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(Edit: I feel like I should clarify, these are the only LGBT characters in the story, and the only characters whose sexualities are even touched on, and they are part of a larger group of people, about 300. This story occurs in America near a large city, so the racial makeup of this group is very mixed.)

(I've asked quite a few other questions about this story, lol.)

In my post-apocalyptic story, my MC, Eris, is Latina and queer, and her love interest, Caspian, is bisexual and adopted by a black lesbian named Ezrith (who was in love with his biological mother). Caspian is romantically interested in Leo, a Latino gay man who is in a relationship with Alexander, an Asian gay transgender man. This is my main cast, and they're pretty much a mixed bag of everything you could imagine.

I've written them to be as diverse as possible without forcing it. For example, I don't focus on the fact that Leo isn't white; I simply state in passing that he has dark skin and a lilting accent. I don't explicitly state that Caspian isn't straight, it's just to be inferred through his behavior around attractive male and female characters. I don't have neon signs screaming, "Ezrith is lesbian," I just have Caspian explain to Eris that Ezrith was in love with his biological mom.

I know minority representation is a good thing, and I'm not white or straight so I usually make an effort to incorporate minorities into my writing that aren't stereotypical. But is there such a thing as having a story that is "too diverse"? Is it unrealistic to have such a diverse cast of characters? Is it alienating to readers who are white and straight to be put into the shoes of someone who is drastically dissimilar to them?

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    @Cyn once wrote: don't let the theme (i.e. setting) drive your story. – NofP Jan 6 at 20:49
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    This does seem... extremely forced to me, almost like a parody. – forest Jan 7 at 0:23
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    The real question is, at least in my opinion, how post-apocalyptic are we talking about? Is this just after the apocalypse event or many many years later? If it's just after the apocalypse I could see myself believing this situation because minorities tend to clump together, but if it has been many years after that, the events leading up to this also matter. Have they made a settlement for LGBT to feel safe after the apocalypse or have they just scattered around? – John Hamilton Jan 7 at 6:44
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    "pretty much a mixed bag of everything you could imagine" - Except normal or relatable. "I've written them to be as diverse as possible without forcing it" - The magnitude of forcing diversity appears beyond extreme. "I know minority representation is a good thing" - No, it's an ideological thing. Having a wide variety of personalities for your characters and interesting interactions or even conflicts is a good thing - but it appears you are brute forcing sexual/gender/identity/race diversity on mass and assume that makes your characters interesting. It doesn't. – Battle Jan 7 at 8:12
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    Just... you have forced it. – AJFaraday Jan 7 at 16:54

11 Answers 11

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The short answer is, there is no such thing as too much diversity!

Especially when authorship comes from the community being portrayed. So many times mainstream (i.e., white) writers/producers/publishers will look at diversity in terms of matching percentages. So if black people make up 12% of the US population, then make 1 in every 8 characters black (mostly in the background, and lower that percentage because what they really want is what they see in mostly white spaces). Other times, a creative team will include one of everything (from a short list) and pat themselves on the back.

But when non-mainstream characters are dropped in like chocolate chips in cookie batter, you don't really see them. Real diversity is about communities and cultures, not individuals. Sure, keep the individuals, but don't stop there.

When writers of color make their whole world look like them (or at least as the majority), something magical happens. Temper, Afar (comic), Kintu, The Hummingbird's Daughter (all these have a fantasy theme). Other stories are set within minority communities in a white country or are about another country, or set within non-mainstream communities that live in a straight and otherwise mainstream location.

The long answer is, sometimes authors try too hard.

Sometimes you want to highlight a particular community and that's totally cool. Other times you're trying to set a work within a larger community and you find yourself highlighting diversity in a way that overshadows the larger story.

I'll give an example from my own novel. 18 kids from the US time travel to ancient Egypt just before the start of the Exodus. Race and ethnicity is a huge part of my book. Those ancient Jews were not white and a lot of them were of mixed ethnicity. Plus there were a ton of converts from all sorts of backgrounds. My main character and her brother are 100% European Jewish. All the other kids are 1/2 or 1/4 Jewish.

My top characters include a brother and sister who are half black and half Jewish. I also had one sibling group that was part Mexican and another sibling group that was part Native American (they're from Arizona where both those groups are common). This added up to 9 kids who were in part not-white. Half of the total.

If I was just writing about these kids I might have left it as is. The problem is that it was important to my story to have the mostly-European travelers contrast with the Northern African/Middle-Eastern locals they hung out with. So I made the 1/2 Hispanic kids 1/4 Native American instead and made the formally 1/2 Native American kids 1/2 white (non-Jewish European). Now it's 5 kids with a non-European ethnicity.

I still have plenty of ethnic diversity to work with. Because it's mostly with the ancient Hebrews, it works even better to teach the travelers how to overcome their American ideas of who counts as a Jew and how race intersects. I couldn't have done that as well had half the kids been of color.

Gender, sex, and sexuality.

I struggled as well with lavender representation in my story. As I belong to this community myself, I have no desire to write a book where everyone's assumed to be straight. On the other hand, it's an upper middle grade novel. The oldest main characters are 14 (8th grade) and none of them are dating (yes I know sometimes kids that age do date, but mine haven't started yet).

The ancient Hebrew group has marriages and family units around traditional gender expectations. People weren't any less likely to be queer back then (you don't get a ton of rules against something that isn't happening), but it manifested in ways other than family structure. But since I'm focusing on kids (my MC is 12) and writing for kids (upper middle grade is about 8-12 years). And since I want to concentrate on issues of faith and ethnicity, I'm downplaying it all.

I'd be lying if I said I had no mixed feelings, but I am okay about it because it works for this story. If I told the story from the point of view of an older teen or an adult, I might showcase some very different things.

Just because I choose not to tell their stories doesn't erase their existence.

Duh, of course some of my characters are lavender. I didn't sit and try to figure out who; I asked them. (Yes, I'm in the stage where my characters tell me who they are.) Of those 18 kids, 2 grow up to be gay. One is 2 at the time of the story and the other is 14. The 14 year old is my favorite character because he's very complicated (and a total jerk). I show him with his husband and son in the epilogue when they're all grown up. Otherwise, it's not stated in the story. But is it there? Of course! I know what's in his head. I see how his eyes linger on certain young men. I feel his heart beat out of his chest when he's with his new best friend who is from Egypt. Readers who look for it will see it too.

So what about your story?

If it works for you as an author and it works for your story, then have them be who they are now. If it feels forced to you, then make some changes. Next, ask some beta readers or a writing group what they think. I did this with my spouse, whose comic book series just published its second issue (of 20). That story is an explosion of diversity of every kind. So when he told me he thought my US kids should be more European (for the reasons I stated above), I trusted that.

Will you alienate some straight white readers with your story? Yes. Yes, you will.

But every story alienates someone. I posted a couple questions about my story over on Worldbuilding and was shocked at the things that caused people to hate my story without ever having read it. My older kids weren't adult enough; they should take on adult responsibilities. My older kids were snot-nosed brats who couldn't possibly be helpful in any way. My MC couldn't be a leader because she was a girl. And so on.

And ya know what? It's okay. You can't make your story right for everyone. Make it true to yourself and make it publishable.

If you're honest with yourself and find that you're adding diversity in a way that doesn't work for your story, take it out.

If you find you're taking away diversity in order to appease imaginary readers, put it back in.

Find your balance and tell your story.

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    Was there a wave of comments deleted from your Worldbuilding question? Because looking at it, I can only see one person's comments which I would consider "hating", and no answers to that effect. Doesn't really match your description. – Angew Jan 7 at 10:21
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    @Angew The first set of comments came from the Sandbox on WB Meta and, yes, they were all deleted. When I posted the question, I immediately got a wave of comments including words like "snot nosed brats." People insisting that my female characters were only valuable because they would get married off, (all in 3 months), etc. I also got a huge number of downvotes. I can't tell if any comments are missing and, frankly, do not care to go re-read them all from my mailbox to find out. It was a very frustrating experience. – Cyn Jan 7 at 16:10
  • Are your kids stuck in the past, or will they get back home? Or is that spoilers? – Malady Jan 8 at 15:41
  • They're there about 3 months then go home. It's technically a spoiler but, given it's a kid's book, it's not very surprising. @Malandy – Cyn Jan 8 at 15:42
  • Yeah, I was thinking being trapped would be a bit dark... How do they survive for 3 months, questions, questions, but off-topic... – Malady Jan 8 at 15:43
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I don't think it's alienating, but it does press my suspension of disbelief a bit to have such a large fraction of the cast be LGBT characters. Gays are something like 3-5% of the population, with the rest of the letters being an even smaller fraction. Having a group of four LGBT characters with no heterosexual ones is unrealistic unless they are together because they are LGBT. Admittedly, a post-apocalyptic society would be fairly Malthusian and thus likely to put a large emphasis on reproduction, meaning them being outcasts for being LGBT is quite reasonable. So if something like this is part of their backstory, then that's totally fine. But if they're a group of survivors that just happen to fill in the acronym I'm going to be rolling my eyes.

The skin color thing would depend on where the story is set. For example, in post-apocalyptic America, just about any racial makeup is perfectly reasonable. Post-apocalyptic China or Russia, I'd be scratching my head as to where this diversity is coming from.

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    I was just going to point this same thing out: It's not the LGBT characters per se, it's whether the world you're protraying is unrealistically turning a minority into an (apparent?) majority. Unless there's a good explanation, it'd be jarring. – Sara Costa Jan 6 at 18:40
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    counterpoint: i'm lgbt and offhand i'm not sure i know anyone that's cishet. we clump – Eevee Jan 6 at 19:36
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    @Eevee You clump because you presumably live in a place where there is enough population density for there to be a significant population of LGBT people to clump with. This is basically impossible in a post-apocalyptic setting. (And TBH, I highly doubt that all of your friends, family members, and coworkers are LGBT.) – eyeballfrog Jan 6 at 19:56
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    @Eevee Fellow LGBT individual here. I will agree that LGBT people tend to cluster together in friendship groups - I've seen it myself and heard others mention the phenomenon - but I also agree with eyeballfrog to a certain extent. It'd be good if OP could clarify whether they've known each other for years and are good friends, or whether they've never met before and the story contrives to have them all join forces. – F1Krazy Jan 6 at 22:11
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    @Dancrumb sexuality and the willingness to reproduce naturally, however, are closely related. – Tim Jan 7 at 15:49
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After the OP's edit, 4/300 characters is not "too diverse". That ratio nullifies all the answers here.

In the age of Star Wars and Guardians of the Galaxy, it's probably not possible to be "too diverse", but robots and raccoons do not represent real people even when writers give them preach-y slogans. There's a big difference between multi-culti window-dressing and attempting to realistically portray oppressed people.

what could go wrong

  1. Superficial diversity – watch out for diversity checkboxes, like rolling dice to create an RPG character. You already have some of this going on, so the thing to keep in mind is how their diversity might lead to disagreements and incompatible perspectives. You don't want to have the superficial diversity of ethnic/gender/orientation checkboxes, meanwhile all characters speak and act like middleclass college students from a hip town.
  2. Captain Planet – Each represents a monotype or stereotype of accents and heritage foods that doesn't really make sense unless they are cultural ambassadors. In your case this might include ethnic cues and cultural signals when the immediate team would adopt similar speech patterns and phrases among themselves. It might also be spread so thinly among all characters, that it becomes decoration rather than character or worldbuilding. A graphic novel can show ethnic diversity in an instant, but in a written narrative you'll have to put it all in the text.
  3. They never interact with "their own" – this one comes from Samuel R. Delany, whose template for writing believable female characters says they need to have meaningful friendships with other women. I've also seen Black authors rant about the token Black character who has no other Black friends or family. Extrapolating to LGBT, it may require the spirit rather than the letter of the rule. The idea is to anchor the characters to close friends outside their role on the team. They should have close friends and surrogate families, past relationships, old roommates. No one hatched from an egg yesterday. The other issue is the characters represent their entire [group] if the story doesn't include others who are in that same [group] who act independently of each other.
  4. Unintended hierarchies and biases – minority groups have internal minority groups. In your example you have chosen to make your trans character also gay. While that does happen, trans people and their straight partners are already erased from "LGBT" organizations and your story seems to confirm that bias. Teams also have "leaders" and stories have "lead characters", their importance in the narrative (both diagetically and non-diagetically) can defeat the intent. A problem example is a Black female administer/boss/captain. Diagetically, she is an authority in-world, but non-diagetically she is just a foil or supporting character who is to be ignored or disobeyed by the MC. The unintended message is that diversity is allowed only when it conforms to a bias.

Mary Sue stops the holocaust

It's ok to write a fantasy adventure about people you wish you knew in real life. If it feels like a Mary Sue team-up it probably is, but not every story is character-driven. Sometimes it's about the adventure itself and you want friendly faces to join you. Characters will wear "hats" that let us know when they are good or evil, and villains will be melodramatic and underestimate the team. Things will explode. There will be traveling from A to B, and swashbuckling.

Needless to say, that is a different story than the gravitas you've put into some of your other questions. You might have a dissonance between the characters you want to be friends with, and the characters who prevail in a hellish environment. You will need to destroy those characters to achieve what you want. They will have uncomfortable edges and complications to match that universe. The reader will love and hate these characters. They will do unforgivable things to survive. That's the only way to tell that kind of story.

Mary Sue and the holocaust don't mix.

When I read people say "and then I put the book down because it was preaching at me…", what I think has happened is a dissonance between Mary Sue heroes and holocaust conflicts. The reader is rolling their eyes and wondering when it gets back to the plot rather than a flattering ego-projection.

In 1984 the forbidden romance is hetero, but it wouldn't be significantly different if it was 2 men in a prison camp. The relationship is ugly and brutal, like the world. Readers accept the relationship as integral to the story and the MC's shrinking world, no one would ever accuse it of being "escapist fluff" or preachy. It's just as messed up as the rest of the story.

At the other extreme, Flash Gordon, Captain Kirk, and Barbarella are space thots from an alternate swinger's universe. Slave collars, booty shorts, nymphos and sadists are as ubiquitous as ray guns, but sexy times are all part of the fun. This isn't the story to deliver a sermon about oppression (when they do it isn't terribly deep, it's more rah-rah ego-projection).

Is there middle ground since these story-types are probably incompatible? Sure, every story navigates between authenticity and fantasy, but rarely are they both at the same time.

To achieve your diversity-only LGBT team in an apocalypse where most people have died, they are either thrown together for some reason – like escaping from a concentration camp – or there is healthy suspension of disbelief in order to have the team-up you want – like they meet in a bar on Tatooine and then join the rebels. It's unlikely you can tone shift between "empowering" adventure characters, and genocidal oppression without knocking readers out of the story.

  • Hi @Narusan. I made some edits, but now the OP has changed the question, so I don't know how relevant it all is anymore. I'll leave it mostly intact. – wetcircuit Jan 7 at 18:13
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    and from being unsure what to do from the introduction, I'm now 100% with you on this. Thanks for the edit for clarification and +1 – Narusan Jan 7 at 18:25
  • Thanks for your edit at the top, I feel like this question would have elicited a way different response from some people if I had said in the first place that these five are the only LGBT characters, they just happen to be the main characters. – weakdna Jan 7 at 23:12
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    @weakdna - your edit changed the question entirely. Prior to that, the only characters were a checklist of minority representation. Which made it extremely forced and flat. – Thomo Jan 7 at 23:30
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Is it alienating to readers who are white and straight to be put into the shoes of someone who is drastically dissimilar to them?

Is it alienating for a modern American to read a story about medieval France? Or about short hairy-footed Brits who live in fantasy-land?

Those differences you mention are superficial. End of the day, a person is a person. Who is more drastically dissimilar to me - someone who is attracted to a different subset of people than me, or the medieval knight, for whom the entire frame of reference was different, since the natural order was that the person he married was not the person he loved, the person he loved was married to someone else, and sex was a sin anyway? Whose life is more different from mine - the person whose skin colour is different in my country, or the one who lived before the Industrial Revolution, and was probably illiterate?

If you can tell stories about medieval knights, you can tell stories about guys loving other guys. For that matter, surely one can tell a story set in Mexico? And surely the characters wouldn't be all blue-eyed and blond?

"Too much diversity" only becomes an issue when you start having characters that have no business being there, just so the minority is represented. Writing diversity should help you understand what I'm talking about, though it doesn't seem to be a problem with your story.

It is also helpful to remember that the "white" skin colour is not in fact the most common one in the world. Depending on where your story is set, it is the "everybody's white" preposition that might in fact be unrealistic.

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    I think the question is asking about whether this is too diverse, and whether this is realistic. You don't seem to be addressing that really? The last 2 paragraphs are close but they don't answer any questions. – Riker Jan 6 at 23:31
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I think you are fine provided that you do not bludgeon the reader with the sexual orientation of your characters.

I do not mind reading about characters that happen to be gay or bisexual as part of who they are, but I do dislike being preached to and told how normal this is. Fine, it is normal for that person - great - just use 2x4s for carpentry - not narrative.

I was reading one novel and quite enjoying it - until it became the story of a young man falling in love with another young man and it became explicit. The story stopped and the preaching began. I put the book down, not because the characters were gay, but because the author was trying to preach at me. We rarely listen to sermons. Falling in love - sure. The heart wants what the heart wants - just no sledgehammer required.

Just tell your story.

On a practical matter, if your story (post apocalyptic if I recall) involved a massive loss of human life, there would be pressure for every woman to bear children. There was a BBC series Survivors that dealt with the issue of repopulation as well as the reassignment of status.

  • But if the first man's love interest were female and the writer made that explicit, using a female name and she/her pronouns, would that have been OK? Why do you think the author was preaching instead of telling their story? Another male name and he/him pronouns don't constitute preaching. – Rosie F Jan 9 at 8:00
  • The story pretty much went off the rails and changed from an adventure to a heavy romance. I don’t read romances. If they had kept the romance a sub plot - fine. They derailed the book. The young man discovered he was attracted to this other young man and that became the story. What happened to the quest he and the others were on? Not important enough - he’s in love and has to find a way to be happy. What about the great danger the world is in? Oh, yeah - forgot about that – Rasdashan Jan 9 at 15:21
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    I imagine the book eventually got back on plot, but I waded through pages of ‘this is perfectly normal’ and lost interest in the characters. I have known homosexuals in my life - I know a stereotypical one now and until I met him thought people referring to themselves in the third person was a thing found in bad fiction. If that author had just not bludgeoned me over the head with repeated messages of how normal it was I probably would know how the book ended – Rasdashan Jan 9 at 15:25
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You have an Aluminium Christmas Tree: realistic, but not credible

Birds of a feather flock do together. People of alternative sexuality tend to bunch up — be it by orientation, non-monogamy, powerplay, fetishes, sex-work — and form little communities based on their alt-sexuality. Hence the average of number LGBTQ people in the general population does not matter, because where you find one you are likely to find more. So this is indeed realistic.

It is just that to someone that has never gotten close to the alt-communities, it does not come across as credible.

What you have is an Aluminium Christmas Tree, that is to say something that is realistic, but not credible and that the audience might dismiss as unrealistic because they have not been exposed to them.

How to deal with an Aluminium Christmas Tree

You explain it in the backstory. Introduce the reader to the fact that alt-sexuality communes exist and that people flock together there. Or just subtly drop in hints of how your protagonists met. Most likely they were attached to some LGBTQ commune, and got in touch there.

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If (and only if) you can write your diverse cast accurately and authentically, I think it's all to the good. It should go without saying, but if the characters are poorly, inaccurately, thinly or stereotypically depicted, that can outweigh the good of having them in the narrative in the first place.

Realistically speaking, however, audiences do gravitate to characters and narratives they personally identify with, and that sense of identification can often follow markers such as age, race and gender. The specific challenge this poses to the minority author is that the straight white audience (in Britain, the US or Canada) is so much bigger, by definition. Publishing is a numbers game, and the other answers have not addressed the very real additional burdens this places on the minority author.

If you're seeking mainstream popularity, or something approaching it, you may want to consider including at least one straight white main character as an audience surrogate for the "mainstream" reader (Issa Rae credits taking this advice as helping build a diverse audience for her hit web series "The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl"). On the other hand, you may not be interested in the mainstream audience. There's no rule that you have to write to them. If you want to write a book, authentic to your own experience, that targets an audience of people like yourself, that could become a much beloved niche hit. (This is much more difficult, however, with a genre book, because then you're targeting a niche within a niche, and the numbers start to be unsupportable. There's a reason there are so few --for instance --successful black science-fiction writers.)

EDIT: It's worth noting that that there's some evidence that this phenomenon is perhaps less pervasive than it once was --witness Black Leopard, Red Wolf the wholly black, unapologetically LBGTQ-themed epic fantasy that's currently #9 on the Amazon Bestsellers list.

  • Just to forestall any comments, the existence/success of Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany doesn't invalidate my parenthetical that it is MUCH harder to make it as a minority in a genre like SF --unless that genre just so happens to be overwhelmingly popular among members of your particular minority group.) – Chris Sunami Jan 7 at 19:28
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Other answers have addressed that no it is not alienating but I just wanted to highlight that it's not uncommon for a group of LGBTs to group together. It happens naturally, we often gravitate towards people like us. When I was in high school I had a really close group of friends, and as the years went on, it turns out instead of us all being straight, we were a lesbian, an asexual, a bisexual, a pansexual, and a trans man. Later in life I made friends with a lot of people, but the friendships that got really strong and close were with other minorities, because we had so much in common. So basically, it's normal to have a group of minorities together, because that is what happens in real life. It is a long running joke in the community about how unrealistic it is when a show only has the one token 'gay', because that's (not always) but not often how it is in our lives.

Also, if it's worth anything, stories like this matter, and I thank you for bringing it to life. (And also I love how the characters are more than just their sexuality/skin colour/minority characteristic)

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What I personally would like is no mention whatsoever of LTBGQ or whatever it is altogether. Let them just be people and have sex with whoever they feel like and the reader can determine whatever "affiliations" they have. The minute you put people in groups you invite stereotyping.

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    The thing is, a lot of people I know in the LGBT community want explicit representation. They don't want any room for a character to be straight-washed. I want my readers to know that these characters are absolutely, no doubt about it, gay and bi. – weakdna Jan 9 at 13:55
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    @weakdna - I appreciate that you are doing market research, but you are writing this, not they. Be true to your vision, just don’t hit the reader over the head too often - they get a headache and put your book down to get the aspirin – Rasdashan Jan 9 at 15:31
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Authenticity.

That's what people want these days.

If you have a diverse cast, and you can do it justice, it is great. But if you are just pandering, or just trying to be overly politically correct, the audience will see right through it and laugh.

I myself am working on a story with a diverse cast. Some characters need to be of a certain background, because the story requires it. Even then it isn't easy, as I need to imagine/guess how their cultures and their motivations affect the way they react.

1

Creating characters with diverse backgrounds (sexual, racial, gender, etc.) should be worked into the story if it makes sense and it should be done well. Anything else would come off as low effort. Just putting them in the story for the sake of having the representation can positively affect the community but at the same time can open it up to criticism. This sounds like the type of story that the Alt-Right would co-opt as being perfect for a literal holocaust. If the character's were superfluous and shallow in nature would they be wrong?

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