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August 1, 2018

Writers, how to research your diverse character

Creative Rebel, Writing Runes

diverse characters

diverse characters

Image via Ebony.

Ah, diverse characters. That old wheel horse.

There’s a lot of discussion in the writing community about who has ‘permission’ to write certain stories. Mainly, these are the stories that feature non-cis, non-white, non-straight, non-’western’, non-able-bodied characters. The #ownvoices movement aims to lift up the writers who are telling these stories from their lived experiences, which is fucking amazing and about bloody time.

However, the conversion can sometimes veer off into a battle of who has the rights to these characters. Is an able-bodied person allowed to write a disabled character? What about a white person writing a POC? Does the identity of the writer preclude them from certain narratives?

There’s no easy answer here, which is why it’s something that’s discussed ad nauseum inside any discussion about diverse literature. And it isn’t just fiction that gets this treatment. Historian T K Roxborough wrote recently about this issue when writing histories. “We should welcome the telling of histories – in whatever form they take – because no one person can hold the ‘right’ way of telling a history: people are flawed. Although, the better tellings are those that have done lots of research and used a range of sources.”

Speaking as a fiction writer with a disability, I have opinions! My opinion is this: we’re all writing fiction. It’s all flying saucers and happily-ever-afters and dinosaur capers and mysterious strangers. We all get to play in the same sandbox of our imagination, and I don’t think one fiction writer or reader should be telling another what they can/can’t write.

There is a real and present problem that there isn’t enough diverse fiction in the world. Many people can’t see themselves reflected in the characters in books and films and TV. Many people don’t have heroes that look or think like them, and that can do lasting damage, especially to children.

Part of that problem is that there are not enough non-white, non-male writers. Part of the problem is that writers aren’t writing enough diverse characters. Part of the problem is that the gatekeepers (reviewers, award committee, publishers, booksellers) aren’t lifting up the books with these important stories. Part of that comes from our own perceptions as readers – if we see a book with a black hero or heroine on the front, we think it’s a certain kind of book (even if it’s not) and bypass it for something that feels safer for us (usually with a white cover model). It’s a complex issue with lots of facets, but the end result is the same – a bland landscape of same, same, same.

The truth is, we don’t live in a world that’s all-white, all-cis, all-straight, all-able-bodied. We live in a wonderful, diverse melting pot of different experiences. But that’s not reflected in much of our literature. Many writers – some from minority groups, some who are your typical white, able-bodied, non-disabled type – think this is silly and want to change it. They’re all on the same team, which is why I think the permission argument is so damaging to the cause.

If you say that white people can’t write about non-white people, then you contribute to the problem by ensuring a whole lot of new books telling white stories by white writers in a white-washed world hit the market.

On the flip side, I totally get where that outrage is coming from. We have a history steeped in colonialism and ableism and homophobia and all sorts of other isms and phobias that mean real people have endured a world of bullshit. As a ‘white, able, cis’ writer, when you write a story about a minority group and you get shit wrong, you can contribute to actual hurt and damage done to that group. When a person with a disability reads books, it would be nice if not every single one of those characters dies.

What’s the solution? Research.

Research is how writers of fiction get shit right. Whether it’s making sure your WWI soldiers aren’t using weapons that weren’t invented for another 15 years or creating an authentic experience of life in a wheelchair, you need research. Because you weren’t a soldier in WWI, the same way you might not know what it’s like to live in a wheelchair (and being wheeled across the parking lot after a brief hospital stay DOES NOT COUNT).

If you’ve got an idea for a book with a diverse protagonist who has a life outside of your lived experience, then you’ve gotta research. Here’s a simple as fuck guide to help you do the best job you can.

1. Get organised

This is the first stage of any research project. You need to put together a research plan so you have time to fit in everything you need to do before your deadline. If you’re a prolific writer like me (I’m writing a book every two months) then you need to get this research done fast, but you also got to get it right, so this stage is super important.

You need to:

  • Set out a timeline for your project, including deadlines – when you need to start writing the book, when you need to finish the draft, etc.
  • Plan the stages of research (general, specific, interviews, sensitivity readers). Identify the key areas of research of what you know already about the novel (character, location, technical details).
  • Book interview times with subject matter experts and those with lived experience (I like to do this at the beginning of a research period if possible, as the dates serve as deadlines to help me focus).

I like to talk to people with lived experience, and I prefer to speak to friends or friends-of-friends, so I usually start by throwing a note up on Facebook and ask people to hook me up with someone who can help. I’ve found so many amazing and helpful peeps that way. There are also networks of people who work as sensitivity readers, such as Writing In The Margins.

2. Exploratory research

In the beginning, you probably don’t know much about what you need to know, so you need to do some reading to figure out… what you want to know.

For me, exploratory research is happening all the time as I see and learn and read and watch new things. It also happens from the time I get an inkling of an idea for plot or character. It’s the research you do when you decide you’ll be writing a heroine with an amputation but you don’t know what that means or what it looks like.

You need general background knowledge about your subject. For this stage ONLY, Wikipedia or other general knowledge websites or books are a good place to begin. It will give you a basic overview of what you need to know. Then, you can dive into tangents that interest you, find unique books (I love biographies and interesting history books) and also look for academic essays and papers. This is also a time when I like to throw up a question on Facebook. “Hey, I’m researching Slavic mythology and being bisexual. Does anyone have any books or documentaries they can recommend to me?” I get LOTS of cool responses.

3. Narrowing your focus

As you research, you’ll begin to put your ideas together and your story and characters will start to emerge in your mind. It’s around this time you’ll start developing certain questions and lines of research you need to pursue. As well as looking in the same places for more specific research, you will need to:

  • Create a list of specific questions. This list might include things like: how does a person with an above-the-knee amputation have sex? Or what slang words would a POC who grew up in New Orleans use? These are the questions it’s particularly useful to talk to a friend or source about.
  • Learn about stereotypes. There are common stereotypes about all minority groups that you need to be aware of if you’re writing about them. Many stereotypes are harmful and offensive to the groups involved – and since you’re not of that culture or group, you might not realise you’ve done something harmful. On the other hand, stereotypes can also be great tools for a storyteller, enabling you to dig deeper into the world of your character and subvert expectations. You need to be careful not to be too broad here and remember that stereotypes aren’t only between ‘western’ and ‘other’. For example, YA writer Malinda Yo writes about the problems researching stereotypes about Asian characters – ‘Asia’ is quite a large geographic area encompassing many diverse cultures. Stereotypes white America has about Chinese people are very different from stereotypes the Chinese have about Taiwanese people.
  • Visit a reference library. If you have access to a university or society library complete with subject-matter librarians, you’ve hit research gold! You can speak to the librarian about the questions you’ve identified and he/she will direct you to where to look for answers. Don’t expect the librarian to do the work for you.
  • Conduct your interviews. Sit down either in person or via Skype with your awesome source and pick their brains about their life and experiences and any other questions you have. Remember that they don’t speak for their entire culture or group and their experiences are personal to them.

5. Start writing

Now you get to put your research together and put words on the page. It’s a little scary, but also heaps of fun!

When writing, try not to let details hold you up. As you write you’ll no doubt come up with many more research questions along the way. When I was writing Wedding the Wolf, I realised during one scene that I didn’t actually know how a person put on/took off a prosthetic limb. When I’m in the flow of writing I leave a gap in the text and a note about what I need to know, so I can come back and add the details later.

6. Ask for feedback

When I write characters from cultures I’m not familiar with or with disabilities I don’t possess myself, I usually ask someone within my network (possibly one of my original sources) to have a read over the story and make sure I haven’t made any glaring mistakes. Usually, their feedback is positive – thanks to all the research I’ve done – but they will add one or two interesting details that add depth to the story.

Even if you conduct extensive research and write a compelling story, you may still end up with readers accusing you of getting things ‘wrong.’ Many people have a high personal stake in certain types of stories or certain characters because of their own lived experiences. They may take offense to your portrayal of a character even if you’ve worked hard to create something that doesn’t conform to harmful stereotypes.

They have every right to do so, and you shouldn’t get angry or try and stop them. Readers are complex people and every one of them will have their own reaction to a book. The best thing you can do is remember that they don’t speak for everyone, focus on what you’ve achieved that you’re proud of, and learn and listen so you can improve in the future.

I believe that even if experiences aren’t universal, emotions are. Guilt, pain, humiliation, rage, love, regret, devotion – these are universal to the human condition. By rooting a character in these universal emotions, you can create someone who appeals to a wide range of readers, even though the character’s experiences are vastly different from their own.

I also believe it’s the duty of writers who believe in the importance of diversity to lift up diverse voices and help marginalised writers to be heard. As well as creating your own cast of diverse characters, you should help your audience be aware of books by diverse writers who deserve to be heard. Doing these two things with earnestness and grace helps to create an inclusive book community where everyone has the chance to be the hero of their favourite story.

Resources

Writing diverse characters on the GenZ blog

We Need Diverse Books – an organisation dedicated to promoting diverse literature.

Be Brave and Write Inclusively – an amazing list of resources and further reading on writing diverse books.

An interesting Tumblr thread on checklisting (ticking off a diverse cast of characters without any thought to their personalities or traits) that’s worth a read.

A list of resources for all kinds of diverse characters on Writing With Color – I use this all the time.


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