I assume you’re here because you’re interested in writing diverse characters and inclusive books that represent the human diversity of our world. You probably aim to write a range of identities and character backgrounds sensitively, respectfully and in a way that prompts diverse readers to be thrilled to see themselves in your book’s pages (as opposed to hurt by offensive, ignorant, prejudiced representation). This two part blog, written by a white, nonbinary, aromantic, asexual, neurodiverse, chronically ill/ disabled author, aims to introduce you to or help you evaluate your knowledge of common pitfalls in diverse rep. It contains many links to further reading (by more qualified authors in the case of BIPOC rep) along the way.

Why Write Diverse Characters? -My Identity Reasons

I first drafted this blog around 3 years ago, thinking, ‘I’d like to write more diverse characters. I’d like to not perpetuate the myth that ‘everyone’ is white, and cishet, able-bodied and neurotypical in my books —by only writing those characters. I need to educate myself about many marginalised identities.’

Guess what? As a 90’s child, where ‘queer’ meant gay, lesbian or ‘transexual,’ and ADHD and autism were ‘boy things’, it turned out the world I grew up in was so ignorant and devoid of diverse representation that it hadn’t allowed me to recognise my own diverse identities.

I am one of many people who grew up knowing they had ‘quirks’, which I later realised neatly fit under ADHD. Who thought the differences between ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are vastly over exaggerated and mostly mythical —easy to think when you’re nonbinary). And who thought most adults are obsessed with sex and fixated on romance —easy to think as an asexual who doesn’t experience sexual attraction and an aromantic who’s never been ‘in love’.

I grew up almost NEVER seeing who I was in ANYONE else. To such an extent I didn’t have the words or labels to articulate to other humans who I AM. To this day, many people are mystified by the fact I don’t have a romantic partner. I’m the first nonbinary person most people I’ve met have met. And people frequently underestimate the extent to which my ADHD and, courtesy of long covid, my chronic illness (fibromaylgia) impact my life on a daily basis. This is why I think it would be awesome to see more diverse characters in books.

Writing ‘The Other’ Complications

Our challenge as writers is having been raised in a society built on foundations of racism, white supremacy, ableism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia. A multi-generational hangover of deep-seated prejudices makes it so easy (and likely) for us to have internalised unconscious, ignorant bias. And because of that, we’re at risk of perpetuating harmful stereotypes and of alienating and hurting the people we’re trying to include in our stories.

Be concious of how, when and why you set diverse characters apart. I assume we arrived at calling people of colour, first nations, queer and disabled people (including chronically ill, neurodiverse, and people facing mental health challenges) ‘diverse’ because they’re ‘different’ or ‘other’. Different to what? To white, heterosexual, cis and binary gender, able-bodied, neurotypical; aka ‘normal’ people?

Historically to be ‘diverse’ was to be ‘abnormal’, to have something ‘wrong’ with you. Enter white supremacy, sexism, ableism, homophobia etc and prejudice-packed, lying narratives they spawned, like supposed superiority of white, male, cishet, able-bodied, neurotypical people. If you leave diverse your characters out, or highlight their traits -but not those of ‘normal’ characters- or treat diverse characters differently, could prejudice could be in play? What do your critical readers think?

On top of that, you may never have had a face to face (or digital) conversation with one (let alone a group) of individuals sharing many identities you’d like to include in your books. Even if you have, you may never have heard them share, with uncensored honesty, their personal experiences as a ‘diverse’ person.

And while focused on diversity and not representing people offensively, you could fall into the trap of losing sight of that character as a fully rounded human -not limited to and defined by their diverse identity- and fail to write them as that fully rounded human.

How Do You Begin Writing A Marginalized Person Whose Identity You Don’t Share?

Every stereotype we don’t notice, every prejudiced or biased view that was ‘normal’ and ‘mainstream’ when we were growing up is at risk of perpetuating itself in our writing. So what do we need to know to avoid that?

Learn What Problematic Rep Looks Like,
—then don’t write it

Physical ‘Abnormalities’ Are ‘Evil’
Sexism, Ageism, Fatphobia & Ableism

Be conscious of traits you give human antagonists. Consider that in fairytales the villain is often an ugly old witch —and you NEVER saw kindly, wise, older women who were positive characters. Or the villain was wicked, jealous stepmothers —so much so I’ve had primary school students ask me why fairytales portray all stepmothers as evil. And nowhere do such stories comment on the systematic sexism and misogyny that disempowered and made women vulnerable historically, and so often the hero is a man. The message in these tales seems to be, ‘any woman with power is evil’ and ‘all good rulers are men.’

What sort of message does your villain tell readers? If the message is ‘being an arsehole is bad’ —you’re fine. But if the villain is the only person of colour, the only older woman, neurodiverse, disabled or the only plus sized character? (See Dudley and Vernon Dursley for fatphobia). What does that say about those identities, traits and people?

Be especially conscious of traits. Have you noticed how often baddies in films have skin defects, physical ailments or other forms of disability? And until very recently other disabled characters tended to be non-existent in fiction? Looks like a pretty clear message that disabled people are bad.

Have you ever seen villains who move their hands, feet or engage in other rhythmic, repetitive ‘weird’/ ‘scary’ movements? (Especially in cartoons). My (autistic) mother recently pointed out to me that this is stimming, a behaviour autistic and sometimes ADHD people use to regulate our emotions and or bodies when we’re under or over stimulated. So don’t make your only stimming, and by extension, your only neurodiverse character the villain!

(For disability stereotypes to avoid, see this post from the Disability History Museum.)

Marginalised Characters as Villains

If you’re worrying you can’t make marginalized characters villains, please don’t. I’d like to see a lot more neurodiverse and disabled characters represented at all —let alone as main characters— before I feel the world is ready for us as villains (without continuing to stigmatise us).

But if you have neurodiverse/ disabled characters as baddies AND gooddies AND neutral characters and the character who’s technically good but also kind of an obstacle? And you’re representing all your (quite a few) marginalised characters as fully rounded identities? —It follows that some of them may be villains, like Desire in The Sandman (a nonbinary character whom I as an enby viewer loved).

Or you may write deeply flawed/ morally grey characters who also happen to be marginalised. For example, Klaus in The Umbrella Academy, who’s initially a barely functional drug addict, but I LOVE them too. And they’re also a hero —again, balance matters. Or Victor in the same show, again, a deeply flawed character who (spoilers) the world, and also happens to be trans.

Just be careful that ARE writing villains who HAPPEN to be queer/ POC etc. NOT villains because they are gay, or black or a (woman). And this needs saying because writers are STILL getting it wrong. Take the 2016 film Split for example. Mental health challenges make you a serial killer? No, they fucking don’t! LOADs of people combatting a whole range of mental health challenges are NOT murderers. Please don’t blame extreme violence in your writing on ‘mental illness.’ Which leads to the next section.

Mad = Bad & Ableism

How many times have you heard opinions you vehemently object to in recent years and called the person, ‘mad’, a ‘lunatic,’ ‘blind’ or ‘deaf’? Sorry, you’re guilty of ableism 101, differentiating between you and people you disagree with by implying those you disagree with are disabled (I’ve also been guilty of this). I know, it’s so tempting to call Trumpists and TERFs crazy and stupid, and blind to the way the hands they worship bite, rather than feed us all. But it isn’t maddness, and it isn’t blindness. These people are NOT disabled. There’s nothing neurologically different in their minds (with the exception of Trump and narcism).

The difference is that covid minimizers, climate change deniers, TERFs etc are wilfully ignorant. They choose not to know. They choose not to believe. But when we call them ‘mad’ alongside ‘bad’… we’re insulting everyone and anyone who’s ever genuinely struggled with their mental health. We’re insulting people who fight their own mental health to function, by lumping them in the same category as people who are too cowardly or too lazy or too gullibly believing Murdoch media to bother facing reality.

So when your characters describe or respond to your book’s equivalent of MAGA characters, please don’t write them doing so in a way that insults actual disabled people.

Ableist language is still rife in the western world, so for a list of common ableist adjectives to avoid and for more accurate, non-ableist adjectives and terms, see this list from Augsberg University. And for how to respectfully write neurodiverse and disabled characters, see part 2 of this blog series.

Bury Your Gays/ Sad Gays

There’s a history of that one token gay character dying in chapter/ act one, while the cishet characters live on. (For details of a bunch of problematic gay and lesbian rep see ‘Bury Your Gays‘ on TV Tropes, a useful resources for identifying tropes, stereotypes and among them, harmful ones).

If you have a minor character who’s going to die quickly —don’t make them gay. Don’t make them your only queer (or otherwise marginalised )character either.

Yes, a book in which loads of people die and some of them are queer can be fine —provided you DON’T kill off ALL the ONLY queer side/ main characters/ couples. Some of them need to survive, just as some of the cishet ones will —see Bury Your Gays for why this is historically and contextually important.

And don’t just write the ‘sad gay’ who’s sad because of ‘the struggle to be queer’. In looking for competitions I could enter my book in, I was astounded that I, queer author of a queer MC didn’t fit the criteria of an LGBTQIA book competition because… I wrote a civilisation (in an epic fantasy) in which being queer is normal and queer joy is a thing! Life can be shitty for LGBTQIA+ (especially trans) people in the real world. Can you give us some queer joy in fiction?

Queer Rep Resources

For why Queer rep is needed, why queer struggles need to be shown in literature but also why queer people like myself want to see some queer joy, this article on Queer Rep in Media is a good (and brief) summary.

More resources with details of problematic queer tropes:
No Bisexuals and Hide Your Lesbians from TV Tropes.
You’ll also find problematic tropes mixed in among common, unharmful queer stereotypes (all linked to explanations of each trope on the list) on Tv Trope’s Queer As Tropes and Homophobia Index.

White Saviours & Racism

While reading to clarify my understanding of ‘white saviour’ for this post, I came across an article (Content Warning on this one!) about a real life white saviour. A story about a modern white person so convinced of their own good will and superiority that they decided to administer medical treatment to Ugandans (via a charity), despite not having any medical qualifications. Yes, their actions killed patients as well as ‘saving’ them. No, this white ‘saviour’ faced no legal ramifications.

In the articles I browsed, white saviours seem to have in common the desire to help BIPOC, often via charity/ foreign aid (as much to make themselves feel better as to benefit others). This may not be a problem, if white saviours didn’t also believe in their ‘superior’ ability to help BIPOC, whilst ignoring how being heirs of white colonialism and supremacy benefits white people on one hand and failing to see how systems built on both systematically disadvantage BIPOC on the other (as mentioned in this article.)

My current thoughts on white saviours is their racism and white supremacy corrupts, can impair and severely limits their capacity to ‘do good’. So if you’re writing a white person who wants to help others… be careful you don’t unintentionally write a white saviour.

(For more examples of how white saviours may present, see an extensive list of them on Wikepedia.)

White Saviours & Racism Resources

As a white writer living on the land of the Wurundjeri people, land that was never ceded and always was and always will be Aboriginal land (aka as an heir of racist colonialism), this is where I point you to BIPOC people to tell us how to represent them.

But first, if you’re unsure, unclear or feeling ambivalent about how racism may have tainted the perspective you’re writing from, I highly recommend the book White Women, Everything you already know about your own racism and how to do better by Regina Jackson and Saira Rao. (Men and nonbinary people, this book will also give you insights into sexism from a cis women’s perspective, which I found educational as a nonbinary person).

For many resources citing potential pitfalls of white people writing POC, see White Writers Writing POC.

For racial stereotypes (and advice on positively writing POC), see Writing With Colour.

Next in This Blog Series

Writing Diverse Characters Part 2: Gives advice on and provides more resources about how to naturally, respectfully and authentically include neurodiverse and disabled and some POC characters, with inclusive language.

Part 3: will focus on Writing LGBTQIA+ characters, and be published in April.

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Further Reading/ Resources Linked Further Above

White Writers Writing POC

Writing With Colour

Ableist Terms and more accurate, non-ableist alternatives.

Disability Stereo Types to avoid

Queer Tropes to avoid from TV Tropes: Bury Your Gays, No Bisexuals, Hide Your Lesbians and Homophobia Index.