The world we live in is a rich, diverse place with people who come in different genders, from different national and cultural backgrounds, and different races. (Yes, we are all of the human race, but it still makes handy shorthand). That doesn’t even consider different sexual orientations, political factions, or religious affiliations. So, shouldn’t our writing reflect that?
This year’s Oscar nominees are the most diverse group yet, and I applaud that. While at the same time, I wonder why we aren’t further along. I can’t change the world, but maybe I can do a little to help, and so can you.
Your main characters are going to have to fit the story. Everything about them, from their age, gender, nationality, religious, and political leanings can be important and plot relevant (but might not be). But not every character should be a clone of your main character (unless this is a story about clones, which would still get boring and confusing if you can’t differentiate them). What about other characters? If your protagonist absolutely must be a white male Republican for the story to work, don’t try to force it by making the protagonist a black female Democrat. But unless the story takes place exclusively in a club for white male Republicans, shouldn’t some of the characters he interacts with be different? Maybe his neighbors are from China, and his best friend is a Democrat who likes to debate politics with him. Maybe his wife is a Polish immigrant who runs a daycare with her best friend who happens to be black. Perhaps there is a synagogue a block away that throws the absolute best book sale twice a year. All of this is perfectly possible and can add flavor and depth to the story without changing the character from who he is.
This can be taken too far. If your story takes place in a sixteenth century Irish monastery, the characters should be predominately white and male and any deviations should have a logical and relevant explanation. But even if you are writing a historical fantasy, that doesn’t mean you have to stick to white male characters. Even back then, women did do things, and people did travel, though not as much as they do now.
I like to try to throw in some casual diversity in my stories. For Moon Fox, I made Todd’s best friend and his sister Jamaican immigrants. At first it was just to throw it in, but it did offer me some plot opportunities. In Pawn’s Play, one of Violet’s friends, Denise is mentioned to be darker skinned and from the Bahamas. That hasn’t become plot relevant yet, but it might be at some point. Both stories take place in schools, so of course, some of the professors are female and some are male. Violet definitely has a more diverse list of professors, including a troll, a medusa, a leprechaun, and others. Liska’s professors are all humans, at least.
One book I’m still writing, I have a pantheon of nine gods, four male, four female, and Death which is neither. The main characters are a group of four, two male, two female, with one of them being half one minority, and half another minority. They spend the book traveling and rarely interact with others. I was quite pleased with the balance of the book. Then I realized they had gone at least five chapters without so much as mentioning them seeing another woman. Since the land is mostly gender equal (though definitely not class equal) that was a problem. One I hope to fix more in the rewrite. But I am trying to be more careful going forward. There is no reason they can’t get a blessing from a priestess instead of a priest. Nor any reason that shopkeeper can’t be a female. And why in the world should they be the only travelers on the road? I mean, excluding the fact that travel is extremely dangerous and time consuming.
Can your story pass the Bechdel Test (language warning)? Do you have two named females who talk to each other about something other than a man or men in general? How about going further. Do you have two named minorities who talk to each other about something other than a white person, or white people in general? How about (if relevant to your story) two named non-humans who talk to each other about something other than a human or humans in general? While passing the test doesn’t mean you have a good story, and you can have a good story without it; you may want to ask why it can’t.
Can your female character pass the sexy lamp test? If your female character can be replaced by a sexy lamp, you don’t have a character. She’s just there for fan service. If she’s just there to give information, that substitute a sexy lamp with a post-it note. No, I didn’t come up with these tests. But I try to use them. One fanfic author summed up the first Harry Potter book with Harry Potter substituted with a Mr. Potato Head doll. The story worked scarily well. If your character, major or minor, can be replaced with an inanimate object, or an inanimate object with a post it note, you may have a problem.
Now, not every character has an important role. Sometimes you need a character that fulfills a specific role, and moves on, never to be heard from again. First body for the Sly Ferret god to possess. The shuttle pilot who just ferries the characters to Mars. Mr. Exposition. Fine. Don’t try to make them as important as the main character. But why not make them a little more interesting? Yes, it could be considered unfortunate implications (language warning) if only your bit characters are females or minorities, but why shouldn’t some of them be? Not to mention some of your more important characters?
‘But can’t make this unpleasant character a woman, minority, etc. People will think I think they’re all like that.’ Yes, they will. If that’s the only one. But why should it be? Okay so, if you make the hysterical, paranoid teacher a black woman, shouldn’t there be at least one or more calm, competent black women as well? They can be flawed in different ways, like every character should be.
Write the characters your story demands, but don’t forget that our world is rich and your characters can and should be too.