In honour of NAIDOC (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee) Week this month, we’ve dedicated all our July posts to the issue of diversity in fiction. For more information on NAIDOC Week, visit their website here.
Diversity is becoming more prominent in storytelling, but how do we write diverse characters of different race and nationality without offending someone?
Firstly, we need to realise that as authors we can’t please everyone. Secondly, we need to make sure we have some degree of tact and compassion before we make the decision to write diverse characters. And thirdly, as writers we need to understand what particular people find offensive and do our best to avoid it.
Australia is extremely diverse in nationality and culture. I have a white Australian mother with English and German heritage, and a one hundred percent Sicilian father. I may be half Italian by blood, but I’m still Australian. And contrary to popular stereotypes, I don’t have one eyebrow. Although I do have unmanageable hair, but I also have skin that burns raw when I even look at the sun. My brother was the one who inherited the olive skin, and when we stand side by side we hardly look related.
Appearances aren’t everything, and when we sit down to write our diverse characters, there are many ways to describe them other than what they look like. We as people are not summed up by our looks. The way we look does not justify who we are as human beings, and it shouldn’t justify who our characters are either.
Here are some things to think about when writing a diverse character:
- Where were they born?
- Where were their parents born?
- What do they wear?
- What do they eat?
- What do they not eat?
- Do they have any special family traditions?
- What music do they listen to?
- Do they believe in a particular religion?
- Do they have a hobby?
- Are they scared of anything?
There are countless more questions we can ask ourselves when we build a character profile, and the answers to all of them will shape the character we create. Each piece of information an author gives the reader about a character should help the reader form their own interpretation of what that character looks like, and is like as a person. A great example of this is Hermione from Harry Potter. I don’t need to go into details because Google will tell you everything you want to know.
If you do want to describe physical features as well, which is perfectly fine, try and avoid the obvious clichés and stereotypes. Think about things like:
- Eye colour
- Eye shape
- Skin colour
- Skin tone
- Face shape
- Hair colour
- Hair type
- Body shape
Make sure, if you’re writing a character that is not a race or nationality you’re familiar with, that you do plenty of research and study lots of people of the same race or nationality. Compare images of people who are the same race or nationality, and make lists of how different their features look. For example, look at Hermione and her daughter in the picture above. Hermione has large, round eyes, whereas her daughter has smaller eyes. And note how their eyebrows arch in different ways. Their hair is also different. So although they appear to be of the same race, they are individuals and therefore look different. In the end, as writers we should not focus on what race or nationality our characters are, but who they are as people within our stories.
If all else fails, choose a name wisely. A name can give the reader a great deal of information.
What about you? Is there anything you’d like to add to my lists?
K. A. Last would love to include more diversity in her story telling. She is the author of Sacrifice, Fall For Me, Fight For Me, and Immagica. She drinks lots of tea, is obsessed with Buffy, and loves all things purple (it used to be pink). K. A. Last hangs out on Facebook or you can find her on twitter and Goodreads. She’s also been known to blog once in a while.