My Thoughts on Diversity in Fiction and Writing Characters of Color
So I hesitated to post this because of how charged the atmosphere in M/M is right now. Hurt feelings abound on all sides over a book that was recently released (and no, I won’t be naming it here). The topic of racism is not one I take lightly, having dealt with it all my life, but I leave that discussion to people much more eloquent than myself. I do, however, have some thoughts about the subject of diversity in fiction and writing characters of color, specifically in M/M, and I want to share them here.
In the past, I’ve written blog posts calling for more diversity. I think it’s something we all recognize is needed at this point.
I’m Puerto Rican. I’m open about it. I write a lot of Hispanic characters because of it. And when I wrote a Mexican MC, I wrote with the awareness that Mexican culture and Puerto Rican culture are vastly different.
I reached out to Mexican readers and asked if anyone would proofread my story to make sure I was doing that character justice. Because being raised in a Mexican neighborhood doesn’t make me infallible or all-knowing or any kind of authority. I was still brought up in a Puerto Rican family and there are differences aplenty (just as there are differences between Mexicans and Spaniards or Colombians and Dominicans, etc).
I know a lot of authors hesitate to step out of their comfort zone and write a character of color. It can be intimidating, and in my opinion, it requires research and due diligence if you want to give an accurate, sensitive portrayal. If you’re nervous, yes, you’re probably right to be nervous. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes we have to do the things that make us uncomfortable, and if you are uncomfortable, I think you’ll be likelier to approach your writing with care and tact.
That being said, lately I’ve been getting the feeling that some authors think they have to start including characters of color in their books because the subject of diversity has been the focus of so many recent panels and discussions.
And my opinion is this: don’t do anything you feel you have to do.
If you’ve noticed the lack of POC (people of color) characters and you truly want to change that, awesome! Two very enthusiastic thumbs up from me! But if you’re not willing to be mindful, and if you don’t feel it’s worth the effort to research to avoid stereotypes or possibly offending or hurting your readership, it’s probably best not to do it.
In the long run, I think you’ll be happier and less stressed. And the POC readers will be happier too. We want representation, yes. We want to see characters that reflect our cultural backgrounds, but not if it only comes from a sense of obligation, not actual desire to change the (mostly white) landscape of M/M—or romance and fiction in general—to reflect the glorious, multi-colored reality we actually reside in. Not if you plan to portray us as caricatures. And definitely not if you can’t handle criticism if you wind up getting something wrong, which you very well might.
If you don’t feel comfortable writing a character of color, keep doing what you do. It’s all good. Sincerely. No judgment from this author/reader. But if you do want to try, there are people out there who are absolutely ready and willing to help you try to get it right, and believe me it is worth the effort!
We’re all human. Being a minority, a person of color myself doesn’t mean I’m above screwing up. Not by a long shot. All we can do is acknowledge mistakes when they happen (and they will happen). We can apologize and try to do better. And most importantly, we can listen when someone tells us they’re hurt or offended.
Don’t invalidate someone’s feelings. It’s not your (or my) right to tell someone if they should/shouldn’t be offended by something or to tone police or tell them to “speak more politely.” That only takes away from them and their experiences and turns the attention back to yourself and your own comfort. Sometimes it’s hard to be calm and polite when you’re angry and hurting. Sometimes people only hear you above the ruckus if you’re screaming—especially if you’re part of a community that has been dehumanized and marginalized for centuries.
If someone is yelling “This hurt me and here is why!”, maybe you should take a minute to listen and try to understand. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my life, it’s that empathy, compassion, and sincerity go a long way.
People of color… we’re just people. We only want to see stories about genuine characters like ourselves falling in love or saving the day or going on that epic adventure. Not stereotypes. Not for tokenism. Our personalities are varied, and we fall all over the spectrums of sexuality and gender. We’re rich and poor and everywhere in between. Educated and not. In other words—we’re just like everyone else. And yet we make up a mere fraction of the characters you find in books or films or on television.
Trust me, if you found it this difficult to find characters you could relate to, if you never saw characters who looked like you, or who reflected your reality, you’d yearn for more representation too. And when you thought you’d found it, you’d latch onto it fast.
Hey! This person. They’re like me! I can do that too! I can be the hero!
Sometimes there’s no better feeling than that.