Doing Diversity

#DiversityinYA and #weneeddiverse books are ideas that are trending in both the publishing world and the Twittersphere, and for good reason. Even a casual look at the YA section of most local bookstores will reveal that the overwhelming majority of books are about white characters. "Where is the Mexican Katniss?" writer Matt de la Pena wrote a year ago, and he's been quoted everywhere from personal blogs to CNN. There are few books with LGBT protagonists or teens with disabilities or non-"traditional" Christian characters as well. The world is a big place with all kinds of people in it - why shouldn't our bookshelves reflect that? And very few YA writers disagree.

Given the popularity of this demand, you'd think that everyone and his brother would be out there "doing diversity", writing that big bestseller that features a collection of characters right out of Dinseyland's It's a Small World ride. So why aren't they? Maybe because they're not as cynical as I am. Or maybe because my joke reveals a kind of truth: a lot of writers are afraid of making characters that seem like cartoon caricatures of "diversity."
Or they're afraid of getting it wrong.

One writer I know went into a panic recently thinking about the "best friend" character she'd created in a series of books. If her main character is white and her best friend is African American, she worried, does that make the best friend the token "black best friend" figure in these stories? Another writer worries that a character she's developing in her work-in-progress could be construed as the "sassy gay friend" because he's sort of sassy and, after much animosity between them, is befriended by the protagonist. Does this automatically slot him as a stock character?

No one wants to write stock characters and no one wants to be accused - or have it gently pointed out to them - that they've missed the mark with any character they develop, and it's an especially sensitive issue when there are so few "diverse" characters. This is not to bemoan the hardships of the well-meaning white writer in a PC world. And white writers aren't going to solve this problem alone. We need many more voices like de la Pena's and other writers who can bring their experience and perspectives to YA books and share them with a variety of readers of all ethnicities and creeds and orientations and abilities. That's what reading is all about, isn't it - opening up your world?

A few days ago, Jessica Pryde wrote on Book Riot about "Why We Need Inclusive Lit, Not Just Diverse Lit". She calls for "more stories, period" written from a variety of perspectives. Not just "gay books" and "wheelchair books" and "deaf Chicana transgender polo player books" but all of these books. Put all kinds of characters in your books and strive to make them more than one-dimensional and you won't incur the wrath of some imagined PC posse ready to hang you from a rainbow flagpole for violating some code of diversity. Include characters as they would appear in the real world - multifaceted, multidimensional, multiethnic, multi-human.

Before I sign out, I want to extend a big green hug and welcome Spider Man to the team. He is indeed a "little bean of a person" but occasionally humorous. He's certainly no more annoying than Iron Man.


  1. This is really encouraging and helpful. I definitely agree--putting diverse characters in books of all kinds is what we need. I want to see representation and diversity in what I read throughout the whole cast, no matter what the plot or topic is. As you said, real life contains diverse people interspersed in our lives, so why shouldn't our characters' lives reflect that? It's sad that we haven't gotten to that point yet, but from what I see in the YA-sphere on Twitter and the internet, I think that it's starting to change. Thanks for this post--it helps me know where to begin with incorporating diversity into my own writing. Kudos!

  2. I think that some people, too, are more concerned about diversity than writing good stories. Fortunately, the majority of authors out there are intent on writing diverse characters who are real people, like... y'know, REAL PEOPLE.
    The minority characters in my stories are there because they're the best, and they don't apologize for being minorities. They're people first, and just happen to be part of a minority, really. I think that's the best way.