Thursday, January 16, 2020

Mix it Up! Handling Diversity in Your Fiction

Several days ago on Twitter, Stephen King made this tweet about diversity (in response to the discussion about the recent Oscar nominations’ lack of diversity): “I would never consider diversity in matters of art. Only quality. It seems to me that to do otherwise would be wrong.” This was the second part of a message about the awards, and a couple hours later, King followed it up with a couple more tweets to clarify his feelings about diversity (he said he’s for it, by the way). The tweet – as you might imagine – engendered quite a number of responses. Some people were disappointed that someone with King’s platform would post such a message. Others came to his defense and said the tweet was taken out of context. You can go check out King’s tweets and judge for yourself. All the responses to King’s tweet that I read got me thinking about how I handle diversity in my own writing. I thought this might make a good topic for a blog post, so here we are.

First off, individual writers have to make their own decisions about how to handle diversity in their work. I believe it’s important to strive for diversity in one’s fiction, and I have a host of reasons for that belief. But if you dismiss the idea of including diversity in your writing as mere “virtue signaling” or pandering to an audience for political reasons, let me offer some – for lack of better term – self-focused reasons to consider adding diversity in your fiction.

1) We live in a diverse world. Adding diversity to your story makes it seem more real. This is called verisimilitude, and it’ll make your work better. The better your work is, the greater chance it will sell. If it sells, you’ll reach more readers and hopefully make some money.

2) Readers aren’t homogenous. They’re diverse in all kind of ways, and diversity in fiction is attractive to them. Because of this, they’ll be more interested in buying and reading your work. If they buy your work, you’ll reach more readers and hopefully make some money.

Whether you believe that representation matters and adding diversity to your work will help make the world a better place, or if you’re only interested about advancing your own career (or some combination of both), here are some tips for dealing with diversity in your fiction.

Should you write about people who aren’t like you?

“Write what you know” comes into play here. If you’re a man, don’t write from the point of view of a woman. If you’re not deaf, don’t write from the point of view of a deaf person, etc. The idea is that no matter what you do – how much research, how much you try to use your imagination and empathy – you will never be able to be anyone other than yourself. You won’t be able to write from earned experience. You’ll also be co-opting the stories of people who do have earned experience. Your story about a person of Maori descent might take away room for a story written by someone who actually is of Maori descent. Basically, you should stay in your lane and write from the point of view of people more or less like you, from more or less the same area, with more or less the same basic qualities and background when it comes to race/gender/sexuality, etc. Lots of writers do this and do an excellent job.

I understand the basic idea of staying in your lane when it comes to diversity in fiction, and to a certain extent, I support it. I think writers shouldn’t try to tell a story meant to illuminate important aspects of another group’s experience. Only a person who was raised in and still is steeped in a culture/race/gender/etc. can ever know it well enough to write in-depth fiction exploring the issues that group faces. No amount of research can ever give you as authoritative an experience as someone who actually belongs a group other than your own, and you will never do as good a job as a writer from that group would at telling those stories. That said, I think if your story isn’t about the African-American experience or the gay experience, or the fill-in-the-blank experience, you can write from the point of view of a character unlike yourself if their racial/gender/cultural identity isn’t central to the story. Men in Black is a good example. Agents J and K could be people of any race, gender, or sexuality without having an appreciable impact on the film’s plot. (One does need to be older than the other, though.) Some character bits, such as J’s jokes which arise from his race would change, but the characters’ essential personalities and how they solve problems would remain the same. The story isn’t about J being black and K being white. It’s about the weird aspects of their job and saving the world. I’m perfectly comfortable writing from the point of view of someone with a different racial/ethnic/gender/sexual orientation background than myself in this circumstance. I focus on the character’s personality, and while their backgrounds will affect the expression of their character to a certain extent, I don’t attempt to delve very deep into their race, gender, sexuality, religion, etc. And if I do go a little deeper than usual, it’s because I have close relationships with people from those backgrounds, and I’m comfortable asking them if I misrepresented the group they belong to (or rather one of their groups, since we all belong to multiple ones).

If you’re absolutely determined to write an incisive character and cultural study of someone from  a group different than yourself, go ahead. Roll the dice and see how readers respond. But don’t be surprised if they want to know why a middle-aged white guy born in 1964 and who’s lived in Ohio most of his life (to use myself as an example) thinks he has any special insight into what the life of a black lesbian teenager from Los Angeles in 2020 is like.

Do a diversity self-inventory

Exploring your attitudes towards race, religion, gender, sexuality, etc. – those you had as a child, as a teen, as an adult – can help give you more insight into how to deal with diversity in your fiction. Think back over how you were raised to view people of other backgrounds – race, religion, sexuality, gender expression, physical and mental capabilities, political beliefs . . . How did your parents view people of other backgrounds? How did people in your community? In your school? In your peer group? How did your views change (if they did) as you grew older? What prejudices and fears do you have about people from other backgrounds? How much do you know about people of other backgrounds? What would you like to know that you don’t? Be honest with yourself, even if it’s painful (maybe especially if it is). If you write your responses down, no one else ever has to see them. Taking such a self-inventory can reveal areas of bias, prejudice, confusion, fears, and misinformation you might have toward or about people from different backgrounds. Such an inventory can reveal areas where you need to educate yourself. Get to know people from different backgrounds, read about their experiences in books, articles, blogs, and on social media. If you ask direct questions of people from different backgrounds, do so respectfully and remember it’s no one else’s responsibility to educate you about diversity issues. If someone does you the courtesy of answering your questions, that’s great, but no one owes you answers.

A diversity self-inventory can also reveal areas that you feel passionate about. Say you grew up in an environment of toxic masculinity or with a parent who had bipolar disorder. Maybe you had to deal with being in an abusive relationship at some point in your life. Maybe you have a sibling who struggles with addiction issues. If any diversity issues are important to you, for whatever reason, your experience with and strong feelings about them can fuel some powerful fiction.

Some elements of my own diversity inventory: I’m a cis-het white male, born in 1964, who grew up in a small town in Southwest Ohio. Prejudice against African-Americans, sexism, homophobia, and ableism were common. There was prejudice against Catholics (though this was milder than the other issues). Prejudice against Jews was rare. I never heard anything negative about Hispanics or Asians (to the point where it never occurred to me that some people considered them separate races from whites). No one ever said anything about Muslims one way or the other. Trans people weren’t highly visible yet, so no one said anything about them, and the concepts of gender expression and fluidity were unknown. Bigamy was the closest anyone ever came to the concept of polyamory, and of course, it was viewed negatively. Mental illness was a stigma and rarely discussed. Antidepressants weren’t a thing yet. Autism, learning disabilities, ADD, etc. weren’t concepts people discussed. Hyperactivity was, though. Politically, most people were Republicans, but not like today’s extreme version. Democrats were primarily centrists. Communism was viewed negatively, and no one ever said the word socialism. Religiously speaking, faith was balanced with other aspects of life, and rigid Christian evangelism wasn’t a factor. General anti-intellectualism existed, but it was relatively mild. (This was my experience of what my town was like regarding issues of diversity. The reality may have been different in many respects, perhaps drastically so.)

That’s my background regarding diversity up until I graduated high school. I didn’t possess all the same views that people in my town generally had, but I couldn’t help but be affected by them to one degree or another. I could go on and describe how my attitudes toward people from different backgrounds evolved as I went to college, then grad school, got married, became a college professor, then a father, and so on, but you get the idea. This kind of introspection can not only make you a better person, but also help you learn to deal with diversity in your writing more effectively.

Don’t preach

When it comes to exploring diversity issues in your writing, do so through story and character, not in what amounts to personal rants. It’ll only turn readers off. Even if readers agree with your point of view 100 percent, they want to experience a story, not a lecture. And for godsakes, don’t mansplain, whitesplain, het-splain, or do splaining of any kind. Don’t tell people from backgrounds different from yours how they should view their experiences and how they should behave. In other words, don’t be an asshole.

Should you draw attention to diversity?

Some people advocate not mentioning characters’ race, sexuality, and other characteristics unless they are pertinent to the story. If it doesn’t matter to the story if a character is white, black, straight, gay, bi, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, etc., why bring it up? Not only does doing so “other” characters by labeling them, telling readers too much about a character (even down to hair and eye color) can make it more difficult for them to picture characters in whichever way they wish. I understand this point of view, but I don’t share it. We were discussing diversity issues in one of my creative writing classes the other day, and an African-American student said that if a character’s race isn’t mentioned in a story, she always views that character as white since whiteness is the assumed default in America, and that’s what she’s been exposed to all her life. Plus, in real life, there are certain basic aspects of people’s backgrounds we can see by their appearance – basic racial background, basic gender background. We can’t – and shouldn’t – make any detailed assumptions about people based on physical appearance, but we do get some surface information. So not indicating race in our fiction seems unrealistic. If we do so, we should also describe white people as white and not assume everyone knows they’re white just because that’s been the expected default in America. I’m terrible about this. It’s so automatic for me to assume the default of whiteness that I often forget to describe a character as white even when I describe others specially as African-American or Asian. It’s something I need to keep working on.

Indicate background through names

One easy way to add diversity to your fiction is to use names – especially surnames – that indicate racial/ethnic/cultural background. If a character has a last name of Alvarez or Nguyen, you don’t have to specifically mention their race. Male and female first names can indicate gender. I think it’s harder to indicate that a character is African-American through names alone, and there’s no way to indicate sexuality through names. But while some diversity can be accomplished through names, athere’s no way a name can render a detailed background of a character.

Use random name and character generators

There are lots of sites on the Internet where you can randomly generate characters’ names and other characteristics such as race, sexuality, religion, etc. In the real world, when you leave your home, you never know who you might meet during the course of your day. Random name and character generators can reflect this. Just as we don’t choose the characteristics of real people we meet, we can let chance choose characteristics of our fictional people. This can also help keep you from defaulting to particular characteristics such as gender, race, sexuality, etc. in the people you populate your stories with.

Do your research

If you are going to write about characters from different backgrounds than yours, do your research. Talk to people from that background, read articles and books written by people of that background, watch movies and videos dealing with that background written by and starring people from that background. Ask for advice on writing about this background on social media. You might get some negative responses, but if you’re sincere and respectful in how you ask your questions, people with earned experience will answer.

Get feedback

Not sure if you got details right when writing about someone from another background? Have someone from that background read your work (or at least pertinent passages from it) and tell you where you got it right, where you got it wrong, and how to do better.

Go for it and let the world decide whether or not you were successful

I alternate between male and female main characters in my projects. Always have. I include characters of various race, sexualities, and belief systems in my work, not only because I believe inclusion is important in general, but also because it simply reflects the reality of the world I live in. I don’t dive very deep into my character’s various backgrounds, though, as I don’t feel I have the earned experience to do a good job. I’m well aware that I might screw up and offend readers. I hope I don’t, but I believe in inclusion, representation, and diversity, and I intend to keep striving to reflect them in my work. If I make mistakes, I hope readers will let me know so I can do better in the future. And if I fuck-up big time and end up at the center of a social media shitstorm, that’s okay. I’m willing to take that risk.

These are my current thoughts on effective ways to deal with diversity in fiction. I’m sure they’ll evolve as I learn more. To that end, I’d love to hear how you approach diversity in your own work. Please feel free to share your thoughts – and some tips – in the comments.


The Forever House

My next dark fantasy/horror novel, The Forever House, will be out in late March and is ready for pre-order. Reviews are starting to come in, and so far they’ve been good! You can order all three versions – hardcover, trade paperback, and ebook – at the Flame Tree Press site. The ebook isn’t available for pre-order at Amazon or B&N yet. I have no idea why. If you haven’t already read a synopsis of the book, I got you covered:

In Rockridge, Ohio, a sinister family moves into a sleepy cul de sac. The Eldreds feed on the negative emotions of humans, creating nightmarish realms within their house to entrap their prey. Neighbors are lured into the Eldreds’ home and faced with challenges designed to heighten their darkest emotions so their inhuman captors can feed and feed well. If the humans are to have any hope of survival, they’ll have to learn to overcome their prejudices and resentments toward one another and work together. But which will prove more deadly in the end, the Eldred . . . or each other?

Writing in the Dark (the book)

In November, I turned in the manuscript for my how-to-write-horror book, Writing in the Dark (named after my blog!), to my editors Jennifer Barnes and John Edward Lawson at Raw Dog Screaming Press. It should be out sometime in 2020, but I don’t have a definite release date yet. I’ll keep you posted.

Some Kind of Monster

This is a novella I wrote for Apex Publishing. It’s about woman investigating urban legends who finds some very unexpected truths behind them. I’ve gone over page proofs and I think it’ll be out in 2020 sometime, but I’m not sure. Again, I’ll keep you posted.

Your Turn to Suffer

This is my next dark fantasy/horror novel for Flame Tree Press. I turned it in to Don D’Auria in December. This one also may be out in late 2020, and one more time, I’ll keep you posted. Here’s a synopsis:

Lorelei Palumbo is harassed by a sinister group calling themselves The Cabal. They accuse her of having committed unspeakable crimes in the past, and now she must pay. The Cabal begins taking her life apart one piece at a time – her job, her health, the people she loves – and she must try to figure out what The Cabal thinks she’s done if she’s to have any hope of answering their charges and salvaging her life.

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