5Writers.com welcomes Nicole Oquendo to the site!
Nicole Oquendo is a writer, educator, and editor interested in multimodal compositions and translations of nonfiction and poetry. She is a member of the Sundress Publications Board of Directors, as well as an Assistant Editor for Flaming Giblet Press, the Nonfiction Editor of The Florida Review, and the Nonfiction Editor of the annual Best of the Net anthology. Her essays and poetry can be found inCutBank, DIAGRAM, Gulf Stream, and The Southeast Review, among others. She is the author of the chapbooks some prophets andself is wolf, the hybrid memoir Telomeres, and the visual poetry collection we, animals.
Both “writing” and “diversity” are broad terms. For our purposes, writing can mean prose work, poetry, scripts for comics, film, television, and video games, and so on. Diversity, in this context, is the representation in written work of various cultures, lifestyles, religious beliefs, socio-economic statuses, sexual orientations, gender identities, disabilities, etc. It’s impossible to cover all of this in a small space, but what I can offer is a couple of strategies for representing diverse cultures in our writing in the most effective way.
I’m focusing on the need for more diversity in the products that writers create rather than the need for more diversity when it comes to the writers producing that work because I assume we’re on the same page as far as the latter. It’s great to read work by a variety of fresh perspectives, and audiences, especially those that have a need for seeing themselves represented through diverse storytelling, benefit when there’s a diverse blend of people doing the creating.
Full disclosure: I’m a non-neurotypical, gender fluid, pansexual writer of color. That’s a mouthful, sure, but it’s exciting when I come across a protagonist that reflects some of that back to me. It might not be as important for some to find validation of their identities through the media they consume, but speaking for myself, it makes me excited when writers are unashamed to challenge themselves and try something more diverse than our standard non-Bechdel Test passing, white-washed storylines.
So, on to those strategies I mentioned.
- Don’t stereotype. In a perfect world, more writers would experiment not only with diverse characters, but also with diverse storylines for those characters. The unfortunate truth is that many writers, when exercising diversity in their work, accidentally rely on lazy stereotypes in order to include a broad range of characters. An example of this is including LGBTQIA+ characters for the sole purpose of telling another “coming out story,” or relegating a character of color to the comic relief or any other token supporting character. We can do better.
- You don’t have to be a person of color to write characters of color, for example, but rather than appropriating other cultures as your own, immerse yourself in other cultures or environments in order to gain a better understanding of the cultural norms of that group. The best thing to do is ask questions and expand your knowledge through research in order to develop characters in the same way you would when building the universe of a story. That way, you’re more likely to successfully include diverse characters while still maintaining the integrity of the plot. In addition, there’s also a good chance the work won’t alienate any particular group.
As you can see, it’s not as simple as tossing diverse characters into our stories. We need to take great care that we’re not relying on tired tropes or throwing in diverse characters just for the sake of showing diversity. Our characters should have meaningful development and believable arcs that propel the narrative structure of our work forward. Everything we include in a story, especially components contributing to diversity in our cast of characters, should be there for the sake of world-building, establishing character psychology, and other craft concerns.
Diversity in writing is tricky, and relies more heavily on research than good intentions. The good news is that if we work towards more inclusive storytelling, we’ll be able to reflect a wider range of human experiences, allowing us to connect with a wider audience.