Innate Inclusion: Creating Realistic Diversity in Fiction

This weekend I had the pleasure of taking Indie It Press‘s course “Innate Inclusion: Creating Realistic Diversity in Fiction” taught by the wonderful SF&F author, W.A. Ford.

She’s the author of The Fadian Experiment, which I’ve reviewed here, and The Fadian Escape, which comes out next month!

I have always strived to create worlds full of interesting and diverse characters, representative of real people (even in fantastical fiction!). But it can be really difficult to write characters that are very different from ourselves, whether that means something as simple as writing male characters as a woman, or writing a Catholic character when as an agnostic.

It gets increasingly more difficult the farther out of our comfort zone that we get, such as writing a character who comes from a country you’ve never even visited, or who suffers from a disease that you don’t have first hand experience with, or who belongs to a persecuted group.

I think a lot of writers and artists bristle at the idea of “forcing” diversity into their works. And I get it. We want to create our worlds the way that feels natural, and diversity for diversity’s sake often results in flat, stereotypical characters who lack the depth of real human beings.

We’ve all read action books (and watched movies) where the heroine is essentially a cookie cutter of the usual badass male action heroes, just with tighter clothes and bigger boobs, and probably a gratuitous shower scene thrown in for good measure.

The stereotypical male action hero types are enough of a stretch, but to transplant a woman into the same role without acknowledging any of the ways in which her experience in the world would be different than a man’s just rings a bit hollow. Suspension of disbelief only goes so far, and little touches here and there can go a long way in adding depth to the reader’s experience.

Is Diversity Just a Trend?

In the course, Ford talks about the history of attempts at inclusion, from Affirmative Action in the ’60s and ’70s, to the Diversity trend in the ’80s and ’90s, and now the idea of Innate Inclusion.

Some folks will argue that this is “just a trend,” and that we should continue to write what we want to write how we want to write it.

Sure. I think we should, too.

I, personally, want to write in a way that represents as many kinds of people as I can!

I know from experience that seeing yourself in the books and movies that you consume is a very powerful thing.

But it is more difficult to do well than to just write characters who look and think like us, so it can be a challenge to get out of our comfort zone and explore writing different kinds of people.

The move toward inclusion is not a here-today-gone-tomorrow trend like fanny packs or bell bottom jeans, something that flares up every once in a while and then disappears, like an allergic reaction (I am allergic to fanny packs, just seeing them breaks me out in hives).

Western cultures have been in a steady state of slow evolution toward innate inclusion, from the suffrage movement to the abolition of slavery to multi-culturalism to gay pride etc.

Globalism has changed the face of our countries, provinces/states, cities, and neighbourhoods. Acknowledging these cultural differences has forced us to acknowledge other, less visible differences between us and our friends and neighbours.

These things include spiritual beliefs, invisible illnesses, non-binary gender and sexuality, and trauma.

And as we learn about and appreciate all the different ways to be a human, it only makes sense to represent these difference facets in our fictional worlds as well.

What is Innate Inclusion?

If you look at books and movies from the ’80s and ’90s, you can see early attempts at inclusion at work. There was a bigger effort to have women in lead roles, more non-white characters in supporting roles, and occasionally even gay characters (usually relegated to comic relief.)

Unfortunately, early “diversity” was often superficial. Characters ran the gamut between offensive stereotypes (how many 80s movies can you name that have “the fat kid” or “the Asian immigrant” or “the black friend” caricatures?), tokenism, and colour-coded paper cutouts.

I have re-watched a lot of my favourite kid’s movies with my own kids and have been amazed at how different they are from today’s films.

At best, there is a cast of characters who each represent a personality trait (the smart kid, the bully, the athlete, the angry loner, etc) but who are otherwise interchangeable. Sometimes, these characters would be made female, or gay, or black, but that detail never seemed to have any impact on the story or the character’s experience.

Arguably its better to have flat characters that, at least superficially, represent a diverse group of people rather than having an entirely homogenous cast.

But why not take it a step further and turn these paper cutouts into real people?

That’s what Innate Inclusion is all about.

What Kind of Characters Should I Include?

Today we are very aware, and we’re becoming more comfortable talking about, a lot of personal experiences that we once would have felt pressured to hide.

Debt, depression, mental illness, addiction, and abuse, for example.

These can be heavy topics.

So can discrimination and persecution.

Anyone who is different from the majority of people in their community, who is different from “the norm,” will at some point experience resistance, hostility, and othering.

To ignore this is a failure to fully explore a character’s potential. How a character reacts to challenges in their life tells us about who they are. We are shaped by both the positive and negative events of our lives, and to turn away from one or the other is to give an incomplete picture.

If you are writing a contemporary fiction story and include an Asian character, don’t just leave it at the physical description. Think about who that character is. How many generations has their family been in the country of the novel’s setting? Where are their ancestors from? How closely tied are they to their community? What is their family like? What are their interests and goals?

You could have an Asian character who is a first generation Canadian, whoseparents came from Vietnam, who watched her parents grinding away in the restaurant industry to give her a better life, and who is now estranged from her family because she rejected the idea of working her life away and followed her passion to become a rock musician.

You could have an Asian character who is a young man whose family came to the US from China in the 1800s but who no longer has any connection to his Chinese heritage because it was safer for his ancestor to assimilate, and who is now exploring that part of his history.

It is not enough to just say a character is Asian. You need to get specific about who that character is, their back story, how the world has shaped them.

A gay character whose family has accepted and supported them will be completely different from a gay character whose family sent them to conversion therapy. Explore your characters as deeply as you can!

Where Do I Start?

One of the easiest ways to explore diversity is to dig into the things that make you different.

Yes, it’s scary.

You will feel vulnerable.

For me, that means writing about alcohol abuse, recovery, depression, and anxiety. My books aren’t about these things, but my characters often experience these events and emotions. They react to them in ways that I did (and if they’re lucky, the ways I wish I had, haha)

Do you have first hand experience with disease or disability? With religious persecution? With discrimination?

Look to your friends and family next.

You will be more comfortable including characters who are similar to people you know well in real life.

Once you’ve practiced this, and hopefully added some depth to your characters, you can start exploring outside your inner circles.

The most important thing when writing about a person who is different from you is to research your character. Read first hand accounts from people with lived experience with the facets you will be exploring. What is it like to have breast cancer? Or to watch someone you love battle breast cancer? There is no one right answer to this, but I guarantee that reading about people’s experiences will both confirm your assumption and surprise you. Research will give you little details that add authenticity to your character’s experience that imagination on its own will never provide.

Why Does it Matter?

When there is something about us that makes us feel “different,” it can be incredibly validating to read a character who seems to represent our personal struggles.

When I read a sober character, it is so refreshing!

You don’t realize how casually alcohol is used in books and movies until you quit drinking. Reading can become a head game where you have to constantly remind yourself that this glamourized, fun party experience is not real. That you aren’t missing out. That not drinking is still the right choice for you.

Drinkers and life-long teetotalers experience this differently from recovering alcohol abusers.

So to find a character who just doesn’t drink, or who has quit drinking, really makes me feel like I’m not alone.

Many people have reached out to me to say that they appreciate this in my books, too.

An autistic character in a romance novel is a big deal for autistic people in real life. My writer friend Felicia Blaedel has done this in her book All The Wrong Shelves.

W.A. Ford–the instructor of the course I just completed–writes strong, Black female leads in her science fantasy novels.

N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, Octavia E. Butler, and Nalo Hopkinson have shaken up the traditional publishing industries assumptions about what Science Fiction readers want to read with their Black female leads.

In the past, the safest way to sell books or have a box-office hit in North America, was to appeal to the financial majority (white Americans, for the most part.)

However, recent books and movies have shown that audiences are far less fickle than we used to assume. We want great stories, first and foremost. And a great story with a wide range of realistic characters is even better. The more people your story appeals to, the better chance it has of succeding.

Discussion

Which books or movies do you feel have done a great job of innate inclusion? Which tried, but didn’t quite hit the mark? What can we learn from them?

Let me know what you think!

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14 thoughts on “Innate Inclusion: Creating Realistic Diversity in Fiction

  1. One of the things that I love about reading is to see the world from someone else’s perspective. To write diverse characters with diverse experiences, that’s also needed. With more effort, since you’re sculpting the story. Your post does a great job of describing the importance of diversity. And I agree. Having more diverse voices in culture will enrich it. I’ve read a couple of Octavia Butler’s books this year, and I really enjoyed the change in character. I’m used to reading stories with white men in the leading role. At least some authors have given them flaws — like Phillip K. Dick’s leading men are not superheroes at all. They’re ordinary. But they’re still white men. As readers, we should try to stretch our choices of writers. And as writers, we should try to stretch our kinds of characters.

    1. Previous to 2017, about 95% of my SF&F reading was by white make authors, too. I was working my way through the canon, all the most “important” books and it wasn’t until someone pointed out to me that it was a bit specious for all the most important books to have been written by white men that I started to actively seek out diversity in my authors.

      Many of those classics are wonderful books and I still enjoy them. But having expanded my horizons a bit, I realize how similar the themes and perspectives are to one another when books are written by similar people.

      I really started to enjoy reading more when I branched out because I no longer felt like I knew the patterns. Japanese horror novels are completely different from the American style, and it’s scary to not know what to expect from the narrative! NK Jemisin blew my mind with the depth and richness of her fantasy world. Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood trilogy is one of the best alien books I’ve ever read but it’s so different!

      I’m glad to hear you’ve had a similar experience! Which are your favourite Butler novels? I haven’t read them all yet. Lilith’s Brood, Parable of the Sower, and Fledgling so far.

      1. I really enjoyed Octavia Butler’s collection “Bloodchild and Other Stories” — those short stories have lots of background and the reader is given some hints of that depth. Impressive stuff. I liked the idea behind “Mind of My Mind,” but the novel felt flat in many chapters. I’m reading “Parable of the Sower,” and it’s very good.

  2. I have tried to be inclusive, and I like it. I don’t go as deep as you suggest, because my tales are a bit different. I try to touch on issues, but the plot has to move forward. If the plot were about discrimination or recovery, there would be more pages dedicated to the issues.

    1. Yes! Truth be told, I don’t go that deep either. In SF&F inclusion looks a bit different, especially if you are dealing with a world that is not based on our own geographically or historically. This is something we talked about in the class, too. How deep you can go will depend a lot on your genre.

      I try to show diversity of body size and skin tone with character descriptions, and try to have a good balance. With my cyberpunk books I’m focussed on mental health (depression, anxiety, addiction) physical ability (inability to get proper care without money, disability, age) and neurodiversity.

      In shorter, plot-driven stories light touches are great. I think you did a wonderful job in Grinders with this. You have two polar opposite MCs, and you let us into their lives enough to understand why they are the way they are. That’s perfect! You definitely don’t want to get bogged down by generations of backstory that have nothing to do with the plot. But all of the details you added were important to the character’s motivations, and served the plot (Jimi’s secret, why she can afford her apartment, her passion for art, and how this causes interpersonal conflict with her partner)

      I think it would be a mistake to go too far in the opposite direction when it isn’t the right style for the narrative. Probably I should have said the idea is to give an equal level of development to all the characters.

      1. I did give Jimi some family time with her absurd stepfather and sisters, but that’s about as deep as I went. I’m going to be dealing with a prosthetic in the near future, so I’ll keep some of this in mind.

        1. Yes! I loved that detail. I do think you had a great balance!

          I notice the paper cut out thing a lot in middle grade and young adult books that I read with my kids. One book had a gaggle of school girls in a clique. One was white/blonde, one was Black, one was Asian, and one was Spanish. But other than the initial description, this is never mentioned again, and the girls are all completely interchangeable in voice and opinion. It really felt like the author was called out for all his main characters being white, and he shoe-horned a description in where it would have the least impact on the story.

          1. I’ve seen that in my reading and viewing. Action heroes that are men with boobs. Read one last year that was very good, but it was hard to get over that part.

          2. It’s weirdly popular in Urban Fantasy, written and read mainly by women. It’s like the authors are so worried about their female MCs being seen as weak/emotional that they completely overcompensate by turning them into these cold, robotic characters. And they’re always snarky to the point that they’re really just mean to everyone 😂 they sell well, so clearly there is an audience for it. I suspect there’s a bit of wish fulfillment at play, women wishing they could move through the world that way and always say exactly what’s on their mind. I won’t say people shouldn’t write it if they’ve got an audience and it’s making them money. Jack Reacher novels are popular, too. But it does interfere with believability for me, and I definitely tend not to read those books.

          3. I include plenty of snark in my paranormal series. I also try to have Lizzie cope with issues in her secret and private life. I kind of broke her emotionally in the most recent one.

          4. I still have to read that one! Paranormal readers LOVE snark 😂 I usually do, too. But there needs to be some balance so they don’t just come across as jerks. Even if a character is supposed to be a jerk they need some redeeming qualities, lol. And weaknesses. I look forward to meeting Lizzie!

          5. Yes, I have a hard time not being a little snarky, lol

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