Five Wrong-Headed Reasons for Not Writing Diverse Characters in Science Fiction

Awakening Final cover-sSay hello to Karen Sandler, author of the Tankborn trilogy from Tu Books! The second installment, AWAKENING, hit shelves this spring. Karen has graciously agreed to write a guest post for us today–we hope you enjoy it as much as we did!


I want to preface this post by acknowledging that writers have a right to write anything they want to write. It’s not as if there are any quota systems in place in fiction, where 6.2% of the characters have to be of this ethnicity, or 8.9% of that gender identity. You’re free to create any kind of character, culture, and world that you like.

That said, I’d like to consider some conscious and not-so-conscious reasons why science fiction might be less diverse than it could be. Why if there are diverse characters, they are nearly always the secondary characters and not the main characters.

So what do I mean by diverse main characters in science fiction? I mean characters that are:

  • From non-white European ethnicities
  • From a non-European culture
  • Strong women in non-traditional roles
  • GLBTQ
  • Disabled

You wouldn’t need all these qualities in a single character (although it could be done), but by my definition, your character would need at least one to be considered diverse. And this is my definition, yours might vary. Feel free to quibble with me in the comments about these categories, or to add other areas of diversity, but these give us a starting point.

In my points below, I’m using the word “white” as a shorthand for Caucasian of European extraction, a WASP, if you will. I chose white as a shorthand because in the vast majority of science fiction, that’s the ethnicity of the main characters (and more often than not, male). But I hope you’ll extrapolate this shorthand into other areas of diversity, that is, if you’re straight, writing a GLBTQ character might be a stretch for you.

On to the Wrong-Headed Reasons:

1) I’m white, and it might be offensive it I write about other cultures/ethnicities.

Confession up front here. This is exactly the reason I avoided writing diverse main characters for so long. I had plenty of diverse secondary and minor characters featured in nearly every book I wrote. I thought it would be Someone Else’s Story to write a book with a diverse main character.

If you follow this logic down the rabbit hole, you might come to the conclusion that only white people can write white people, only woman can write women characters, only children can write about children, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. Which of course is nuts. We have to imagine characters that are outside ourselves all the time. Do you think Jeff Lindsay (DEXTER), is a serial killer? Or that Carrie Ryan (FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH) is secretly a zombie? Or that either one of them worries about offending serial killers or zombies by writing about them in their books? Not likely.

However, it is possible to write a diverse character in such a way that is offensive. That can happen when we rely only on the stereotypes about others that float around in our brains, rather than gaining an understanding of that different ethnicity/culture and making the character a real person.

The key is respect—having respect for the culture, the ethnicity, the gender, gender identification, physical abilities. If you start with respect, you should do fine representing diverse characters.

2) Everyone says you’re supposed to write what you know, and I don’t really know anything about other cultures/ethnicities.

Um, see #1, particularly the part about serial killers and zombies.

We have two ways of solving the I Don’t Know problem. First, just as we would if we wanted to include a scene featuring a hot air balloon in our novel, we do some research. Read books, find reliable sites on the Internet, talk to people who have done ballooning. We don’t throw up our hands and say, “Can’t write about hot air ballooning, because you have to write what you know.”

If you want to follow that edict (write what you know), then you’d better know more. Learn more. Read about the Roma, the Indian caste system, the Hindu religion (as I did for TANKBORN). If you were writing an SF book that involved cloning, you’d go learn as much as you could about cloning.

The second way of solving the I Don’t Know problem, once you’ve educated yourself, is to put yourself in your characters’ shoes. Imagine what it would be like as them. This is what fiction is all about.

3) The world I’ve built only includes white people. Everyone else was killed in a plague.

Oh, puleeze! This is just a lazy excuse. It reminds me of my biggest complaint about Larry Niven’s THE MOTE IN GOD’S EYE. In his future world, something catastrophic has happened with the human birthrate. So women are coddled and cosseted (because they’re the baby-makers), and as a consequence have almost zero influence on the story’s action. To me, that seemed like a clever way to keep women out of the story. Maybe this wasn’t Niven’s intent, but it kind of soured me on the series.

In any case, creating an imaginary plague that only spares white people is pretty preposterous. There’s no biological difference between races. There might be higher incidences of genetic weaknesses based on ethnicity (the Tay-Sachs genetic disorder that disproportionately impacts Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews comes to mind), but to create a future in which, say, everyone with dark skin is wiped out, is bad world-building.

4) I just don’t see how non-white characters would fit into my book. All the characters in my head are white.

I see this excuse as a crisis of imagination. Particularly if you’re writing SF, often set in a future when anything can change. When everything can be different than it is now. We’ve already seen our first black president. We’ve seen women in ever more powerful roles. Gays and lesbians are coming out in nearly every corner of society, and universal marriage equality is becoming more and more imaginable.

You can’t imagine a black genetic engineer as your main character? An Hispanic lesbian piloting a starship? Then your imagination needs some revamping. You need to start thinking outside the box. Open up your corner of the world to more possibilities.

5) If my main characters are non-white, a publisher (or reader) won’t buy my book.

They bought Justine Larbalestier’s LIAR (although there was the whole #racefail issue with the original cover). Sherman Alexie’s THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN. Malinda Lo’s HUNTRESS. It’s true that there are few enough diverse main characters that we’re still writing blog posts like this one or the one here. But if it’s a wonderful book, publishers will buy it.

And as for readers, this is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. We don’t want to write diverse characters because we’re afraid readers won’t buy them. But readers can’t buy what hasn’t been written. If your story with diverse main characters is wonderful, readers will seek it out.


Karen SandlerGenre-conflicted author of science fiction (the young adult trilogy, TANKBORN, AWAKENING, and REVOLUTION from Tu Books), mystery (CLEAN BURN, a Janelle Watkins mystery from Exhibit A) and romance (fun, sexy romances, indie published). Visit my website, www.karensandler.net.

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34 Comments on “Five Wrong-Headed Reasons for Not Writing Diverse Characters in Science Fiction
  1. This made me giggle: “Um, see #1, particularly the part about serial killers and zombies.” Because it is SO true! And this: “this is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. We don’t want to write diverse characters because we’re afraid readers won’t buy them. But readers can’t buy what hasn’t been written. If your story with diverse main characters is wonderful, readers will seek it out.” Thanks for preaching the truth!

    • I really loved this guest post from Karen for all of the parts you quoted (and several more). I make a conscious effort to buy books that feature diverse characters, particularly on the cover. In fact, I already made up my mind to buy The Summer Prince before I even read the summary.

  2. Other diverse qualities to consider: age, income, education, religion or lack thereof. The more diverse the cast, the more realistic a book feels, but more importantly, the broader the range of readers it is likely to attract.

    • Very true! I really like characters that have different ages and income levels than standard heroes, particularly when you pit them up against those standards.

      • Exactly. It also gives you the chance to develop unexpected friendships, which makes the characters feel more real.

  3. Karen, you hit on some excellent points. In my simple mind it really boils down to two points that you made. One: if we write it will they buy it? Two: writers tend to write their own view of the world. Personally, I believe that strong well developed characters will be liked and well received regardless of their ethnic identity. Just because a man or woman is [insert ethnicity or color or other diverse characteristic here] doesn’t mean they have to have any special life story that differs in any significant way from the rest of humanity. So my solution is to write my characters as if their ethnicity (or other diversity) is interchangeable. Often one doesn’t discover this diverse characteristic until mid-way into my book. I believe readers tend to visualize the characters in their minds the way they want to see them, so physical characteristics are less important than other aspects of their development.

  4. I’m black and I could care less about the race of the characters. If they wrote their characters all white or all black who cares? While it is cool to have diversity in storiea you don’t know what or who these characters were inspired by. They could be inspired by real life people and if you’re white likely you know more white people naturally so your more likely to include that race of character. Don’t Tell an author what they can and cannot do. Most of my characters were black when I wrote growing up simply because they were inspired by the people I knew and here in Oakland CA I was surrounded by almost exclusively other blacks. It wasn’t something I aimed for that’s just how it was. Definitely not something to get angry about. Ironically now most my characters are white except the lead because I am gay living in SF and due to my change of environment and being gay on top of it I am just around more whites now. No big deal honey. But if you wanna be all inclusive that’s cool, but I’m going to continue to model my characters after those who are currently having an influence on my day to day life. You don’t have to read it if you don’t want to.

      • While I definitely appreciate racial and cultural diversity in speculative fiction, and in fact write and draw PoC characters all the time, I do agree with Dan that we shouldn’t force people to write anything outside their own artistic vision (which for some may very well be influenced by the people we know in our day-to-day lives). In addition certain types of fantasy or sci-fi stories may take place in countries where there isn’t that much racial or cultural diversity. If a story took place mainly in a futuristic Nigeria, you wouldn’t expect to see many white people, would you?

        BTW I’m white as they come.

        • I don’t think anyone here has even attempted to tell writers what and how to write – the essay is rather aimed as inspiring people to think why exactly they create their characters the way they do. Because usually it’s not a matter of explicit hostility towards a particular group, it’s because of not noticing those people and not even considering them as potential characters. And once you see them, you might consider writing them into a story, or simply think about why/why not you’d do that. It is a very eye-opening exercise IMO.

          I consider myself a rather open-minded person, and yet I still catch myself every once and then on automatically assuming that the character in the book I’m reading is white (happened to me with Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant series, Tony Birch’s “Blood” and NK Jemisin’s books) and/or male (Mieville’s “Embassytown”). And I guess I’m not the only one who does that. We certainly need more diversity in fiction.

    • “…if you’re white likely you know more white people naturally so your more likely to include that race of character…”

      Oh, okay.

      “Ironically now most my characters are white except the lead…”

      …Huh?

      Your comment is a slew of contradictory nonsense. White people are more likely to write about white people, you’re black and more likely to write about white people, no black people, no white people, well, it depends on environment, no, it’s actually influence, wait-

      Make up your mind. Are people naturally close-minded or are you just the moron here?

      Studies have shown that it’s environment, social influence, and even self-esteem that causes artists to favor certain races over others. But I have a feeling you’d find studies too ‘inclusive’.

      • He meant that he’s not surrounded by as many blacks now, so his newer stories are usually about white people now. Except for maybe the lead. To me, that was pretty clear.

  5. Great article and I definitely agree with it overall, I just think the serial killers and zombies example is really weak. Of course no one is worried about offending serial killers or zombies; many serial killers are rather undeserving of sympathy and consideration and zombies aren’t a real thing. In writing things like zombies, there’s nothing you need to respect; everything you write can be made up. Other than that comparison, this a a great article.

  6. Stop shaming people for their writings. Who do you think you are? Nope I will still write whatever I want. It’s not my responsibility to cater around the needs of people like you.

    • Yeah! Next she’ll be saying that your novel should “have a plot” or “be internally consistent” or “spell words correctly.” Jeez. Who does she think she is, telling you what to do?

    • It’s not ‘catering’. It’s being ‘creative’.

      Do as you wish with your writings. Write from the same perspectives/experiences ad nauseum and tread all the same grounds. You’ll blend in with the rest of the muck while the world moves on without you.

  7. I think this whole article is not so relevant in today’s world of SF. I don’t see many SF books that doesn’t have blacks. Or movies for that matter. Mostly, actually, the characters aren’t even important in SF stories, which is a shame. I am not saying you shouldn’t write this article, but I’d much rather see some more articles on how it’s wrong-headed that more SF writers don’t write about interesting, memorable and complex characters. Mostly you either get a load of brilliant world-building and dry characters, or brilliant characterization with flat and boring, narrow-minded worlds. I think there need to be a balance.

    But your article was still a nice read, and I can see where you are coming from and all. But I don’t agree with the points though. There is always exceptions to the scenarios you’ve listed. It’s all about the execution in the very end. Like the point about a world of only whites, or blacks. With the right execution, that kind of story would be brilliant and most people wouldn’t mind that element in the story.

    Stay creative,
    Best wishes,
    – Lukas S.

    • Yeah, your use of the word “blacks” to describe a race of human beings pretty much means you didn’t understand the point or purpose of this article at all. Go educate yourself, then come read this again.

      • “Black people” might be more sensitive than saying “blacks” (using it as an adjective rather than a noun), but “black” isn’t a slur. It’s the preferred term in Canada and Britain (among black people themselves), and it’s widely used in the U.S. along with “African-American”.

  8. Despite my anxiety that a white guy might get mocked for writing about people of color, I have taken the risk from the beginning to write diverse characters. Also, four out of five of my protagonists are strong female characters. (Yes, Margaret, I married one, baby!)

    1) Ember from the Sun: The eponymous character is a Neanderthal raised by a Native American family. Ember’s sister (her closest friend) is deaf.

    2) Down to Heaven: One of the three central characters in the story’s erotic love triangle is half-Caucasian, half-Chinese—oh, and a hermaphrodite!

    3) Second Nature: The protagonist, Gen, is half-Latina, half-extraterrestrial! The major and minor romances in the tale are between two couples—both biracial.

    4) The Bastard: A tale about the three missing decades in the life of Jesus. The chief mentors of Jesus are a Greek-educated African warrior from what is now Morocco, and a Chinese Taoist sage. His closest friend is an Ethiopian.

    5) Orchard of my Eye: The central romance is between Aria, from Curacao, and Nat, an African-American scientific genius.

    And that list does not include my erotic short fiction, written under the pen name Connie Lovejoy.

    http://richincolor.com/2013/05/five-wrong-headed-reasons-for-not-writing-diverse-characters-in-science-fiction/

  9. SORRY FOR POSTING TWICE. I GOOFED ON MY WEBSITE ADDRESS THE FIRST TIME.

    Despite my anxiety that a white guy might get mocked for writing about people of color, I have taken the risk from the beginning to write diverse characters. Also, four out of five of my protagonists are strong female characters. (Yes, Margaret, I married one, baby!)

    1) Ember from the Sun: The eponymous character is a Neanderthal raised by a Native American family. Ember’s sister (her closest friend) is deaf.

    2) Down to Heaven: One of the three central characters in the story’s erotic love triangle is half-Caucasian, half-Chinese—oh, and a hermaphrodite!

    3) Second Nature: The protagonist, Gen, is half-Latina, half-extraterrestrial! The major and minor romances in the tale are between two couples—both biracial.

    4) The Bastard: A tale about the three missing decades in the life of Jesus. The chief mentors of Jesus are a Greek-educated African warrior from what is now Morocco, and a Chinese Taoist sage. His closest friend is an Ethiopian.

    5) Orchard of my Eye: The central romance is between Aria, from Curacao, and Nat, an African-American scientific genius.

    And that list does not include my erotic short fiction, written under the pen name Connie Lovejoy.

    http://richincolor.com/2013/05/five-wrong-headed-reasons-for-not-writing-diverse-characters-in-science-fiction/

  10. i agree with every point here, especially the bit about ‘write what you know’; if everyone wrote only the things we knew, we’d have kind of a lot of books about getting out of bed, eating, going to work, and going back to bed. + i don’t have to tell you that’s boring.

    i have one thing to add, tho, on the subject of ‘diversity’ as a whole: i’d like to see some mentally ill characters whose mental illnesses aren’t the only thing about the book and/or character!! if i could find a book with a bipolar or borderline or depressed protagonist saving the world i’d be a very happy person, not to mention it would bring light to mental illness in a more positive manner!!!

    also, thank you for writing up this post; you make a lot of really good points + i appreciated the respect you treated the subject with, too. thank you!!

  11. Neil Gaiman said it best in a letter to a young writer who was being hassled about her choice of genre: no one gets to tell a writer what to write. Art is not a democracy. If this pompous fool wants a black Hispanic lesbian engineer, then she should write said story herself and stop pontificating at anyone else or belittling them. It doesn’t convince anyone. An author is free to write whatever he/she wants without being castigated by the PC advertising crowd. Art does not apologise, nor does it create by committee.

    • If you’re going to argue in defense of being closed-minded, Neil Gaiman is a pretty amusing choice to cite. American Gods is about a dark ex-convict saving the world with the help of a diverse assortment of people and deities, including a Native American woman who dates women (and probably men.) There’s also a fairly explicit sex scene between an Arab man and a male-bodied Jinn. The title characters of Anansi Boys are of African ancestry. I haven’t read any of Gaiman’s other works yet, but he seems to be a member of this “PC crowd” you dislike.

      The article writer here is belitting nobody, merely asking that people consider writing a greater variety of characters. Kinda how Gaiman does?

  12. I circumvent this entirely in my writing :3 My first novel is about a half-drow who thought he was half-black and half-white. He’s gay, falls in love with a brass dragon, and the only main character who’s human is a descendant of Viking bards.

    Go big or go home :3

    Hilariously, while writing a short story in the aftermath of the novel, this comes up in an interview with the main character who is a pop star. When asked if he thinks it’s okay for himself to write songs from the point of view of people from fantasy races (who are discovered to be real and very much alive) even though he’s human, he basically pulls #s 1 and 2 on the interviewer.

    Then his manager bitches at him because she’s worried the Revealed Rights Groups will come down on his ass, but that’s neither here nor there.

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