Creating Diverse Worlds

This post is for all you writers out there wondering how to create diversity in your novel. Creating diversity is not just the act of developing a character of color, it is also creating a diverse world. Think about the world that you live in. Who do you interact with everyday? I’ll use myself as an example.

Long_Beach_diversity_of_people_expressed_Long_Beach

Mural expressing the diversity of my city. From virtualtourist.com

I live in Long Beach, CA, one of the most diverse cities in America. My student population is 60% Hispanic/Latino and 40% African-American, but the teaching staff is much more diverse with a good mix of different nationalities. I live in a large condo complex and there is every race and age living in the building. Yesterday as I walked out, I was behind an elderly Japanese couple and there is a mixed race family with two girls that I have seen grow into beautiful young ladies. Our neighbors across the courtyard are Samoan. This is just my complex. My best friend from high school is Puerto Rican and my husband’s best friend is a mix of Mexican and Navajo. Another high school friend, who is Caucasian, married a man who is a mix of Mexican and Japanese. Their daughter is a lovely blend of everything that makes up her parents. Another friend’s fiancée is Filipino, and she herself is a mix of Persian and Jewish. I am sitting in a coffee shop as I write this and the ethnic makeup of everyone in here is a mix of all the colors of the world.

Obviously, I encounter diversity in every aspect of my life, except for in novels. Why is this? I know writers do not write in a vacuum and have lives outside of the computer. Why not have the world you create from the pen, reflect the world the you live in? If you are unsure of how to do that, just spend some time sitting in a restaurant, coffee shop, mall, wherever people gather and watch them. Imagine their lives. What are they doing? Where are they going? What are the relationships with the people they’re with? You don’t have to create full character histories for them, but do remember them when creating the world your characters lives in. Just having a main character of color is not enough; the people the character interacts with should be diverse as well.

Don’t just focus on their ethnicity as well. People of color are more than just their skin. We are as unique and varied with our own special interests (I’m a Trekkie) and when creating diverse characters make sure you are creating a real person, not just a stock stereotype. Even if your main character interacts with a person for just one scene, create a small character profile in your head and then use that as a basis for how you write him/her in that once scene. Or, use the personality of someone you know and think about how he/she would react in the same situation. Think outside of the box and strive to make your world reflect the world you live in.

Now, unless your world is set in a place that is not diverse, say the novel “Spirits Chosen” which was set in a mythical Japan, then obviously your characters will not reflect the diverse world you live in. However, if you are interested in writing fantasy, why stick to the European version of elves and such? Why not look into the ancient history or folklore tales of other cultures? There is such a wide variety of stories from distant places that are just waiting to be told.

chaos

Image via Goodreads.com

Nalo Hopkinson’s “The Chaos” is a novel that creates a diverse world the right way. In fact, it felt as if she were hitting us over the head with diversity, but that is because it is so rare in fiction to find a novel that accurately reflects the culture we live in. The novel is set in modern day Toronto when an odd supernatural event happens, dubbed The Chaos for that is exactly what it is, and the story deals with one characters attempts to survive the event. The novel does have an aspect of fantasy pulling from Caribbean, Asian and European folklore traditions. I recommend that every writer interested in creating a diverse world, read Hopkinson’s book for inspiration.

Go forth and create diverse worlds!

Share

Covers I Love

Let’s be perfectly honest, shall we? We often judge a book by its cover. I know I do! There have been numerous instances where I’ve purchased a novel purely based on an amazing cover. And while there have been numerous articles, discussions about the whitewashing of covers and lack of representation of diverse characters on covers, I thought I’d take a positive stance and talk about a few covers that have really moved me.

 

clockwork prince1. Clockwork Prince, Cassandra Clare

This beauty stopped me in my tracks, literally. I walked past it, stopped, and took a closer look because I was unsure if I really saw a cute Asian boy on the cover. I picked the book up, examined it thoroughly and then went from disbelief to practically dancing a jig in the aisle. I mean, just look at that cover. Jem is a wonderful character and this picture just captures his essence beautifully. His stance is regale, but with an air of mystery, but the most important aspect is that we can see his face.

 

 

 

transcendence2. Transcendance, C.J. Omololu

Another novel that stopped me in my tracks. My heart jumped at seeing a cute African-American boy front and center on a cover that was not about gangs, prison, urban issues, but a science fiction/fantasy story. The cover suggests that Griffin is a character who will be central to the story, even though the novel is told from Cole’s perspective. It also displays him as a romantic lead, and he is someone the readers will fall in love with (which we do).

 

 

 

Zahrah3. Zahrah the Windseeker, Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu

My goodness this cover is amazing. The model for this cover is simply beautiful. The sparkle eye shadow accents her deep brown eyes and enhances the richness of her skin. She is simply breathtaking, which is a contrast to how the main character sees herself. This contrasts highlights how girls and women often do not see their own beauty, adding to the message of the novel. Additionally, the wing of the Blue Morpho butterfly (my favorite) just adds to the fantasy element of the cover.

 

 

luminous4. Luminous, Dawn Metcalf

I have a deep love for butterflies so this cover just grabs my heart. Like Zahrah, the cover model is also absolutely beautiful. She is also clearly Latina, and with the variety of colors, especially the deep pink, the model is bathed in a light that evokes romance.  Like Transcendence, the cover clearly indicates the novel is a fantasy and not the usual immigration, gangs, urban storyline given to characters of color.

 

 

 

phoenix5. Silver Phoenix, Cindy Pon

Another beautiful model! I also just love the colors of the cover and how they blend together to create an other-worldly atmosphere. The way the light reflects off her dress, I can almost feel the silk underneath my fingers. While I wonder why her arms are in the position they are in, they do create a feeling of movement as if she is in the middle of a dance.

 

 

 

I realize that this novels listed are mostly sci-fi/fantasy novels, but that is a genre that I love to read. It is also a genre that is sorely lacking in characters of color. The industry is changing, albeit slowly, but if these covers are any indication of the willingness of publishers to take a chance and feature the characters front and center on their covers, then all of our calls for change are not in vain. We need to continue to demand for stunning covers such as these, not just with our voices, but with our dollars. Buy these books, but not just the ebooks. Buy the hardbacks, the paperbacks, get them from your local booksellers. If the books are not shelved, ask for them to be ordered. We have the power, let’s use it!

(all cover images courtesy of Goodreads)

Share

It’s the Pattern that’s the Problem

A few years ago a friend and fellow amateur writer asked me whether or not her main character being white was a problem. We had been discussing diversity in media, and I was caught by surprise by the frankness of the question. I managed to babble something that was semi-coherent, assuring her that nothing was wrong with the character, and the topic drifted from there.

I’ve thought about that conversation a lot since then, and I think I’m ready to give a more thorough answer. With a few exceptions (like the Mighty Whitey trope or deliberate erasure/whitewashing), there’s nothing inherently wrong with a main character being white. I have no quarrel with Harry Potter for being both white and The Boy Who Lived. Alanna of Trebond is still the best knight in all of Tortall no matter how fair her skin is. John Cleaver is equally terrifying and delightful as he hunts down supernatural killers.

Then there’s Tris, Peter, Bella, Rory, Hazel, Ender, Janie, Cas, Letty, Gemma, Miles, Jonas, Anne, Lyra, Charlie, Clary, Clay, Melinda, Tally, Alice, Sophie, Will, Eragon, Mia, Lena, Anna, Nora, Ginny, Jerry, Meg, Nathaniel, Samantha, Thomas, Cammie, Todd, Grace, Aerin, Lia, and hundreds of other white protagonists in young adult books whose stories dominate the bestseller lists.

The problem isn’t that these characters are white—the problem is that they all are. Last year, NPR posted a list of the 100 best ever teen novels (as voted by NPR’s 87% white audience), and only two of those books featured protagonists who were people of color. (A third book split the POV between three white girls and one Latina.) Readers submitted over 1,200 titles, which were narrowed down by a panel of experts to just 235 books. But even with an extra 135 books thrown in, an NPR assistant only found four additional titles starring people of color.

The problem is that when I look for people who look like me in the media I consume, I am thrilled when they actually exist, let alone have some plot-significant dialogue or get a POV. The problem is that this horde of books starring white characters is teaching me that the people who look like me aren’t smart enough to lead a team of heroes, aren’t powerful enough to be agents of their own fate, aren’t skillful enough to be looked up to, aren’t sexy enough for makeouts, aren’t loyal enough to be true companions, aren’t interesting enough to have their stories told.

White boy finds out he’s the chosen one, white girl overthrows corrupt society, white boy finds a doomed love, white girl goes on epic road trip to discover herself, white boy becomes a man, white girl becomes a woman, everyone else plays either a supporting role or functions as sentient scenery—that pattern is the problem.

Is any specific author obligated to write a book from the point of view of a person of color? Absolutely not. But who gets to star in the stories we love matters just as much as what happens in those stories.

It’s going to take a lot of people—writers, agents, editors, publishers, readers, bloggers, booksellers, etc.—to replace the current pattern with something more inclusive. So buy books that star people of color, interview authors/agents/editors about why they chose to write/acquire diverse stories and voices, recommend those stories to friends, create fanart or fanfic or fancasts, and reblog and retweet and comment and like and share whenever you can.

Share

More Diversity in Fairytales, please

Last week, Shana Mlawski, wrote about populating fantasy with diversity and not just sticking to Medieval England as a reference and I completely agree with her. In fact, I’m add to her argument by saying we can take diversity a step further, especially as to the current trend of taking well known folklore/fairy tales and putting a modern spin on them.

When I was a little girl, I loved the Disney princesses and fairytales in general, so when I learned about Beastly, by Alex Flinn, I was excited. And then more and more books were published that were based off of Western fairy tales. I read them, liking the modern touch, but one aspect of all of these novels rubbed me the wrong way. These stories were set in our modern times, in our modern cities, with our very techno-savvy modern lifestyles, but there wasn’t a single instance of diversity. None.

How was that possible? In my daily life I’m interacting with all sorts of people – different races, ages, sizes – my world is incredibly diverse. How come I’m not seeing this same world I live in reflected in my reading? I could have gotten angry; I could have raged at the world, but instead, I wrote. I wrote my own story, with the diversity I saw reflected in my world. I also searched. Searched for authors who chose to step out from their comfort zones and write different characters; create diverse worlds.

Shannon Hale’s Book of a Thousand Days is a re-telling of a tale by the Brother’s Grimm, but is set in central Asia. Malinda Lo’s Ash, takes Cinderella’s tale and turns it on its head. Marissa Meyer’s Cinder is set in a future China and the prince is Asian. These are wonderful additions to YA literature for their diversity and their unique take on the old tales they are based on.

However, as readers we have to demand more, and as writers we have to create more. Writers need to be more open to writing characters that are different from them. Research other fairytales and folklore that exist in other countries, or even in one’s own culture. Folklore was created as a way of sharing history, teaching morality and exists in every culture on Earth. These stories have not stood the test of time because they are good, but because they are captivating stories. We can restructure these stories and place them in a modern context for the next generation, but we must be sure that our modern stories also reflect our modern lives.

Share