Beware the token character

The We Need Diverse Books campaign is a wonderful initiative which has gotten a lot of people talking, and inspired many writers to create diverse characters. However, we should also beware using diverse characters as tokens.

1. Don’t have diverse characters for the mere sake of diversity. Even if your book is set in a known multicultural place like New York City or Los Angeles, it’s still not realistic to create some Rainbow Tribe to show off how diverse your book is. How realistic is it for every single member of a group of friends to represent a different ethnicity, race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, etc.?

2. Constantly bringing up a character’s diversity is pretty awkward. People of my generation probably remember how every single Baby-Sitters’ Club book mentions, in the requisite infodumpy Chapter 2, that Jessi. Is. Black! While I do appreciate knowing a detail like that, so I can accurately picture a character, it’s just conveyed so awkwardly and unnecessarily, not in a natural, normal way. And if it’s one of the books she narrates, I kind of already know what her race is from the cover!

3. It seems pretty pointless to have a diverse character when that’s never even mentioned. It’s great to create a well-rounded character who’s a lot more than just being, e.g,, Chinese, Hispanic, or gay, but there’s a difference between diversity just being one part of a character and making that an inconsequential detail.

4. A character’s diversity doesn’t have to dictate the plot. There’s obviously nothing wrong with a storyline directly related to someone’s diversity, but you’re not beholden to writing a coming-out story about a gay character or a story about racial prejudice with an African–American family.

5. A story about prejudice can seem cliché and depressing. Obviously, if you’re doing a historical or culture clash setting, this only makes sense, but if you’re writing a contemporary story, there are so many other angles you can go with.

6. Don’t just create a diverse character to show off how enlightened or bigoted other characters are, or to force a storyline about a hot-button issue. That’s not to say you can’t, e.g., have your protagonist’s father be some bigoted racist who hates everyone or do a storyline about desegregation in the 1950s. It just means that has to be natural to the overall story, just as when you create a very political character.

7. It’s pretty insulting to create a character whose primary identity is as the Jewish, Catholic, gay, disabled, or Asian friend. Enough said.

8. Keep in mind what kinds of diversity would be most accurate and realistic to your setting. For example, if you’re writing a historical about Asian immigrants in North America, know which cities Asians were most likely to live in, and the timeframe when they were allowed to immigrate.

9, Avoid stereotyping, both positive and negative.

10. If you can’t bring yourself to use certain words, maybe you’re not the right person to write a historical or to have a bigoted side character. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve written the K-word as an adult. The slur “Yid” is so less sharp and ugly. It also took me years before I was comfortable using the word Negro in the narrative as well as in dialogue. Even if certain words are considered outdated today, that was just how people used to talk. One of the numerous issues I had with Jillian Larkin’s Flappers series was how the word Black was used almost exclusively. That was so anachronistic!

11. Historically persecuted minorities are about so much more than suffering and sadness. Even if you’re doing a historical setting, you can still show the happy, positive side of your characters’ culture.

12. No group is monolithic. For example, not all Jews are of Polish or Russian descent and have grandparents who speak Yiddish. Not all Catholics multiply like rabbits. There are significant differences between Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese culture. (I actually read a story where a Japanese character had the surname Wang!) Each Native American tribe will be a little different.

13. When in doubt, ask someone who’s a member of that group to check for accuracy and sensitivity.

14. Don’t feel you have to make all your diverse characters sweet and sympathetic for fear of offending someone. Being a jerk, spoilt brat, etc., knows no boundaries. It can also be fun to play with some fairly harmless stereotypes like a BAP or JAP. But make sure your character isn’t this way because of his or her race, religion, etc. It’ll be obvious if someone’s a jerk because that’s just how s/he is, whether s/he’s white, black, or purple.

15. Please don’t just write a diverse character because you think it’d be cool to add someone exotic to your story, or because that group has been in the news a lot lately!

16. Do your research! You may inadvertently come across as insensitive or ignorant if you barely know anything about this culture, religion, etc.

17. Most Aspies and autistics prefer identity-first language, NOT person-first language! Saying “a person with autism” makes it sound like a disease or hardship, whereas autistic correctly conveys this is an integral, important part of one’s identity. We don’t say “person of Catholicism” or “person who’s Black.”

18. Don’t assume things based on your own experience with a somewhat related group. For years, I called my Protestant clergy priests, and thought Protestants did Confession, Mass, and First Communion, because my only experience with Christianity was Catholicism.

3 thoughts on “Beware the token character

  1. Awesome post. Thank you for addressing this. Details that don’t add to the narrative just for the sake of throwing something politically correct in get awkward pretty fast. Having more diversity in Speculative fiction is an awesome thing as long as each character makes sense in the narrative he or she is in. One of my favorite books did it very well…you care about the character as a person and root for him because of how he acts…you don’t find out he’s Filipino until the last page and it’s a wonderful surprise that made me want to go back and read it again with that in mind… Thank you again!


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