I’ve always been frightened to write diverse characters. This weekend I had a reminder why.
I grew up in a very ethnically diverse town in New Jersey. My school consisted of mostly Asian and Jewish people, so I was one of very few white, Roman Catholic kids. Growing up, they had their cliques, but I got along with them fine and never encountered any hate or racism. It’s a thing that’s probably worked TOO well, in my case… we lived in such harmony that maybe I’ve forgotten that certain things can offend certain people.
Last weekend I sent a chapter of my new book to an editor who I was thinking of hiring before self-publishing it. I was shocked when she came back with, “I’m sorry, but if this is a book about how the good white man saves the dark-skinned savages, I will not be able to continue reading.”
I was shocked. Yes, my book contains two races of people. It is set in the far-off future. One group of people lives above-ground, and their race has gradually regressed. The other group consists of people who live underground, and their race is very technologically advanced. In my mind, the first group was dark-skinned simply because they’d lacked protection from the sun, and so the ones with the ability to withstand the sun’s unforgiving rays are the ones who survived, and some of them have blue eyes. They were “savage” because they didn’t have the technology. The second group was not made up of all-white people; in fact most of them are, at least in part, of Asian descent. Each race is an amalgam of other races that once existed—they blended and what remains are those with a natural ability to survive in such different circumstances.
But this is a great reminder to me of how easy it is to offend, and why I sometimes feel nervous and resigned to my comfort zone of writing people “like me”. They say great writing is fearless and free, but I’ve never quite been able to get there. The fear of offending someone has always been in my mind.
While writing DROWNED, it never occurred to me that people would see it as a “diverse” book because the main character, Coe, has a physical disability. She is missing part of her arm. The setting was harsh and unforgiving, many people die horrible deaths, so it was only fitting that I give some of the characters afflictions to further illustrate that. But many people have said how great it is to show a strong female character that is disabled but doesn’t let her disability deter her.
I’ve also written a character who was overweight, even though I have never had an issue with my weight. I was able to write characters like these because, well, I have my own issues, both external and internal, that often make me feel inadequate. I channeled those feelings of inadequacy into the character and then had her do what I wished I would be strong enough to do to overcome them.
But there’s always the fear of stereotyping, of being untrue, the fear that someone will say, “Well, you aren’t ____. How do you know how we feel?”
I’m more inclined to stay in my comfort zone because I haven’t been able to tune out the critics just yet. But I guess writing in a fearless way is all about finding the common thread, about seeing the parts that make us similar despite our differences. Incidentally, from what I learned in my hometown, that is also how diverse communities thrive.