Sunday, January 26, 2014

On the Diversity of Fictional Characters

A few days ago I came across this amazing video about the effects stories have on the world and the people in it. Adichie's is a powerful story of growing up in Africa reading only British and American literature and how those stories affected the way she perceived the world. I highly encourage everyone to take the time to watch this. Go on; I'll wait.

For those of you who don't have time I'll give you a few highlights, but I really hope you will save this and go back and watch it when you can.

Adichie tells us that she started reading at a very young age, that she would read anything available to her, which for the most part was British and American literature. She also started writing at a young age. She says she always wrote about white protagonists who ate apples even though she was black and in her country they ate mangoes. The stories she read had taught her what she believed a story is supposed to look like, and what a story is not supposed to look like.

Later on she went to college in the United States where her roommate was surprised that she knew how to use a stove. She wrote a story about living in Africa and was told by her professor that her story was not authentically African because the characters drove cars and did not lead impoverished lives.

Her story is testimony to just how powerful fictional stories are in our society. This is something that I feel we as writers need to be aware of. We have a responsibility to do better than previous generations have to write stories that represent the beautiful diversity of the real world.

Take a moment to think about the last 5 books you read. How many of them featured people of color?? People of the LGBTQA community? Women? If there were characters featured, how were they depicted? Were they major or minor characters? What sort of agency was given to them? Did they comply with or break common stereotypes about the group they belong to? Now ask yourself the same questions about your own writings.

"Well, when I was nine years old, Star Trek came on, I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, 'Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there's a black lady on television and she ain't no maid!' I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.”

— Whoopi Goldberg

Representation matters and we as writers play a crucial role. I know how unlikely it is that anything I write will ever become hugely popular or make any major waves in any of the movements. However, if even one person reads them I have the opportunity to make a difference in the mind of that one person. And on the off chance that something I write does take off, I want it to be something that everyone who reads it can relate to regardless of their gender, race, or sexuality.

It is easy to say that characters write themselves and it just so happens that none of them fit these images or that they just so happened to fit a particular stereotype, but all that does is reveal a writer's own prejudices. By writing stories without these types of characters, or with stereotypical versions of them, writers help- intentionally or not- to reaffirm oppressive ideologies that are very present in our society. And it needs to stop.


  1. Here's a fun drinking game: watch a movie with friends and every time a person with the same gender and race as you appears on screen and speaks, take a shot. The white men will be sloshed before the opening credits!

    1. And probably in the hospital after the first twenty minutes, haha. Hopefully we'll start to see this change :)

  2. Great post! We had a long discussion about this subject in one of my writing workshops at school recently ... It was interesting to hear what people had to say about it. It is something that really concerns me, especially because I tend to just make most of my characters white & straight without even thinking about it––and I do want to represent other cultures/sexualities/etc. but I also don't want to seem like I'm appropriating something I haven't experienced. And it's also hard to represent everyone without coming off like you're just throwing in "token" characters. I still try to have diverse characters of course, but I also worry a lot about it because I think there's a fine line between being respectful and being offensive.

    1. I completely agree. We need to remember the difference between including them in stories and trying to tell stories we have no place telling. I would never dream of writing a story about what its like growing up as a gay teen or a POC because obviously I have no idea what that is like, but that doesn't mean not including them at all. We can include these characters without making the focus of their story their race, sexuality, gender, etc, and I think that's what is important.

    2. I agree with brigidrgh. I would worry if I had a main character who was, for example, gay. Would the way I form their romantic relationships make sense? Would I cause some kind of unintended offense. I think adding diversity is important, but it also requires more work. I remember reading something about the author of the new Ms. Marvel (who happens to be an American Muslim of Middle Eastern decent). The author went out of their way to discuss the story with people who fit the demographic of the character. The author wanted to know if he was representing American Muslims correctly and if they could relate to the character. That's the kind of work required. What would be easier is if an American Muslim author became a published author. I know in the story you shared, she said she wrote stories with white protagonists, but that doesn't have to be. Teachers should encourage students to write whatever feels write and to tell their story, not the story they think people want to hear.

    3. I agree. It is more work. But its work I feel I have the obligation to put into my stories by educating myself and seeking out critique partners who can tell me if they feel I'm misrepresenting them. Like I said I will never write a story revolving around a person's experience because of their sexuality, race, etc because that is not my place. I do not have that experience I have no business trying to write about it. However I also think it is important to write characters that happen to this race or that sexuality but whose story does not revolve around that fact. I am a women which means I do face sexism on a daily basis, and having stories representing that is important, but at the same time I love seeing female characters whose stories aren't based around the fact that they are female because that is just one part of who we are. Take Uhura from Star Trek for example: she is a female POC character, but her story does not revolve around that fact. Her story is based on her interests, her personality, her amazing intelligence, her friendships. Those are the type of characters I want to see more often.
      I agree that we shouldn't be writing stories based on what other people want, that we should write for ourselves. But I have to question anyone who in writing for themselves excludes huge portions of the population from their imagined worlds.