As we live in a world that is becoming further globalized by the minute, it is only natural that we want to see our society reflected in literature. There are more and more voices clamoring for diverse books, for own-voices authors, for main characters that aren’t white, male, and heterosexual. And that’s a good thing. There’s nothing like finding a book character like yourself, someone you can truly relate to. We can learn so much about different cultures and our own, about racism and tolerance, about history and our future from reading books that don’t ignore the minorities that haven’t had a voice for centuries.
However, as I’ve watched and read book reviews in the past couple of years, I couldn’t help but notice that diversity is often equated with a book being good. This book has a Muslim character, a bisexual character, a strong black female character – then it must be great. This book doesn’t have a single lesbian character in it – never seen anything so awful in my life. In all the hype around diversity, I think some of us are in danger of forgetting that diversity is but one aspect of a book.
One of the best examples of this I can think of was The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli. I was actually quite excited about this book before it came out because the premise of a girl having lots of unrequited crushes sounded relatable and intriguing, and because I loved Simon vs the Homo-Sapiens Agenda. That book, in my opinion, did diversity well, and it also had an engaging plot, a good romance, a wonderful family, realistic friendships, and an adorable main character you couldn’t help but root for.
The Upside of Unrequited, though, was a huge letdown for me. Yes, the diversity was great – we had lesbian characters, bisexual characters, gay characters, Jewish characters, African-American characters, Asian-American characters, fat characters, thin characters and probably a lot more that I’m forgetting to mention here. But leaving the diversity aside, the only plot the book had was the characters talking about how diverse they were and a very straightforward romance with little development. Even after reading the entire thing, I couldn’t really tell you anything about the characters other than their appearance, ethnicity, and sexuality – because apart from their amazingly diverse traits, they had amazingly little personality.
The book wasn’t bad, but in my opinion, it certainly wasn’t good either. That’s why I was quite surprised when I started looking at other people’s thoughts and found almost nothing but glowing five-star reviews. Even now, the book has a 4.2-rating on goodreads, something usually a mark of a really great read.
Of course I’m aware that not everyone has the same opinion on a book, but this did seem a bit off to me. Even more strikingly, the only thing that people seemed to mention in their five-star reviews was the diversity. Nothing about the simple plot, nothing about character development, nothing about subplots or the lack thereof. And that struck me as a little strange. Did you seriously all love the book just because it had diversity? What about the other qualities that come with a good story?
The Upside of Unrequited is not the only book where I have come across this phenomenon. For example, when looking at Rick Riordan’s newer books, I find so many people who only praise the diverse cast in their reviews. No one mentions the fact that his plots are extremely similar to books he’s published before, that there’s not really a lot of new stuff anymore (or does it only feel that way to me?). Oftentimes, I hear a book get praised for its diversity alone and I’ll leave feeling unsatisfied – what of the writing, what of the plot, what of the characters? I don’t want a book with diversity, I want an engaging story that also happens to have diverse characters – a lot of readers do. And authors have started to realize it, too.
Unfortunately, in their quest to satisfy readers and prove that they are not racist homophobes, this sometimes leads to the type of diversity where you start to wonder if no diversity may have been better after all. There are awkward sexuality revelation speeches that don’t seem to go along with what we knew of a character up until then (a prime example is Mor from Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses series), characters with no personality apart from belonging to a minority group, the token LGBTQ+ and POC character that is somehow the only one in a sea of white heterosexuals… If you have a dark-skinned character, I don’t want to hear a whole paragraph with strange metaphors about how their skin is the color of the Earth after a heavy rain if white characters’ skin isn’t described at all. I don’t want a gay character to have a soliloquy on their sexuality in every single book if straight characters don’t have one. I just want there to be diverse characters with personalities, likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, just like any other character would also have.
And that means I also want to see flawed diverse characters. So many authors seem to be scared of offending someone that the “diverse character” is always perfect: they’re nice, funny, kind, mentally healthy (unless their mental illness is why they are diverse), the best of friends. Why can’t we also have diverse villains, diverse characters with darker intentions? If these characters can’t fit all roles, can we really ever have true diversity?
However, I do understand authors’ reluctance to branch out. Just look at the backlash Veronica Roth’s Carve the Mark got because there were people of color among a nation that carved marks into their skin for the kills they made. Immediately, it was barbarism, cultural appropriation, racism, and even people who hadn’t read the book or seen nothing wrong with it in the first place started shunning it. Because there have been so few diverse characters in literature, the pressure to make them perfect is high – but that can make for extremely boring characters.
This is probably part of the reason why the best diverse books out there come from own-voices authors. True, they also personally know what it’s like to be part of that culture. But they also don’t have to be afraid of offending anyone because they are part of that culture. Just look at Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give – we have plenty of black characters here, and among them are drug dealers and gang leaders. But all of them have a rich personality apart from that, and we love and understand some of them in spite of it and feel fine disliking some even though they are black. This makes the book good, gives it depth, because no one is perfect. Angie Thomas shows us that there is no black standard, that there is diversity within diversity. This is the type of book I want, and it’s great to see own-voices authors giving it to us. I don’t, however, see all that many other authors do it.
Is this necessarily bad, though? Our world has a history of oppression and discrimination. Often, authors from the groups that did the oppressing do still promote offensive stereotypes, even if they do it unintentionally. Maybe we should leave these kinds of stories to the people who know the perspectives they’re writing from; know because they’ve experienced them firsthand. I don’t think we should. Yes, there’ll always be that awkward transitional period and times when people get it wrong. But do we always want to read books where every character is either a copy of the author in terms of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and disability, or different but perfect in every other aspect? That doesn’t reflect our world either.
This is why research is so important. Before writing, you have to get to know the culture and the mindset you’re writing about, talk to people from that minority. Get beta readers. But most important, don’t let the characters’ diversity overshadow their personality. These characters should be well-rounded – sexuality and ethnicity just one aspect among many. And if it’s not important to the story, don’t make a big deal out of it. Drop hints that your character is lesbian – have her stare after a girl, blush when they look at her. Introduce her girlfriend like it’s no big deal, unless it is because you’re writing a coming out story.
I think a masterful example of this is Harry Potter. Many people criticize J.K. Rowling for never stating explicitly that Dumbledore is gay, but think about it realistically. Why would Dumbledore tell Harry and when would he have told him – don’t you think a speech would have been slightly awkward, especially for someone as private as Dumbledore? But when you read between the lines, it’s there for the observant reader to see. The letters they wrote to each other, the way Albus blindly defended Gellert Grindelwald to his brother, the way he didn’t kill him in the duel, the way Grindelwald refused to tell Voldemort where the Elder Wand was to stop him from breaking into Dumbledore’s tomb (I do hope, however, that we’ll get to see their relationship more explicitly in the Fantastic Beasts films). And Harry Potter includes so many other characters from diverse backgrounds, but they are never treated differently from others. You have to read carefully, but if you do, you’ll spot them. The Patil twins and Cho Chang, where only their names and sometimes dress style hint at an Asian background. Characters like Kingsley and Angelina, who are black but extremely respected. Mad-Eye Moody, who is disabled but one of the strongest characters in the series. Hagrid, half giant, but one of the kindest people ever. Professor McGonagall, proud Scot who wears a thistle wreath to the Yule Ball. Houseelfs, muggleborns, werewolves, and so many other creatures who mirror different minorities in our own world. You have to read carefully, but when you do, there are so many different people in the series that all have really distinct personalities that overshadow any one quality they might possess.
This is the type of diversity I hope to see more of in the future – but not exclusively. Do I think it’s problematic that none of the characters in “the Golden Trio” are people of color (and don’t get me started on Hermione – there are so many times she turns pink in the books that she’s obviously white or at least has a very light skin tone, no matter what J.K. Rowling says, but that’s a whole other problematic issue in itself…) or members of the LQBTQ+ community? No, I don’t. You need all kinds of books out there, and it’s okay if not every protagonist represents a minority group. But would I think it was problematic if all books were like this? You bet. I don’t want every book to be a carbon copy of another, and I want to see protagonists from all kinds of backgrounds. I want to see that authors can and do support diversity and I want them to branch out in their writing, so that I can branch out in my reading.
And I want to see more of one type of character in a book. Like draws to like, people say, and from my experience, that’s certainly true. Most of my black friends have other black friends. Many of my LGBTQ+ friends are active in the LGBTQ+ community. People like talking to people with similar interests, beliefs, and values to theirs, they seek out certain environments. That’s why token characters always seem a bit weird. They always stand there a bit awkwardly, shoved in a foreign environment where they have to justify why they’re different. In addition, it’s only various characters from one group that truly allow you to get to know the group. If there is only one, the danger of that character becoming a representative is high. Just like no two straight, white, able-bodied girls are the same, neither are two other characters, not matter if they have the same race or sexuality.
However, I also think it’s okay to include less diversity, too, as long as you have some of it. If you’re writing a book set in the Middle Ages and have a black, openly gay and okay-with-it character, I’ll think that’s a bit strange. Social norms and demography have to be taken into account, too, and you can’t place modern thinking on every society out there. Sure, you can have a gay black character, but then I want to see them struggle with the norms of that time. Don’t have them parading around with modern attitudes and have no one bat an eye. That just seems sloppy, like you did no research into the time period you’re writing about, and it also deprives you of an excellent chance to dissect old norms, and in doing so, have readers question what relics of those still exist today. Similarly, if you’re writing fantasy and are taking inspiration from an Asian world, most characters will probably also have Asian features – it’d weird if you also included lots of redheads, just so you don’t discriminate against them.
There’s a big BUT here, though. If all your characters are white, heterosexual, male, domineering and perfectly beautiful (ahem, SJM) or otherwise completely identical, something probably went wrong. Even within one race, you can have diversity. And even in the past and in fantasy lands, there’s going to be some ethnic diversity. If you aren’t going to include characters from other groups, there’d better be a really convincing reason as to why they aren’t there. And if you’re not sure what that convincing reason is, maybe you’d better start researching and including those characters.
I guess on the whole, my point is that diversity shouldn’t feel forced. Diverse characters are characters like any other ones, and they need a well-developed personality that their diversity is just one aspect of. And of course, the diversity alone does not make a book good. Yes, it’s nice to include some, but if the plot is dull and the writing sucks, the book will still be a bad book. No amount of diversity is going to change that.
Anyway, I hope I made some sense in all that rambling and didn’t offend anyone too much. Let me know where you agree or disagree with me – there’s nothing better than a good discussion!