Diverse stories are important, and we don’t have nearly enough of them in speculative fiction. People outside the dominant group of straight, white cis-men deserve to see themselves represented in stories. If we can’t imagine diverse worlds in fiction, how will we create one in real life?
But writing diverse stories can be difficult. We worry, and rightly so, about getting something wrong. The last thing an author wants is to find out that their attempt at diversity has accidentally created something harmful. Fortunately, writing diverse stories doesn’t have to be difficult. In fact, you can get started right now.
1. Use the Far Future and High Fantasy
Contemporary settings are by far the most difficult. Getting all the details of someone else’s culture right requires a huge amount of work. As a white dude from Honolulu,* I am completely unfamiliar with the experience of a black girl growing up in Atlanta. I can research abstract data about the city, no problem, but the experience is much harder. What does she smell in the morning? What is the local gaming scene like? How does she feel when a cop car drives by?
Writing in the far future or in high fantasy* relieves much of this burden. When you’re constructing a fictional society, you need not worry about getting place-specific details wrong and throwing an informed reader out of the story. You could still write a bad setting, of course, but that’s what worldbuilding advice is for.
In a fictional setting, you can employ your more abstract knowledge in order to parallel issues in the real world. Your story might take place on board a space station orbiting Ganymede. That station has a poor sector, where the police are more threat than protection. Refugees from Io have it worst, as reactionary politicians rail against the refugees’ supposed stealing of jobs.
Populate your fictional setting with all manner of diverse characters. You might not be able to write the experience of an old woman in Tampico, Mexico, but you can certainly tell the story of a station administrator whose ancestors hailed from that city.
2. Write About Accepting Cultures
Stories about people facing adversity for their differences have a lot of potential, but they cannot be the only stories we tell. We must also tell stories of people who are different and go through their lives without being unduly hindered by it. For one, that’s the ultimate goal of any just society, and it’s important we see that in stories. For another, telling only one kind of story is boring.
But some commentators believe that if you include gay characters, or female characters, or non-binary characters, they must face some kind of prejudice, as they do in real life. To do otherwise, these commenters argue, would be unrealistic. Fortunately, this is not true.
It’s relatively easy to imagine a future society without such prejudice. Even if you don’t want a Roddenberry style bright future, surely humanity will be over such arbitrary differences as skin color and sexuality by the year 2200. We’ll move on to entirely new arbitrary differences, like if you were born on a ship or a space station!
Fantasy is the real sticking point. Fantasy often emulates the past, and the past is full of prejudice. Prejudice that makes our skin crawl. But contrary to popular belief, that prejudice was not universal. At many points in history, for example, homosexuality was widely accepted. Many cultures had positive views towards trans people way before the modern social justice movement. If you can imagine an ancient Greek city where two men might love without judgement, why not go further?
Fiction is not about playing statistical odds. If it were, most protagonists wouldn’t survive their first action sequence. Instead, good stories are about what could feasibly happen within a given framework. In a fantasy setting where humans are but one of many sapient species, it’s not at all unlikely that prejudice based on the melanin content of one’s skin would seem a laughable idea.
But what about conflict? If you take out prejudice against your character for being outside the dominant group, then where does the conflict come from? It would come from the same place if the protagonist was part of the dominant group. Dragons, mystical plagues, alien invasions: conflict is super easy to generate in spec fic; it need not be based on who your character is.
3. Draw Inspiration From Cultures Outside Western Europe
Building a culture from scratch is nearly impossible, so writers borrow from existing ones to create their settings. In the fantasy genre, the culture they borrow from is all too often medieval Western Europe. That’s why fantasy has the reputation of being little more than an endless parade of castles and plate mail.
We need more ways to inspire diversity in our settings, but here again we run into the fear of doing it wrong. What if we accidentally create a caricature of someone else’s culture? The solution here is to consider context. A culture’s traits are rarely arbitrary. Positive or negative, they arise for a reason.
If your fictional culture has a similar context to one in real life, then drawing inspiration shouldn’t cause any trouble. For example, the Water Tribe in Avatar: The Last Airbender is clearly based off the Inuit people of North America, in both their style of dress and the tools they use. The inspiration makes sense. The Water Tribe lives on similar terrain to the Inuit with a similar ecosystem. If your fictional culture lives in extreme cold and supports themselves largely by hunting, the Inuit are a good source of inspiration.
By the same token, if your society considers itself a meritocracy, then giving them something similar to the Chinese civil service exam is perfect. If they have a sprawling empire based on the subjugation of many smaller groups, then the Aztecs and Romans are great places to start.
Sometimes you’ll want to add something to your fictional society that its real life inspiration doesn’t have. This is fine, so long as it happens organically from your world. Looking at Avatar again, the Water Tribe has a unique style of kung-fu, but kung-fu isn’t something you’ll find among Inuit cultures in real life.* But in the Avatar world, magic is controlled through kung-fu, so of course the Water Tribe has their own style. And they use it to build massive cities that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.
4. Switch Your Character’s Race and Gender
For some authors, writing a diverse cast is second nature. The rest of us, however, still end up with far too many characters who are white and male, from our protagonists down to our extras. This isn’t because we’re bad people, but because white dudes are our assumed default, and it’s easy to go along with that if we’re not careful.
Rather than beating ourselves up over this, the solution is often to go back and switch your characters’ traits. Keep a tally if you need to. Instead of asking, “Is there a reason for this character to be bisexual?” ask “Is there a reason for this character not to be bisexual?” Most of the time, you’ll find that the answer is no.
Some people are opposed to this tactic. They say that if you change your white male character into an Asian female, she will somehow lack an essential Asian-femaleness. It is true that you may have to account for different cultural factors when you change a character’s race, gender, sexuality, etc., but doing that isn’t so difficult. With most characters, you focus on a few key experiences that define them, so bringing those in line with their new identity is completely doable.
When switching a character to be outside the dominant group, don’t assume you need to make discrimination a big part of their story. Take the character of Grace from Southern Reach. She’s a black woman in a high-ranking position within the US intelligence community. Realistically, she would have endured all kinds of prejudice getting to where she is. But what’s important to the story is that she made it to her position and is determined to stop the protagonist from messing with her organization. That role would be the same if she were a white male. Southern Reach is full of diverse characters, which is one of many reasons you should read it.*
Changing a character is even easier if you’re using a far future or high fantasy setting. Remember: you decide the social prejudices of your setting. In your story, characters don’t need to face the same type of adversity they might in today’s world. Their gender, sexuality, religion, etc. are only essential to their roles if you decide that they are.
5. Use Geordi and Toph as Your Benchmark for Disability
Disability is one of the trickier aspects of diversity to tackle. While any effects a character’s race and gender might have are almost entirely social, disability is by definition something physical. This is just as true for characters with a mental illness as those who need a wheelchair. When writing about a disability you don’t have, the first step is to do some research. Fortunately, many youtube channels are hosted by people with disabilities, where they kindly explain everything from living in chronic pain to dealing with a damaged prosthetic limb.
Once you have a basic understanding of your characters’ conditions, the question is always how much it should affect their lives. A person’s disability does not define them; it is not everything that they are. But it is something they consider, more often in the cases of severe disabilities.
Toph Beifong from Avatar: The Last Airbender and Geordi La Forge from Star Trek: The Next Generation provide excellent guidelines. Both of these characters are blind, but their lessons can apply to most disabilities. In both cases, their disability does not define them. Toph does create the alias “Blind Bandit” as a marketing ploy, but it’s clear she does not think of herself purely in those terms.
Both characters have adaptations to cope with their lack of vision. Toph’s is vibration sensing; Geordi’s is his visor. In neither case does their adaptation erase their condition. Toph can’t read or see people when they aren’t in contact with the ground, but she can detect their presence in pitch blackness. Geordi can see the entire spectrum of light, but that means he’s never looking at something the same way his shipmates are. To him, a masterpiece painting is an interesting collection of x-rays and ultraviolet light.
Earthbending Master and Starfleet Officer alike are hindered by their disability on some occasions. In the Si Wong Desert, Toph discovers that sand blurs her vibration sense, allowing robbers to sneak up on her. Geordi’s visor sometimes malfunctions, leaving him in a bad spot. Both characters also have many stories that are not defined by their disability, nor is their disability the primary source of their power. Toph is a powerful bender, and Geordi is a talented engineer. Their abilities are independent from their blindness.
These two characters are good starting points when you’re wondering how much a disability should affect your characters. Watch their stories as part of your research. If nothing else, it gives you a reason to watch Avatar and Star Trek.
Avoid the trap epitomized by Netflix’s Daredevil. While an excellent show in many ways, it stumbles in its portrayal of the titular character. Daredevil pretends to be more impaired than he actually is. For many people with disabilities, who spend a lot of time and energy convincing others to take their condition seriously, this is infuriating.
Daredevil carries a cane he doesn’t need, and pretends that he can’t easily move around rooms, but his super senses mostly alleviate his blindness the same way Toph’s do. There’s no in-story reason for him to pretend. It’s not as if anyone would say, “Matt Murdock can easily navigate rooms he’s never been in, so he must be Daredevil!” Instead, pretending to be more impaired than he is makes people suspicious of him. All he would have to do is tell people his eyesight is bad enough that he can’t read, the one real difficulty he deals with, and there’d be no issue.
6. Make Singular They Your Friend
Ah, pronouns, our greatest foe. Well, maybe not our greatest foe but certainly the most annoying. For many, many people, “he” is still an acceptable default pronoun. To those people, I introduce the concept of women. Look them up. You probably know some.
Obviously, assuming male with “he” is a bad idea. But conventional English doesn’t give us many options. Alternating “she” and “he” as the default can get confusing. Don’t even get me started on using “he or she” constantly. Plus, that completely discounts all the people who identify as neither he nor she.
Thankfully, we have “they.” When used as a singular pronoun, “they” does not assume a gender. That makes it great for any time when you don’t know a person’s gender or if they* are outside the gender binary. Some people object that this isn’t proper grammar. That’s technically correct, but so what? Language changes. That’s what it does. Singular “they” will become proper grammar once the rules catch up with how people already talk.
That’s right, I said how they already talk. Most people use singular “they” without ever thinking about it: “Someone left their car keys here. I hope they come back before the store closes.” Sound familiar? It’s only when you specifically ask people to use “they” that it feels weird. And the best part is that it stops feeling weird once you do it for a while.
But doesn’t singular “they” cause confusion between the individual and a group? It can, but pronoun confusion is something we’ve always dealt with. If you’ve ever read a scene with two women or two men in it, you know what I mean. How do you know which character “she” is referring to? The author provides context so you know, and it’s the same with singular “they.”
Singular “they” has momentum. Many organizations, including the Washington Post,* have adopted it. While some argue we should use an entirely new pronoun like “xe,” none of those have caught on. It’s much easier to use a word we already have than get people to take up an entirely new one. Singular “they” hasn’t quite penetrated editing classes yet, but it’s only a matter of time.
7. Don’t Keep Diversity in Your Head
Spoiler: The end of Legend of Korra.
Sometimes, we hear from an author that their story was meant to be far more progressive than it appeared. Some time ago, J.K. Rowling said that in her mind, Dumbledore was gay. It would have been huge for a children’s series in the 90s to have a gay character in such a prominent and respected role. Unfortunately, whatever Rowling imagined, Dumbledore was never shown to be gay in the books. If readers wish to imagine him as gay, that’s fantastic, but the series does not get credit.
A similar event occurred at the end of the Legend of Korra. The titular character, Korra, and her female friend Asami hold hands in a way that could be construed as romantic. The writers of the show later confirmed that’s what they meant. Again, that’s great, but if they had been a male and female character, they would have kissed. That’s the default way American TV shows indicate a romance is happening. Korra’s ending is ambiguous enough that we needed clarification from the writers.
If you want your story to be diverse, you must show that diversity. If you do not, readers will assume that your characters are part of the dominant group. That is, straight, cis, and white. This happens even if the readers themselves are not part of the dominant group!
You don’t have to make a big deal about the characters’ differences, but they must be in there. Work in some dialogue that casually mentions a girlfriend or boyfriend. If your character is asexual, make it clear that sex doesn’t interest them. Simply writing a character who doesn’t have sex isn’t enough.
Some authors worry that establishing diversity this way will sound awkward or forced, but it rarely does. Characters have little bits of plot-irrelevant dialogue all the time. Authors use these quips to establish who the character is. Think of all the times a Star Trek episode starts with Data talking about a new aspect of humanity he’s learned, even when it has nothing to do with the plot. Follow that model and you’ll be fine.
We might someday get to a point where the default assumption isn’t so strong, but until we do, full inclusion is the only option.
8. Avoid Problematic Physical Descriptions
If you’ve made it this far, you probably agree that describing diversity in your stories is important. But how do you do that? For gender, sexuality, etc., it’s as simple as stating it in dialogue. Describing race can be a bit trickier, especially if you’re writing in a high-fantasy setting as I previously suggested. You can’t tell the reader a character is East Asian when there is no East Asia in your story.
Authors often fall back into problematic physical description when trying to bring race across. Describing East-Asian eyes is where many stories fall, and you should avoid it as a rule. Terms like “almond shaped” and “tilted” are not only inaccurate,* they’re often used as slurs. So none of that, please.
Instead, naming conventions will bring across what ethnicity your story is paralleling quite nicely. Thanks to the internet, it’s very easy to research naming conventions in other cultures. You can also find long lists of real people from those cultures, just to be sure you’re creating a name that actually works.
You can also use clothing, customs, religion, etc. to indicate what real life group your characters hail from. With the internet, getting a general knowledge of most other cultures is easy! You need not be an expert in the culture you’re paralleling, but you should know enough to avoid harmful stereotypes. Also, remember that cultures do things for a reason. Your samurai analogues are unlikely to have a tradition of mounted archery if your world has no easily tamed mounts.
Describing skin tone can also be thorny. Avoid food metaphors. Many people of color are tired of being compared to chocolate, coffee, and so on. Instead, it’s okay to simply state what color someone’s skin is. “Dark brown” is not a racist term. At the same time, when someone has European features, you can describe those too. Doing so helps erase the status of whiteness as a default, because you are deliberately calling attention to it instead of simply assuming. This will feel awkward at first, but it becomes natural with time.
I cannot tell you everything you need to know about writing diversity; I am still learning myself. What I can say is that starting off doesn’t have to be difficult. If you’re already a master of diverse writing, then by all means, attempt more advanced stories. Write in a contemporary setting about another person from halfway around the world discovering the truth about their people’s beliefs. If it’s well written, I want to read that story. But if you’re just starting off, these tips can free you from the paralyzing fear that you’ll do something wrong.
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