Diverse Casts?

As I've said before, sometimes the forums on WattPad can be really... interesting. I've stopped posting on there very much because of the general userbase's age and lack of maturity, but I still like to browse the threads occasionally with a bag of popcorn. One topic that seems to spawn a new thread every day is the supposed lack of diversity in fantasy fiction. There's always someone whining about how there aren't enough black characters, or gay characters, or female characters, and we should all be ashamed of not writing more diversely (sample thread:https://www.wattpad.com/forums/discussion/1124562/0/25/i-hate-your-white-medieval-fantasy). You guys are more professional than 99% of the users on WattPad, so I'm curious as to what your take on the subject is.

Personally, I think it's a catch 22. If you write an all white, all male, all straight cast, you'll get people jumping down your throat for not being diverse. But if you start being more diverse, those same people will STILL jump down your throat because you've misrepresented their race/gender/sexuality, or because you've written a hollow token character. To me, the focus should be on what the characters are doing, not what they look like. Unless their [whatever makes them different] plays a role in what's happening in the story, it's just a needless detail that bogs down the plot. And, frankly, I find the idea that readers can't identify with a character in a book because they don't look the same as them, are a different gender, or have a different sexual orientation, ridiculous. Kind of like the people complaining lately that girls can't enjoy The Legend of Zelda if they don't have the choice to play as a girl Link. And, finally, if they really think there's a shortage of diverse fiction, they should take it upon themselves to write it, not try to take control of other's people's work. Good things never happen when you try to tell an artist how to make art.

Me, my characters tend to be white and straight because that's what I'm most comfortable with. I don't want to risk offending people by misrepresenting them, I just want to tell the story. And like I said, if that detail isn't important to the plot itself, I don't see the point in adding it in.

Anyway, what do you guys think?

(hopefully I don't offend anybody)

Well, I already weighed in on that thread and left because there are some folks doing some low key trolling.

As I said there, writing is art. And like every other form of art, I think anyone who demands or even suggests that someone include or exclude something in their art is displaying a staggering level of entitlement.

We can judge art based on quality or content, but to try pushing for artists to art a certain way or include certain things is just... wrong.

Plus like I said on that thread (and like GRRM has said), people usually write from their own culture or what is close to them. Pretty much 100% of Japanese LN MCs are racially Japanese and I have no problem with this.

I personally like to include a lot of diversity in my stories because that is what my world looks like, but I would never, EVER judge another artist/writer for not doing so.

"Me, my characters tend to be white and straight because that's what I'm most comfortable with. I don't want to risk offending people by misrepresenting them."

I do worry about offending people by mis-writing something and feeding a stereotype. That said, I also feel that, for me anyhow, it's important to represent diversity, particularly in Graves since it is set in the future. There's nothing in the story that directly addresses any of the issues you mention because a) as a straight white female I don't feel expert enough to do such a story justice and b) because I feel that while fiction that does offer insight into what it's like to be "other" (than me and/or some portion of my reading audience) is important, I also feel it's important to offer fiction in which the issues aren't issues. Graves' cast includes characters with a variety of racial appearances and names and includes varying sexual orientations, but they're not something I or anyone in my cast makes a big deal about. I feel like it's important to see what the world *could* be like if everyone just accepted everyone else (on those counts at least), and I make and continue to make deliberate choices toward representing that in Graves. It doesn't affect the story at all. Alex is still kind of a cocky SOB no matter what color his skin is or whether he likes girls or boys or both. I like to think I've done a fair job with writing all my people as just people and not races or genders or sexual orientations. (If anyone out there has read Graves and disagrees, I would welcome your feedback on where I've gone awry, of course.)

"...if that detail isn't important to the plot itself, I don't see the point in adding it in." I agree, but by the same token, I respectfully submit that you could flip that around. If the detail isn't important to the plot itself, then why *not* add it in?

Edited to add: I should clarify that I'm not by any means attempting to judge anyone. Write what you will, you don't owe anyone anything, of course. :)

Maybe it's just my personal writing style, but my stories are very fast paced. Characters are constantly on the move, things are constantly happening, and that's the main focus of the story. It's always been my goal to write fantasy that isn't always bogged down by world- and character building that only serves to slow down the plot. If it doesn't come into play within the story, it doesn't need to be mentioned. Some author, I can't remember who, once said, "If you tell me there's a gun hanging over the mantle, it had better go off before the book ends," and I've always taken that to heart. Stories should be simple whenever they can, and as simple as possible wherever they can't.

I really wanted to see more non-typical main characters in fantasy as well... 'straight and white' didn't bother me so much, but it bugged me how many fantasy stories start with "there once was a backwater, naive young man" and then never give any indication whatsoever that he was backwater or naive. I couldn't remember naivete being an actual, legitimate character trait in any of the fantasy I read, so in my fantasy series I made my MC a backwater naive country girl who would actually BE naive until there was reason for her not to. In real life people change slowly, so I figured that even though she'd eventually be a badass superpowered warhammer-weilding angel of death, it would take her a while to get there from the super-unworldly, trusting, utterly innocent naif she started as. Since I'm midway through the fourth book of the four-book series, I have to stick with that plan.

People hate her.

I don't mean they 'dislike' her. I mean they motherfucking HATE her.

Some of my biggest fans have told me directly how much they wanted her to die. Almost every review I've ever received list her as one of the flaws in the series. I very regularly encounter people on forums warning people away from Twisted Cogs and from my writing as a whole because of her.

I know the correct answer to this question is "don't worry about the haters, write what you want," and I honestly have mad respect for everyone who does that. I just thought I'd mention there is another side to it as well, because though we all want to be true to ourselves, we also kinda want people to love everything we write, you know?

Like I say, I know I'm in the minority here, but if I personally started my series again, I would 100% stick to a straight, white, male, naive-in-name-only, (orphaned? Maybe orphaned, that seems the norm) hero's journey protagonist.

@Adam: I think there's a difference between not offering any physical description or deep development of any characters at all and assuming that "straight, white, male" is the automatic default character type and that any deviation from that type is a "gun hanging over the mantle." In your original post, you use the phrase "whatever makes them different," but you might remember that from someone else's perspective (say mine, as a female), you are the one who's different. That attitude can inadvertently create a sense of exclusion that may not be what you're looking for. I don't spend a great deal of time or word count on physical descriptions or spelling out any characters' sexual orientations, either. As I said, that's not the focus of my story. The only extra effort I put in is that the first time I describe a new character, I try to ensure they're not all same-gendered or same-complected. (In my case, I have to remember that boys are allowed some air time, too. ;D )

Again, I am not judging or trying to suggest you should change the way you do things. Absolutely you should write what and how you prefer! Just trying to flip things around to offer a new perspective, if that's what you were looking for.

@Maddi I didn't get terribly far into Twisted Cogs (need more hours in the day, pls), but your main character reminded me of the main character of a book series I enjoyed very much. I just cannot for the life of me remember the author or title now.

I think that one of the great things about fantasy is that it can tackle issues like racism without directly going into it. By this, I mean building fantasy worlds with similar social/political issues to the ones in the real world.

People don't want to get hit in the face with political messaging and moral lessons when they're just trying to enjoy a good story. But write about a dark elf with a good alignment who does his best to help people despite constantly being shunned for the colour of his skin, and voila! Good story that at the same time makes people re-evaluate the way they behave in real life.

If you have the familiarity and skill to depict a diverse cast of characters, you should probably do so. I personally also hesitate to depict people of different races and sexual orientations in Earth-like worlds because I don't think I could do it properly.

I admit to copping out a bit on the whole issue because I don't want to deal with it. The MC in my main project is a self-insert, and I haven't mentioned that she's Asian at all.

However, I think people need to bring their own stories to the table. I started writing because I wanted to see characters who were like me become the leading characters. However, the characteristics that I wanted to see weren't external; I don't really care about whether a character's skin is black or white or blue. The characters I write are intelligent, logical, emotionally stable, kind (in their own way), and have quirky senses of humour. I found my target audience that identifies with my characters, and I couldn't be happier about it.

In the same way, I think if you don't see the stories you want to read, you should go out and write them rather than ranting about it on Wattpad.

That's a good point. My Slayer/Sphinx is almost entirely about racism (speciesm?) In that it's all about trying to stop an army of overzealous warriors from killing off the Mythic race just because they're not human. (It goes deeper than that, but... you should read the book)

First off, cool thread. With the right people, it's a great topic. I'd love to weigh in.

This is an issue I've thought about for one very important reason: The human race in my story, which are self-named 'Utopians', have employed eugenics. This means that how I represent populations makes very big statements about racism. Very big. It's an important topic, and as Unice demonstrated, you may let show your perspective through story-details. It's almost impossible to keep your beliefs from bleeding through, I find.

Many if not most choose to make a statement with their writing, such as with Speciesism.

Because I've taken a more overt road with intellectual characters and plot points revolving around this, I have to worry some. I worry that I've not handled things as delicately as is necessary for some. I'm not calling anyone a baby, however. Some just care more than others. Personally, I'm not very emotionally involved.

Which is not always a good thing. Great for clear-thinking - not for covering bases.

To give some info, out of the twelve characters I'd call primary - four are non-white, one being the protagonist. One is n/a. I'm sure everyone has different degrees of thought paid to this. Most probably want to do it right. On sexuality, it's not been discussed yet.

To summarize, my experience on this topic is that I sometimes get a looming sense of disapproval. There's not anyone to read over my shoulder and tell me if something will offend. So, the way I cope is to throw up my arms and do whatever I think is best. If ever I am reviewed, here's hoping they don't dislike how I've handled things.

As a black female writer, I honestly write a lot of male main characters who aren't black. It isn't that I default to them because it's "safe." Gosh if I wanted safe, I would write them in the typical coming of age story following that pesky starting from meager beginnings and become great might warrior archetype. I honestly refuse to do that if I can help it. I do it mainly because I like writing male characters. Call it an odd writing quirk.

Because of this, I often don't tell people my race as a writer. I honestly rather not given I keep seeing from these groups of people crying for diversity get on the backs of creators who happen to be part of the poc community for not creating their works based off their race or culture. I don't like that. I create the story that needs to be written and there is more to a character than identifying traits. As one writer I know says, "Write your character as people first." All my characters are people, everyone of them. Whether they be elves, shapeshifters, or talking birds, I design them as a person first. That matters to me more because I've spent more time writing non-humans than I have humans in all my years of writing.

I always believed that people honestly should write what they want to write and they shouldn't be afraid to do something different and they shouldn't be forced into doing something. I think there possibly would be a little more diversity if people would stop getting offended so easily and discourage those who do try from ever trying again or anyone who wants to try.

Ohh, interesting.

I actually recently did a blog post on why the current ethnic diversity model used in fiction doesn't work and increases stereotypes.

It's here https://thestorycraftblog.wordpress.com/2016/06/23/why-ethnicdiversity-in-movies-is-a-bad-thing/

Basically I'm arguing for demographic diversity. Basing diversity on the demographics of an area, rather than just throwing in one token Person of Colour.

There definitely needs to be more diversity in fiction, but there also needs to be a line drawn between fiction set in our world in the present or past, and fiction set in our world in the future, or in another world.

I hear a lot that "white authors can't write non-white characters because they don't know what it's like to not be white," but strangely I never hear that "people of colour can't write white characters..." And if we use this logic, where does it end? JK Rowling has never been a man so she should never have written Harry Potter?

The only person who knows what it is like for a person of any race, colour, gender or sexuality in my made up world of Aramatasaradaga (which I made up right now and never intend to use) is me. Because I made it up.

Part of the problem is that traditionally authors are white and male and, like TheAdamBo, they write what they are. Indie fiction already has more diversity in it.

Okay, you may need more popcorn, this could get long...

I'll start by pulling in a quote from unice5656's reply: "If you have the familiarity and skill to depict a diverse cast of characters, you should probably do so." I'd agree with that - Earth IS a diverse place, after all. Realism! On the other hand, in sci-fi stories, we go to another planet and all of them look the same - so whoops? But then, maybe that's a case for why to keep things simple, not overthink, and write what you know. Because the fact is, we'll tend to read into things whatever we expect, particularly if we (as was said) identify with characteristics.

Consider the whole "is Hermione black" debate out on the internet, where even Rowling herself has said she's fine with that interpretation. I mean, there's nothing stating Hermione ISN'T, regardless of how she may (or may not) have been written, right? Conversely, had race been deliberately incorporated, we might end up with something like "Star Trek"'s Andorians referring to humans as "pink skins"... another one of those topics that causes internet conflict. And from that, I seem to be making a case now to simply write to tell a story.

Here's the thing. If you're writing straight, white characters, can it not be a subtle form of racism or prejudice, seeing everyone in your world that way? Saying something like "I don't see race, everyone is equal" ignores the centuries of struggle for equality between races, genders, and sexuality. We're NOT equal, even if that is our ideal, and social dynamics between a world's characters are influenced by those sorts of issues and beliefs. I was called out on this myself, because when I started drawing my 'personified math', they were all white. But like you, I felt like misrepresenting other races would be just as bad. And maybe back then, it would have been... I needed time to grow more comfortable with how to do it the right way.

I wrote a post on this very subject a little over a year ago in one of the "Author Asides" for my time travel story. In brief, I'd been updating the story I'd written in the year 2000 (when I was in University) to post now. And I wondered in my edits about diversifying the cast. And I found I couldn't do it in a way that I liked - it felt like either characters would end up as accidental stereotypes, or it would have necessitated new interactions that were too different for the existing plot. You can read all my musings here: https://mathtans.wordpress.com/2015/05/24/ttc-commentary-04/

The other thing I mention in that post is that my main characters are almost ALWAYS female. Whereas I am not. (Kind of the flip side to Lady Ander?) Yet no one has complained that my lead female characters are "unbelievable". So perhaps it's simply a matter of writing something, and seeing if you get the sort of feedback (pro or con) that's happening on Wattpad? Presumably the worst that can happen is you get it wrong, learn from the mistake, and do it right next time, perhaps broadening your audience in the process. Ah yes, there is your audience to consider as well -- if you want further reading on how not everyone wants diversity, look into the recent "Sad Puppies" and "Rabid Puppies" campaigns against the Hugo Awards. Ok, I think I'm done.

@Inky: That's actually kind of sad, that you now say you would stick to something so vanilla, but then I haven't been on the receiving end of whatever vitriol that you have. And I often wonder if I made Carrie too mean and self-absorbed leading off my own story, so we probably all second guess this stuff.

To address the comments made:

@TheAdamBo: it's your story, write it the way you want. But the main problem with stereotyping colour or sexuality is when one token character is included. Take Ghostbusters, both the original and reboot feature three white scientist and one streetwise African American, reinforcing stereotypes of white intellectual superiority, and non-white inferiority. This could have been easily avoided by having 2 white scientists, 1 African American scientist, and 1 streetwise African American. More diversity in a work usually means less stereotypes.

@BlaiseCorvin - I agree. Rather than complaining that someone's fiction isn't diverse, I'll simply avoid it and read other fiction instead. For instance, I prefer female lead characters - I will read something with a female lead even if I'm only a little interested in, but for a male lead (or worse, all male cast) I'm only going to read that if the story seems really, really, really, really exceptional. But I'd never tell someone what to write, I can only control what I write and choose to read.

@Leerickson have you ever read the Earth Girl series? It has a female author, is set in the future when humanity is spread into the stars, and race and sexuality are totally accepted - but star system, uhh, ism, has replaced racism, and there is a lot of "disabled" hostility (disabled meaning people whose immune systems fail on any planet other than earth). I think it's important to realise when you write something set in the future, like you do, that the future can be anything - and so only you (the author) can truly know what it is like for any of your characters to live there.

@TheAdamBo fast paced stories can still have diversity. I tend to write fast paced stories with female leads. My web serial is slower than most things I write, but I wouldn't call it slow, and it sort of has five female lead characters, only three of whom are white. Also, one is gay, one is bisexual, two are straight, and one is really confused about everything. Diversity can affect the story, it just depends how you structure the plot.

Inky Llama, you just really, really, really made me want to read your webserial. It just skipped right to the top of the list (after I finish binging the one I'm reading).

@unice - Terry Pratchett's discworld is (I think) the best example of what you are talking about. Fantastic stories that aren't about things in our world but that let us look at things in our world in a different, and interesting way.

@Shaeor - I think it is possible to write without your beliefs seeping in, otherwise only evil folk could write interesting villains ;)

But I can see that eugenics would introduce a lot of questions as to just what is perfect, what is human, what is an abomination, and I can appreciate that your personal beliefs affecting the plot. As to offending people, I will guarantee you do. Just from the short description you gave of eugenics with a non-white main character, unless they were naturally birthed you've probably offended a lot of white supremacists. :P

I think it's best just to write the best story you can and not worry about offending people.

@LadyAnders I like your approach. I'm pretty private about who I really am, I don't write under my real name at all, but I've admitted to being white because I have white, Asian and Middle Eastern characters and I'm probably bound to get something wrong. If readers pick up on it, I'll apologise and do better in future. But I can see that you would get people complaining about you adding to the problem by not being more diverse - yet we all have to tell the best stories we can and not be shaped by "out of book" concerns. It can be hard to balance.

Wow, that was long. I guess I'm passionate about this :D

Writers being passionate and opinionated? Naw.


My current story routinely deals with issues of race, gender and sexuality. I am routinely accused of being racist, sexist and homophobic. I think many people shy away from the more controversial side of these subjects because internets. Unless you're writing a very vanilla 'racist guy is bad let's get him' people are going to attack you for it, whatever your actual intention might be.

My point being it's always going to be slow to get the kind of thought-provoking fiction (in any genre) that we would all like to see because society itself is struggling with these issues, and will demand better representation for all on the one hand, and crush it as soon as it appears with the other.

Personally, I'm not all that interested in more diversity because most of it will be of poor quality and merely state the obvious. There is some merit to blanket-bombing a message. It helps change what is considered the norm. Racism is wrong, everyone got the memo. Message received. But racism is still here, so what next? Stories that explore these subjects further is what I think we should be encouraging. Not by telling everyone to write more black characters (or the equivalent), but by identifying writers doing interesting work in this area and bringing them to the attention of others.

A couple of people have pointed out that male authors write female characters and female authors write male characters, but I don't think this is equivalent to tackling characters who are from a completely different race/culture/sexual orientation.

I already feel a bit insecure when I'm writing male characters. Nobody has complained that my male characters are unrealistic, but a couple of them have commented that my female characters feel "deeper" and better fleshed-out. I'm constantly working on observing the world and expanding my "sample size" both passively and actively to improve my characterization.

However, while it's totally fine and often done to post in forums topics such as "Advice on writing male characters?", I don't think it would be as acceptable for me to post something like, "Advice on writing gay characters?" or "Advice on writing black characters?" Correct me if I'm wrong, but I feel like people would get offended.

Though if somebody would not find find the questions offensive, I really would be interested if people had advice on writing such characters. I'd be happy to trade my Taiwanese-Canadian perspective on things.

One of the things about having a character who can change appearance drastically is that I have the potential to explore some differences with the main character. The problem is being able to pull it off. Probably the best I've done at it is that said main character doesn't change much, even when he went as physically female as he could go without rewriting genetics. Probably about the main point made in that was just that, no matter the relatively insignificant physical difference of being a different race or sex, the character was the same. Just made fewer penis jokes as a woman.

Though wearing metal nipple cups as an offensive weapon wouldn't work out so well in real life as Gecko's patented Brass Nipples did in-story.

As far as sexuality is concerned...I haven't gotten enough feedback to know what they think of the main character's bisexuality, except that one reader was about to go crazy over the main character not having a romantic partner to actually date. Which, for me at least, is a weak area. I could write sex scenes ok, but I lack experience on relationships.

So I can definitely understand not wanting to try something you think you'll probably mess up, at least now. One of the advantages of writing superpowers is that a lot of people don't have experience shooting lasers from their eyes or unaided flight. We could write that almost any way we want to and no one will stand up to go "Uh uh, that's completely unlike anything my friends and I have experienced." Works with aliens and fantasy races, too. The same can't be said of racial or sexual differences, which makes them a bit more intimidating. Then again, I have it on good authority that some men can be quite adept at fooling experienced lesbians when writing sex from a female perspective. No comment.

As for how that applies to race, I think someone else mentioned that there's that view amongst us crackers that white is the default. Which it is, to us, because of how we were raised in a society that makes it the default. I remember an interview that got someone from the show The Adventures of Pete And Pete in some hot water, this guy felt that diversity was unnecessary unless it was for a point. That is, unless a character had any particular reason to be anything other than white, just make them white because, in his mind, the audience will be able to connect with the character anyway. And make them male, while you're at it, he thought.

I'm not a fan of that line of thinking myself, especially the idea that you shouldn't have a character of a certain race unless their story is about an issue affecting that race. Because regular people can be regular people, regardless of adaptations to sunlight. But maybe looking at is an author will give you a chance for a more nuanced perspective. I'm a big fan of research for writing (and am probably on a watch list because of it), so maybe try a bit of observation in your normal day to get a better understanding of how people act and react to those differences. People always have a reason for doing something, even if the reason itself isn't very good.

Now, to take a break from mansplaining race from my white perspective and listen to some Blues. Maybe some Billie Holiday and "Strange Fruit"

Wait, people will ditch a story because it doesn't feature a straight white male protagonist? Wow. I've always thought one of the great strengths of fiction is that it allows you to experience the world through the eyes of somebody who is not yourself...

I remember looking at my "important characters" list once and noticing it was 2/3 female. It wasn't intentional, it's just the way things are. Straight white men are somewhat lacking in representation, too. Damn.

I will admit that I intentionally modelled my (initial) protagonist on the usual self-insert cliches (loner, nerdy, awkward, surrounded by women, implication that he's really the Chosen One and will win the heart of the hot badass chick) and then showed him up as a self-absorbed, delusional, entitled coward with a major Oedipal complex. There was a drop in readers around that point. Mission accomplished?

I'm just gonna jot down a hodgepodge of my opinions on various subjects we've discussed so far.

I've written female lead characters before. Amber Silverblood is written in first person from a girl's perspective, and one of The Slayer and the Sphinx's two main characters is female. Zashiel in Juryokine is a girl too, though the story's only told from her POV in the prologue. I felt like I did pretty well writing all three of them, though maybe it's a bit telling that Amber and Zashiel are both tomboys. Sarah from Slayer/Sphinx is the most "girly" girl I've written, but the fact that she's a sphinx, not a human, might still make a big difference.

There are three PoC characters in Amber Silverblood, and while I haven't been yelled at yet... well, I'm waiting for it. They're a pack of werewolves called the "swag pag," and I intentionally played off all the gangsta/thug life stereotypes I knew of. That serves a dual point, because 1. the pack alpha was the bad guy and really abusive, so the fact that Amber fights back and ends up killing him in the end speaks to her growth as a character (and that was secretly the reason she was put in that pack in the first place). 2. It was to show that appearances aren't everything, because the other two members of the pack were deeper characters than they first appeared, and were only going along with the whole "swag" thing because the alpha would kill them if they defied him.

There are a couple of PoC characters in The Slayer and the Sphinx as well. One guy has black skin, and the other is kind of Arabic, though I never really pointed that out. Then again, the fact that one is a ten foot tall giant, and the other is a fire-blooded djinn, neither of them human, might weaken that a little. Oh, and there are two Asian characters. Admittedly, I made them that way mostly so that they stood out in a crowd, making it easier for one to recognize the other as being his sister when they meet up.

My experience with stories featuring minority characters is that it seems like at least part of the story has to deal with people's prejudices against them. You can't write a black character without someone being racist to them, you can't write a female character without someone being sexist to them, and you can't write a gay character without someone being homophobic to them. I just... my stories aren't about that, so I'd either feel like I'm wasting my readers' time with the obligatory "life isn't fair for the MC" moment, or selling my readers short by not giving them what they want to get. And looking at some of the female-centric movies that have come out lately, like Maleficent and the Ghost Busters reboot, it seems like a lot of people are happy to throw out a decent plot in order to hamfist a poorly thought out feminist moral into it. Again, that's just not what my stories are about, and I'm afraid if I were to start having more "diverse" characters that people would expect me to do the same thing... which I won't... which might drive them even further away.

Everyone says to write whatever you want, but again I feel like that's a catch 22. If you're writing stories you expect other people to read, you have to take their expectations into consideration, at least a little. Otherwise you risk ending up with a story that nobody but you can identify with. That's what happened when I read Lev Grossman's "The Magicians", and I absolutely hated that book because I couldn't identify with Quentin at all. But you also can't satisfy everyone, so you have to pick and choose which readers are worth your time trying to make happy. Either way, just writing whatever you want isn't really a viable choice if you expect to be popular and commercially successful.

And that has been my conglomeration of poorly thought out opinions. Should I take cover now?