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Saddle Up Saloon: A Whole New World

As writers, we come up with worlds in our heads and commit them to paper. Even fiction that ostensibly takes place in our own world must contain fictional characters and elements that make it differ from our own.

Today at the Saloon, we’re going to sip our brews and chat about how people (and characters) make the world just as much as the world shapes us.

The Importance of Diversity in Characters and Worldbuilding

The world is rich and alive with many different people and many different backgrounds. If everyone were the same, we’d have no fun at all. There would be no discovery of others, no real friendships. To make characters in books come alive, they must be distinct, have different goals and needs, and sometimes they must be in opposition to one another.

When we think of diversity of characters, we often think first of racial and gender diversity. These are very important (and discussed in more detail in the next section), but they are not the only ways to incorporate diversity into your work. Here’s just a brief list of important diversity elements that can make your characters more distinct and real.

  • Race
  • Gender (and attraction)
  • Age (think about how much popular media includes real characters of multiple generations – I’m only coming up with Orange Is the New Black right now, and it was chock full of interesting characters!)
  • Class
  • Ability and disability
  • Religious affiliation or lack thereof
  • Country of origin (distinct from race, even if it’s hard to separate in American culture)
Look – even this Pexels picture meant to represent “Diversity” has no obvious Age, Class, or Ability diversity. Just because it’s not obvious doesn’t mean it’s not diversity!

Remember, if it takes place in any world with humans, you can include elements of diversity. Even in places, you think diversity would be impossible to include, you can; just look at Othello, if you want proof!

Diversity in Today’s Book Climate

If you take half a look at writing Twitter, Instagram, or a plethora of other online writing circles, diversity is a big push right now. It ranges from encouragement to read authors from underrepresented backgrounds to insistences that books must contain “X” amount of diversity.

You’ve read it. I’ve read it. We’ve felt the gamut of feelings from “That’s a great idea!” to “That made me feel attacked.” While none of us will ever be perfect, the climate as it stands can be very daunting.

A rule of thumb is to be more careful when you get closer to a subject. Do more research, and have more sensitivity readers. If, like me, you are white, and you want to write a book with a non-white main character set in the modern world, you definitely want to have sensitivity readers and do a lot of research. At the same time, if I wrote that book, it would be a disservice if I pretended like I was an expert on the subject when I didn’t have that life experience.

While most of us probably will stick with mains similar enough to ourselves that we won’t have that issue, I encourage you to try and push yourself with one character in your next work. Use the opportunity to learn new things, then write a piece that will expand your boundaries.

A Whole OLD World

Whenever you’re writing a fictional world, no matter how dissimilar to our own, your book will still be read by an audience steeped in our own world. No matter how dissimilar the histories of our worlds, anything written for humans to read will be read within the context of our own world.

Photo by Tatiana Syrikova on Pexels.com

If you write a world in which women are in power and men are not, it still is read in the context of a world in which men have long had most of the power. The switch of political power will still remind any reader of this fact. A book written in such a world could be very thematically interesting, or it could feel very ignorant of the element it switched. How you speak of the issue is just as important in a very different world as it is in our own.


About the Author

H.R.R. Gorman often doesn’t feel diverse, even if other people say he is. He loves writing, history, and science, often in erratically changing orders. If you want to know more about this white-trash-turned-excessively-bourgeois maniac, you can go to https://hrrgorman.wordpress.com/ or read the old “Into the Past” columns here on the Carrot Ranch!


14 Comments

  1. Hello! Welcome back to the Saddle Up Salo_n! (Charli is searching for the image, it must have blown away in that big wind. Again!)
    I love that the Saloon has become a gathering place where discussions can be had. Thank you for taking the stage.
    I was just thinking about some of my characters recently. These are the made up people that I am still getting to know, that show up and help shape a story. I only write flash fiction now and again so can’t say too much about character development or anything like that, but I do have some recurring characters that I am learning from.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. Scott Bailey says:

    I’m all for writing diverse characters into my stories because I feel it makes the story more believable. Of course falling into the trap of easy stereotypes doesn’t serve any story. Even worse is the lazy stereotype/soapbox preaching type of character that the writer thinks is so clever but is really just shallow and transparent to just about all readers. I think it’s best to treat your “diverse” characters the same way you treat your main characters: worts and all. Don’t be shy and don’t sugar coat the language. Write, really.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I agree – I didn’t put the soapbox thoughts in the article, though, because I think a lot of people use that as an excuse to not add diversity rather than as just another gauge to use for their writing. But goodness, I’ve read that kind of book, and you’re just so right… I find it very vapid when people use diverse characters that way. It’s too easy a target, too low hanging fruit, to do that and have it work out.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Charli Mills says:

      Scott, now I’m thinking, “Don’t sugar coat the worts.” But I also appreciate H.’s focus specifically on the elements that include diversity. Authenticity begins with details and respects the complexity of humans and our relationships to self, others, and the world around us.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Scott Bailey says:

        I like “Don’t sugar coat the worts” as that sums up what I was trying to say. As far a H.’s focus on the elements that INCLUDE diversity, I was trying to say that let’s not give our characters a pass just because they might be “diverse”. As an example, let’s say you’re writing a tale in Ye Olde England and Jack the Ripper happens to be in it. Let’s say Jack is Gay, and a murderer. We shouldn’t give Jack a pass just because he’s a little different (Gay) but we should use some elements of his super confused life to color our story. He’s a bad guy, not deserving any respect but is a gold mine of human complexity. Worts and all.

        Liked by 3 people

      • I think what you’re driving at is getting more attention nowadays, yeah. There’s been that big push to get more representation in media, but the type of actions the characters can take have largely been dominated by the authors/publisher’s politics. Having richer, more three-dimensional characters that aren’t dependent on their diversity “cred” to sell themselves is where I see the market moving. Vapid, token characters that are perfect are on the way out.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Charli Mills says:

        This is a good point to discuss. But first, oops…warts, not worts! I think there exists a subtle line between stereotyping and creating rounded diverse characters. Your example is a good one to expand. What I understand you are saying is that a writer can be inclusive, creating a gay villain. Before sensitivity, stereotyping might use gayness to show a character is evil. That’s harmful (and shallow) representation. Today, stereotyping might use gayness as a characterization crutch, such as making the sidekick to the lead character out to catch Jack the Ripper. A fully rounded gay character would be opening doors to gay authors to pen a Jack the Ripper where all the characters are gay, or the complex and engaging protagonist is. We call this amplification and search for the stories we’ve been missing from the time when it was socially unacceptable or even illegal to be or express one’s true self as gay.

        The topic of diversity is only now becoming a dialog. When I studied creative writing as an undergrad in the 1990s, we never spoke of diversity. Not once. But we did study the omission of women as authors. Therefore, I feel more comfortable pursuing stories from that suppressed lens. My hope is that anyone else feeling suppressed or underrepresented also gets the support to write from their lens. Then, with the guidance of those who study diversity as a bigger picture (such as H. is writing into with this post) we can all feel encouraged to learn about different people to write more diverse characters that go beyond stereotypes.

        As writers, I think we need to remember what good characterization is in creative writing period. Flat characters suck because we want the warts, the realism, but we also want humanity and possibility of transformation through stories.

        Thank you for deepening the discussion, Scott!

        Like

      • Scott Bailey says:

        Great point about using the diverse tag in a bad way, like saying Jack the Ripper is Gay and therefore Gay=Evil. I think if you’re careful you can avoid that kind of link. As an example, in the Danger Zone prompt I made Ye Olde London back-alley territory the “danger zone” and I made Jack impotent. He’s still not a sympathetic character (because he’s a murderer) but it seems like his impotence is the root of the thing that actually drives his evilness and that’s the ridicule and belittlement he experiences at the hands of the very prostitutes he seeks comfort with. If only he had Viagra back then, he might not have killed at all!

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Norah says:

    What a great reminder that, whatever worlds we create, the books will always be read in the context of our world. Maybe unless they are still being read in centuries ahead. What an amazing thought.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s absolutely true! I enjoy this YouTube channel called “Townsends” about 18th century history. As I was reading “Pride and Prejudice”, I caught some of the things they talked about in their videos. Even though it was minutia, it made me think someone who read the book back then probably had different thoughts than I could now. Since they were the target audience, I thought I was probably missing out on some of the target message!

      And good lord, I hope my stuff isn’t read centuries from now, because I’ll probably look as much a stuff-shirted butthole as many old school authors look to us now!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Norah says:

        Those are two very interesting thoughts. I guess we’ll never know the ‘true’ answer to either, but we can have fun speculating. 🙂

        Like

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