orientation, etc is portrayed. In the end, they are all just great tools to help analyze your story.

    Phew. I apologize for this incredibly long-winded comment. I just really loved this post. Thank you for sharing all your thoughts, Marie. <3

    • Marie Lu Oct 23 2013 at 11:15 am #

      Aah Erin, your response is AMAZING. I hadn’t heard about this Mako Mori test but this is such a great one! It’s such a great one to complement the Bechdel test, too–thank you for turning me onto it! <3

  5. Leonicka Oct 23 2013 at 10:59 am #

    Love this post. To add to your first point, I would encourage people to think about how flipping genders/ethnicity changes the character. For example if the character who works late or is often out at night is now a woman how does her experience walking home/to her car differ from a man’s? Does she worry about street harassment? Does she call a friend so she’s not alone? Race, gender, culture, etcetera are not interchangeable traits–they profoundly shape the depth character.

  6. Rowenna Oct 23 2013 at 11:56 am #

    For what it’s worth, it’s my husband who can’t find his way out of a parking lot–stereotype, busted, lol!

    I love the points here–especially that it’s worth it to brave the potential pitfalls and just write diversity into your work. I know there’s been some backlash surrounding writing PoC if you’re not, and while I get it, we all have to be aware and working toward more diversity for it to happen.

    I think, too, that thinking about sex/gender, ethnicity/race, etc from the get-go is important, especially if your story isn’t taking place in the here and now. Considering how gender and race work in the world you’re building is crucial (or thinking about how they work in our world, if that’s your setting). As is remembering–sex is biological, gender is cultural, and race is culturally defined as much as it is biologically defined. When you’re writing I think you owe it to the readers and the characters to consider how culture defines race and gender.

  7. Laila Oct 23 2013 at 12:34 pm #

    What a wonderful post :). I really think all fiction is enhanced by starting to think about stuff like this and working on improving their blind spots.

    I have to admit, I was one of those people who used to be really afraid of it – partly because I am not an American, yet writing for the American market and what constitutes a trope or an offensive stereotype in different countries varies so so much. I was terrified I’d get something wrong – and it wasn’t helped by the fact that I read one too many reviews in which a writer was indeed faulted for obviously trying this. And it was usually things where, if they were reversed, you could still complain about them and it made me feel all kinds of hopeless.
    And then I understood that it’s really not about the writer. It’s not whether J.K. Rowling might get her feelings hurt because someone dislikes her portrayal of Cho Chang, it’s about the fact that we can have a conversation about it and think about her and what we see in her. And in the end, I think it’s a great thing, and far better than to avoid the risk and keeping them all white.

  8. Tim Oct 23 2013 at 3:26 pm #

    You know, you could have just said sexism?

    And, meh, I’m not a big fan of putting in characters to fill a qouta. I like exploring different cultures and sexuality, so that lack of diversity never really affected me.

    Ah well, each to their own.

  9. Rosanna Silverlight Oct 23 2013 at 3:34 pm #

    Fantastic post, Marie! I respect the way you’ve used your own novels as examples, putting them under the spotlight. I’ve been planning out my upcoming NaNoWriMo project and just in the last few days have been thinking about these very same issues, so your timing has the ring of serendipity! 😉

    I’ve just started to dig deep into my main characters (and the people/races they represent in their fantasy world) and feel out their personalities. One of them is magically gifted, elevated to the status of Princess because of her gift, and she’s going to be a target for all the villainy, political machinations and greed of plenty of people in my story. I caught myself thinking of her as sheltered, shy and (I’m just going to say it) weak. Then I asked myself why — why does she have to be weak and shy? Why should she be?

    I turned my thought on its head. She’s going to be a fierce-tempered, resilient girl (without being that physically tough — she likes to try, though ;)) and the best part is that the other main character is her best friend — and I can’t wait to write their friendship. 😀

  10. Julie Eshbaugh Oct 23 2013 at 6:01 pm #

    Marie, let me join the chorus of comments praising this post. Like Susan, I’d never heard of the Bechdel test but I think it sounds like a great tool for analyzing a draft. Thanks for the encouragement to research and read widely and then be brave and create diverse characters. 🙂

  11. Adriana Oct 23 2013 at 6:39 pm #

    This post couldn’t come at a better time for me, thank you so much!! <3 The book I'm working on right now is very heavily influenced by the korean culture and has a lot of mixed characters in it. I'm really worried about doing it justice, because I don't want to fall into cultural appropriation, but I also want to try to represent different people in my writing, y'know? It's stressful but so so exciting.

    The Betchel Test definitely changed how I approach my scenes (and media in general!), and I saw Erin mention the new Mako Mori Test, which is also fantastic 🙂 (Just like Pacific Rim is fantastic, yes.)

  12. Kacie J. Oct 23 2013 at 9:04 pm #

    Awesome post! Diversity is definitely needed. And I’m really glad you included race as well as sexual orientation because there is a huge lack of representation. I would also add that, if possible, talk to the people of the culture. Of course, one person doesn’t represent a group but it helps to be less of an outsider by listening to the experiences of someone who has that insight.

  13. Alice Kaltman Oct 24 2013 at 10:36 am #

    Great Post! And so inspiring/encouraging. I also think it helps to look around at the real people in our lives, on the streets, in the stores, in our schools and try to note the stuff about them that falls outside the sterotypical norms.

  14. dana alison levy Oct 24 2013 at 2:25 pm #

    What a great post, in part because you so wonderfully take the tone that we – the royal we, meaning writers of all stripes – want to write well-rounded, diverse, interesting representative characters. Intention is important; execution even more so, and I found this post valuable for both concrete suggestions and an thought-provoking overview.
    There are all kinds of good resources and ideas shared here, and offer another one. I recently saw an article about a Bechdel Test for LBTQ characters, which others might find interesting as well. Personally it’s not that I find these tests offer a fail-safe way to guarantee the right kind of portrayal, but they do offer a starting point to think about what your characters are doing in your story…and why.

  15. Gretchen Oct 26 2013 at 1:21 pm #

    I think those are all good points, but I think I would like to add one more and that would be disability. About 20% of America is disabled and we often represent less than 2% of characters in film/TV/books. A book doesn’t have to revolve around their disability in order for them to be present, but I think it is important that they are present. I am disabled and I’ve grown up never seeing myself in any medium, except for the token kid in a wheelchair who is usually male.

    Like I said before this should not be to take away from any of the others, I’m just tired of being told I don’t exist or count as diversity because I am disabled.

  16. Linda Adams Nov 4 2013 at 9:00 pm #

    I find as a reader that it seems like a lot of writers simply default to one type of character, always male (women writers are guilty of this, too). I’ve picked anthologies where every story features a male main character, and maybe there’s one female character in the entire anthology, and she’s a secondary character. It’s like the women just get left out completely, and I don’t think people realize it until they start looking for it. Just do your own audit as you read. Seriously, a book should not have 100 male characters and one woman character.

    One of the other issues I’ve noticed is the obligatory woman character. Someone has told the writer that they should have a woman protagonist to draw in women readers, but the male sidekick gets to be the smart one and do the stuff the main character should be doing. In one story, a fight broke out among the woman protagonist, her male sidekick, and the bad guys. She fell down the stairs and out of the scene while the men all fought and reappeared only after the action was done. Treat them like whole characters, not like trends.

  17. Alexa Y. Nov 6 2013 at 3:31 am #

    One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about your posts is how honest and helpful they are — and this is certainly no different! I really think that this will eventually be helpful when I’ve finally finished my WIP!

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