This morning when we walked the dog, my wife and I bumped into our neighbor. We chatted about whether or not we were going to renew our leases for next year. We talked about which of our other neighbors were renewing and which had already left. At no point did the fact that Betsy was Indian come up. Nor did the sexual orientation of our neighbor, he’s gay, make its way into the conversation. Nor did the fact that though I’m white-passing, my grandfather immigrated to the US from Mexico in the 1950s. Our races and orientations are part of our identities, but not all of it. If you want to write well, you need to incorporate this kind of diversity—casual diversity, as Jack defined in the first article of this series—into your stories.
The reality I live in isn’t populated only with straight white cisgendered men without disabilities, though that’s what’s most frequently refracted in TV, movies, comics, and books. Representation matters in a political sense because people who see themselves reflected in media are the ones who get to avoid “symbolic annihilation” — “the idea that if you don’t see people like you in the media you consume, you must somehow be unimportant.” It matters as much in a writing sense, if not more so, because convincing readers that your story is real is the hardest part of writing stories.
NBC’s The Good Place is a great example of casual diversity. While Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), a straight white woman, is the protagonist, the supporting cast is diverse. The three other human leads—Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto), Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), and Tahani Jamil (Jameela Jamil) —are all people of color, but none of them are defined by their race. Jason has a hilarious obsession with Jacksonville Jaguars’ quarterback Blake Bortles, hot wings, and dubstep. While his actual race isn’t specified in the show, it’s refreshing to see an Asian character be interested in something other than academics, because as Jacinto puts it, “there are no dumb Asians in mainstream media.” The show is better for recognizing that trend and flipping it on its head. If, as Kwame Dawes says, “Racist writing is a craft issue. A racist stereotype is a cliché. It's been done. Quite a bit. It's a craft failure,” that The Good Place is writing well by turning the cliché.
Similarly, rather than being an African stereotype, Chidi’s heritage has given him his name, and framed his world view, but his identity as presented in The Good Place is shaped by his career as an ethics professor and philosopher. He can’t help but overthink situations to the point of paralysis. Tahani’s rivalry with her sister leads to hounding insecurities that influence her more than her Pakistani background. Their racial identities are a part of them, but they’re more complex than that. They’re being treated as people with multifaceted identities, which is the goal of writing any principal character.
Of course, The Good Place has a writers room full of writers of color—Cord Jefferson, Andrew Law, Aisha Muharrar, Alan Yang, Demi Adejuyigbe have all penned episodes. People writing novels might not have that kind of support.
In Experimental Film by Gemma Files succeeds in creating a diverse cast. The protagonist Lois Cairns’ son, Clark, has an Autism Spectrum Disorder. For me to write that character with verisimilitude as someone without an Autism Spectrum Disorder or without a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder would take months, if not years of research. In Files’ case, she has a son with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. The lesson here being, it’s easier to write what you know.
The novel’s primary antagonist, Wrob Barney, is gay also. But Files never implies that Wrob’s sexual orientation is at all related to his generally shitty behavior. He’s a rich jerk, whose boyfriend and ex-boyfriend warn the protagonist Lois Cairns about the shady things Wrob is doing to her. Like the characters on The Good Place, he is more than the part of his identity the sexual orientation.
If you want to write good fiction, write diverse characters into your work and don’t obsess over what makes them different. It frequently isn’t what defines them. Write characters who share identities with the people you know. Do research. And when you’re done, find some sensitivity readers, the kind who “force authors to recognize their blind spots, not only in their work, but in the way they move through the world.” You and your writing will be better for it.
Ryan C. Bradley’s work has been featured in The Missouri Review, The Rumpus, Dark Moon Digest, and in other venues. He regularly contributes to Wicked Horror. You can learn more about him at https://ryancbradleyblog.wordpress.com/