There’s a serious lack of diversity coming out of Hollywood these days. No matter how many times it’s proven that not-cis male and not white folk can carry a mega-successful film, movie-makers continue to retreat back to all-white casts with the proven-wrong claim that any other color (or gender or gender identity or sexuality) can make the money. As writers, we can do something about that. We can do what Hollywood refuses to do and show, over and over, that a white dude isn’t the only realistic hero. But if you’re like me, y’know, white, how can we possibly write a brown or black or any other shade character without falling into stereotype-land bull-shoot?
PEOPLE ARE PEOPLE
While there can be cultural differences between us, the important thing is to remember we’re all human and humans have certain things in common. We’re all thinking, feeling creatures with desires and needs; where we are, not only where we’re from, helps shape those. Yes, skin color can affect a person’s outlook but with careful understanding, you can include those aspects in your creation. Research is your friend and is as easy as typing google.com into your web browser.
Not every character of recent African descent will have the same experience growing up in a country like the U.S. just as every character of recent European or Asian or Middle Eastern descent will and this is something to keep in mind when developing your protagonist(s). The environment you place your characters in will also affect their treatment and personality. Religion is also responsible for shaping a person’s existence; Christians, Jews, and Muslims (just to name a few) can be (and are) treated differently by different people (in different places).
I know, there’s a lot to take into account when the goal is diversity and authenticity but it’s worth it, and not just for a more colorful fictional world that reflects the real one we live in.
NOT ALL MUSLIMS ARE TERRORISTS
Some films like to claim they’re all diverse and stuff because they hire actors of Middle Eastern descent. They may have a point but it’s a rather dull one. Too many of those portrayals are of terrorists trying to destroy majority white places where Allah’s peaceful followers are non-entities. Now I’m not saying your baddie can’t be an Iraqi man or Palestinian woman but the lack of good guys with roots in Islam is disheartening. To understand why let’s go back to the 60s and a little show call Star Trek.
When Gene Roddenberry created his sci-fi universe, he made a point of including an ethnically diverse cast of characters from Asian and Africa. Lieutenant Uhura, a black woman, was one of those characters featured. That might not seem like much but for black children (one of whom you may recognize as Whoopi Goldberg), it was a life-changing moment so important, Martin Luther King, Jr. himself asked Nichelle Nichols to stay on when she wanted to quit.
‘Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’ I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be. -Whoopi Goldberg
Uhura was one of the good guys. She was equal with the (white) men in their futuristic society. She was someone black children could look up to and know they could be whatever they wanted, even if the world they lived in tried to make the opposite true. She was a beacon of hope.
Don’t demonize a culture then claim your story is diverse. It’s not. At least, not in any good way. And this isn’t just for Middle Eastern characters; African warlords and Asian assassins aren’t the only kinds of people from those continents. No need to wipe these characters from your books but make sure to include heroes from those same places. Balance is key, people.
INCLUSION DOESN’T TAKE AWAY
I’m currently rewriting my horror novel, hopefully only one more time, and as I’ve been adding and expanding and rearranging, I noticed something was missing. While The Red Room (new name, too!) began with a diverse cast of characters, I decided it wasn’t quite right. My protagonist, Rylan Sinclaire, was white and as I went through and rethought all the words, I decided that, for shoots and googles, he’d become Ravi Minhaj, the son of Indian parents and raised Muslim (though he identifies as an atheist).
By changing his skin color, I didn’t take away anything from the story; he still goes through the same life-altering experience and ends up in a sadistic murder’s crosshairs and is still surrounded by the same group of friends and enemies. What the change did do was introduce a new dynamic that wasn’t possible with a white protag. As a brown-skinned boy in a post 9/11 America, attitudes towards him can be racist which only adds to the oomph that is his story but the way his circle treats him remains unchanged. By taking into account something that should be innocuous like skin color, a new, authentic layer is added to what could easily (if I were lazy) be a run-of-the-mill slasher. With one simple change, The Red Room‘s universe became that much more real, at least for me, and when the story is as over the top as this one is, the more parts that place it in the real world, the better.
We, as human, are diverse and that leads to both good and bad moments. Our stories should represent that. Just because you’re not a part of a particular group doesn’t mean you can include those groups in the pages of your books. Representation is important for all of us and the more there is, the more we’ll all realize the many ways that unite us far outweigh the ways we are different. And when you go with diversity, don’t rely on stereotypes; begin each creation by seeing them as a person and build from there. You can create fully formed, three-dimensional characters that will resonate and show Hollywood that anyone can be the hero. We writers can prove that.