I know this post is titled ‘Writing Diverse YA,’ but it could easily be applied to NA and adult writing as well. Please keep in mind as you read that I’m no expert. I’m simply sharing what I do when I develop my diverse characters.
Diversity is in our DNA. Take a minute and allow that thought to sink in. Go ahead, it’s okay.
Diversity is all around us. I see it in my classroom every day. Heck, I saw it in my own classes growing up, and I lived in a place so small we didn’t have a stop light. Cow pastures surrounded my high school. But we were diverse, representing the LGBTQIA community, POC, mental and physical disabilities, etc. One would think the same level of diversity would be present in the books we read. Except it’s not. Thankfully the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign hopes to change this and bring real world diversity to the bookshelf.
It’s always been important for me to make diversity an integral part of my writing. It’s my dream that everyone who reads my writing will be able to connect with it somehow. I try to cover more than one aspect of diversity. In the novel that landed me my fantabulous agent, I have characters that are LGBTQIA, POC, and wheelchair bound. Physical and mental illnesses are also addressed in that novel. The same is true in the novel I wrote this summer and the one I’m drafting now. I’m blessed to have had the experiences I’ve had because they’ve opened my eyes to see the world. And spoiler alert: It’s diverse!
Do Your Research
While I do pull from my own experiences when I write, one of the most important parts for me when I decide how diverse my characters will be, takes place before I start drafting. Nothing irritates me as a reader more than having my connection to a character stripped from me because the author didn’t take the time to get their facts straight. This drives me nuts when I watch movies and TV shows dealing with the military or education. Sometimes, the information is so wrong, I can’t buy into the reality the writer is trying to convey. Please don’t be that writer.
The Details Matter
Pay attention to the details. It makes your characters more rounded and will make the diversity you are writing about more believable. Since I write YA, school in some shape or form is always present in my novels. As an educator, I pay attention to the schedule of my characters as a way to increase their believability. I research the school district of the real area my novel is located in and use their course offerings when drafting my character’s schedules. In fact, I know the school schedule of each of my characters even though it may never be mentioned in the novel. But why do that? I do it because I don’t want a student in Atlanta (the location of the precious I’m currently writing) to read and be pulled out of the novel because they know that’s not a class someone could take as a junior. For adults reading YA, a detail like that may not matter. But to a teen, it can make a difference. Over the years, I’ve asked my students (I’ve taught middle and high school) and they’ve told me when authors don’t take the time to research details like that, it bothers them.
Location, Location, Location
Some authors consider their setting to be a character. The setting’s diversity is just as important as whether or not the character is a POC, LGBTQIA, or physically or mentally disabled. For me, every detail is important in building a world in which my characters live. My novels take place in fictitious towns or neighborhoods to allow me some creative freedoms. I put as much energy into the picture I paint of this setting as I do my characters. Once I’ve settled on an area to use as my setting, I look up the demographics for that area. I might use the real name of the bus pass found in the real setting or have a major landmark, highway, etc mentioned. Pay attention to your settings seasons and weather. Putting your MC in a tank top and having them walk around outside wouldn’t exactly make sense if the real area usually has 6″ of snow on the ground during that time of year.
What Not To Do
When writing diverse characters, try to avoid turning them into caricatures. All too often, diverse characters are stereotyped when they are represented. Also, their diversity is seen as a hurdle and a major focus (usually in a negative light) instead of simply another aspect of who the character is. Don’t have a token gay character or POC friend who serves no purpose other than to make you feel like you’re writing something diverse. Your readers will see right through it.
So you’ve decided to write a character that is a POC. Fantastic. How do you portray that to the reader? When I write POC characters, I show them to the reader the same way I would show a white character. I don’t come out and say ‘a white guy with blond hair’ so why would I do that to represent a POC character? I also wouldn’t compare a white character’s skin tone to the color of milk, so why would I do that (use a food reference) if I were writing about a POC?
When writing diversity a writer should try to be real, accurate, all the while being creative. If you don’t know how to portray something, find someone to ask. Use the internet to your advantage. Show the reader you can write. If you know your characters well enough, their diversity will come through the pages and speak to the reader. Now, go write your heart out!