Thursday, April 27, 2017

Why Diversity? It's Just Fiction. What's the Big Deal?

by Sean Taylor

Quick! What’s the biggest buzzword in modern fiction? Everyone together on the count of three… 1,2, 3…DIVERSITY!

“Way to go, Sean,” you’re probably thinking. “Way to piss off most of the people who might ever be likely to read your blog.” (And to be honest, you might be right.)

But if you’ll bear with me a moment, I want to guide us all to think about diversity as something deeper than a mere buzzword, something that gets beyond social politics and political correctness, and something that relates more to creating great fiction rather than trying to change the world.


What if Che Guevara had
written The Grapes of Wrath?
Writers are revolutionaries. It’s true. There’s no way to get around that. But first and foremost (pardon the cliche) writers are writers.

By that, I mean that writers are committed above all else to the story. But when writers surrender stories to the express purpose of changing the world through social and cultural order, they become propagandists and they pollute the very nature of telling stories.

Most every great piece of fiction that has helped to create change in the world has been an aftereffect of the story the writer wanted to tell. It began with story, not with revolution.

 Bear in mind, I’m referring only to fiction for this article. Non-fiction lives by different rules in this regard.

My take on this is simple: If you want to change the world as a writer, write great stories that change people. If you want to change the world through activism, go build someone a house, march in a parade, or work a crisis hotline. If you want to do both, do both, but don’t confuse storytelling with activism.

“But what about the history of stories, you know fables and fairy tales that taught morals? And what about books like the Narnia stories or The Fountainhead that were basically just thinly veiled religious or political primers?” you ask.

And you’re right. Fables and fairy tales were told primarily to encourage safe and “better” behaviour in children. But I’d argue that C.S. Lewis and Ayn Rand were wanting to tell stories to entertain and intrigue readers first and foremost and didn’t really give a damn about whether they picked up the religious or political symbolism or not as they read it (that could be something they learned later if the entertaining story stuck with them well enough and caused them to ponder).

But let’s go back in history a little earlier than that. Let’s look at myths and legends. They tried to explain the world, to put people in a place that made some kind of sense. They tried to uncover some truth about the human condition.

That’s my calling as a writer and my understanding of the craft. And I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one. I want to put stories in a context to understand the world and its people, even if I do it under the goal of entertaining readers. If I somehow contribute to changing the world or its people in the process, that’s just icing on the cake. The cake is the body of work, the stories themselves. Did they entertain? Were they worth sharing in the first place?

All that said, don’t mistake writing less diversely for the sake of story with the idea of setting out intentionally to offend by ignoring diversity. Just as the heads side doesn’t add up for me, neither does the tails side. If you choose not to be as diverse, it should be from a commitment to craft, not from being an obstinate jackass to further your own viewpoint, which is (you could call it) a sort of reverse propaganda by way of intentional absence.


Perhaps I should have given this section the subheading “What Not To Do” instead.

Sadly, the first place beginning writers (even more sadly, some experienced writers) turn when trying to make their work more diverse and accessible is to the paint-by-numbers approach. It’s a method seen most obviously in the cartoon Captain Planet and in Power Rangers.

Pink is for girls. Yellow is for Asians?!
And black is for... Wait... really?!
It works like this: “Okay, we need our main white guy. Right. He’s there. Sure. But we need to make sure there’s a black guy too or people will think we're racists. Oh, and we need a girl. Or how about two? Let’s make one white, and for the other let’s go Latina or Asian, since we already have African-American checked off. No, no, it doesn’t matter if it makes sense for the story or not. We can work around that. We just have to check all the boxes or we’ll never sell this book.”

Obviously, that description is a bit over the top, but the mindset is pretty spot-on. I can’t tell you how many writers I’ve talked with at conventions who see this as the most efficient approach to create multicultural casts in their works. Even those who'd never admit it to anyone can't still be found out by the way it shows up in their work. It's the kind of lowest-common-denominator "diversity" that turns people off from writing better diverse casts in the first place.

The problems this approach creates are fairly obvious, but in the interest of complete transparency, I’ll outline them here.

  1. It kills otherwise good stories with characters that don’t belong. If you need to tell a story about a solo adventurer or a pair of thieves, forcing a larger starring cast for the sake of diversity only weakens your story. Better to save that for your background cast and your "world-building" cast of extras. 
  2. It kills characterization. That’s how you get characters who seems as flat as the pages on which they’re written, at best -- or are offensive as stereotypes and caricatures at worst.  
  3. It’s demeaning to your readers. You’re telling them as a writer that they did this to you, that it’s their fault you have to write like this. You’re also telling them they’re too dumb to enjoy your work if it didn’t include all the right plug-n-play pieces. 
  4. It builds a story from the wrong foundation. If you’re a long-time reader of the blog, you’ll know that I believe strongly that story is that magical baby that happens when a plot and great characterization meet and start a family. (And if you’re a new reader, well, now you know too.) By forcing characters to fit an arbitrary model of inclusion, you end up shoehorning them into your plot. And any writer worth his or her inkjet cartridges will tell you that’s only a prescription for trouble further along the creative process. 

So, if that’s “bad diversity,” then what is “good diversity”?

  1. Good diversity is a natural outgrowth from story and character. It is part and parcel (as the saying goes) of the storying process. 
  2. Good diversity begins when you start to create a story. It is there with you at the inception, and it stays with you throughout the telling of your tale. 
  3. Good diversity relates to your setting. Does a multicultural group make sense in terms of when your story happens in history and/or where in the world it happens? If not, what is the plausible (in terms of the rules of your story, as this can change based on genre) reason to have an unconventional character or cast of characters inhabit your story?
  4. Good diversity enters a story because it’s part of what the story needs. Put simply, it “works” because it a necessary turn of events or addition without which the story couldn’t take place successfully. 
  5. Good diversity comes from the hard work of plotting. It’s something that a lot of thought and effort is put into. It is never an add-on. It is never a list of check marks you can review after the fact or fix in “easy edits.”
  6. Good diversity makes sense in the context of your fiction. Good diversity will never rip your readers out of a story. It helps to create the immersion experience for a reader, rather than to create a greater suspension of disbelief to be accepted no matter how out of place.

Because this is apparently what
it means to grow up white.

Believe it or not, I still hear this often, and yes, mostly from old white guys in my age range. But for any writer with the drive to remain relevant and continue to tell stories about the world as it is, was, and will be, I find it to be a huge cop-out.

In my experience this excuse comes from either writers too lazy to learn different habits to improve their storytelling or from writers who, to quote the speaker from one of the conversations with a old guy in my age range, “don’t give a damn about that multicultural shit.”

Either way, for any practicing and publishing author, it’s an empty excuse in this day and age.

The good news is that you don’t have to be White, Black, Latino, Asian, Male, Female, Gay, Straight, Trans, etc. to write a greater diversity of characters. You can be an anything and still write an anybody. Why? Because you’re a writer. It’s the nature of what you do. Period.

The axiom of “write what you know” still applies. Do you have friends? Are they all one gender? One race? Bleed them onto your pages. Use them as reference material. Use them for research material. Ask questions. Pay attention. Understand them.

While the Internet isn’t a perfect research tool, it does contain thousands upon thousands of resources for understanding history and cultures other than your own. Need to learn about slang or jargon? (Just be careful with that. Can I get a “Sweet Christmas”? Anybody?) Need to know what race relations are like in the country of Rwanda of even the state of Rhode Island? What about videos of places and people you’ve never been? It’s all there.


This is the crucial point of this article for me as a pulp writer. Historically, the world of the pulps is a very whitewashed world, much like the movies and radio drama of the time. It’s not that people of color didn’t exist to inhabit stories of The Shadow, Secret Agent X, or Philip Marlowe. It’s that they didn’t have the social power to prove they mattered to the narrative.

And that’s something that I can do differently with my stories today, but not because I want to be a social justice warrior (not that there’s anything wrong with that, thank you, George and Jerry) but because I think the stories can be a lot more compelling when they include the whole of the truth of history instead of only the white parts.

That is is why when Bobby Nash I and created Rick Ruby (of The Ruby Files series) for Airship 27 Productions, it was important to us that the world he inhabited included blacks, whites, Chinese, etc. Rick’s world is primarily a black world, and that helps to define why he is who he is. A more realistic portrayal of the racial issues of the 1930s made the stories that much more interesting to me both as a reader and as a writer. They give the tales more weight, more gravitas, and they provide a far more interesting backdrop than just a bunch of white good guys and white bad guys.

But it had to be believable. Having a black-white buddy cop drama just wouldn’t have worked -- not without a damn good reason for readers to buy it other than just “because I wrote it that way.” But Rick being a white man who found refuge in a black world did work, because it was part of his character, and not just part but the core of his DNA as a more authentic person, albeit a person of fiction. And it was something that I as a writer could relate to. After all, I grew up with a caregiver named Sarah, a black woman who helped to shape me as a child and still ultimately as a man long after she had passed on.

It’s too easy to assume that the world was whiter back then just because that’s what the bulk of our media of the time shows us. But the world then had just as much color on its palette. It had just as much variation of rhythm to its music. We can enjoy the stories the media of the time tells us, but we can’t let ourselves believe those stories are the “real” truth of the world at that time.

Are you writing a 1790s historical romance? Are you writing a WWII battle epic? Are you writing a Roman tragedy? The world was diverse, even then. If you don’t know to what degree, then do your job as a researching writer and find out. Then tell the truth of your story in all its fullness. Build your world on a more honest model.

Like with so many issues we writers face, it comes down to research. If you don’t know the truth of the time period you plan to write, then look it up. Find out the hues of that world. Then paint with all those shades.


Why diversity? Does it matter?

Yes. Clearly it matters, or else I wouldn’t have just devoted 2000+ words to it. Nor would so many other writers give their opinions and advice on the matter. (See the links at the bottom of this article.)

Not only is it an important issue for the world of fiction to consider, it’s also important that we get it right.

And that means thinking about diversity like writers, not politicians... like authors, not activists... like storytellers, not philosophers. There’s a place for all that, sure, and if it’s something we’re passionate about, believe me, it’ll come through in your work. You don’t have to force it and turn your stories into causes.

Yep. I said that, and I meant it. 
It’s also important for you even if it’s not something you’re passionate about. Why? Because it’s only going to make your work that much better, that much more “real” (not in the non-fiction sense, but in the deeper reality that is the human experience).

Reality is diverse. That’s a narrative truth we must understand in order to create the best stories we can. And no matter how out-there or weird or horrific or super-hero-ish or sci-fi or fantastic or vampire-y our stories can become, they still owe allegiance to the things that are intrinsically true.

It’s just fiction. Sure. But even “just fiction” is always more than mere fiction.

We write to put stories in a contextual narrative to understand the world and its people, but we do it under the goal of entertaining readers. We create the illusion of reality into order to help readers escape to a safe place that feels enough like home in all the true things that ultimately matter.

But we only do that by becoming better tellers of our own special lies called stories, and we only do that by somehow basing them on a foundation of truth about the world and its people.


NOTE: Clearly, this is a passionately debated and crucially important subject for writers. Obviously, I’m neither the first nor last to tackle it. These are just a few of the links I’ve found helpful or interesting while researching for this article.