Diversity in Fiction

Jamie Lampeyrolerie is having a great series on Diversity in Christian Fiction over on Books and Beverages, and the recent post really sums up some of the thoughts I’ve struggled with.

College-Student-Discounts by JosephPatrick

Her last post featured Amy Green, a fiction publicist from Bethany House, and she dove into the discussion, heart and mind. One of the paragraphs that really stood out for me was her thoughts on writing a diverse cast of characters:

“When I think specifically about why established authors don’t often include a diverse cast in their main characters, I remember the nervous chatter in writing circles when a CBA author whose protagonist was of a different ethnic group was slammed by critics, mostly in the secular world, not for telling a bad story but for venturing into what they felt she didn’t have a right to portray. I can’t help but wonder if authors think, “I don’t have the authority or knowledge to write authentically about people who belong to minority groups.” “What if I get it wrong and it feels like a stereotype?” “Maybe this isn’t my story to tell.” Those, I think, are legitimate concerns, and some genres and stories (Amish or Regency, for example) simply don’t lend themselves to diversity.”

I’ve written about this before, about how intimidating it can be to try to portray a diverse cast of characters when your own background doesn’t provide the necessary “in.”

And I think the ultimate problem we face when crossing racial lines is the same problem we have when crossing gender lines, or age lines, or any other category. We have to realize that we aren’t writing for all people of that demographic. We aren’t showing “their story” or even “their culture,” anymore than one caucasian character of our age and gender represents us and our life story. We are giving life to one person’s story–our character’s–and no one else’s.

p1030596 by Smadar

When I read about Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, even though I share her skin color, and gender, and even when I was the same age, I never felt that she needed to demonstrate all the things I struggled with. I never felt that she needed to “represent” me and who I am, my heritage, my interests, my humor. I didn’t want to read about me; I wanted to read about her.

I never felt that Shakespeare or Tolstoy shouldn’t have written about women because they were men, or that Louisa May Alcott shouldn’t have written about marriage because she never married. They each did their best to get inside their characters’ minds and viewpoints, and while they sometimes failed or were less successful, I still give them credit for trying and I think their works would’ve been much more flat if they’d stuck to what they “knew.”

And I think, ultimately, that’s how we have to approach writing a diverse cast of characters. We can’t go in trying to represent the whole demographic, or be “true to their experiences,” whoever “they” may be, because we are writing about one character. He or she may share their culture; he or she may share their heritage, their skin color, and all the rest. But the story isn’t about “them.”

It’s about the fictional character. Provided you do your research and find out as much as you can what it’s like to be different–provided you do everything in your power to see life through the eyes of someone in your character’s shoes–you don’t have to belong to the gender, race, or background of your character. You can present people of all shades and ages, because our job is to give readers a slice of life–not their life, or even the life of their neighbors–but fragments and particles of a life that could’ve been.

Copyright 2016 Andrea Lundgren

Photo by Smadar, Creative Commons

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