I thought long and hard about books for this Top 5, but then decided that I’d write a normal post as well. You see, I’ve been thinking about ‘diverse’ characters a lot in the past year, and I want to share some of those thoughts. As a warning, this could be controversial, so if you want to skip it feel free to just read my Top 5 and click off (although I’d encourage you to read it and even to disagree with me – I’m always willing to listen to different arguments!)
5. Lakshmi, Sold by Patricia McCormick
4. Li Cuxin, Mao’s Last Dancer, Li Cuxin (a real person as well as a character, but I love his story).
3. Amal Mohamed Nasrullah Abdel-Hakim, Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah
2. Mariko, Shogun, James Clavell
1. Dovasary Balitang, Trickster’s Choice & Trickerster’s Queen, Tamora Pierce
Growing up I never thought about a character’s diversity when I was reading. Not because I was coming from a place of deliberate ignorance, and also not because I’m a white female from a middle class background. Just because like with everything else growing up, I didn’t care who people were as long as they were kind. Woman? Fine. Man? Fine. Caucasian? Fine. Person of colour? Fine. Asian? Fine. Middle Eastern? Fine. Indigenous/First People (to any country)? Fine. Heterosexual? Fine. Queer? Fine. Rich? Fine. Poor? Fine. Disabled? Fine. Mentally ill? Fine. All I cared about was that the characters were interesting, well developed, and made the story exciting.
Recently however, I’ve encountered a lot of people in my writing community who have faced considerable backlash because their characters weren’t ‘diverse’ enough. Sure, they might have had a character who was Asian, but did they have a character who was transgender? Pansexual? Muslim? So a lot of these people said they’d simply changed a character’s gender, or religion, or sexual orientation. There, more diversity.
Nothing pisses me off more in a story than something being there for the sake of it. This includes diverse characters. Don’t get me wrong, diverse characters are great. But don’t put them in there just for the sake of it.
An example from my own writing is that one of my characters recently ‘came out’. Yes. I said it. I was writing some scenes for them, and all of a sudden he pretty much just turned to me and said “I’m in love with spoiler god dammit woman!” And everything suddenly made more sense. I didn’t decide to make him gay. I didn’t think ‘ooh I’d better put a queer character in there’. It just happened. And in my opinion that’s how it should be.
Diversity should be celebrated in fiction as it should be celebrated everywhere, but it shouldn’t be forced. We shouldn’t sit an pull out characters and label them as ‘diverse’ because of their skin colour, religion, sexuality, or even their gender. We definitely shouldn’t shun books without these characters.
Diverse characters can be used in powerful, political stories designed to make us reassess ourselves and society as a whole, but they can also just be there. They can be bisexual AND an assassin. They can be Muslim AND a lawyer going through a shit family time. They can be Japanese AND an astronaut lost in space. A character’s ethnicity, sexuality, or anything else is part of their identity, but it shouldn’t define them in a story, the same way those things shouldn’t define people in real life.