How to Come up with Diverse Protagonists

A couple years ago I wrote a post titled What to do When All Your Characters are White. I liked it, but in retrospect, it describes short-term solution. Panicking about representation partway through planning a novel is not exactly the ideal situation. It’s better to have character ideas that naturally run across a spectrum of identities.

Some might argue authors have no control over what inspiration they are struck with, but I disagree. Personally, I have gotten better at this over the years, although it’s still a work in progress. So, as a follow-up to that old piece, I thought I’d share some of the things that have helped me avoid the problem of whitewashed casts in the first place, instead of just patching it up at the last minute. I’m focusing on race, because that’s the area where I’ve needed the most improvement, but I think these tips can apply to any kind of diversity.

1. Honestly identify your comfort zones.

This was a tough one for me, but it was an important step. It’s uncomfortable to tell yourself something like “I’m more nervous to write Black characters than any other race,” but when I did I could work on it, and it’s not a problem in the same way any more. I think white people have a sort of collective don’t ask don’t tell policy when it comes to worries about race. None of us are supposed to admit that we have gaps in our knowledge, or stereotypes, or anything of that ilk. But if you aren’t willing to recognize what needs to be worked on, you’ll never improve.

The Chaos

The Chaos, by Nalo Hopkinson: a weird, fun novel about confronting your inner demons.

2. Research pro-actively, not reactively.

Something I’ve noticed about research in general; last-minute research works best for details and side characters. The quality of your story improves if the main elements draw on subjects you are already familiar with. This means you should never wait for a story idea before researching something of interest. If you want to write mysteries, make it a habit to read about crime, the history of police work, law, forensics etc.

By the same token, if you realize at the last minute that your 1930s Chicago crime thriller needs more Black people, and you only have superficial knowledge of race relations in that time and place, you might have to decide you don’t have the expertise to write more than a few minor characters. But the more time you spend educating yourself about race relations and other cultures, the easier it will be to write more and more significant characters from all backgrounds. This also applies to educating yourself about racist tropes and what people really want to see more of. It’s easy to stumble blindly into a problematic trope. Educate yourself by reading media criticisms written by POC, and awesome blogs like Writing With Color.

Saving Face

Saving Face: an wonderful comedy that wouldn’t have worked without the author’s intimate knowledge of Chinese-American culture.

3. Re-imagine your favorite stories with diverse casts.

Writers are inspired by other writers. I think this is a major source of the ubiquitous white man protagonist. Sherlock Holmes inspires House. Clark Kent creates a genre for Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker to be born into. King Arthur creates a trope of Secret Royalty with Epic Destiny, and sets the default to “straight white teenage boys.” What happens if you take your favorite white characters and make them Black, Asian, Hispanic, etc? Do they actually change? Does it bring up new issues that could be fodder for an interesting story? Would this story be too challenging for you right now, and if so is there something you can do to bridge that gap? See point two.

sister-mine

Sister Mine, also by Nalo Hopkinson: fits into the Gods-on-Earth subgenre, but with loads of Afro-Caribbean mythology

 

4. Remember that everyone around you is a protagonist.

As writers, we love talking about gaining inspiration from all around us. But is that unadulterated inspiration? Or are we still influenced by the narratives around us? The think often we are. The interesting looking white guy gives us an idea for a main character. The story our Uber driver tells about growing up in Cameroon just inspires a scene where that white guy gets in a cab with a Cameroonian driver.

We all know everyone is the protagonist of their own story. But I’ve found it helpful to actively look at everyone around them and imagine the story where they are the main character. Some of these are stories I couldn’t write. One Uber ride didn’t give me enough material to capture all the nuances of Cameroon. That’s not the point. The point is getting into the habit of seeing everyone as equally protagonist-y.

Little Mosque

Little Mosque: a fantastically funny show where the Muslim community gets the spotlight.

5. Read and watch work by non-white creators.

Saved for last because it’s the most important. First, as I said before, art inspires art. This could be a whole post of it’s own, but short version; I’ve grown up in a world that mostly puts white artists in front of me. This means that my inspiration for non-white characters has largely come from white artists, who themselves were copying other white artists, who were inspired by other white artists… This process can’t create original, lifelike POC characters who represent the diversity that’s out there. If you want a fresh outlook, go straight to the source. Find musicians, actors, comedians, directors and yes, writers who aren’t white.

Second, while I think white people have a responsibility to undo some of the damage our ancestors have done, it’s important to not go so overboard that we talk over POC. You need to respect the actual voices of the people who you are trying to represent. You need to elevate their voices directly, not just borrow them. There are also plenty of reading lists on the internet. Also, every book/film/TV show pictured on this post was written by someone who isn’t white, so if any of them appealed to you, there’s your starting point.

Warning; if you follow this advice, at some point you will be angry because all these authors with their awards and their amazingness and yet I’ve never heard of them why????!!!!!

BloodChild

Octavia E. Butler: you are so wonderful. Where have you been all my life?

What To Do When All Your Characters Are White

Or perhaps I should call this one what I do when I realize all my protagonists are white. Nah, that’s less catchy, but I’ll clarify now that this is what I do. I’m hardly a Multicultural Writing Expert. These are the tricks I use for the kind of writing I tend to do. I’m putting them up here in part because I think others might find them helpful, and in part because I’m hoping other people will have some more ideas that I might find useful.

I should also go into a little bit into my rationale for caring in the first place, because that has a huge bearing on my process. I belong to the school of thought that says that stories play a role in how we form our ideas about the world around us. If those stories all have white protagonists and only have people of color as villains and one dimensional tertiary colors, that helps bolster racist ways of seeing the world, while being accustomed to hearing all sorts of stories told about people of all races makes racism untenable. I believe the stories we tell have more power to change minds than all the workplace mandated sensitivity trainings, for the simple reason that people come to stories open hearted, while they go through workshops watching the clock for a chance to escape. However, I believe that for stories to have their full impact, they must be believed. To be believed, they must feel real. For that reason, I think painstakingly ensuring every story has one black person, one Asian person, one Native American person, and so on is ineffective. At one point that approach was a step forward, but these days its just cloying and obvious, and nearly as easy for the audience to dismiss as those sensitivity trainings. Stories should not feel like I deigned to put some POC characters in, or like I grudgingly chopped out a space for them in deference to political correctness. Those should feel natural, so the audience hardly notices they are there. One day, we should get to a point where lacking diversity is as jarring and noticeable to readers as having diversity was to readers fifty years ago.

1. Think about the setting. Which races are germane to the setting, and which are rarer but still plausible? Something in the Medieval England countryside, probably doesn’t need any characters who aren’t white. Japanese characters won’t fit into any story outside of Japan, from 1635 to 1868. They had a strict isolationist policy. On the flip side, though, there are many settings that we think of as less diverse than they necessarily are. Note how I said Medieval countryside in the first example? The ports and major cities were a different story. Plenty of Spaniards, Italians and Moors made their way there, as merchants, diplomats, sailors, mercenaries, and so on. The American Old West also gets very inaccurately whitewashed. In the Southwest, much of the territory was recently acquired from Spain and Mexico, so a high percentage of the population was Hispanic, just as it is today. Furthermore, the new territories were popular destinations for freed or escaped slaves. A quarter of all cowboys were black.

2. Think about cultures. I have a basic rule; I don’t have to be intimately familiar with a culture to write a character who belongs to the race associated with it, but I do need intimate familiarity to write a character who identifies strongly with that culture. Real people exist along a spectrum when it comes to culture. We belong to many groups, and we usually identify more strongly with one group than another. You don’t have to know everything about Hispanic culture to write a person who is Hispanic; nobody will think its implausible if you write a person who happens to be Hispanic but identifies primarily as a tremendous geek. On the other hand, trying to write a culture without some experience with it is like trying to draw a portrait going only off of secondhand descriptions. No matter how great an artist you are, you never seem to end up with anything better than a caricature.

Those two steps together give me an idea of which races I should be looking to add into my story. That in turn helps avoid tokenism. Saying, “okay, if I add one black, one Asian and one Hispanic character, hopefully no one will yell at me,” looks contrived. Saying, “Cleveland really should have more black people,” is just being realistic. The rest of the steps help me decide which characters to change.

3. How clear is my sense of each character? When I write, I like the characters to feel alive in my head. Some writers complain about their characters taking over the story, changing its direction. I’m almost disappointed when they don’t. So if I have a strong character who has been very assertive about who they are, I’ve learned to avoid messing with that. For reasons I can’t fully explain, even changing a character’s hair color can make them lose a certain vividness in my mind. This can be a problem as I’m looking for characters to change races. On the other hand, it can also be an advantage. Sometimes my characters are being less lively than I want them to be. Either they aren’t coming to life, or they have come to life, but become characters I’m less interested in writing. These characters are the first on the block to change race. The new race doesn’t change who they are as people, fundamentally; rather, giving them a new face, and often a new name, also gives my own mind the flexibility to solve some deeper character problems. I come out with a cast that is more diverse, and also just better.

4. Deal with stereotypes. Obviously, if making a character a particular race would also make them into a stereotype, don’t make that character that race. However, this is most likely to be a problem if only the low ranking, tertiary characters are being made minorities, which itself is an issue. Major characters are supposed to be fleshed out and complex. A character whose only noteworthy traits are being smart and Asian is a stereotype. A character who was always good at school but particularly loves astronomy and lies awake stargazing and wondering about alien life, whose passion eventually took him to Astronaut Camp where he has begun actively wondering about his odds of becoming a real astronaut, because he really wants it, but so do many kids and only a handful become astronauts (but then again somebody will get to do it and why shouldn’t it be him?), and meanwhile he is having a summer romance with this girl who is allergic to peanut butter which is driving him crazy because peanut butter is his favorite food ever, which is leading him to wonder whether this is proof that he really loves her because he is making a sacrifice, or proving that he doesn’t because if he really loved her he could give it up without any trouble… that character isn’t a stereotype, even if he happens to be Asian.

Which brings me to another thing I think about. Just as in my previous writing about gender, a person’s race might not define how they behave, but it will affect how people around them think of them. So I don’t only think about how to avoid making stereotypical characters. I also consider which characters will interact in interesting ways with the stereotypes society might hold about them. Once, for example, I had a love interest who everyone thought was stupid and troublesome. He was considered a bad boy by nearly everyone. Part of the love story revolved around the protagonist realizing that he was actually a very nice guy, and intelligent. He had ADHD and some other learning disabilities that were diagnosed late. By the time they had, he had already gotten a reputation among his teachers. He, in turn, had developed a sense that his teachers would always be less patient with him, and had a certain distrust of authority at school, which is why he continued to butt heads with his teachers, but in other contexts he was actually very sweet and responsible. Initially he was white, but I realized that the stereotypes young black men often have to deal with fit very neatly with his backstory. I’ve actually seen this dynamic at work in one of the elementary schools I used to work at; the white teacher expects the black boy to be trouble, and so has less patience with him when he is trouble. He in turn realizes she isn’t expecting his best behavior, and so gives up trying to please her, which she takes as confirmation that she was right all along, and the cycle continues. So in that case, even though the character was fine as a white person, I changed him.

5. Top characters get changed first. While writing minorities of all sorts has improved over the years, an issue that remains is that even when non-white characters exist, they are almost never the protagonist. If I can change the protagonist’s race, I do. I also look to love interests and deuteragonists, characters who are the protagonists of major subplots and narrators. What I try to avoid is the black best friend problem, where everything important to the story is done by white characters and then the one non-white role is taken by someone whose role is just to listen to the white protagonist whine. Best friends might be important to the protagonist, but that is different from being important to the story. Characters important to the story are the ones whose actions significantly alter the course of it, or who are profoundly shaped by the course of the story. If a character’s primary role is providing commentary, or getting rescued, or giving aid in a way that doesn’t require them to put in real effort or make a significant sacrifice, they are really just ambulatory plot devices. If those are the only characters I’m changing, I’m not doing it right, and I need to take another look at my truly important characters.

So, what do the rest of you think? How do you approach diversity in your casts?