Thursday, November 18, 2021

Writing Characters From Diverse Backgrounds


Before we begin, the topic for this blog is about the changing ways I’ve explored gender, sexual, racial, and societal diversity in my writing throughout the years. Just in case this post attracts the attention of hate-trolls who are against all those things, let me make something perfectly clear. Racists, sexists, homophobes, transphobes, antisemites, Islamophobes, Nazis, MAGA-heads – anyone who doesn’t believe that all human beings are equal, that difference should be celebrated instead of vilified, that what unites us is more important that what divides us, that we can all make a better world if we work together – should fuck off into the sun. I don’t give a shit what you think about anything, least of all what you think of this post or what you think of me.


Now that that’s out of the way . . .


I’m a fifty-seven-year-old cishet white guy who grew up in a small town in Southwestern Ohio, I lived in Columbus – the state’s capitol city – for nine years, and before that briefly in Illinois and Indiana. But I’ve always considered SW Ohio my home, for better or worse, and I live in the region today, and have for the last couple decades. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that there wasn’t a great deal of diversity in my hometown when I was growing up. One of my classmates was Asian, but her parents were white, so I assumed she was adopted. One of my best friends was gay, but he didn’t come out to me until we were in college. (My favorite cousin was gay too, but I didn’t learn this until I was well into adulthood.) There were only Christian churches in town, and either you attended one or you didn’t. (I didn’t.) That was the extent of religious diversity. All of the teachers I had were white, and the only thing that clearly set them apart from the majority of people in my town was the fact they’d all gone to college.


It wasn’t until I went to college myself that I experienced real diversity, meeting people from many different backgrounds and cultures. My bachelor’s degree is in secondary education, and I student taught at a high school with a predominately African-American population. After I got my master’s degree, I began teaching college writing classes as an adjunct, and my colleagues and students were diverse, and it’s been that way for the last thirty years of my teaching career, the last twenty-two of which I’ve spent at an urban community college.


From the moment I began college, I’ve lived in a diverse world, and I’ve attempted to reflect that in my writing. But the discourse in the writing community about how and when to incorporate diverse characters in fiction has changed a great deal over the years. These changes have prompted me to think more deeply about how I deal with diversity in my work or, because I am a middle-aged cishet white man, if I even should try.


I don’t remember the first time I consciously decided to include elements of diversity in a story. It probably was sometime in my twenties. I wrote a short story about a character encountering God, who manifested as a young African-American boy with a prosthetic leg. In the end, the boy gives his leg to the main character. Why, I’m not sure. I remember that the ending was supposed to be symbolic, but damned if I can remember symbolic of what, exactly. I purposely chose this manifestation of God by contemplating what a majority white society might least expect an all-powerful deity to be. Someone young, disabled, from a race that wasn’t regarded as fully equal by a white majority, I decided. The story wasn’t very good, and I don’t think I ever submitted it anywhere.


I started out writing fantasy novels set in imaginary lands (all unpublished), so real-world diversity wasn’t an issue for me then. I attempted a couple mystery novels that were also never published, but I don’t remember consciously thinking about diversity when I wrote them. It was sometime in the mid-nineties when I wrote The Harmony Society that I first began purposely creating a (slightly) diverse cast of characters, and I continued doing so in the books I wrote from that point on. I portrayed diversity simply back then. I began alternating the genders of the main characters in my stories. Since over half the human race are women, I decided I should reflect that in my work. Characters’ additional backgrounds might be indicated by description or by their surname, or perhaps by a comment they made, but I didn’t go into great detail about issues related to their race, gender identity, sexuality, religious beliefs, political affiliations, etc. My stories were about people encountering bizarre and dangerous things, and I wrote my characters as individuals focused on dealing with those things. I wasn’t writing in-depth character studies. Online discourse was in its infancy back then, and if my readers had any thoughts about how I handled diversity in my work, I never knew it.


The first time I encountered someone telling me that I couldn’t write from a character’s viewpoint because of my background – in this case, my gender – was in a grad school creative writing class in the late eighties. I’d written a story called “Huntress,” about a succubus who finds herself no longer able to regard humans as merely food, and who will eventually starve to death. I wrote the story in first person, and at one point, the narrator explains that she can manifest as either gender, but taking on the appearance of a woman generally makes it easier for her to attract prey. After I read the story aloud to the class, one of the other students – a woman whose name I can’t remember – told me that because I was male, I couldn’t write from a woman’s point of view. That my character was a genderless inhuman creature evidently didn’t matter. I didn’t dismiss my classmate’s comment, though. I spent the next week thinking about the issue. Then during a following class, the student read a story she’d written from a boy’s viewpoint. When I asked her why she thought it was okay that she write from a boy’s perspective when she believed men shouldn’t write from a woman’s perspective, she said, “I’m a woman. We’re so sensitive that we can understand anyone’s point of view.”


It would’ve been easy for me to dismiss her comment on “Huntress” after that, but I didn’t. I thought about it from time to time. Such a comment inevitably brings up the issue of whether writers can ethically write anything but strict autobiography. Fiction is lying (although since it’s labeled as fiction, it’s lying without intent to deceive). But how far can an author ethically go beyond their own lived experience when writing fiction? There is no easy answer for this, of course. But it’s a question that I’ve returned to over the years, both as a writer and teacher of writing.


Several years ago, I began seeing people commenting on social media that it was the responsibility of white cishet male writers to use their platforms to promote diversity, that by doing so we would be doing our part to help make the world a better place. I had no illusions that I would have any great impact by doing this. I’m a minor writer (if that) with a small audience, but I’d already been working to promote diversity in my work, and naturally I wanted to do my part to make the world better, so I decided to strengthen the ways I portrayed diversity in my stories. I began making the cast of characters in my novels more diverse, and while I didn’t base stories on their backgrounds, I began allowing their backgrounds to become part of the story. In The Forever House, for example, one of the characters is bisexual, and her husband struggles with this, fearing he can never be enough for her emotionally or sexually. Another character is a MAGA type, but he’s married to a woman of Chinese descent and they have a biracial daughter. He’s absolutely blind to how he’s still racist even though he loves his wife and child.


The next novel I wrote, Your Turn to Suffer, also had a diverse cast, but the plot focused more on the main character and her experience, so the other character’s backgrounds didn’t figure into the story much. Her ex-boyfriend was bisexual, cut currently in a “guy phase.” Her current boyfriend was Asian. Another character was trans, but since she was transformed into an evil being during the course of the story, my editor asked me to make her cis to avoid appearing as if I was implying that trans people were evil. There was only one line in the story that indicated the character was trans, and since her gender identity wasn’t integral to the plot, I cut that line. I thought my editor might be being overcautious, but the online discourse regarding diversity issues at the time was often incendiary, so I couldn’t fault him for his caution.


At this time, the advice for authors wishing to write diverse characters was Do Your Research. Talk to people from backgrounds you want to write about. Read articles and blogs written by them, read novels they wrote, learn as much as you can so you can write your characters from a place of knowledge and respect.


So that’s what I tried to do.


The next novel I wrote after that is the one that’s coming out from Flame Tree Press in July 2022. We Will Rise is the story of what happens when ghosts suddenly appear all around the world and begin killing the living. (The cover is at the top of this entry, in case you didn’t notice.) I was still seeing people online urging white cishet male writers to use our platforms to support diversity, so I decided to make my cast of characters even more diverse this time. My characters included an African-American mother who recently suffered a miscarriage, a teenage transman whose fundamentalist Christian parents are struggling to understand him, a young Muslim man in college, and a woman paramedic of Vietnamese descent. The story focuses on them trying to survive the ghost apocalypse, but their backgrounds are, to a greater or lesser extent depending on the character, part of the story.


I finished the novel in the winter of 2020, and around that time the online discourse regarding diversity issues in fiction changed again. Some people said that writers shouldn’t write about any characters who differed significantly from themselves, that by doing so you were appropriating someone else’s story, one that – because they came from a specific background – they were far more qualified to tell. Some went so far as to say that you shouldn’t write about any characters who were different from you in any way (at least in terms of major characters). Much of this discourse was aimed at white people. White people appropriating others’ stories was, they said, continuing a long, damaging, and traumatic tradition of colonization. People began talking about Own Voices stories, fiction written by authors who shared an identity with the characters or were part of the culture they were writing about. Own Voices stories came from a place of deep authenticity, they said, making them more effective works of art. Some white people argued that writing fiction relied on imagination and empathy, and that a skilled writer could write about anyone or anything. Artists of any background should not be limited in the stories they were allowed to tell, they said. In response, some reiterated the points I’ve already mentioned, while others pointed out that, if a white cishet writer included an African-American trans main character in a novel, the company that published the book could claim they’d brought out a diverse work, as if they’d fulfilled their current quota for diversity, and they would have no need of another for a while. This book would be published, possibly taking the place of one that had been actually written by an African-American trans writer. Since the number of novels by white cishet writers far outnumbered those published by writers of other backgrounds, white cishet writers should “stay in their own lane” and not take opportunities away from others.


Just like the feedback I’d gotten from my classmate in grad school, I took in all this discourse and thought deeply about it. I considered pulling We Will Rise from publication. During the course of my career, I never consciously attempted to tell a story about someone from a background different than mine that delved into what it meant to be a person from that background, a story that was about their identity and experiences in society. And while I didn’t go into that kind of depth in We Will Rise, the characters’ diverse backgrounds are part of the story, and I worried that maybe I’d gone a bit too far. I informed my editor of my concerns, and I hired a sensitivity reader. She thought I’d done a good job with my characters in We Will Rise, so I submitted the book. I figured if there were any problems, my editor would let me know. I haven’t gotten editorial feedback on the book yet, but I should soon.


Am I nervous about how We Will Rise will be received? A little. But it’s the book I wrote, and once it’s out there, I’ll accept whatever consequences may come my way for writing it.


I wrote five more novels after We Will Rise, three originals and two tie-ins. I’d continued thinking about the best way to deal – or not deal – with diversity in my stories. The selfish, fearful part of me wondered if I should just write about cishet white people from Southwestern Ohio from now simply to avoid being attacked on social media and labeled a cultural appropriator. The less-selfish, less-fearful part of me wondered if that by writing only about people like me, I’d make more room for Own Voices writers to get published. I wanted to do the right thing, but what was the right thing?


One point I saw made numerous times online really got me thinking. Paraphrased, it went something like this: “We appreciate you trying to help us, white cishet folks, but it’s important we speak for ourselves. The best thing you can do is stay quiet, step aside, let us speak, and support us while we do.” Was my urge to help born from a place of privilege? By trying to help, was I unknowingly patronizing others? White savior to the rescue!


I decided to write my next original novels with less emphasis on diversity and see how I felt about how they turned out. I didn’t emphasize diversity other than indicating background by a character’s surname, and only very occasionally by appearance or something they said about their identity. (I couldn’t bring myself to cut out all indications of diversity from my work.) The three novels I wrote this way feel emptier to me than my previous ones. Lesser, somehow. But that may just be my perception of them. It’ll be a while before any of these books are published, so it’ll be some time before I see how readers respond to them. Or if they notice the toned-down diversity at all.


So if I were to advise writers – especially those of similar backgrounds to mine – how to deal with diverse characters in their work, what would I say right now?


It’s your story.


Write whatever you want in whatever way you want, and to hell with readers’ potential response. But if you do, don’t be surprised if some folks react negatively to your stories.


Don’t be an asshole.


Don’t deal with diversity in a purposefully negative way in an attempt to gain attention for yourself as an “edgy” writer. You’re not being edgy. You’re just being a hateful jerk.


Artistic freedom is real, but . . .


But so is artistic responsibility. We can create in a wild, white-hot frenzy, but once our work is finished, we should look it over with a cold, appraising eye and make sure it says what we want it to. And more importantly, that it doesn’t say things we don’t want it to.


Ask yourself these vital questions.


Is this your story to tell? Why do you want to tell this story? Can someone else tell it better? What benefit is there to you telling this story instead of someone else? (I saw a number of people posting these questions online. I’m not sure who originally came up with them, and a Google search didn’t reveal the author. Just know I didn’t develop them.) As a middle-aged white guy, I might become fascinated with telling the story of what it’s like for a Hispanic preteen lesbian to grow up in modern-day Miami, Florida. But could someone else tell that story better? Of course they could. I would never try to tell this story because it’s centered around a very specific lived experience, one I do not and could not ever have, and no amount of imagination or empathy on my part would help me do a good job writing it.


Do no harm.


At the very least, artists should try to avoid causing harm with their work. Does your story perpetuate harmful stereotypes? Are you appropriating someone else’s story? Are you taking the place of a writer better equipped to tell this story because of their cultural background and lived experience? If you make a mistake that results in harm, own up to it, apologize, promise to do better, and – most importantly – keep that promise.


Be a good casting director.


If you were making a movie, and there were roles in the script that could be filled by actors from any background, you could cast people in those roles, and their diversity would be visually apparent, even if it has no bearing on the actual story. You can do the same in your fiction. Maybe your main character is named Robert Martin. Any reason why he couldn’t be Robert Xi or Robert Vasquez or Roberta Martin? As long as the story isn’t about diving into issues of racial, gender, sexual, cultural, and religious identity, then many of your characters could be “played” by an “actor” of any background. A story like John Carpenter’s The Thing would remain the same regardless of the gender or race of the characters. All that matters is that the characters are human and must deal with a horrible situation.


The conversation is ongoing. Keep listening.


The discourse about how writers should approach issues of diversity in their work is ongoing. Listen to the conversation. Resist the temptation to be defensive, to jump in and mansplain, whitesplain, cishetsplain, or do any splaining of any kind. Listen, think about what you heard, and make changes to how you approach your work accordingly.


There is no right answer and there never will be.


People on social media love to state points in melodramatic absolutes. If you don’t do exactly what I say you should in exactly the way I think you should, you’re an evil monster and you should die choking on your own blood. Of course, people would like to have easy answers and clear direction when it comes to navigating complex issues, but there aren’t any. We can only do the best we can at a particular moment in time, and be open to further change the more we learn and grow.


So what are you going to do in the future, Tim?


At the moment, I have three novels I’m contracted to write, all part of a dark urban fantasy series about a secret organization dedicated to slowing the inexorable progression of entropy. (Trust me; it’s more fun than it sounds.) The employees are diverse, but because of the kind of story it is, their backgrounds don’t matter to the plot. Therefore, I can act as a casting director and have my characters be anything I want in terms or race, gender, sexuality, etc. Their personalities and the actions they take when fighting the bad guys are what matter the most. This casting director approach is one that I intend to keep using in my fiction.


Will I ever write a novel like We Will Rise again, one that delves into the characters’ backgrounds more? I don’t know. As I said earlier, the conversation is still happening, and I’m still listening and thinking.




We Will Rise


Curious how I handled my diverse characters in this book? Then you’re in luck, as it’s now available for preorder! Here’s the official description along with ordering links:


In Echo Hill, Ohio, the dead begin to reappear, manifesting in various forms, from classic ghosts and poltergeists, to physical undead and bizarre apparitions for which there is no name. These malign spirits attack the living, tormenting and ultimately killing them in order to add more recruits to their spectral ranks.


A group of survivors come together after the initial attack, all plagued by different ghostly apparitions of their own. Can they make it out of Echo Hill alive? And if so, will they still be sane? Or will they die and join the ranks of the vengeful dead?


Amazon Paperback




Amazon Hardcover


Barnes & Noble Paperback




Barnes & Noble Hardcover


Halloween Kills: The Official Novelization


My novelization of Halloween Kills came out last month, and so far, readers seem to dig it. If you loved the movie – or if you hated it and want to see if the book is better – snag a copy!


Amazon Paperback


Amazon Kindle




Barnes & Noble Paperback




Planet Havoc: A Zombicide Invader Novel


This is an original tie-in adventure set in the Zombicide Invader universe. If you like action-packed stories of mercenaries and soldiers battling ravenous zombie-aliens, this is the book you’ve been waiting for! It comes out in April, and it’s available for preorder.


Amazon Paperback




Barnes & Noble Paperback




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