It has become more common for the stories we read today to feature a lot more diverse characters than ever before. Writers are starting to tap into their cultural heritage and channel that into their writing. Whether it is their sexuality, their personal identity, or their ethnicity, readers will see a lot of what makes up the writer as a person while reading their works.
What’s even more impressive is when writers start to branch out from who they are and feature characters that are vastly different from them in their works.
Now, there will always be that one person who doesn’t see a reason as to why writers start spicing up their protagonists. These critics
might argue that writers are just creating self-insert fantasies for themselves. Others might say that the characters writers are writing are too different from them, which can contradict the previous statement.
Then, there are the critics who accuse writers of making their protagonists a specific ethnicity, sexuality, or gender identity different in order to attract readers’ attention when it does not impact the story at all.
If the reason as to why the protagonist of a person’s story is just that, to spice up the main character and nothing else, then I agree. There is no point in diversifying your protagonist if the story remains the same when we replace them with a plain Jane or average Joe.
There should be a reason to include diversity in your cast of characters and that reason should definitely not be to draw reader’s attention for the sake of drawing their attention. We want to see diversity because it is what we all deserve as readers. It’s what we crave.
We’ve all experienced this, haven’t we? Haven’t we all read books as kids and wondered why there was never a character that reminded us of ourselves? Children would ask why the protagonist of a fairy tale was never the same skin color as them or why the protagonists never seemed to share their cultural background.
In the past, a white male was predominantly the protagonist of a story and much of the classic literature that is taught in class has a white male protagonist.
Being someone who is an Asian American, I have never saw myself as a white male. Obviously. And I had a hard time reading about characters who came from the same background as me. This comes as a disappoint to me.
We can learn so much from the novels we read and we can understand the complexity of other people that surround us. But can we really truly understand and relate to the main character of a story if we are always reading about a typical white guy? Surely not.
Thus, it is highly encouraged for us as writers to branch out from the box category where all existing protagonists currently sit in and write about characters that will represent the population of people who deserve to be represented.
But it’s not that easy.
The reason as to why writers are starting to branch out to tell stories about a more diverse character has been revealed. But the reasons as to why we still may not be reading about many diverse protagonists should be addressed, as well.
Based on my personal experience, my desire to branch out but lack of doing so comes from a wall that stands in my way. This wall is built upon a foundation that is made up of two distinct problems: fear and lack of understanding.
Fear is self explanatory; writers fear the backlash of writing about characters that are a different ethnicity, a different sexuality than what they are. How can a white person write about a dark skinned protagonist? How dare a straight person write about a gay character? Do we have the right to do this when we might not even be on the level of understanding to do so?
It is that nagging voice inside of our heads that tell us that we are portraying these characters that are meant to represent a population wrong. Every ethnicity and sexuality comes with their own set of stereotypes. Not every stereotype made is accurate, but that doesn’t mean these stereotypes weren’t drawn from truth. The challenge is knowing where to draw the line and find truth amongst these exaggerated statements.
And this is where the lack of knowledge becomes a barrier. Anyone would have a hard time explaining how to fly an airplane without personal experience flying an airplane. The same can be said for writing a character that is different from the writer in multiple ways. For example, I am Asian and I might have a difficult time understanding how a Russian protagonist should be portrayed. And me being aromantic can make it difficult for me to draft up an accurate romance novel.
Research is key, but not everything on the internet is accurate or true. Not to mention that some things are better learned through experience.
What better way to experience learning about other culture than going to the people we know? We surround ourselves with people who have lived different lives compared to us. They identify themselves differently than us and have a heritage that is unlike ours.
We want to learn, but maybe the fear stems from our worry that we’re pestering them with unwanted questions about how they live their life. It’s not something we have to concern ourselves with, really. If it were me, I’d be flattered to know that someone wishes to understand my culture better, that someone wishes to understand how I go about life as an asexual aromantic. It’s a huge compliment when people want to take time to learn and understand you better. Not to mention that you get to learn a lot about how they go about their daily lives, the customs they keep, and even the foods they eat.
So don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to want to learn. The next time a friends asks you over to hang out, take some time to understand how they go about things that might be different from you. They don’t remove their shoes indoors, noted. It’s customary to bring gifts for the parents when meeting them for the first time, now we know.
We are allowed to write about characters that are diverse and unique. But it’s not something that we should fabricate. All writing requires research. This is no different.
Take these little tidbits of knowledge and keep them close. Use it to help inspire and to write. Because the things we’ve learned from others is the truth of others. People live a diverse life in comparison to ours. And if we feature them in our writing, we bring something fresh and wonderful for readers to see.