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Discussion: Character Diversity

A Writer's Musings

Since the last few discussions went so well I thought I’d host another! 🙂

Today I’d like your opinions on character diversity! Allow me to specify. Character diversity is something we as readers and writers come across all the time – and today I would like to chat about all kinds! Meaning strong female characters, bisexual characters, black characters – and every other character you’d like to talk about.

I’ve seen some strong opinions recently, such as: Every book needs a strong female character. Every book needs a weak male character. Every book needs a black character, or else the author is racist.

The two most baffling opinions were a review which rated a book low because the white male lead was too white and too male (to be fair, he was white and male), and a post saying that female characters shouldn’t be expected to be strong and defend themselves because real women aren’t strong and can’t themselves, either. (in case you were wondering – the latter was written by a woman)

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My opinion is apparently controversial, because I disagree.

I love seeing strong female characters, but I don’t think any of the above should be in a book just for the sake of it. It needs to fit the story. Not every female character can be strong and empowered, and not every male character should be weak and in need of rescuing. Neither are going to stand out as something a little different if everyone’s doing it. They’re all people, and as such unique. Some are strong, some are weak – that applies to both genders. What does it matter if a female character is shy and naive, and a male character strong and saves the girl? I want variety! If every book I picked up had empowered feminists and crying boys I’d lose interest quickly.

What are your thoughts as readers and writers? Do you feel that all female characters should be empowered, and that every good books needs a black character? Do weak female characters and strong male characters offend you? Or do you feel that it should depend on the setting and the characters’ personalities?

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26 Comments

  1. I think this is a really interesting topic. I definitely think that we need more diversity in books but we also need more diversity in publishing. My own book does have quite a diverse cast. I consider both my male and female characters to be strong but the men are in-tune with their emotions which I know some people will interpret as weakness.

    The women are strong and don’t need saving but their strength lies in their character more than their arms. I have a lively and sexually active elder, which is fairly unusual. The tribal culture of the protagonist all have bronze skin and dark colouring. There’s a same-sex couple who are introduced in this book and play a larger part in book 2.

    All of those characters are just who they are though. I didn’t set out to include any specific character type – other than Ashael. I knew that I wanted a woman lead who was neither a damsel in distress or a warrior in a skirt. I wanted to show a nuanced, complex character who has strength in her convictions.

    I think we have to be careful of including token characters. When you start down the path of saying every book must have a strong female/POC/LGBTQ/weak male character, you’re inviting tokenism. We need a wide variety of complex characters of every stripe and they need to come authentically. I think we gain that by making sure that publishing is open to as wide a variety of people as possible, and by expanding our own life experiences as writers.

    I think writers tend to default to what they know. So we need to make sure that we know a wide range of people and that we reflect those people in our writing.

    Does that make sense?

    • That makes perfect sense 🙂 I completely agree, we need more diversity in general! You’ve made me more curious for your book, too 😉
      I agree on the token characters, too. We’ve noticed that in several TV shows and it’s not subtle, either.

  2. Very good points made. Our characters need to be who they are first, not what they are for the sake of political correctness. True diversity is only gained when people accept something or someone that’s different from what they know. Determining that books “need” this or that, because the message has to be shoved down people’s throats, will certainly backfire in about 2 more years. I’d really like to see more fiction depicting people who *happen* to fit into other racial/ethnic/religious groups, simply as part of their own family/cultural background, and it’s just a fact of their character, and not something we jump on to prove a socio-economic/”melting pot” point.

    • Very well said! Characters who happen to fit into certain roles because of their upbringing sounds interesting, too, I’d be open to book recommendations if you’ve read a good example recently 🙂

      • The most recent example I read of a female lead not being quite the stereotype or the token was Jackaby. The male lead seemed hovering on the verge of a stereotype in the beginning chapters, but by the midway point, it was clear that wasn’t the case at all.

      • Thank you for the recommendation, I’ve added Jackaby to my tbr list 🙂

  3. Somehow I always end up writing female leads. Well truth be known since I’ve been working on the same project for 20 years it could be argued it’s the same lead in varying disguises.
    Being male and also writing Fantasy, it’s a bit of a challenge not to fall into writing empowered, ditzy, or helpless stereotypes, with male simpletons, or strong silent heroics or loveable rogues accompanying them.
    So on the current project I try to take time out and think of the ordinary day-to-day human failings we encounter in ourselves or seen in others; then ponder on whether some of those would fit naturally into the narrative. At the same time think of good qualities encountered in day-to-day life.
    It’s a bit of balancing act, but it is fun.

    • Female leads are my go-to protagonists, too 🙂 That’s not to say I don’t like writing male protagonists, I just always start with the female roles.

      Would you say it’s harder for male writers to write ‘weak’ female characters, because people might assume it’s because you’re a man and underestimating women? Personally it makes no difference to me, but I know a few people who might jump to that conclusion. Is that a worry for you?

      Bringing ordinary day-to-day human failings into your writing sounds like a great way to make it more relatable!

      • Yes I would say it is a problem for men. We tend to try and ‘kick’ against making that ‘mistake’. This is probably why Fantasy has so many ‘Xena’s about the place (All 6’ in height too!).
        My current project has three female leads, which does give some scope to include clashes of personalities and in consequence makes weaknesses easier to fit in.
        Because there is some satire and a few of my own issues being worked(a weakness of mine in writing), the weak characters at present are male because they are representative of my targets. But since I never started out with a clear plan….who knows who else will turn up.
        Nice to be exchanging views with you.
        All the best
        Roger

      • It’s a difficult thing to get ‘right’ for any writer, but I can see why men might be under more scrutiny. Having three female leads with clashing personalities should see you on the safe side! (one would hope)
        I don’t think you including your own experiences and issues is a weakness! We all draw on these things when we write, and I think it can only make you a stronger writer.
        Thanks for taking the time to comment, Roger, I appreciate you stopping by frequently!

  4. I believe that books should have more diversity. But I don’t believe people should feel they have to make their story diverse because they’ll be called racist or sexist etc if they don’t. If a story is written in present USA, it is realistic to include different races in the story. The only time I think it’s acceptable not to do so, is if you made your own world and have reasons why their aren’t multiple races or it may also depend on the era a story is written in. For example if a story is written in Japan, the Edo period, there will only be Japanese people, with the exception of travelers/occasional foreigners trading. Even then, foreigners might not serve a purpose in the story, so why have them?

    I think male characters can still be strong, save the day and still have emotions. If they don’t have any emotion, then they’re boring! And Female characters don’t have to be warriors to be strong. Even if a female character is weak shy etc, that’s fine. They have room to learn and grow.

    Personally, I care more about what the story is about (are the characters real, relatable, and not stereotypes, is the story interesting etc) rather then skin color, or the number of female characters.

    Though I don’t believe people should feel forced to make their book a certain way, I think putting more LGBTQ characters, characters of color, and stronger female leads in books can be beneficial. It can help people to learn about these different groups, learn that not all women are weak and all women should be respected, learn that people of color and LGBTQ people are just like anyone else. We may have some differences but we all share many things in common. We’re all human and make mistakes. Everyone should be respected no matter what. And maybe people will learn this, learn to accept everyone if there were more diverse books to read.

    • I’m the same, I care more about the story itself, too. I want the characters to be realistic and likeable (or hateable, if it’s the antagonist), but that’s as far as my expectations go. They don’t all need to follow the same rules to be good characters.

      I do agree, it can be beneficial to have specific character types in your book, but it shouldn’t have negative side effects if you don’t. Unless not having them doesn’t make sense in the context of the story.

      “We may have some differences but we all share many things in common. We’re all human and make mistakes. Everyone should be respected no matter what. And maybe people will learn this, learn to accept everyone if there were more diverse books to read.” <– Very well put!

  5. I think Diversity is really important in books especially now as we learn to accept different types of people.

    I agree with you on this. Authors shouldn’t plan their characters according what’s FAIR, If they want their Male to be strong, then let them be! The fact that people want EVERY book to have a strong female or more black people etc… Just goes to show there ISN’T diversity, because we HAVE to put them in our books. Write what you want, Diversity and Variety are great things!

    • Well said! Damsels in distress used to be the stereotype, but so many writers these days try to write the opposite that strong female leads have become the new stereotype in novels. I like strong female MCs, but no writer should feel that they’re a necessity or else!
      While my plot develops, my characters tend to develop as well and I can only really get a good feel for their personalities as I go. I wouldn’t stop them from going the way they want because some people might take offence with it. There’ll always be some who’ll hate what we do, anyway – might as well write our books in the way we feel is right.

  6. I don’t really think about it when writing. I have a black male love interest in the EVO series, and there is also a Japanese and Indian character. It kind of happened organically and I didn’t think, ‘oh, I must add this ethnicity or this sexuality etc. However, maybe that is because I am a diverse writer by nature.

    I do think diversity in characters is refreshing and necessary. We have a big beautiful world with beautiful people that should be represented.

    As for strong female protags- I love them. Empowered women who are strong but still have flaws. There can still be a strong, independant female protag who is introverted. They don’t all need to be leather clad, knife wielding warriors hehe. It’s all in the writing.

    • Neither do I, my characters develop however they need to. I only know them so well when I start writing the first draft, and I wouldn’t halt their development or shuffle them into a different direction because some readers might not agree with their personalities. That’s bound to happen no matter what we do.

  7. This is a very interesting topic and great discussion. Of course a novel doesn’t require a person of color in order to be a great work, but when an author does include the “other” character in his novel then it’s essential that the author remains true to that person’s character.

    I think we live in times where people are quick to accuse and jump on any perceived non-PC material. Given our politically intense environment, the author must be sensitive to the creation of characters who are not of the author’s race, or sex, or sexual orientation.

    For example, if I create an African American character, I should strive to place dialogue in that character’s mouth that properly defines that person, rather than have dialogue that reflects a stereotyped idea of Black people. If my black character consistently says “ain’t” instead of “isn’t” “gimme” instead of “give me” and “sho” instead of “sure.” then I had better have a good reason for that. If I’m white and I create a white, extremely rural, white character who says “ain’t,” “gimme,” and “sho” then I can easily get away with it.

    If all my white characters are good and all my Black or Hispanic or LGBTQ characters are thugs or losers or both, then of course one can see the bias…especially if this construct appears throughout every novel I write.

    And sure the same is true for women characters. If I create a female black character, she doesn’t have to be overweight and strong-minded and wonderfully Christian. She can be slim, unsure and a Buddhist.

    For me, the most readable and memorable female characters are those who indeed are completely unsure of themselves, who don’t always make the right choices, and who don’t always get their man! 🙂

    My two fav female protagonists from this year’s reading are: the little girl in THE BOOK THEIF and the alcoholic lady of THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN. And of course, Sarina, your own conflicted Rachel from RISE OF THE SPARROWS. They are all strong females, but they definitely have their flaws.

    Thank you for a great post.

    • I completely agree, we seem to live in an age where people get very easily offended. It’s impossible to please everyone, but I’ve read some reviews which seem to take everything personally. It’s very hard to get it right when you know that some people will put more effort into taking it apart than your average, casual reader.

      I agree with the rest, too 🙂 Everything should be justified, whether that’s speech or actions, but that’s true no matter who you write, and has always been the case anyway.

      I haven’t read the Book Thief or The Girl on the Train, but I’ll have to look them up. I know we’ve got The Girl on the Train in my library. Naturally, I’m biased about your third example 🙂

      • Which The Book Thief are you referring to? Goodreads has several options 🙂

  8. god I agree with this post SO MUCH!!! I also like seeing strong female leads- but I like non-physically strong female leads just as much. It really depends on the character. I will be completely blunt- I like diverse characters in books- but the criticism of a main character being “too white and male” is a bit much for me. I just want decent characters and I don’t care about their race or gender- and I shouldn’t have to. There’s one more thing that I’ve found in this discussion about diversity in books that’s doing my head in- and that’s the whole “white people should/shouldn’t write about people of colour” debate. It’s become a “you’re damned if you’re do, damned if you don’t” kind of thing- and it just makes it seem like the people that complain about these things really don’t even know what they want. (rant over 😉 )

    • Thank you! I agree – and I think if a white male character behaved like the opposite people would complain about it being confusing instead. I swear some reviewers pick issues just to have something to moan about!
      I’ve seen the same debate around recently, too. I agree about people not knowing what they want. Some reviews I’ve read have made me wonder if the reviewers only picked on something because they didn’t want to write an all-positive review, like the ‘too white, too male’ thing. What’s wrong with a white, male character being white and male?

      • yeah, that’s very true!! It’s such a shame because I think it has very little to do with the actual book they’re reading- they’ve got some point to prove- so they’ll just make these attacks regardless. Exactly- I seriously don’t see the issue with that- it’s a real shame people have to be so reductive about these things and not focus on whether or not the author wrote a good book! :/

        • Hmh, I hear you. Some of the reviews I’ve read go into so much detail regarding what they loved and what they didn’t, but I can’t tell if they actually enjoyed it! It’s essentially a list of points they seem to work through as they read each book!

          • Ah yes that makes it difficult to read and to get to the bottom of it :/

  9. You raise a good topic here Sarina! Diversity is important, but I don’t think it’s about forcing diverse characters into stories, I think it’s about making sure that diverse stories are told. Write what you know. That is what we are always told. The world is a diverse collection of people so it stands to reason that there should be an abundance of diverse stories. The problem is that those diverse voices are often stifled.
    That being said, I try to incorporate diverse characters in my novels, but not to just have them in to say that they’re there. I write them in because they belong there, because they have intriguing stories to be heard.
    But that’s just my opinion. 🙂

  10. As far as gender diversity goes, I am of the opinion that characters shouldn’t be written so much as “female” and “male”. Yes, there are certain traits common in each character, but people are so much more than just their gender, and this should be reflected in characters. Both males and females can be strong, weak, in need of saving, saving others, emotionally aware, cruel, kind, insecure, and confident. Again, there are thing men are more likely to do and there are things women are more likely to do, and this should be considered as well, but authors should reach beyond that.

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