A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
Earlier this week, Robin Stevens wrote a fantastic post about diverse characters that echoes many of my thoughts and feelings on the subject. (If you haven’t read it already, you should!) So this post is going to approach the subject from a slightly different angle; essentially, I want to talk about diversity within the context of story.
I have a lot of passion for stories featuring diverse characters, whatever the medium; being brown, I would be a diverse character if I were in a book and so it’s not surprising that I’d want to read about characters who aren’t the “norm”.
But my passion for a fantastic story is greater. The story should come first. Much as I appreciate an author’s good intentions and efforts, tokenism and stereotyping are easy traps to fall into when that author is trying too hard to be inclusive and the result is that the story suffers and the attempt to be diverse backfires. As a writer, the story always comes first for me and as a reader, I’m exactly the same. I’m always excited when a good book featuring non-white, non-heterosexual, non-skinny (and any other combination of non-“standard”) characters comes my way, but the key point there is that it’s a good book. I want to read a good book regardless of how diverse the book’s characters are; frankly, I’d rather read a great book populated only with white characters than a meh book about Indian tropes. I’m not going to name the author or series, but I recently read a YA novel featuring Indian characters and settings and it’s full – full – of “mysticism” and broken English and ambitious, arranged married-obsessed parents.
(Believe it or not, many of us do speak English as a first language, many of our parents don’t actually try to force arranged marriages on us, and many of us don’t actually believe that performing a ritual in the Himalayas will turn us into animals. Oh, and you know how some gay men do like sport and some Muslim women don’t cover up every inch of bare skin? Yeah, stereotyping is kind of the opposite of the concept of “diverse”.)
I feel like diversity shouldn’t be a convenience. Good stories are not about diverse characters whose diversity suddenly and arbitrarily proves useful to your plot. If you write mysteries and your detective’s gay best friend helps him/her solve the case by pointing out the relevance of a fashion label, you’ve essentially just told your readers that Best Friend is only gay because it’s useful. Why can’t he be gay just because he is and it may not be directly relevant to your plot but you wouldn’t be able to write him any other way?
There are a number of fantastic books out there about differences and prejudices: Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses is about racial hatred and explores the consequences of this through a wonderful forbidden love story; The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth explores sexual orientation and moral dilemmas in a great coming-of-age story; and Erin Jade Lange tackles obesity and loneliness in Butter. Books like these are necessary. They’re wonderful, they tell stories that are brilliant because they’re funny and compelling and smart and not just because they’re about something other than the “norm”, and there should absolutely be more of them.
But I so wish there were also more books where characters are “incidentally diverse”, as a friend of mine puts it. Where they’re Asian because they just are, but their being “Asian” is completely incidental to the story. Where they’re chubby, but every reference to them doesn’t mention dieting and they’re just as flawed and fully fleshed out as any other character. Where they’re gay and make jokes about it and don’t act like it’s something to be hated or spoken about in hushed whispers. Diversity should be about showcasing differences and variety, but it should also be about showing that those differences and that variety are ordinary, prolific and don’t need to be looked twice at.
Love Actually gets a lot of stick for various reasons, but I love that Keira Knightley and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s characters get married and get on with their lives without anyone acting like it’s unusual, remarkable or weird that she’s white and he’s black. It’s completely irrelevant; the point is who they are and their story, not what they look like. I’m particularly fond of this example because I’m brown and my husband is white and our son is both and neither of us nor anyone we know has ever given two hoots about it.
Daphne du Maurier’s The King’s General is narrated by a character who spends most of the book unable to walk. While this situation puts her in positions that she might not otherwise have been in (staying behind at the house when the others go out, for example, and encountering a visitor), it also doesn’t dominate the book. Here, Honor’s “difference” shapes her story but isn’t what her story is about. We see her struggle with her disability when it happens and the consequences of it over time, but the book is ultimately about love and war and family and there’s a beautiful balance struck between choices Honor makes because of her disability and choices she would have made even if her accident had never happened.
On the YA spectrum, Sarah Rees Brennan’s Lynburn Legacy books (minor spoiler ahead, sorry!) are about sorcery and a quirky English village and awesome characters and one of those awesome characters happens to be gay. Happens to be gay. It’s not a convenience that solves plot problems, it’s not treated like an issue that the book needs to tackle. Her being “gay” affects nothing except the gender of the person she falls in love with. We know her before we find out she’s gay and we know her after and the revelation doesn’t make her a whole new person to us or to the other characters in the book. (She does struggle with the fact that maybe the girl she likes doesn’t like her back (a situation that wouldn’t be so different even if it was a boy she liked who she feared didn’t like her back)). I don’t know about you, but I absolutely love that about these books.
All of which brings me back to my point: story. At the end of the day, we all want to read wonderful stories and wonderful stories are sometimes full of diverse characters and sometimes are not. Write these characters because they appeared that way in your head and you couldn’t change it about them even if you tried. Don’t write them that way because it’s useful or because it ticks a box.
Sangu Mandanna was four years old when she was chased by an elephant and wrote her first story about it and decided that this was what she wanted to do with her life. Seventeen years later, she read Frankenstein. It sent her into a writing frenzy that became The Lost Girl, a novel about death and love and the tie that binds the two together.The Lost Girl is out now from HarperCollins Children’s Books (North America), Random House Children’s Books (UK and Commonwealth) and in translation. Sangu lives in England with her husband and baby son. Find Sangu online atwww.sangumandanna.com or on Twitter (@SanguMandanna).