Diversity and Difference in YA

Yesterday at the 2012 World Fantasy Convention, I spoke on the Diversity and Difference in YA Fantasy panel with excellent company from Cheryl Rainfield, Cinda Williams Chima, E.C. Myers, and our moderator Kathy Sullivan. It was great to see how many people came out to hear about and discuss the topic (especially since we were competing with Garth Nix’s reading).

It’s such an important topic, and one I think is on a lot of authors’ minds right now, so I wanted to recap my thoughts and some of the ideas that came up during the panel here.

Necessary disclaimer: I’m hardly an authority on the subject. Being white, straight, able-bodied and relatively able-minded, I know I’m looking at the topic of diversity from a position of privilege. I don’t understand what it’s like not to see yourself represented in the stories you read the same way that someone who’s LGBT or a person of color would. Most of my thoughts on the subject are based on what I’ve heard from authors and readers who do see themselves under- or misrepresented, and I may not always have absorbed what I’ve heard completely accurately.

But I have been seeking out those perspectives, and trying to apply them to my own writing, because I think diversity is important for everyone. It’s important for all readers to find characters who represent their own experiences, and not to feel they’re being ignored, or worse, considered inferior. It’s important for readers to have access to views and stories that take them beyond their own lives in a variety of ways. Why wouldn’t we want our fiction to reflect the diversity and differences that exist in the world? Why would we spend hours pouring over Google maps and image searches to try to get a setting right, but give hardly any thought to making sure the people inhabiting that setting are equally authentic? Even if you balk at the idea of someone telling you that you “should” be inclusive, the fact is it’s also just good writing.

And for a lot of us, adding realistic diversity to our writing is something that takes conscious effort. Unfortunately, at least in North America, our defaults seem to be set on white/male/straight. (You might question the “male” part of that statement for YA, which is known for the predominance of female main characters, but consider in those female-led stories, if you look at all the secondary and more minor characters, what’s the gender split there? I suspect you’d have trouble finding many stories where if you break down all the named characters by gender, there are even an equal number of men and women, let alone more women than men.) I’ve lived all my life in Toronto, where nearly half of the people around me are visible minorities. Where there’s been a huge gay pride celebration every year since shortly after I was born. I’ve had close friends from all different backgrounds. I am a woman. And yet for a long time almost all my major characters were white and straight, and the minor ones tended to be male, too. I still have to watch myself, when I’m writing the bit parts where it’s most easy to get lazy, that I’m not making them mostly white guys.

I see a lot of authors talk about being nervous about writing characters of different racial backgrounds, sexual orientations, or other underrepresented groups, because they’re worried they’ll get it “wrong” and offend people. And I get that, because I worry about those things too. These are some things I find it helpful to remember:

-Those characters are people just as much as any others you write. There is no universal black experience, lesbian experience, person who uses a wheelchair experience. If you flesh out all your characters and avoid making one characteristic the entirety of that character’s “personality,” you’re a lot less likely to end up with a stereotype.

-It’s not hard to find out more about perspectives different from your own these days. Just on the internet, you can find people of pretty much every ethnic background, orientation, and physical/mental make-up in existence sharing their thoughts and experiences. There are also lots of people just in the writing community (as well as elsewhere) who are happy to chat or look at your work if you have concerns and are trying to make sure you’re handling a particular topic or issue with sensitivity.

-The more diversity you include in your stories, the easier it’ll be to avoid offensive portrayals. If you have one character of color, and that character dies halfway through the book or is the main villain or has stereotypical interests, it looks bad. If you have several characters of color, and some survive and some don’t, some are heroic and others villainous, and they span a wide range of interests and personalities, it’s usually clear you’re not making some sort of statement with any particular one of them.

-That said, you have to let your story dictate what sort of diversity is authentic in that context. It makes a lot more sense to see a diverse set of characters in a story that needs to take place in a modern urban setting than a small town, for example, or in certain places in certain parts of history. If you feel like you’re not just recognizing the diversity that would exist and including it in your story, but forcing it in, it’s probably going to feel forced to the reader too–like you’re just adding in tokens rather than making characters who are organic to the story. You just want to watch that you’re giving authenticity it’s due even when it’s not slanted toward your defaults. Small town America might be mostly white, but if your next story is set in, say, Shanghai, it’ll look rather odd unless most of your characters are Chinese.

-Including diverse characters in your stories doesn’t mean you have to make your stories primarily about prejudice or discrimination or related conflicts. In fact, only allowing characters from underrepresented groups to have stories relating to their race or sexual orientation or other “difference,” while better than not representing them at all, is still marginalizing them. There are many stories about white people that have nothing to do with them being white; many stories about straight people that have nothing to do with their heterosexuality. YA fiction will only be truly diverse when LGBT characters and characters of color and so on are defeating evil wizards and falling in love with vampires and leading dystopian rebellions too.

-If you’re worried about writing fully-realized, non-stereotypical characters, you’re a lot less likely to be making awful mistakes than the people who just don’t care. It’s the people who aren’t giving it much thought who mess up the most.

-You probably will make mistakes. I doubt I said everything perfectly during the panel yesterday. I doubt I’ve said everything perfectly in this post. Generally speaking, no one expects you to get it perfect. What they expect is that if they point out to you that you messed up somehow, you accept that criticism and work on doing things better next time. You rarely look like a jerk unless you respond to the criticism with defensiveness and hostility.

And now I am open to any thoughts, experiences, criticism, and otherwise on writing diversity. 🙂


Diversity and Difference in YA — 6 Comments

  1. I always get heated about this subject, as an aspiring author of color I don’t get why the issue has to be so complex i have written a few books in which all the characters are white I don’t look at the ethnicity instead I focus on the issues that the protagonist face and simply teenage stuff whatever genre i write I add a realistic issue the teen character endures. my first novel was a PNR the main character is biracial the issue I used for the realistic aspect of my story was bullying and I did make the main character wonder if the students that picked on her had issues because she was mixed, in addition her being in a small town that predominately had white people. I think some teens no matter what color they are share similar experiences and as writers the key is to let our characters handle them their own way.

    What you wrote I agree with you fully.

    There are many stories about white people that have nothing to do with them being white; many stories about straight people that have nothing to do with their heterosexuality. YA fiction will only be truly diverse when LGBT characters and characters of color and so on are defeating evil wizards and falling in love with vampires and leading dystopian rebellions too.

    • I don’t think the issue is that complex; unfortunately I think for a lot of white authors, it’s easy not to notice the issue even exists, and easy to try to “fix” it in overly simplistic ways once you do. When you’re in the majority that’s usually represented, you have the privilege of not having to see the people who aren’t represented… which is sad. But I do think it’s changing more and more as people raise awareness.

  2. Megan, I want to congratulate you on writing such a thought-provoking post. I agree completely that there needs to be more diversity in fiction, especially YA. As an avid reader of pretty much everything paranormal and fantasy, the more diverse the characters the more engrossed I become with the story. I’m a reader who loves to learn about the intricacies of cultures unfamiliar to me. Now with that being said, I’m also a reader who likes stories where the ethnicity of a character is not spelled out for me. I find it intriguing when the author gives me the freedom to decide the racial or sexual preference of a character or two. Of course, that takes some serious writing skills.

    I’m a firm believer in writing the story based on how you see the characters in your head. But a writer should NEVER be afraid to rise to the challenge to include diversity in their work. As creative types, I think it’s important for the writer to shore up their courage and just ask someone who represents the type of character they want to look into. You’d be surprised how open and helpful people can be when you show an interest in them and their culture.

    We need more original stories. In my opinion, there’s nothing diverse about fabricated spinoffs of someone else’s story.

    • Sadly I think it’s difficult to leave race ambiguous right now, because so many readers default on “white” even if major hints are given in the text (look at how many readers were surprised to discover Rue in THE HUNGER GAMES was black!). It’s something I’ve struggled with, though, because it can be hard to make it explicit but still a natural part of the story, especially when the story isn’t about race or what have you. Hopefully at some point in the future that won’t be necessary!

      I found that once I started asking myself, “Could any of these characters be more diverse?”, it turned out many of them could. The important thing was starting to ask in the first place. 🙂 I understand why people get nervous, but as you say, it’s not that hard to check that you’re doing all right.

  3. Great piece, Megan. Between this blog post and the conversations we’ve had via twitter, I feel more comfortable reading and thinking about diverse characters coming from writers, who, like myself, come from positions of privilege.

    Even as someone who is white, straight with an able body and mind, I find myself getting angry when I see something obviously racist making the rounds on the Internet and finding that people applaud it, such as the Disney princess parody video. I guess that means I’m definitely thinking about it.

    • I think just making an effort to be more aware of one’s privilege and how things might affect people who don’t have that privilege is a big step in the right direction!

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