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I am writing a military sci-fi novel about an international military force facing aliens. My cast is very diverse: the MC is Yemenite-Israeli, his love interest is German, his room-mates are from Georgia (the country - not the American state), Mexico and Ireland, the squad leader is Asian-American, and so on. I'm having a lot of fun writing it - the cultural differences are a wellspring of quirks, minor conflicts, unexpected common ground, etc.

However, I feel myself constantly under pressure to make it even more diverse: there's a little voice in my head that goes "there's no black character yet, there's no Muslim character yet" etc. I'm feeling it begins to affect my storytelling: I start to look for ways to insert "member of group such-and-such" instead of looking for what kind of character would advance the plot.

So, my question is two-fold: first, is it a problem is some group such-and-such remains unrepresented? And second, if I have an unpleasant character, and he's the only representative of group such-and-such, would that appear racist?

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    Not much to add to the answers list, seeing as they hit every point I wanted to make. So I'll just say it here. You can't represent EVERY aspect of humanity. It's not possible. I mean, "I haven't heard so much as one mention of Caribbean people. Let alone from my island." "And what about tri-racial people? We're so unappreciated. And you'd better get my specific brand of tri-racial, or I'll be SOOO OFFENDED." Stop catering to the easily offended. Write what you can write well, not what caters to the entitled. – Fayth85 Feb 27 '18 at 11:49
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    @Fayth85 Lack of representation is generally not offensive, just disappointing. Catering to the underrepresented is pretty honourable if you ask me. – sudowoodo Feb 27 '18 at 12:20
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    @sudowoodo, when done well an underrepresented character can be great, but if you're just throwing them in there to say "Hey look what I've done", it will not do anything to help the story. Better to be disappointed than have a useless and possibly offensive character. – Dan Clarke Feb 27 '18 at 13:06
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    @sudowoodo I think that making characters come from minority backgrounds instead of "defaulting" to white male characters is usually a good way of adding diversity to a story. But trying to check off as many minority groups as possible in a single story is not. That's what I think Fayth85 is trying to get at, too. – Kevin Feb 27 '18 at 16:08
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    @sudowoodo Kevin got it pretty well, but. Let me explain. I am a minority. I am a panromantic demisexual, tri-racial, bilingual, white-appearing trans woman. I'm also vegetarian, a geek and a nerd, a programmer, and a writer. Not to mention a nurse. The list can go on, too. I am not offended when someone like me isn't represented. I am offended when someone feels the 'need' to write someone like me and gets it wrong. If you're going to write something (character or otherwise) do it right, or get some help to do better. That's what I am getting at. – Fayth85 Feb 27 '18 at 16:50

11 Answers 11

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Diversity is not, and should not be, a box-ticking exercise. If you're inserting minority characters just for the sake of having them there, you're doing it wrong.

To address your specific questions:

Is it a problem is some group such-and-such remains unrepresented?

Nope.

I am a firm believer that bad representation is worse than no representation at all. As a bisexual, not once have I come away from a work of fiction thinking "That was good and all, but I'm offended that there were no bisexuals in it". I have come away from works feeling offended that the only bi character was a Depraved Bisexual (looking at you, RWBY Volume 5).

I can't say nobody will get offended if you don't include a specific group in your story. But a lot more people will get offended if you include someone of that group and they turn out horribly stereotyped, or are just there as window decoration and don't actually contribute anything. That last point is what I mean by "inserting minority characters just for the sake of having them there" - they need to actually be relevant to the story, and not just "token X". (See also: the Bechdel test.)

If I have an unpleasant character, and he's the only representative of group such-and-such, would that appear racist?

Only if you do it wrong. You need to make it explicit that their unpleasantness is totally unrelated to whatever minority group they happen to be a part of, and again, you need to avoid any stereotypes that would make it look like you're demonising that particular group. Again, if your villain just happens to be a Muslim, and his motive isn't connected to his religion, you're going to offend a lot less people than if they're a Muslim terrorist who wants to wage holy war on the Western infidels.

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    +1 for You need to make it explicit that their unpleasantness is totally unrelated to whatever minority group. In the words of the late but always great sir Pratchett: 'Just because someone's a member of an ethnic minority doesn't mean they're not a nasty small-minded little jerk.' – xDaizu Mar 1 '18 at 15:18
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If you try to cram every possible mix into your story it will look like tokenism. Yes you could try to fit in a left handed, dyslexic blonde haired Australian Aboriginal who happens to be a lesbian, but what's the point? You'll never be able to fill them all out as real characters so it's a wasted opportunity.

With a not nice person who is the only representative of their group, it may be a bit more of a problem. The trick here is to avoid making them look like a stereotypical bad guy and race/religion. Give them some real personality and reasons for what they do. Make them go beyond just their race so that people stop caring about it.

You may get a few complaints from the constantly offended, but if your limited cast of characters shine the vast majority of readers won't care.

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    Plus, not every character needs to have their race/religion/skin colour/country of origin explicitly stated. If "Brian" is the newbie in the squad, shaking like a leaf, jumping at every sounding creak or shifting shadow and muttering prayers under his breath in a constant litany which murmers along like a stone-laced brook, then do you really need to assign him a skin colour or specific religion? (Especially not if he dies a mere 4 pages later!) – Chronocidal Feb 28 '18 at 14:22
  • @Chronocidal yep, they're background characters for a reasons. – Dan Clarke Feb 28 '18 at 19:47
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I think humans are more than well-represented in your story so far. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who eventually crammed pretty much all of Europe plus Asia into a Sherlock Holmes story at some point, could only have so many characters in a single story. The more characters you add, the more development you need (even if the characters are minor, there will be some level of change to keep track of over the course of the story). If you think you can handle it, go for it! Just don't push yourself too far because you are worried about too little diversity. You already have plenty.

In answer to your second question, I think most audiences are capable of separating an antagonistic character from their race--unless this character is overtly stereotypical or in poor taste. It this case, you might get some negative attention for that character.

  • A good point. Diversity is not special thing which applies to humans only. OP should consider the same amount of diversity for any fellow alien. – Eugene Mar 1 '18 at 15:20
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It may feel you're overdoing it.

I don't think you need to represent every facet of humanity in there, you have enough it seems already. Overdoing it may result in each character being underdeveloped, strained to the point that it could feel like you did it just to represent them. So far, you've got a pleasant roster of multicultural characters in your story.

An unpleasant character cannot represent an entire race.

I don't think it would appear racist. It may appear racist if he's just plain unpleasant for the sake of being unpleasant. Fleshing this unpleasant person out, showing us his background, motivations, etc. can alleviate any stereotype. 2D representations, to me, are what causes stereotyping but allowing this character to breathe and stretch out their personality allows us to rip out the tag of being this group and identify this character as his own.

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I can tell that you've seen the risks, and as Dan says the big Thing To Avoid is the appearance of tokenism. It's worth mentioning that the diversity so far looks to be national rather than ethnic or religious, but maybe you already have that covered. Interestingly, we don't know from the first paragraph description that you don't have a black or Muslim character - I know some black Irishmen, and I'd love to read about an Islamic Israeli.

The unpleasant character? It's a contrived device, but they could share certain of the nationality/ethnic group/religion characteristics with another character, and have significant philosophical differences. That way it would be clearer that you were talking about a German, and not The German (for example).

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You have to work to play against stereotypes (without using another), because readers recognize stereotypes (even if they are not part of that group) and many of us are offended at the writing, on our own behalf or on behalf of others. Or in the modern world (I'm from the USA) often on behalf of people we love: Extended family and friends can include any race, sexual orientation, religious status, political party, or social philosophy. Just because somebody is not black does not mean they don't get it.

First, make sure your character breaks the stereotype of their race or ethnicity; you have to make them an individual.

Second, make sure you don't just make them some other stereotype: A black man adopted and raised by rich white parents, never emotionally wounded or angered by racism directed against themselves. If he fits the stereotype of an upper middle class white guy, that is tokenism too: You have an "Oreo" characters (named after the cookie), black on the outside, white on the inside.

There are other switched stereotypes. A gay man should not be portrayed as if they are a female mind, a lesbian should not be portrayed as if they are a male mind. There are plenty of gay men with manly traits, and plenty of lesbians that are girly. Even though physical brain organization is different in males and females, and (lifelong self-identified) homosexuals show clinical signs of having the opposite gender organization, remember they grew up with different hormones in different bodies in a gender-split culture, so each is their own unique mix of male and female traits (as are most of us).

Likewise, I have met (through the atheist club on my campus, which allowed anonymous attendance) a female raised Muslim that was an atheist.

Third, don't make them perfect. Like other characters, you need to give them strengths and weaknesses; they can be the best at something, but don't make them perfect in every sense.

They need flaws (bad traits they can work to overcome) and limitations (things they cannot do even if they wanted to) like everybody else, or they aren't relatable or real. And the flaw is not modesty about how great they are, it needs to be something that can in some way defeat them or deny them their goals or happiness. In figuring that out, make sure the limitations are not drawn from stereotypes, either; for example women that don't have physical strength, or courage, or need a man to grant them power.

  • One thing to keep in mind that there are actually people IRL who adhere to switched stereotypes, and because of that can rarely identify with characters. For example, a couple of weeks ago, someone on Twitter pointed out to me that as a butch lesbian, she was having trouble finding balanced representations of butch lesbians in media, because authors either avoided the stereotype entirely or completely adhered to it. But it was very hard for her to find fiction which managed to provide a character that's a butch lesbian without overdoing it. – Nzall Feb 27 '18 at 13:06
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    +1 Though I must say different countries and societies can look at specific 'ethnic cultures' differenty. I've got a black cousin (white mum, black dad) who grew up in a heavily white town and for most of my life I was convinced that the only difference between white and black people was skin colour (and traditions stemming from their family's point of origin, exactly as it happens for every other person no matter their skin colour). I believed that to write a black character, was simply to make a 3rd dimensional character with black skin. (cont.) – Sara Costa Feb 28 '18 at 11:33
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    In conclusion, when I write characters in a modern, urban setting, I tend to focus above all on who they are. Of course prejudice will make some of those characters more wary or sensitive or even bitter, but not every black person will suffer prejudice growing up... at least not more than many other people (I was mocked for being too thin, a friend was mocked for having freckles... and I mean bully-verge mocking). I choose to focus on their humanity above all. After all, it's not the skin that makes us different (in essence). It's the way we treat each other that makes us feel different. – Sara Costa Feb 28 '18 at 11:40
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    @SaraCosta I agree, my point is that if a writer wants to convince black people in general that they are fairly represented by characters in the book, that character must share something in common with their life experience that isn't superficial, like skin color or curly hair. Being black in America has consequences, and to me they appear to be almost entirely negative ones, and if the character experiences NONE of them: They do not seem real, and are a token. Even if you think that happens in real life, that will be their judgment. IRL is not an argument that works in fiction. – Amadeus Feb 28 '18 at 11:42
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    @Amadeus: I completely agree with you, but I seem to have muddied my point and I apologise for that. I meant that a writer must be aware of the setting. If the story is set in the modern day USA, the 'consequences' you refer to must be there, there's no way out. But if the story is set in a futuristic military setting, then the prejudice can come in different and softer flavours, if they come at all. Still, the writer will have to make clear that the human society in the tale has different standards than (eg.) the modern day USA. – Sara Costa Feb 28 '18 at 12:04
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I'm facing a similar issue with the book I'm writing. As a member of more than one minority group, diversity in literature is very important to me. But at the same time, I'm very conscious of the dangers of doing it wrong.

I think the key question is "How many different ethnicities can you write well?" Do you know enough about the Yemanite-Israeli experience to do it justice? How about being black? Or Muslim? If you aren't a member of that community, and you haven't lived with them, and you don't have close friends of that group, and you haven't done extensive research or interviews of people from that background --or at least read work written by people of that background --then what are you writing, other than your own stereotypes of what a person of that background might be like?

I've come to realize over the years that good writing takes hard work, and cutting corners always shows. For too long people have assumed they can write characters of any ethnicity without actually understanding what makes those people's experience different. For me, however, speaking as a (multiracial) black viewer, I can nearly always tell when there are actual black people on the staff for a tv show writing for the black characters, as opposed to people who merely think they know what black people are like. So my answer to you is to put the character in if and only if you're willing to put the effort and research in to make those characters real, three-dimensional and authentic, whether they are heroes or villains. But get a beta-reader from that culture to check your work.

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    +1, "If you aren't ... then what are you writing, other than your own stereotypes of what a person of that background might be like?" Ironically that's also what leads to characters being "underrepresented" - because a number of people don't fit any of those criteria and aren't willing to put in the research effort. As the saying goes "write what you know". – Pharap Feb 28 '18 at 5:31
  • Psst: it's Yemenite-Israeli, not the other way round. "Israelites" usually refers to the Black Hebrew Israelite communities. They are Afro-American communities, some of them have moved to Israel, but none have anything to do with Yemen. Yemenite Israelis, on the other hand, are Jews, descendants of the immigrants of the Yemenite Jewish communities, who now reside within the state of Israel. Other than that, I appreciate your comment. – Galastel Mar 5 '18 at 0:28
  • @Galastel - Fixed. But it illustrates why I would have no business putting a character with that background in my own book, at least not without doing some intensive research first.... – Chris Sunami Mar 5 '18 at 14:14
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Seconding all the answers that said there is a too much in everything.

What you could to do satisfy your inner demon is to put these thoughts of you in-world. The characters could have a conversation where one of them says "look at us, we could be a poster for diversity in the military." and another responds "won't pass the censors, we are lacking a black guy" then someone points out it is supposed to be "person of color" or wherever you want to take that talk.

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I'm writing and rewriting a book. My characters are of different ethnic backgrounds. When I started, I had my own concerns. Are they representative for their ethnic, or social groups? Do I need to put a black guy there? As the story came into being, I needed to add motivations for the actions of my characters.

Motivation had to come from somewhere: character traits, personal experiences, relationships with other characters, etc. The personal experiences were the easiest. A guy from my own ethnic group has a 99% probability to have been born in a small, dirty and crowded city with lots of corruption and poverty. The hardest was with the personality traits. How do you take that environment? Will you become like your environment, will you adapt, will you totally reject it? Depending on your answer, you will get a different guy every time.

You could complicate your character further, by adding some hobbies, or unusual experiences in the mix. Suddenly your black guy is not just Jacob, the guy with the banjo, but a real person, someone who likes poetry and mathematics, but works as a car salesman, because that's were life pushed him. I think, as long as you put effort in constructing the characters, they would not be representative for their ethnic group. If you try too hard to make them representative, you will end up being inconsistent and you will stereotype. That can only work if you don't need to develop your characters at all.

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Diversity cannot be covered by breadth - instead use depth.

There's only one book in this world that has a chance of representing everyone who deserves to be represented, and that's the phone book. And even that fails miserably.

Instead what you have to do is imply depth. You have to make your reader feel like they have a window into an incredibly diverse world, and if only they could stick their heads in and look around they would be able to see all the diversity that couldn't fit on the page.

A good way to do this is ambiguity. If the only physical feature of the waiter mentioned is their curly dark hair... well, that gives the reader some information about what their ethnicity probably is, but the reader can't know for sure. And the childhood friend mentioned in passing name Omar has a high likelyhood of being Arabic and probably Muslim, but they could just as easily be anything else.

This applies to characters as well as the world itself. The harder it is to fit the characters into a few small boxes, the less like they will feel like stereotypes of those boxes.

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Don't cram in unnecessary characters to add diversity. Instead, add characters where the story needs them, but create those nescesarry characters with the diverse cast of planet Earth kept in mind as a source of options for those characters.

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