Worldbuilding

Eight Easy Tips for Writing a Diverse Story

Harmony Day by DIAC Images used under CC BY 2.0

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

Greek Cropped

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

For example, the Water Tribe does this because it's awesome.

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

As not if your warriors should be women, ask why they should not be. Ask not why your warriors should be women, but ask why they should not be women.

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

Toph Geordi

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

alternative-sexuality-symbol

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

This is great, but not enough. This is great but not enough.

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

These are not eyes. These are not eyes.

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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Comments

  1. Ian

    #7 is so important! It bothers me so much when writers come out after the fact and say, “Oh yeah (blank) was gay, totally.” It seems like such a cop-out to me.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      “That’s great, Author, but why didn’t you tell me when I was reading the book?”

  2. Daniel

    Okay, I don’t want to get too pedantic here, but I feel this needs mentioning:

    Unclear Phrasing: “Obviously, assuming male with ‘he’ is a bad idea.”

    Um, if you’re male, then you’re a ‘he’. That’s how it goes in a sexist language. I’m pretty sure you’re referring to the assumption that everyone is a straight white male, but that sentence was a head-scratcher.

    Fun fact: Singular ‘they’ has existed since (at least) Shakespeare.

    It has nothing to do with blurring the lines of gender. In fact, none of your usage in this article actually refers to an individual as ‘they’. There’s a reason for that; It’s confusing as hell to read:

    “Michael was having a bad day. They had tried welding doors, sentry guns, and what improvised poisons they could make, and none of it worked. Now they had to tell them all that they were going to die. This was a really bad day.”

    For the people who experience such great anxieties about having one pronoun or another, they (plural) can give themselves whatever they want as a linguistic niche to satisfy those anxieties. The inherent issue with this in fiction writing is that clarity is of utmost importance. If you write a story with someone who has these anxieties, that should be a focal point of those chapters with them in it. You could switch between he, she, and they, as long as it focuses so heavily on them that you -know- it’s them.

    Or, y’know, could just use their name or ‘you’, like most nonsexist languages do.

  3. James

    Why do people think “they” singular is confusing because there is also “they” plural, but nobody is confused by “you” singular and “you” plural?
    It’s the same thing! Only, one has been established in the language for so long that people don’t find it weird anymore. As soon as “they” singular gets wider usage, it will stop being weird too. That’s how languages evolve and change.

    (And it’s not grammatically incorrect to say singular “they” either, because as the article said, it’s also used when the gender of someone is not known or purposely kept secret)

  4. Kendra Michael

    I have been looking in to the culture, history and religion of India as inspiration for something I am writing. The research process has taught me so much. I learn new things all the time.

  5. TheHoundHalf

    Although I think a lot of this is pretty much on point (disagree with some, agree with most) I seriously disagree with the idea that you should pillage naming conventions to create/foster quick cultural allusions.

    I’m not saying it doesn’t work – it does – but as an alternative for finding a genuinely interesting way to describe someone’s appearance or parallel cultural background, it falls short. It’s the kind of thing that leads readers to assuming things like ‘oh, so they’re basically the space Chinese’ and then turning their brains off to any nuances that you might bring with that. It’s lazy writing and it encourages lazy reading.

    Sorry if this comes off as too critical (I really did enjoy most of the piece), but while building and subverting expectations based on names has a place, I certainly don’t think it should be considered as a standard alternative.

  6. Daniel

    This is a really good article, the only criticism I have is in regards to the Legend of Korra. I completely, 100% agree with you that the ending wasn’t enough, it was too ambiguous, but the fault for that doesn’t fall to the creators. Nickelodeon was VEHEMENTLY against letting them do even as much as they did, to the point where, as you said, they had to confirm it out of canon (although Brian DID do some canon art a few months after the series ended of Korra and Asami in a more obviously romantic setting). They WANTED to do more with the ending, they simply weren’t allowed to.

  7. Bob the Lion

    I know this article is from a few months ago, but “Dumbledore wasn’t gay in the books” is my personal fandom bugbear so I’m going to say my bit anyway.

    As soon as I got to the right point in the series, it was immediately clear to me that Dumbledore was in love with Grindelwald, who didn’t love him back but was perfectly content to use his feelings to manipulate him. It was so clear to me that I wondered if I was just projecting and seeing things that weren’t there. JKR’s announcement was just confirmation of what I already knew.

    Now, if you went into the scenes with those two with the assumption that Dumbledore was straight, there might not be enough there to change your mind. But if you went in with an open mind, it’s pretty clear.

    I think JKR’s choices around Dumbledore’s sexuality make sense from a storytelling perspective. I think she made him gay because it made sense for the character, not because she made a conscious choice to make the HP books more inclusive. And she revealed the information in a way that made sense in the context of the story and what kind of person Dumbledore was.

    If she had wanted to be more inclusive re: gay characters, Ron would have been a good choice since there’s a documented link between birth order and sexuality (seriously, the more older brothers a guy has, the more likely it is that he’ll be gay). It wouldn’t have substantially changed the story since while Ron does get into romantic relationships, they’re all secondary in importance to his friends and family. I don’t count the epilogue because duh.

    tl;dr I think it’s fair to criticize JKR for not being more visibly inclusive but it’s not fair to say Dumbledore being gay wasn’t in the books just because you didn’t notice it.

  8. Jessica Kazeno

    I’m kind of wrestling with the race thing when it comes to inclusivity in my story. You see, the two lead characters are blond-haired, blue-eyed, pale-skinned men (though granted, one of them is either bi or gay). However, their culture is drawn from several places, including Japan (especially their religion, based on Shintoism).

    The other main character looks Japanese except he’s 6′ 2″ and has red eyes. I don’t know as much about his culture yet, but it is very different from my two leads’ culture. Much more advanced technology, for starters.

    The thing is, these three characters (and counterparts who have the same soul & appearance but who’ve grown up in different circumstances) have been in my head for years, and I’ve grown close to them in their current form, including their physical appearance. It feels wrong inside to take my leads and change their appearance, but part of me is afraid of offending people by making it look like “great, here’s another story where the lead characters are conveniently blond white guys.”

    Uh, I’m going to lay my cards out on the table here: these three characters are based on characters from my favorite manga, Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle. Although, one of them barely comes up in the original, so almost all of his characterization has been my own extrapolation.

    Ironically, in the original manga, the blond guys are treated as the stereotypical foreigners, from a faraway land based on medieval Europe, and the other characters are from “normal” cultures based more on Japan.

    I’d like some feedback on this issue, if y’all don’t mind. Thanks for the article and the site.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Well, first thing to keep in mind is that being tall doesn’t preclude one from being Japanese, so I don’t think you have anything to worry about on that front.

      I’ve never been particularly attached to my character’s appearance, except as it plays into issues of social justice and representation, so I’m not sure how helpful I can be here. My solution would just be to change what the characters look like, but that might not work for you. I don’t think you’ll offend anyone by having white protagonists. There’s nothing wrong with having white protagonists, the issue is just that we’re currently over saturated with white protagonists, so at worst your story might get a “okay, more white protagonists, I’ve seen this before.” Making them Shintoists might be more problematic. Again, the issue isn’t that white people can’t be Shintoists, but that it feels like taking a piece of Japanese culture without wanting any Japanese characters. If there were more Japanese characters it probably wouldn’t be a big deal. If you can’t change what the characters look like, I think you should probably change the religious element just to be on the safe side.

      But I still think changing what they look like is the easiest option.

      • Jessica Kazeno

        Thank you for your feedback. I have a couple followup questions, if that’s okay. Since my Japanese-looking character’s culture is not very Japanese, what cultures or aspects of cultures should I avoid? (For example, China, Korea, other places with recent bloody conflicts with Japan?)

        Also, since my blond characters’ culture is a mix of different cultures (Amish being a big one, but also with a Shinto-like religion (only if I keep it, of course)), what would be some more cultures/aspects I should avoid borrowing for their country?

        There is a third culture that is explicitly based on various rich nations in the real world, so I will probably be borrowing mainly from industrialized Japan, industrialized America, etc. Anything I should watch out for?

        I’m sorry for bombarding you with so many questions. Thank you for your time. Glad to have found this website.

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          Those are good questions, Jessica, but I don’t think I have time to do them justice. If you’re interested in this kind of indepth feedback on your work, ordering a consultation from our services page is the best way to go.

          • Jessica Kazeno

            Thank you very much.

  9. Isaiah

    Asexuality is a lack of sexual attraction, not a lack of interest in sex. There are asexual people who have a sex drive and enjoy sex, just as there are those who are indifferent or repulsed by the idea.

  10. Int

    Once when I was a little kid I was reading a book where a character’s eyes were described as “almond-shaped”. I asked my mom what shape almonds were, and she showed me. I was like, “But all eyes are shaped like that. So why does it specifically mention that her eyes are almond-shaped?”

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