Why White Straight Authors Shouldn’t Be Scared of Writing Diverse YA Main Characters

“Faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the staircase.” –Martin Luther King Jr.

If you ever passed me on the street the first things you’d Rainbow Entrancenotice about me is that I’m white and a woman.  You’d probably assume, without even thinking about it, that I’m straight.  You’d happen to be right.  I am those things.  But I’m not all of those things.  No one is encapsulated by his or her skin color, gender identity, or orientation.  Not you, not me, not anyone.  There’s a whole internal world inside of us that may have been shaped by those factors, but is still separate from those factors.  Keeping this in mind I began to wonder why so many white, straight YA authors don’t seem to write diverse main characters.

First, it may not actually occur to a white, straight author to write a main character that is neither white nor straight.  As writers we have been admonished to “write what we know” which can handicap us when we start thinking about who the star of our show is going to be.  One author/illustrator, Courtney Pippen-Mather wrote openly on her blog about being the mother of biracial children and realizing one day that none of her paintings contained biracial children or children of color.  This was a stunning revelation to her.  It wasn’t intentional, by any means.  She wondered why she hadn’t realized this sooner and if she even had the right to create illustrations of children of color:

“[P]erhaps I would offend someone by creating images that did not reflect my skin color? That somehow, we are supposed to only create children that look like the artists who create them?”

She decided she was going to start painting children like the ones she sees everyday, her own, and the results are gorgeous (you can check them out by clicking here).  Sometimes, we just need to take a step back and realize we don’t need permission to start thinking about creating main characters that aren’t our mirror reflections.

Okay, maybe as a YA author you have thought about writing main characters that are more diverse but you’re hesitant because there are all those ISSUES.  You know, the bigotry.  I think the hesitancy usually comes from a genuine desire to not offend, to portray the struggles realistically, and the thinking that as a white, straight person they can never really know those struggles so to even attempt to portray them is inherently racist.  It’s not.  Your desire to try to have a diverse character be the star in your book is anything but racist or bigoted.  It means you see who can lead the narrative in shades other than yourself.

A good post to read about writing diverse characters is How to Write Women of Colour and Men of Colour If You Are White by Kayla Ancrum.  While this post can seem a bit overwhelming I think the best piece of advice is:

“It is important for you to know, what things [People of Color (POC)] are so tired of seeing in regards to incorrect or offensive portrayals of themselves.”

Rain and PeopleLike any novel you will attempt to write research is key, and I think the single most important approach is to identify stereotypes and avoid them like the plague.  You can’t avoid writing stereotypes if you don’t know what they are.  Avoiding stereotypes is also another really good reason you shouldn’t regulate diverse characters to secondary roles.  There’s only so much room in a story for character development, and secondary characters, by their nature, are more compressed than the main character.  That compression makes it more likely for them to fall into a stereotypical role.  Having a main character who is diverse will allow you to fully explore and present their complexities as a human.  In writing any diverse characters here are some rather obvious examples of what you really, really shouldn’t be portraying:

The Angry Black Man:  He’s big, he’s black, and he’s angry.  He has a chip on his shoulder and seems to think every white person hates him.  Why can’t he see that you don’t see race?  This stereotype is perhaps the most offensive and the most painfully pervasive in our society.  This idea can also (and has) get a black man killed.  It’s not just ugly, it’s dangerous.  If you want to portray a black man who has legitimate reasons for being angry, that’s fine, as long as you make it clear that 1) he’s justified by his life experiences in feeling this way and, 2) he’s not just angry.  He has an internal life as rich and as complex as anyone else.  He feels things, is moved by things, and sees beauty in the world.  He laughs, he loves, he cries, and, like everyone, just wants to be happy.

The Native American Shaman/Wise Woman: he/she has so much to teach the ignorant white person about the spirit world, about being one with the earth, about realizing their own potential for greatness.  Also, they have feathers.  Native American (or American Indian) culture has nothing to do with teaching white people how to appreciate nature.  Their culture is for them.  Also, this is very important, different tribes represent different cultures.  The only thing many tribes have in common is that they happened to be living here when Europeans started invading and conquering.  Some of the differences between tribes are as great as the cultural differences between America and China.  If you’re going to write about Native Americans you need to pick a tribe and study it in depth and try to portray it accurately.  It can’t be said enough, there is no one Native American culture.  Every tribe is unique.

The Hispanic Help: she cleans the house, he keeps the yard, and neither has any thoughts about anything except working for you, and their six children, of course.  Isn’t it charming how broken and accented their English is, and isn’t their food to die for?  Ok, by now I’m sure you realize that people who are Hispanic are doctors, lawyers, scientists, housewives, etc.  They are not only the menial labor.  They aren’t all only recently arrived and many of them speak English just as well as you and I.  As with Native Americans they don’t have a monolithic culture, so please do some research about their country of origin (even if you don’t need to include that information in your story) so you can write them as a rich, developed individual.

The Muslim Fanatic: he hates America because he hates freedom!  Also, his entire culture hates women and subordinates them.  He has several wives and children and beats them all, in between building that bomb to blow up the White House (he’s SO good at multi-tasking).  Where to begin.  As someone formerly married to a Muslin man, just no.  There are so many wonderful, peace-loving, tolerant, open-minded men and women who are Muslim.  Muslim does not equal terrorist or intolerant.  Quite the opposite.  Practicing Muslims come in all shades and ethnicities, not just Middle Eastern.  There are many wonderful blogs right here on WordPress where you can find discussions on what it means to be a practicing Muslim in the modern world.  Not every Muslim prays five times a day just like how not every Jewish man wears a yarmulke (pronounced ya-mi-kah).  They often look just like any other American citizen, so please keep that in mind when you are writing them as a character.

I could go on (what, you mean you’re not going to write about The Sassy Black Woman, The Sassy Latina, The Black/Hispanic Gangsta, The Super, Super Smart Asian Who Loves Math/Science?) but I think you’re getting the point.

Other problematic stereotypes to avoid are LGBT stereotypes.  You know, the fabulous gay man who loves to shop, men, sex, shop, pink, men, sex, and fashion.  Did I say fabulous because I meant FAB-U-LOUS!!!  And don’t forget the super-man-hating butch and her super-femme-but-is-probably-really-straight-but-just-experimenting girlfriend/wife.  Again, I could go on but I don’t want to ruin my lunch.

Here’s a great post for getting you started in ways to identify stereotypical portrayals of LGBT characters in literature so that you can avoid them: Gays in Literature – Avoiding stereotypes. [http://reesloveofwriting.blogspot.com/2011/10/gays-in-literature-avoiding-stereotypes.html]

Now if all this seems terribly overwhelming and you’re thinking about throwing up your hands and running for the hills, take a moment and consider that this really only applies if you’re a contemporary YA author.

As Malinda Lo (author of Ash, Huntress, Adaptation, and Inheritance) wrote in her post Taking the homophobia out of fantasy:

“Being gay, lesbian or bisexual isn’t an issue. Homophobia is the issue. While it’s a significant problem in the real world, I think that leaving it behind in a fantasy world is a wonderful and empowering way to say that being gay really is OK.”

If you want to create a world or universe where ethnicity, gender identity, and sexual orientation are non-issues, that’s perfectly fine.  There’s nothing wrong with that approach (just, for goodness sake, don’t pull a George RR Martin.  The whole white savior thing is really, really offensive.  And tired.  Offensive and tired.).

A recent article on 24-7pressrelease, The Rise in Popularity of Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy states “One of the most fascinating developments in the publishing industry over the last decade had been the explosion of the sub-market known as young adult (YA) fiction, particularly the science fiction and fantasy genres.” –11/18/2012

Sci fi/fantasy YA is a thriving genre and Moonit gives us so much room for possibilities.  Some people may think it’s a cop out, a way to avoid writing about issues that make an author uncomfortable.  And yes, maybe that’s true sometimes.  Some people may feel that it gives a false illusion of race no longer being an important issue and holding POC back in the real world, or the ways in which LGBT people are marginalized, harassed, and discriminated against.  But I have a different view.  I see fiction as a vehicle to get us to where we want and need to go as a society.  We often talk about a post-racial (post-gendered/post-orientation-conscious) society, but what does that look like?  What does that even mean?

To me it means a world in which race, gender identity, and orientation has become descriptive and no longer defines how a person is seen, the opportunities they have access to, and what they are perceived as being capable of.  That the stars of our stories, both in writing and in the media, come in all shapes, colors, creeds, genders, orientations, and cultures.  That’s the world I want to live in.  So that’s the world I will attempt to portray when I feel it fits the story I am trying to write.  And when it doesn’t?  Research, research, research.

As Malinda Lo wrote in response to a comment on her post Writing about lesbians when you’re not a lesbian “[B]ecause there are so many hetero characters in the world . . . one case of messing them up isn’t going to do much harm. But there are way fewer gay characters, so getting them wrong has a somewhat wider impact.”

That’s true for any character of diversity.  So taking a bit of time to learn about what their experiences might be, even if you chose to go the sci fi/fantasy route, will make your writing more informed, as well as your mind.

Now, the last issue, the one that in some ways may have the greatest impact on whether a white, straight author chooses to have a diverse main character: the cash.  Diversity is not what publishers are looking for, and in a very competitive market you want your best shot of being the next Cassandra Clare or Suzanne Collins, so, really you have to write for the market.  I sighed when I typed this.  Those who have already published or know the industry well, this isn’t for you.  This is for the unpublished, uninitiated:

In 2013, only 10% of published authors broke $20,000 a year.  For e-publishing the figures are even worse.  Just 5% managed to break $20,000.  If a published writer spends just one hour a day (ha!) writing, 365 days a year, they end up earning a bank-breaking $3/hour.  (Don’t write for the money)  Sorry.  I hope I haven’t ruined anyone’s day with that information.

So, seeing as you’re not going to be making any real money at this writing gig, it means you’ve got nothing to lose.  And if you are posting content online, such as short stories, you have multiple chances to portray diverse main characters.  Maybe you’ll never be a big-selling best author (that’s not why you’re writing, is it?) but you can still reach people.  And you can still help change things.  The more ordinary and everyday we make it seem to have diverse main characters the more we’ll change our own world towards the ideal we aspire to.  And things are changing.  Diversity is becoming more of a national conversation, and we, as writers, can use both our hands and our minds to create a world we all want to live in.

9 thoughts on “Why White Straight Authors Shouldn’t Be Scared of Writing Diverse YA Main Characters

  1. What a beautiful closing line you’ve got there! This was a terrific essay and one that I think will do a lot of tangible good because you make such a strong case that writers have nothing to lose by increasing the frequency of diverse main character inclusion. And doing it correctly each time.

    Having said that, this line was hysterical in the context you used it in! (he’s SO good at multi-tasking).

    So now a question. Why are specifically YA novels mentioned in your title. Doesn’t (shouldn’t?) this essay apply to any genre?

    ps. I really love that top photograph.

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    • Once again, thanks for all the great feedback! And thanks for thinking I actually made a funny or two.

      So, why didn’t I apply this essay more generally? Two reasons:

      1) I don’t know the other markets that well

      2) Just researching and writing this one essay was about six hours worth of work (which never could have happened if my husband hadn’t been snowed out of work!) and my kids are really selfish. They keep begging me for things like food, attention, and love.

      🙂

      Like

  2. You make some excellent and valid points here. And I agree without reservation that this is an important and timely issue. I think, perhaps, the money is a slightly different problem than the way you present it: if publishers don’t think your book has an audience, you won’t sell it at all. I’m not expecting to replace my day job with my first novel, or even my fifth. But I would like them to be published. As a new, inexperienced and unpublished writer I don’t know what will sell and what won’t (or more to the point, what publishers will buy and what they won’t) but I’m not willing to risk being too controversial with my first attempt to get my name out there.

    Nevertheless, I think if you had included a survey with your blog I might have done pretty well with my tween urban fantasy WIP. True, my main character is white and does not identify herself as gay (in fact there is almost no romance at all, so this aspect does not really have a place in my book), she is homeschooled. You may find that group to be just as stigmatized and stereotyped as any of the fine examples you provided. And I do have a vast number of minor but important characters with racial/ethnic diversity. There is the elf with strong Nordic roots; he’s Swedish and wears traditional Sami shoes (Sami are the indigenous Scandanavian peoples who hunted reindeer with bows). There is the nanny who is a brownie and has a cockney accent. I may be taking a risk with the imp limo driver who is middle eastern, but I was very careful. And the young jinni is black with dreadlocks and his parents have a South African accent.

    I’ve been very careful not to stereotype these people, but in every case I’ve tried to go back the traditional/original roots of my fairy tale creatures and apply the appropriate culture. That’s why my dwarf character is German instead if Scottish, like they are in the movies.

    Oh, and my wise old lady shaman isn’t Native American; she’s a dryad. The fact that she likes trees and nature is implied.

    I really had no agenda when I started writing this book, but I do see your very valid point and will bear it in mind as I continue. If my MC wasn’t based on my own daughter I might have considered changing her.

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    • Thank you so much for taking the time to read my essay. I know your time is limited so that means a lot. And I think it’s great that you’re willing to consider some of my points. As for the money, I do understand. With two jobs and two kids it makes sense that you’d like to replace at least one of those jobs with one that will hopefully pay as well (if not a little better), be more enjoyable, and keep you home more. There’s always the option of writing short stories with diverse main characters and posting those on your website (if you think writing novels doesn’t pay well, short stories are practically worthless, in terms of making money). Showcasing short stories on your website can let potentially interested agents and publishers see the breadth of your talent so have value that way.

      I also think it’s great that you’re already thinking of having a diverse cast of characters. It shows you’re open-minded and have a desire to be inclusive. However, it is with secondary characters that white writers can unintentionally do the most damage. To paraphrase Malinda Lo: there are already so many positive images of white people out there that one or two inaccurate or negative depictions aren’t really going to do any harm; but since there are fewer depictions of minorities getting it wrong has a much wider impact.

      I wasn’t quite clear if the nanny in your story was white or not. If she’s a Woman of Color (WOC) you might want to think about changing that. As the mother of a biracial daughter I’ve done some research on how other parents of biracial children feel and what their experiences have been. Many WOC with children whose skin is lighter than theirs are often assumed to be the nanny and this is very painful for them. I’ve read of stories where WOC have even been approached by white couples and asked if they were available to work for them. For many WOC “the nanny” has become a demeaning stereotype. That’s why as white writers we must do our research carefully.

      For my latest story my main character is a lesbian in a medieval-ish setting so I’ve been reading scholarly works on the ways in which lesbians were viewed and discriminated against in medieval Europe as well as how they were described, persecuted, and punished in Portugal and Brazil (also important aspects of my story). I may not include any of this information in my story but the way we choose to inform ourselves often influences how we portray our characters.

      And you’re right, MG novels don’t usually deal with issues of sexuality (as far as I know; if someone knows and wishes to correct me, please feel free) unless it’s an Issues book, i.e. the entire purpose of the book is to deal with race, gender, identity, etc.

      A word of caution: although I’m sure homeschooled individuals do face ridicule, exclusion, and judgment, it’s not really on par with much of the discrimination that People of Color (POC) and LGBT face. I’ll illustrate with a personal example: my former husband was from Bangladesh and when we were still married he was struggling to find a job. This was well before the economic crash and he had a Masters from George Washington University in IT and couldn’t even get a foot in the door. For months. He didn’t get a single request for an interview. Not one. As distasteful as it was I suggested he do what some of my Jewish ancestors had done and even one of his Bengali friends had done: change his first name on his resume so it sounded more Western (my Jewish ancestors had changed their last name). Within two weeks he had three calls for interviews. After months of no interest. This wasn’t a coincidence and studies have shown that this is true. People with ethnic sounding names get calls for interviews far less often. And I truly believe this isn’t intentional on the part of human resources. I think the people culling the resumes unconsciously view ethnic names as “other” and immediately exclude them from consideration without even being aware of it. They’re not trying to be mean or exclusionary. And this is just one relatively mild example of the myriad ways in which POC are marginalized. I hope its clear that I’m speaking from a place of respect and in no way am I trying to make you feel belittled.

      I really do appreciate that you were willing to speak so openly about your efforts and I hope you feel my response has been respectful (and if not, please feel free to let me know!) and considerate. Your views on these issues are important to me and I’m sure to others as well. I feel personally very strongly about advancing the narrative when it comes to discussions of discrimination, and that can only happen when all people having the conversation feel respected (and that includes whites, too).

      To wrap up I’d say that we as white writers have an obligation to try to get it as right as possible because of the potential harm we can do our readers if we don’t. Here’s a video that I was going to use as my post today:

      It’s a video of a young woman discussing, poetically and quite impressively, how stereotyped and awful J.K. Rowling’s portrayal of minorities made her feel. I’m sure J.K. Rowling thought she was being inclusive and progressive when she included the character Cho Chang. What she ended up being was unintentionally racist. I have to say the young woman in the video is incredibly talented and it’s humbling to see someone that age already capable of expressing herself so powerfully. I know that as an author I would feel awful if I ever made any of my readers feel this way. I’m sure you feel the same way.

      Thanks again for reading my essay and then also reading this response (I’m sorry it turned into a novel!).

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      • No worries.

        Do you watch Doctor Who? I mention it because it really was conceived for the middle grade audience, and lately it has been very inclusive of major LGBT characters.

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      • A fellow Whovian? How exciting! You’re referring to Vastra and Jenny, of course. I love, love those characters! Unfortunately, it seems like they may have died in ‘The Name of the Doctor’?

        But that’s a really good point. A lesbian or gay couple who are the Moms or Dads of a character. Thanks for that!

        🙂

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      • And, of course, Captain Harkness. And a few others scattered here and there.

        I actually don’t think Vastra and Jenny are dead. I’ll have to watch it again, but I seem to recall that everything was reset.

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      • Ah yes, it’s been a while since that episode. I’ve started rewatching the reboot from the beginning on Netflix. After 1 week, I’ve made it through almost 2 episodes.

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