07-14-18 Cassandra O’Leary

Monday, August 29, 2016

Five Tips for Writing Diverse Worlds & Characters by C. Morgan Kennedy

We live in a diverse world full of people from different backgrounds and lush cultures with varied abilities. Yet many of the stories written today often do not reflect this diversity. I’m not just calling out authors of contemporary fiction… many, if not most, historical authors overlook the presence of historically accurate diversity.

How should you approach writing diverse characters who are members of groups and cultures other than your own?
Here are FIVE tips for writing diverse worlds and characters:
  1. Do your research – Don’t rely on stereotypes. Read books written by authors from cultures you want to include. Specifically seek out books that reflect their cultural experiences. And, of course, first person research is the best…meaning talk to people.
  2. Write the story – Just like with any project, you can get bogged down in the research phase and never actually put words on the page. No words on the page means there is nothing to edit. Write. The. Story. Then…
  3. Use a sensitivity reader – Ok – let’s rewind a bit….what is a sensitivity reader? A sensitivity reader is a member of the group you are trying to represent who reads your work to help you ‘get it right.’ They are NOT a line or story editor, but they do provide input on character situations, reactions, and generally make sure your depictions are accurate and culturally sensitive. In short, they try to keep you from putting your proverbial foot in your mouth. Some publishers have sensitivity readers on staff. I’ve helped out a few author friends and friends of friends by doing sensitivity reads for African-American characters.
    Reach out to your writer friends and ask for recommendations for this type of help. Time is money, so be prepared to pay. Depending on word count, a sensitivity read can cost less than $100 - $200 or more USD.
  4. Find and use diverse alpha and beta readers – Especially if you are self-publishing your work, another set of eyes (or several sets of eyes) is always a good idea. Just make sure that the readers you select are representative of the world and characters you’ve written.
  5. Don’t be afraid, be sensitive – Some authors are so afraid of ‘getting it wrong,’ they avoid including diverse characters. I get it…social media hasn’t been kind to authors of some of the more outrageous and insensitive stories that have been hits lately. If you follow the points I’ve listed, you will avoid most – if not all – the pitfalls some authors have fallen into. Don’t make any assumptions about a different cultural group. Instead write the story and ask for input with an open mind and an open heart.

By being more inclusive, you will create more detailed and richer worlds for your audience. Plus, who knows, you may just find some new readers along the way.

About C. Morgan Kennedy:
I have a confession to make. I’m a time traveler. I love flinging myself into the future, then hurtling fast to an alternative past.

In my usual time-space-dimension, I’m a mechanical engineer and business woman. So, I have a natural penchant for hover cars and steam or aether powered engines. I was born in the wrong era, I’m actually a child of the sixties – 1860, 1960, 2060.

Steampunker, futurist, blerd, artist, contemporary author, and marketing maven…a real creative force of nature – that’s me in a nutshell.

Keep tabs on my adventures via my blog, Morgan’s Mix Tape, on my website: http://www.cmorgankennedy.com.


Paty Jager said...

Great post! I have a Sensitivity Reader. She lives on a reservation and his married to a Native American and has raised her kids on the reservation I write about in my mystery series. I ask her lots of questions, she gave me a tour of the reservation, and then I send her my work to read before I send it to anyone else to make sure I have the culture and people accurate. I've used sensitivity readers for most of my books that have diversity. I just didn't know that was what they were called! Thanks C. Morgan!

C. Morgan Kennedy said...

Thanks Paty! You are always on top things! I believe it is a 'newer' term, but more and more publishing houses are paying sensitivity readers. It's smart and makes good business sense. I hope that it leads to hiring more diversity throughout the publishing industry. :D

Sarah Raplee said...

Thank you for the sensible, step-by-step advice, C. Morgan! Writing diverse characters is scary in the sense that we want to make them authentic. I like the term 'sensitivity reader.'

Great post!

Lynn Lovegreen said...

Thank you for the important post. These are great tips, especially for writers who want to be sure to get it right.

B A Binns said...

I agree with everything here, but would like to add a little more. #1, Do your research deserves a star. Don't assume you know about a group you are not part of, or that cultural research is the same as searching for simple facts.

#3 One sensativity reader may not be enough. Just as no one person is the definitive expert on their group or culture, a single reader may miss some problematic areas. Which makes #4 even more important. Have these peopke, and listen to what they say, and what they don't say.

I also would like to add a #0 examine your motive closely. This is not to talk authors out of writing diversly. On the contrary, it is important to represent the real world. But examine your motivation and your intended audience. That will not only clarify some choices for you, but it is also self-knowledge that may help empower you to keep going through the deep research and when your alpha and beta readers bring problems to your attention.

Most of all, as C Morgan Kelly said, keep writing and striving to improve your portrayals of those different from you.

Judith Ashley said...

Thanks C. Morgan for a clear and concise list of what steps an author can take to make sure their characters are authentic diverse. And thanks also to B.A. Binns for the add ons.

C. Morgan Kennedy said...

I am glad to know that my article was helpful. B. A. Binns raises excellent points, too! I agree that the sensitivity reader / beta reader combo is a must. Everyone brings their own perspective to the table that influences their opinions and observations. It is important to have a variety of eyes on your work. I also agree with the motivation for your choices character and know that some of the most interesting story lines and plot twists come from the simple question of "why?". :D