Writing Diverse Characters

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Head over to your bookshelf and pull out a random book. Who is the main character? There’s a likely chance your main character is straight, white and able-bodied. Right?

The purpose of books, especially children’s and young adult books, is to see the world through new eyes. But readers still see the world primarily through the eyes of straight, white, able-bodied characters.

Despite the beautiful, diverse world we live in, literature doesn’t do nearly enough to represent that.
You’re a writer – you CAN do something about it!

Did you know that unless a writer states it clearly, most readers automatically assume that the character they are reading is straight, white, and able-bodied?

How to Write Diverse Characters

The easiest way to write diverse characters is to not worry about writing diverse characters. Just focus on writing good characters, then decide later about their race, ability or sexuality. When writing about a minority group you do not belong to, you should be aware that your interpretation will be a less authentic representation. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t include diverse characters in your books! You’ll need to do your research and make sure you are writing about your character in a respectful, sensitive way.

Some important things to remember:

  • Avoid cliches such as describing a character as having ‘almond-shaped eyes’.
  • NEVER use food to describe a persons skin colour (chocolate skin…just NO!).
  • Don’t just describe the skin colour of your non-white characters; that’s just playing into the assumption that all characters are white unless stated otherwise.
  • Don’t use a disability as a plot device to make the character ‘quirky’ or put them through an ordeal.
  • Don’t forget about giving your minor characters (teachers, waiters, neighbours etc.) diversity too.

A character’s minority background should not be used as a plot device

A person’s heritage, gender, and sexuality are all essential parts of who they are, but that does not define their entire personality or become a plot point. Just because a character is disabled doesn’t mean they spend their lives focused on their disability. Nor, in the same way, is a First Nations character defined only by their culture. Be mindful of not using diversity merely as a plot device to move the story forward.

Everybody is valuable in our community, and everybody should be able to pick up a book and read about a character who looks like them. 

Any Child books

Exposing children to books featuring diverse characters is a meaningful way to open a conversation about the power of representation. When encouraging your children to write diverse characters, remember this: just because a character is disabled doesn’t mean they spend their lives focused on their disability. Nor, in the same way, is a First Nations character defined only by their culture.
See here a list of wonderful ‘any child’ books to get you started – books that feature a character whose race or ability isn’t key to the plot in any way. Here is another link to an article about Australian books that celebrate diversity.

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