DIY Diversity

Culture is all around us.  It decides what we think is normal and what we think is weird.  Do you fit the stencil of this culture?  If not, you're probably in for a rough time.  If so, great!  Carry on.

No, I'm not just talking about American culture.  All cultures do this in one way or another.  Look at fan culture, for instance.  If I wear the red, white, and blue into an SF/F convention, I'm one of millions.  No one recognizes me, no one minds.  I might get a couple comments-- the suit's not tight enough to be authentic, my hair sticks out of the sides of my cowl-- but I'm accepted for the most part.  I'm in my element, among people who like to dress up before doing anything special.  It's a specific culture.

On the other hand, if I walk into my grocery store, I begin to get weird looks.  People judge my casual purchase of seven chocolate bars and a root beer.  (If Spider-Man asks you for food, the answer is no even if you're stuffing your mouth right in front of him.)  People look from the bag of Doritos to my face and back, and decide I'm just a weirdo.  Fan culture barely exists in a grocery store, except in eight-year-olds.  I feel rejected.

Think about it.  Culture defines diversity.  In a grocery store, my bright outfit is diverse.  Sam Wilson, while brilliant, tough, and slower than me, is considered diverse in many cases.  Some wonder about my relationship with Stark and consider that diverse as well.  All of this diversity-- everything we talk about this month-- depends on our culture.

Enough about the real world.  Culture defines diversity, and in any YA that is not sci-fi/fantasy YA, that means you need to start researching.  Look around at the other posts this month and consider religion, gender, sexuality, and race.  But what happens if you redefine culture?  How does that affect diversity?

Consider a cabal of magicians.  Working in secret, they strive to keep the world free from dangerous phenomena such as asteroids, monster attacks, and bad reboots of classic movies.  (I thought I could catch up on stuff by watching the reboots.  No, Steve, bad idea.)  Of course, they aren't always successful, but their greatest successes come from large magicians.  I don't mean tall, or big-- large.  It's difficult to say tactfully, but the more mass the magician possesses, the greater things they can achieve.

So what happens?  Obesity in this cabal is not only acceptable, but powerful as well.  Fat people are the future, if you'll pardon my bluntness.  The cabal is still secret.  America still believes obesity to be an epidemic.  But in this worldwide circle of magicians, the fat are respected.

By changing the culture, you change the definition of diversity.  Someone straddling the magical and mundane worlds might get really confused; should she be fat for magic's sake, or should she be skinny for a better plainclothes operative look?  On the other hand, skinny people would get the short end of the stick in the magical realm.  They might be teased, or avoided, or considered worthless.  The tables have turned because the culture has changed.

If it doesn't stick to your ribs, it's not worth the time.
That's sort of an urban fantasy example.  What happens if you go completely other-world fantasy, without any of the constraints that earth has laid upon culture?  In another world, you can treat racism the complete opposite way, or ignore it completely.  You can make homosexuality the norm for a governmental population control.  How is magic treated?  Is it beloved?  Is it despised?  It's a new world.  You create the cultures, so you decide what becomes diverse.

I've only read a couple of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, but the way he dealt with gender struck me.  The women are completely in control of government, almost constantly.  They also have a monopoly on magic, because the moment a man is blessed with great cosmic power, he goes crazy and burns half the world.  Magic is definitely feared, but respected.  It isn't that men are always itching to be the equal of women-- the moment a man becomes a woman's equal, he's probably going to kill his family and put a new mountain in the middle of a marshland.  Men and women still have their differences, but gender roles get wiggled in interesting ways.

Because of that culture, a woman who seems to have magic is respected, feared, and has complete power over normal people.  Men drink and work and fight, but have little say in government.  This is the norm, and this is how we judge diversity in the series.

Now, this is all very general.  If you've read Robert Jordan's stuff, you're probably clamoring in outrage at this point-- what I just described is not the whole picture.  As the characters move through different countries, these norms change.  Gender is addressed differently.  Clothing is addressed differently.  Depending on the country, the culture changes, and thus the diversity changes.

This is your job too.  You can create a mythos that puts pale-skinned people next to demons (they get sunburned, so they're obviously closer to eternal flaming torture than normal people)-- but is that true in a country with a colder climate, where skin color is rarely seen because everyone's bundled up so often?  The mythos might be the same, but sunburn is much rarer, and skin color is not a concern.

Let me tell you, sunburn is not a problem here.
The United States is a big country.  Maybe you don't live here, and you laugh at our silliness, but we US writers have a bit of a problem.  We tend to think the entire world is just like us.  When someone arrives that is not like us, we get confused about it.  This affects your worldbuilding all the time.  Even in a giant melting pot of cultures, different ones will shine through as diverse or normal.  Not every country has the same beliefs.  Not every country has the same opinion toward a certain class, race, or gender.  Ignoring that, and having your characters travel through countries just like their own, will show how little you think about diversity.

That said, thinking too much about it is probably unwise.  Even if you have your entire world figured out from the moment you start writing (I'm looking at you, Tolkien), you won't be able to fit in every last detail about how diverse your world is.  Diversity is something that shows up in little bits, especially in a story where the entire world is technically diverse.  Aliens are not really normal around here, if you haven't noticed.  Be careful.

But I applaud you for thinking about culture and the way it affects diversity.  Bonus points for making it part of your plot.  Seeing a culture that uses hats as a form of nonverbal communication is great-- being thrown in jail because you accidentally insulted the queen's consort by curling your hair the wrong way is so much better.  Have fun thinking about this, and may diversity thrive in your writing.

~Captain America

1 comment:

  1. Okay, I have a quick question. Off-topic, but I HAVE TO KNOW, PEOPLE. The Avengers movie made it seem like the scene in the third gif was a memory... did you actually remember that? A bit after waking up, I mean... ow. That sucks.
    And THANK YOU SO MUCH ABOUT THIS POST! It makes me feel so much better about my one crazy protagonist who is almost stereotypically Caucasian... sort of. Anyway, he lives in a sort of country which is somewhat like Calormen... WHAT?! I just realized. I totally ripped my plot off of "The Horse and His Boy." Um... oops? *cries quietly in a corner* And I said "sort of" because he's on the small side, probably underweight, and has a condition that makes his bone structure a bit more fragile than normal. And he has green eyes and dark hair, so he could be portrayed by any of a bunch of British actors if it ever gets made into a movie, which I doubt it will. Grrr. He's the emotional center of the story but sort of boring when it comes to the action; in that case it's the (Calormene?) girl Iris (yes, named by Irisbloom5 of infamy) who's the super-awesome-kicker-of-evil-posteriors. Also, he's a bit of a dork, and her cynicism leads her to make mistakes at times. Trying to make multi-dimensional characters here... :-P