15

This is not quite the same question as Writing Diversity because it's not my intention to focus too much on diversity for my story, nor am I struggling with new ways to represent more cultures/minorities/ethnicity. It's also not quite the same as Avoiding Tokenism because my concern isn't with how the "more diverse" characters get written.

I'm setting an outline for a story I came up with. It's very, very bare-bones, so I'm still coming up with characters and plots. However, after some thinking I realized that, given the time and place the story takes place in, there will be little to no diversity between the characters. By that I mean most of the characters will be of the same race, sexual orientation, religion and origin place, following the same culture and customs.

Thing is, this doesn't fall right with me, as it makes the world seem lacking of variance. I also don't want for it to feel like I'm against diversity of any kind. Likewise, I'm making a conscious effort not to include characters of specific categories for the sake of diversity exclusively, as to not tokenize them or make them feel out of place for the time and location of the story.

How can I include diverse characters in a story with a setting unfavorable for them, without making them feel out of place or serving as tokens?

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    You can write about a society which is generally composed of one predominant race, religion, etc. But all societies have contact with outsiders at some point. If you don't show how your society interacts with outsiders, then you're missing a step in portraying your society. If you're writing historical fiction, then you can research these things. If you're crafting a fantasy society, then you get to answer them yourself. (And if you're writing about a society comprised of 100% heterosexuals, then you are no longer writing about humans.) – WolfeFan May 4 '18 at 21:32
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    If the world you're creating doesn't feel natural to you, why would it work for any reader? Since you're aware of the problem, just keep it in the back of your mind as the story unfolds and if at the end the diverse characters have materialised, keep them… Otherwise you’re looking at something like James Belushi’s quite watchable Sahara imdb.com/title/tt0114324 who’s major failing as an updated remake strikes me, anyway, as how obviously it drags in diverse characters for the sake of diversity. – Robbie Goodwin May 5 '18 at 16:43
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    @FranzDrollig I disagree with the notion that such questions should not be asked. By asking this question, the OP does not give up their right to completely ignore any advice they receive. Even if everyone says "don't do it", the discussion may spark an idea of how to work around all the arguments not to include minorities. – Llewellyn May 5 '18 at 18:09
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    It's sad that today merely writing a story without diversity can get you labelled as anti-diversity – Callum Bradbury May 6 '18 at 12:31
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    Because one is a choice made by an individual, which could be for any reason they choose, the other is forcing someone to write in a particular manner, according to a philosophy they may not subscribe to. – Callum Bradbury May 7 '18 at 20:25
25

You can't.

You have a cast of characters that will work for your story. Now you see that those characters are not as diverse as today's media makes you feel is necessary. So you want to change something about the cast that you already decided is good for your story.

This is Tokenism.

If the setting doesn't normally favour having characters with a different background and you don't want for them to feel out of place then the only way is to have their background be integrated into the story in a useful way. For example you could show how discrimination in your world works as you say the setting is unfavourable for them.

Either there is a compelling reason for your character to have a different background that will allow you to tell your story or there isn't.


I am not trying to be pro-diversity or pro-conformity here. My view is that every writer should have the right to decide how their world works. If you set rules for your world you should abide by them - or change them. But asking how to get around your own rules is wrong and will not result in whatever you are trying to achieve.

Decide how your world is supposed to be. If you don't want it to be diverse don't write it diverse. If you want it to be diverse, write it diverse. But don't write the world not-diverse and then complain about not having diversity.

We are living in a society where diversity is a sensitive topic - which makes it all the more important to allow art to be however the artist wishes for it to be. Restricting everyone to include diversity is the same as restricting everyone to not include diversity - it's censorship.

You state that your setting is unfavourable for diverse characters. You therefore created the rule for your world that diversity is rare. It may be there, but it's rare. You set the rule - you should abide by it. Forcing a diverse character into this setting will look weird. Because you dropped that character in without any justification - after all you explicitly had a rule in place that said this shouldn't happen.

If you want your story to be more diverse you need to change the base setting. Set different rules. Allow for diversity. Then you can freely add diversity without it becoming Tokenism.

To reiterate: Either there is a reason for your character to have a different background that will allow you to tell your story or there isn't.

To expand: If you want to have a more diverse crew you need a more diverse story, which means you have to work on the rules of your world again. But with the current world you can't.

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    I hate to downvote a Secespitus answer but I have to disagree. Part of the writer's job is to engage with the world, and a world without diversity is itself inauthentic. It takes a lot more work to do it well then to do it poorly, but again, that's part of the work of a writer. – Chris Sunami May 7 '18 at 14:08
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    @ChrisSunami The OP said that their specific world is written in a way that the specific setting of this book in their world wouldn't favour diversity. That doesn't mean that there is no diversity in the world, just that in this part there normally is no diversity. If I am writing about a little village in medieval Europe or something like that and postulate that basically everyone is of the same race/... and my story is supposed to work that way I can't simply say "Oh, and then there was this black transgender boy with only one arm" without any additional reasoning for their role in my story. – Secespitus May 7 '18 at 14:18
  • I am also not sure what you are getting at with "Secespitus answer". Who answers shouldn't play any role on StackExchange. While you are right that a writer is supposed to engage in the world not every story involves the whole world. Often we only look through a very narrow window/magnifier/... If that part and/or timeframe of the world is not supposed to contain a certain element it would be poor to add the element, just for the sake of having it instead of fulfilling a role. Everyone may know about other religions/.., but encountering them on a daily basis is not necessarily the case – Secespitus May 7 '18 at 14:18
  • All I meant by "Secespitus answer" is that I typically agree with your answers and am more likely to upvote them than downvote them. I can't say that about everyone. // I would say your answer is "technically" correct but unhelpful. It basically says "yes, you have this problem, and no, don't try to fix it." // As other answers have pointed out there is plenty of diversity even in monocultural environments. It's just as unnatural to suppress that in your writing as it is to shoehorn it in. – Chris Sunami May 7 '18 at 14:42
  • Even your flippant "black transgender one-armed boy in medieval Europe" isn't as farfetched as you might think. He certainly could be one-armed, even in an all-white village. He certainly could also be gender-nonconforming, although that would be experienced and expressed quite differently back then than now. And he might be conceptualized as racially "other," even if the categories don't match up with modern ones. For instance, the so-called "Moors" were quite a dominant presence in Medieval Europe, particularly in Spain. And the English thought of the Irish as a "different race." – Chris Sunami May 7 '18 at 14:50
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I agree with Secespitus, but I fear he left something out.

Diversity isn't shoehorning people in (he correctly points out this is Tokenism, and in its most invasive and poisonous forms), it's showing that there is more to the world than (for example in Western literature) straight white males.

But this has to arise naturally. If you're setting your story in 19th century America, in the well-to-do circles, then odds are you won't encounter many black people (and if you do they are in supporting roles at best).

Edit, for clarification on roles of black people in 19th century America.

While it is true that, depending on where in America, you will be almost surrounded by black people, 'presence' and 'spotlight' are not and should not be conflated. For example. If the scene (or story) is set on a plantation in the south, then not writing in at least a black person is ridiculous. But you then face the strict ethical and social norms of the day.

Meaning. Black people on plantations in the south of the US at the time, worked the land. This is 'different' from slavery, in that they were paid to do so, but were tricked into essentially working for so little that nothing ever changed. Some were still kept on as 'house servants', but really the divide isn't likely to have been much different from slavery days, and treatment hadn't improved.

So, what I am trying to say, is that the social norms between whites and blacks of the time will not have drastically improved from the days of slavery. This is why lynchings and racial segregation were so ubiquitous of the time.

I, in no way, shape, or form, wish to portray this as right (in the sense that it is how it should be or should have been done). But as far as I am aware, the above description is factually accurate.

The thing is, and this is where people often stray into the mist, they are there. They exist in the world, and people know about them (even in 1st century Europe, people were well aware of people with different skin colour because of slave trade coming in from the middle east, and especially because of Rome conquering so much of the then known world.

The best people can ask is why you would set the story in a setting with a monolithic culture, but fact is these niches do exist.

What needs to be said is that no matter the setting, the situation, the location, diversity is always present. It's just that in some settings they would be more underground.

Examples. Racial minorities I've already covered above. So how about mental illness? Even in a time before the current diagnosis exists, the illness was still there, they just called it something else.

Schizophrenia (hearing voices, for example) was considered possession by demons or signs of witchcraft. They were often burned at the stake for this.

Porphyria (sensitivity to sunlight for medical reasons) was linked to vampirism, because the person seemed to 'burn' in sunlight.

Redheads were thought to turn into vampires upon death (and were also often considered witches and also burned at the stake).

Hairy people were considered to be werewolves, though curiously mostly women were killed in werewolf trials.

Homosexuality (bisexuality, etc) was considered differently in different cultures, but mainstream Western civilization lived by Judaeo-Christian standards, and therefore it was punishable by death more often than not. Especially under Imperial (English) rule. But there are many that were gay, and people knew about it just the same. They were part of the discourse, even if scorned for it.

Trans people have been around too, though not readily understood and often conflated with 'gay', even back then. Less talked about, and again conflated with gay culture for much of history.

So, my point, is that even if you don't explicitly say they are different, understand there will always be outliers in every setting. There's no such thing as a monolithic homogeneous culture. Some agree, some don't. Some fit in, some don't. It's the way of the world.

Diversity, in its purest form, simply acknowledges this and sees people for how they are: diverse.

Even in a setting with Caucasians, you will get some racists, some who are anti-racism, and most who just aren't invested enough to care. You will get some effeminate males, and some masculine females. And you will get a fringe culture within the totality. That's how human beings were, are, and always will be.

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    "That's why there's only like what... 2% of the world's populous is redhead?" I believe it's the other way around; the rarity of redheadedness caused it to be viewed with suspicion, as it was seen as something strange. – JAB May 4 '18 at 22:22
  • @JAB Perhaps. It's certainly possible. The point was more about the vampirism thing, so I don't mind being wrong about that. (and to be fair, I was more expecting someone to point out that redhead was mentioned under mental illness... so being wrong on the scarcity is a step up) – Fayth85 May 4 '18 at 22:57
  • This is not the reason redheads are not particularly common... not at all. It comes from genetic drift with very little negative selection. It has nothing at all to do with discrimination. – forest May 6 '18 at 8:17
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    This is generally a quite good answer, but it falls into a familiar trap. To pick on your first example: Black people were actually ubiquitous in well-to-do 19th century American circles, they were just "invisible." They did all the work that enabled their wealthy employers to live a genteel life. A 19th century American narrative that leaves out that reality is a whitewashed vision of the past. – Chris Sunami May 7 '18 at 14:12
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    @ChrisSunami I'm not saying it does. I'm saying that if you write from the perspective from the white, male, well-to-do 19th century American elite, you will not get the full experience of the black community of the same era. I'm not saying it's right, I'm not saying it's acceptable. I'm saying that is what the reality is (and by calling it out, I hope to draw attention to it so people know to cut that out). Because if society realises there's a problem, people can start taking steps to correct it. That is the totality of my message. – Fayth85 May 7 '18 at 15:56
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People are always aware of the diversity of their own setting.

If your story is set in a small town in Tudor England, you might see them as all straight white christian english, but they won't see it that way at all. The small (to outsiders) differences become magnified, and having some characteristics is essentially prohibited so people pretend to have others.

If your story is set 750 years in the future, maybe no one cares about race but there is pervasive discrimination based on your chosen programming language. So everyone could be homogeneous from the present perspective while being diverse from their own perspective.

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    I was going to say something like this, particularly in relation to Charles Dickens. His characters may not have a lot of diversity in today's sense of the word, but they are undeniably diverse. It's just that the diversity isn't in race, it's in class. – DLosc May 4 '18 at 21:34
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    I'm pretty sure "pervasive discrimination based on your chosen programming language" happens now. – barbecue May 4 '18 at 21:54
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    @DLosc Not just class, but also regional differences. The differences Dickens shows between England and France are at least as large as those between people from different areas of England. – Graham May 5 '18 at 0:30
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    When the waves of Italian and Irish immigrants came to America in the 19th and early 20th centuires,, there was lots of prejudice, tribalism, etc. To them, if you had, say, a softball team whose members came from different European countries, we'd say "a white boy's club", but in their setting everyone would say "Wow -- its the fricking United Nations!" – Shawn V. Wilson May 6 '18 at 3:50
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    @barbecue We must secure the existence of our syntax, and a future for C compilers! – forest May 6 '18 at 8:21
6

Shoehorning diversity in may not work, but what you can do is learn to see diversity rather than "unsee" it. While it may seem more authentic to envision places of the past as monoracial and monocultural, many of them were actually more diverse in reality than in the popular imagination. The recently discovered "Ivory Bangle Lady" was a wealthy black woman who lived in Ancient Britain all the way back in Roman times (and she is not thought to have been an anomaly). My own ancestors were part of a (still existing) mixed-race community in rural Ohio, established just after the American Revolutionary War. There were Portuguese missionaries in Japan in the 1500s.

There are also places that had considerable and significant diversity of a kind that can be invisible to a modern observer because it doesn't match the way we conceptualize race and culture. For example, the various native ethnic groups in Kenya would all likely be described as "black Africans" by modern observers, but they traditionally had cultural and genetic differences as large as those between (for example) white Europeans and Asians. Similarly, religious diversity has largely been the rule, not the exception in many places around the world, across a wide span of time, except when other religions have actively been suppressed (and even those times have been susceptible to schisms and heresies).

So while there are certainly monocultural pockets in the world, it's not so difficult or unrealistic to picture at least a little diversity, even in the distant past, or in rural areas. You should be able to find at least one character who is from somewhere else, or has divergent ideas or customs (a traveling salesman or merchant perhaps, or a foreign bride brought back after the war). Failing that, there's almost no place that doesn't have one of the most fundamental kinds of diversity --the cultural differences between the rich and the poor. What you need to do is capitalize on the natural sources of diversity in your story, rather than introducing ones that don't fit.

5

The answer by Secespitus is correct, if you view writing as a form of art and the author as fulfilling their artistic vision.

But if you adopt the view of writing as part of the entertainment industry, the answer is

yes, you can!

Movie and tv scripts, for example, are constructed and rewritten countless times to fit a marketing strategy, and if you have a story about the Nazi national male soccer team, you better think hard how you get the black Jewish girl in that team, if that's what the studio boss thinks will sell.

So how do you do it?

Many environments aren't in fact as racially or otherwise uniform as they appear at a first glance. You just need to think outside the box.

For example, while the current view is that women have been excluded from managing positions in the past, women have led companies for hundreds of years before the women's movement. Queen Victoria was a business woman and stood at the head of several companies. Other noble women led the commercial activities of their houses. So if you have a 1950s company with a managing board of only men, insert a woman by making her the princess of the country.

Or, while women weren't allowed to vote in most countries in the past, some certainly had influence over their men. So if you need a woman get involved in politics in, say, present day Saudi Arabia, just have her married to a man who is progressive or submits to her and let her participate in politics indirectly through her dummy-voting husband.

In most stories you can give characters that don't belong to the in-group a role in your story in a similar way.

And if finding a loophole isn't possible, simply put them there.

Just recently I had a middle grade book in hand where a boy went to an all girl's school because it was the only school were he lived. That doesn't make complete sense, if you think it through, but often a pretense of a reason is enough.

This works best in humorous stories and Science Fiction, were you can insert a character through time travel or just place them were they shouldn't be for laughs. But you can do this in a serious manner as well.

The trick, how you do it, is simple: Just don't mention it. Readers will notice and think about it, but as long as you don't dwell on the fact they will take it in stride.

Have a female pope in your story, but do not say anything about it except her female name (and maybe her gender, just to make sure readers get it). Have a minor become President of the United States. If the other characters don't speak of it, the reader will assume that there must be some reason for it.

Of course this strategy works best, the less central your character and the less extreme the insertion. And of course this will change your story, but then that is what you are about: you are changing your story to allow someone where they cannot be, so be prepared that this will influence many other aspects of your story as well.

4

There are other ways to indicate diversity. here are a few ideas that might spark thoughts.

~ Indicate it through time. Certain practices were once common, but are no longer used. Sexual practices, eating preferences, etc.

~ Indicate it through literature. Have libraries or bookstores or letters or diaries - some such - documenting the diversity that does exist elsewhere. Show your story is not the extent of your world.

~ Indicate it through humor. Be clever. Come up with jokes that a character makes poking fun at the lack of diversity within your novel. not too on the nose, just a nod to the reader.

~ Indicate other levels of 'diversity.' Make the climate/weather go all over the place. Make personal habits (sleep cycles, socioeconomic status, etc) go all over the place. Have diversity of dress (miniskirts (or less) vs. the most conservative garb you can come up with.)

~ Have a character with an active dream life, and in this life, people have unusual qualities. Again, not too on the nose, but in a way that introduces the flavor you think you are missing.

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    I really like this answer, thank you! The MC does seek an escape from how their current world/life is dull and stale, while trying to keep them alike, so having their daydreams have more diversity would be a clever way to include diversity, while highlighting its lack thereof in the "real" world. I've never considered drawing attention to it that way. – HugoBDesigner May 4 '18 at 18:36
2

I cannot, for the life of me, think of any book that I've read where I thought, "Man, this book would have been so much better if the MC was black/lesbian/asexual." I've thought, "I wish this guy would man up," or "Oh, wow, this MC is such a snooze," or "This book sucks like a Dyson" plenty of times, however. I can safely say, no amount of diversity will save a bad book. At best, it's just adding sprinkles to a banana split.

It feels like you're more afraid of getting zapped for not be diverse enough rather than focusing on writing a good story. The problem with this kind of thinking is that one assumes said critics are also the consumers. From my experience and research, that's rarely the case.

If you're gearing for diversity, focus on the characters themselves. I read comics books, and the books that try to have as much skin deep diversity as possible utterly fail at making each player sound unique with their own set of thoughts and ideas and character, fielding their own troubling flaws and disbeliefs. In other words, make them sound like real people. For example, a pseudointellectual that talks in adverbs and purple prose; one who talks cute to everyone and everything, another that's very snide and condescending, and the like.

In the end, you should be only concerned about the story YOU want to write. The moment you start making allowances for unfounded concerns, that's the moment you lose sight of the goal. Should someone bring up, "This book needs more diversity," only then would I address it with the question, "Why?" Because divesity for the sake of diversity is really just playing a numbers game.

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