Here's a post I did on tumblr when this blog was down. Please also join me Thursday, May 1, 2pm EDT for the #diverselit chat on twitter with Tu Books.
It is easier to write Neutral characters (white, straight, able-bodied, non-religious, mostly male). Less controversial, strangely. If the major characters of all your books resemble the cast of Friends, you’ll get occasional questions as to why but no major protestations. Because we’re all used to it. It’s the norm.
If you write Specific characters (characters of color, with disabilities, who are religious or LGBTQ or have any other non-neutral traits), you will get more questions. Readers and reviewers who are like the character will challenge you. Will tell you that your portrayal disappointed them. Because the experience of the character wasn’t exactly like their own. Or representative enough. Or positive enough.
This will happen whether or not the author is like the character in question, though more often if a white author writes about a POC, or a straight author writes about an LGBTQ character, or an able-bodied author writes about a character with a disability, etc. Those who protest are engaging in important dialog. They need to have a voice. Their concerns are important. They help challenge writers to be respectful, thoughtful, and truthful in their writing.
But I worry that the concerns will discourage some authors from writing Specific characters. We must continue to do so, respectfully and as honestly as we can. Because it’s our job to represent humanity in literature. And humanity is diverse.
People are white and black and Asian and Latino and mixed. No one is truly able-bodied: we have missing limbs or chronic illnesses or mental illnesses or even glasses or allergies or freckles or fat or some way our bodies or minds aren’t exactly like some impossible transcendent ideal. People are different or weird or confused but always, always interesting.
Right now, the vast majority of characters in books and movies are Neutral, so when you write the rare character in a novel who isn’t, they stand out more. And people worry if the portrayal isn’t perfect (whatever “perfect” means). Because what if a young reader reads that book and it’s the only book they ever read about that kind of a person and they assume that’s how all people like that are?
It is impossible to write a character that should somehow accurately represent the truth of all people like that character. But I hope writers aren’t scared back into safer Neutral Land. The answer is more Specific characters. More and more till we more closely match the world we live in. And then those few Specific characters won’t have to carry the load of representing on behalf of all others like them. Then we can allow them to be their own unique, individual selves with flaws and all and love them all the same.