Are you gearing up for NaNoWriMo next month? If so, I’ve got a great tool for you to use: 4thewords. 4thewords in an online writing platform that gamifies your writing and helps increase word count by fighting monsters, going on quests, and leveling up your character. It’s really fun, and I’ve been using it for over a year to make sure I write every day. All throughout October, you can unlock hidden items using special code words, found on online writing resources (like this one). If you haven’t tried 4thewords before, use the code word hidden in this article to unlock a surprise and a free month of play time! If you do decide to join, you can use my referral code (BUAZU92189) when you sign up for some bonus crystals at your first payment. Hope to see you in the game!
So you’ve heard all about how you’re supposed to be inclusive when you write and include a diverse cast of characters, right? But now you’re staring at that page, wondering how you put this into practice. Or maybe you’ve written three chapters and you realize all your characters are male. Or white. Or straight.
What you do?
Furthermore, why are you now listening to a white dude “well, actually” you about your writing? I hope to provide a good example, and also give you a little information that might help you on your way to writing while including a more disparate cast of characters.
First off, appearances are deceiving. I’m a cisgender white male, I’ve been married to a cisgender woman for fifteen years, and until recently, I never really thought I had any say in the social issues where some people have to work to be accepted in society.
Except, we all face marginalization in some way or another, though it may not be in as large a manner as others. For example, I’m vegetarian. I’ve been vegetarian my whole life. I dealt with a lot of bullying and derision in lower school because I was the odd one out, and brought my lunch every day. While this isn’t as extreme an example as, say growing up a person of color in the United States, it’s a start. While vegetarianism is a lot more commonplace nowadays, I still have to deal with others saying “well, we have to find somewhere where you can eat,” even though several of my friends are pickier eaters than I am.
However, I’ve started to understand the distinctions of scale in diversity a lot more in the last couple years. In June of this year (2019), I came out as bisexual. I’m still happily married and I don’t plan to change that, but as I’ve gotten older I decided I no longer want to bend over backwards for society to hold up a “norm.” I want to be myself. I can be bisexual, and in a committed relationship, and happy.
Enough about me, though hopefully I’ve convinced you that I do at least have some worthwhile opinions on the subject. (And hey—if you want to read a space opera series with symphonic, music-based magic, a whole cast of diverse characters including a bisexual main character, and a bunch of cool aliens with multiple genders, you can check out my books here!)
I’m sure you can find something about yourself that is different from the “norm” of society, whether it’s a very small detail or something that defines your everyday life. No matter how small it is, it can help you start to understand what people facing pressing social issues of, for example, trans rights, LGBT acceptance, or racial inequality might feel like.
Look back at the work you’re writing. Let’s address the gender balance first, as this is one of the simplest things to correct. How many people in your story are male, and how many are female? And no, I’m not forgetting non-binary people. That’s the next step.
Even if you identify as female, you may end up putting a lot of male characters in your story, where there’s no need to have most or all male characters. Pick a male character at random. Why are they male? Do they need to be? Even if you think they do need to be specifically male, try this exercise: change their gender to female, or non-binary, or trans. continue writing the same character, with no changes to their personality. I bet you’ll find you have to do very little editing of your story. Continue to do this with characters in your story, until you have a more balanced set of genders. Even if you think you’re not capturing different nuances of character because of a different gender, keep going. Remember, you can always add more detail or change things later. The first step is to try it out. You won’t get anywhere if you don’t do the exercise at all.
You can do the same challenge for other features of your characters, though keep in mind this may have a greater effect on the tone of your story and your character’s choices (more on that in a minute). Are they all the same skin color as you? Do they have the same sexuality? Do they have the same gender? Do they have the same/any religion? Are they on the same monetary level as you are? Do they come from the same geographical area? Are they all neurotypical, or neurodiverse? You can think about all of these attributes as sliders, because few people are fully at one end or the other of a range—they’re usually somewhere in the middle. There are a lot more sliders you can come up with, if you think about it. Not all of them will always be applicable to what you’re writing, so pick a few that are more pertinent.
If it helps, you can even make a chart of these axes or sliders for each of your characters. Remember, I only gave you some examples. There are always more. Each character you write will be in a different place on at least one of these sliders. That’s how it is in the real world. You can find somebody who is a lot like you, but you’re never going to find somebody who is exactly like you. The differences are what make us interesting.
Once you do this, you may find a character at a very different place on these sliders from you will make completely different choices on their arc than you intended. Just as with any character, you will need to consider their background and what affects their choices. You may need to include things you haven’t thought about, like a family with darker skin doing an activity that may have been historically restricted in the U.S., or how a person wanting a same sex relationship would look for a partner versus one wanting a heterosexual relationship.
That brings me to my last point. While these are really good exercises to try when you’re still in the drafting or writing phase, I’ll leave you with a word of warning. You should strive to place characters that come from many diverse backgrounds in your writing, but you also need to do your research. You can’t be familiar with every single part of these sliders I’ve been talking about—that’s the whole point of diversity and including others. The danger, then, is to write somebody on the other side of the slider than you, and get it wrong, or even worse, write something that another person finds offensive. You want people to enjoy your stories, after all, don’t you?
So do your research. Put in as many diverse characters as you possibly can, but if it’s a characteristic you don’t have any experience with, find someone who represents that characteristic and is willing to help you learn about it. Offer to pay for their time and emotional labor. Be aware they may refuse. Please don’t randomly go up to people you don’t know and expect them to share information with you. It may be best to look for online sources first (and not just Wikipedia) about the culture a person different from you experiences, whether that is sexuality, skin color, neuro-diverse issues, or whatever. Take a stab at trying to portray the character correctly. Again, remember that you can always go back and change the words you’ve written. I’ve done my fair share of badly-depicted characters that my writing group helped identify and improve.
Don’t throw it in the graveyard if you get it wrong. You have to be willing to accept that if you do make mistakes, and are called on them, that you can accept the criticism in the style that was given and let it help you become a better writer.
The more diverse people you know, the easier it is for you to observe how they think and act. This also means you may have more people willing to help your writing become better. But if you simply cannot find somebody who is able or willing, or cannot find a good source of research for what you’re trying to do, there are people called sensitivity readers. A lot of them are similar to paid editors, where they will read your work and giving feedback on the type of issue that you are having trouble with.
So in conclusion, be diverse in your writing! Include people of every different persuasion. Your stories will become more colorful and more exciting in consequence. Your plots will go to places you’ve never thought of before. Don’t be afraid to try new things, but also be aware that you will probably get things wrong. Just keep trying. The only real failure is not trying to be inclusive at all.
Hey! You made it to the end! If you didn’t spot it already, your code word is: graveyard. You can redeem your code in the 4thewords dashboard section on the Account Page
Also, if you do want to do some research, here are a few helpful places around the web I’ve used personally:
Writing Excuses podcasts on these topics (about 15-20 minutes long):