To write diverse characters, you need to consider which diverse identities you’re including, why and how to naturally indicate that a certain character is diverse/ marginalised and in what way. You need to include characters respectfully, without alienating that character/ identity. But also to consider and show ‘normal’ as that character experiences it, including situations in which their behaviour will ‘normally’ not conform to what ‘most people’ are doing. And in all of this, you need to be mindful using inclusive language in your writing.
This blog will unpack all of these things, but first, some general notes on writing marginalised characters from Vaela and Micah. (If you missed my post on avoiding problematic representation, maybe start there).

Stay In Your Lane -Defined by Vaela & Micah

Every book should have diversity. Every book that shows our world or a world like ours, should have it. And that’s why it’s important to distinguish between – writing a marginalized character vs – writing the struggles of a marginalized character.

Basically, write your Black or Indigenous characters, but don’t write their oppression and their struggle against it unless you are a member of that group. If you haven’t experienced that struggle, it is not your place to portray it as though you know it. You don’t.

You might know what their oppression looks like from the outside, but don’t try to tell stories that quite literally aren’t yours. That’s not diversity, that’s appropriation.

Even when simply putting marginalized characters into your books, it’s a good idea to hire a sensitivity reader of that character’s community. Sensitivity readers can stop glaring flaws and offensive depictions, and can enrich and add to a marginalized character with their own experiences and input.

Research is of course always important. And here it’s necessary that it’s not a matter of “how much research is enough,” but rather that research is a process. Learning about other identities is a continual process, and one that is usually never finished. But it’s well worth it.

You can read Vaela and Micah’s full thread here.

Know Why You’re Writing This Marginalised Character

Before we dive into the writing of diverse characters, I think its important to be clear about which diverse identities you’re including and why. Intent gives you purpose, and guides how you go about completing a task. So consider: are you writing a marginalised identity to:

Have people in your story world resemble the diversity of humanity in real life?

Have marginalised readers pick up your book and see themselves on its pages? And realise this isn’t yet another book about other people, its actually about them too?

To spread awareness (of any particular?) marginalised people’s existence and or to normalise their presence in fiction?

To give non-marginalised people the chance to emotionally connect with/ relate to/ sympathise with marginalised people they may not interact with in real life? (This is easier when you’re writing own voices, but likely if you’re an empathetic writer, though I’d recommend a sensitivity reader if this is part of your purpose or inclination.)

To subvert, challenge or destroy stereotypes with more rounded, more authentic representation of a certain identities? (Great, though again I suggest a sensitivity reader to help you with the ‘authentic’ part).

Write Inclusively

When you first plan characters, think outside the box of your own identities, life experience and upbringing. Every character who sets foot on the page is an opportunity for diversity. That assistant might use speech to text technology to make notes because they’re dyslexic. That autistic side character may hesitate to join the party because bright lights, loud music and crowds make them deeply uncomfortable. The friend your MC confides in may bounce from one topic to another at great speed in conversation, because they have ADHD or are in a hyper stage of bipolar.

Job one on my writing diverse characters list is: look for opportunities to incidentally reveal that a character is in some way a marginalised person. If you do this for multiple identities, you could tick the ‘writing a world as diverse as our own box’ —even if only minor characters in your story are diverse. You’d also be raising awareness of and normalising the existence of people with these identities, and letting marginalised people glimpse themselves on the page. Sure, this is surface and entry level stuff, but if you’re new to writing diverse characters, this is all it takes to get started.

Writing Inclusive, Non-alienating Descriptions

To ensure you do write inclusively, its good to monitor if there are any times in your story when a marginalised character is singled out or alienated from the other characters (or the reader). Some of these times may reflect prejudice, bigotry and or discrimination in the world of your story, as you intend. But some may not.

For example, describing the appearance of people of colour and not white characters. Not commenting on white characters accessories, but being sure to point out the character wearing a turban or hijab. Or not describing what the white kids eat at lunch time, but mentioning the ‘strange’ meats in sauces and green or purple, crumpet-like bread the African kids are eating.

If you only describe the appearance and culture of characters who aren’t like you, you’re positioning them so its obvious how ‘other’ and ‘different’ and ‘not like us/ the other characters’ the marginalised characters are. You’re positioning them to be isolated from fellow characters and the reader the moment you introduce them. So when it comes to describing marginalised characters, try to evade double standards in what you do and don’t mention about appearances and culture.

Write Fully Rounded Diverse Characters,
Not Defined by their ‘diverse’ identity

Focus on the big picture of your ‘diverse’ characters —initially. Consider their family, friends, foes, hopes, dreams etc. Don’t let what makes them different define the way you write them. Give them strengths, weaknesses, backstory, aspirations, fears, loves etc —like your other characters. And don’t let how they are ‘different’ define their aspirations, fears, backstory etc. Let characters exist beyond the manner in which they are marginalised.

What this Means (in part) for Disabled Characters

Yes, if your character is disabled/ neurodiverse, this may mean researching assistive technology and or strategies/ adjustments/ treatments that enable your characters to pursue their dreams despite the limitations of their disability. Don’t just write them off because they’re vision impaired, or ‘its too crowded for an autistic person to function’ or ‘all soldiers must depend solely on brute force to survive battle’ —must they?

I would love to see more disabled characters finding ways to work with/ around their disability, at the heart of stories action. So often in action movies, fantasy, SciFi even in romance you see the muscular man. The thin woman. Physically ‘attractive’ people with 20-20 vision, all of their limbs and senses functioning at full capacity, unimpeded by chronic illness or disability, their brains mostly co-operating with them.

There’s a saying, ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. And I’ve seen so few fictional characters readers with disabilities can aspire to be. So please include disabled characters in your books! (But not to inspire or motivate other characters/ the reader. There’s a lot of issues with that, explored unapologetically in this article by a disabled author.)

Write Your Diverse Adult Characters as Adults

Certain marginalised identities get infantilised. My open, honest expression of ADHD excitement and impulsivity often leads people to view me as 15-20 years younger than I am. Sure, I can be a big kid by nature (and enjoy doing so). I also hold the views of the highly educated, extensively life experienced adult that I am. But people who stereotype me because of my ADHD, or mistake my unfiltered ADHD behaviour for lack of intelligence, are oblivious to my adult capacity.

Asexual people can also be infantilised. Like they aren’t ‘grown up enough’ to want to have sex with other people, or to be sexually attracted to other people. Just in case anyone is confused: having sex with other people is not a milestone of maturity that must be crossed to claim adult status. A tiny minority of the population do not experience sexual attraction to other people (or don’t unless they’re already emotionally intimate) and may not wish to have sex with other people *waves in asexual*.

Then there are disabled people or older people, particularly those dependent on carers to, for example, get in and out of the shower. Just because a person’s physical capacity is reduced does not mean they lack the maturity, life experience and knowledge —the intellect— of the adult they are. (Alzheimer’s and Dementia being more variable, grey categories here).

Then there’s white characters longing to save poor, ‘helpless’ people of colour —the white saviours I warned you to avoid writing in my diverse characters big don’ts blog. I suspect all white saviours are infantilising people of colour.

So even if your marginalised character appears to you ‘child-like’ in some way, don’t lose sight of the knowledge, experience and intellectual capacity they also have as an adult —and write it.

Know the Specific Identity
& Write It Authentically

Stop assuming (anything). Step out of your shoes. Put yourself in your character’s shoes. This is where you start researching the particular identity/ marginalisation you’re representing.

What May be Normal for That Identity?

Once you’ve tried to step out of your life experience and the expectations it and your upbringing, culture etc have given you, its time to research what may be normal for the diverse identity you are writing, so you can imagine their world. I stress ‘may be normal for that identity’ because as they tell us in teacher training, ‘if you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism.’ People’s experiences will vary, even among people with the same diverse identity, especially if that person/ character is marginalised in multiple ways.

Possible Examples of Marginalised Identity ‘Normal’

-always eating with your hands (some people of colour).

-using assistive devices to read/ write/ view/ move (some disabled people).

-carefully pacing yourself with physical activities and balancing them with rest every day. And avoiding prolonged standing or sitting (disabled people with chronic/ invisible illness, particularly chronic fatigue and long covid).

-a preference for uncluttered, neutral coloured, quiet living, working and digital spaces (actually autistic and ADHD people).

-a predisposition to assume they have done something wrong, or their company is unwanted (some forms of anxiety).

-struggling to get out of bed or perform physical activities because you’re so weighed down by the pointlessness of everything (one experience of depression).

-characters buying and wearing clothing and accessories irrespective of their biological sex (many trans and some nonbinary people).

-being attracted to and dating people of the opposite or multiple genders or being in a romantic/ sexual relationship with more than one partner (LGBTQIA+).

-not being sexually or romantically attracted to anyone, period (some asexual spectrum people).

How Might A Marginalised Identity
Not Conform to Majority Expectations?

As marginalised characters live different versions of ‘normal’ than non-marginalised characters, there are times when marginalised will not behave the same way as other characters. They may not even behave in ways many people expect, or defy other character’s (and the reader’s) expectations. So in showing each diverse person, consider the contexts in which they may present/ feel/ think/ behave differently to non-marginalised people.

A Disabled example of Nonconformity

Your characters attend a public event where everyone is expected to stand. It may be a person in a wheel chair who remains seated. Or maybe its someone with an invisible illness like long covid, chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromalgia limiting their stamina and making prolonged standing (more than a few minutes) painful, uncomfortable and or impossible. (I really should have got medical exemption from yard duty and standing during assembly when I had long covid).

A Gender Diverse Example

Its a special occasion. Men are wearing suits and women are wearing fancy dresses. But do all women want to wear dresses? And what are nonbinary people wearing? Are there feminine and masculine suits? Suit jackets with skirts? Is the gender of everyone’s formal clothing matching their biological sex (assigned at birth)? And as a nonbinary person, let me tell you that gender diverse people’s clothes may not fit their figure as well as cis people’s —where our gender identity expression and biological sex don’t match.

Asexual Spectrum Example

Your characters are teenagers and everyone is gossiping about their boyfriend, girlfriend or whoever they have a crush on. Except the asexual, aromantic character. They don’t seem to ‘like’ anyone in the same way people ‘like’ them or that their friends ‘like’ people of the opposite/ same sex/ both. (*waves in asexual aromantic*)

First Nations’ People Example

Its the characters national country day. Everyone is celebrating the public holiday with family meals. Except the country’s First Nations people, who are holding a national day of mourning and commemorating being invaded and colonised. (*jabs finger at Australia and tells their country to get its shit sorted*).

ADHD Example

Technology is being a nuisance in your characters office. Everyone is logically trying to problem solve it, aside from the wildly impatient ADHD character. They keep leaping between multiple solutions, forgeting what they’ve tried, why it didn’t work or what to do next. And get frustrated because tech is moving so slowly they’ve forgotten why they had that tab open and the three things they planned to do after it. Because when things move slowly they swiftly become bored, then distracted by multiple other things. (*waves in ADHD*)

Mind Your Words

Two Wrong Words about a Nonbinary Character= BAD

Without context and knowledge, you can incidentally, needlessly slap marginalised readers in the face. I experienced it in a review of my debut. The reviewers clearly, sincerely wanted to encourage nonbinary main characters. But in reviewing my book, they criticised the ‘gender reveal’ of my nonbinary MC.

If you know anything about current transphobia, you’ll know that since 2008, ‘Gender Reveal Parties’ have celebrated how a baby’s biological sex ‘reveals’ their gender identity. You’ll know such a perspective erases the existence of trans and nonbinary people and recognise ‘gender reveal parties’ as the transphobic practice they are. But if you didn’t know this -words matter, history matters and context matters.

I can give you additional context here too. No-one ever refers to the ‘gender reveal’ of a male or female character. Because we know the character will be male or female. We expect it. Its ‘normal’. And sometimes we forget nonbinary people exist, and they’re never main characters, so when we come across one as a main character its like, ‘Oh yeah! Nonbinary people exist (and can be characters, even main characters). I forgot! What a revelation!’

Here I am, being referred to by the wrong pronouns (by people who know my pronouns) and mis-gendered by strangers everyday in my real life. And people are reminding me in writing that most people forget I exist.

That’s how easy it is as a non-marginalised person, ignorant of context, to blunder in and accidentally slap a marginalised reader with a mere two terrible word choices.

Research Your Words

So if you’re about to describe a marginalised character… stop.
1. Did you research respectful terms to describe them first?
You’ll find plenty in White Writers Writing POC and for not using ableist language; (after the list ableist terms) this list of better alternatives.

2. Did you Google the adjective you’re considering describing a marginalised identity by and that identity’s name together? This is a simple way to get context you may lack from not having lived as a marginalised character, or not belonging to the same communities as they do.

Inclusive Fiction Examples

Shallan (PTSD rep) and Renarin (autism rep) in the Stormlight Archives. These are interesting because they are point of view characters, and Brandon Sanderson didn’t write either as own voices. He did however do his homework and wrote both the impact of Shallan’s experience of PTSD and Renarin’s autism sensitively.

Lupin (Netflix) has a male main character who’s black. He’s French (as is the show), street smart (tough upbringing), charming, clever, highly capable and a loving (ex) husband and father, countering many negative stereotypes of black men.

Locke & Key (Netlix) has a secondary character who is a double amputee. Yet how he lost his feet isn’t mentioned, because this isn’t a story about his experience as a disabled person. Its a fantasy story in which he ends up playing an important role.

People To Help You Write The Other

Listen To People

Your writing community (on whichever social media/ Discord servers you talk to writers) is a good place to listen to people marginalised in the same way as your characters. Try searching hashtags like: #neurodiverse, #actuallyautistic, #ADHD, #ChronicIllness/ #longcovid, #disability, #BLM etc.
On Blue sky, hear what life is like from posts by people living it on; neurodiversity, chronic illness, disability, LGBTQIA+, BlackSky.

If you’re a children’s fiction author, you may be able to talk to marginalised people by submitting a form to Inclusive Minds, a paid service connecting children’s book authors to marginalised people, whose experience and advice can help you write their identities authentically.

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More Resources to Help You Write Neurodiverse Characters

Writing Diverse Characters Part 1: Big Don’ts

I Think I’m Neurodiverse (ADHD?)
Managing my Neurodiversity —ADHD

List of Neurodiverse Definitions and some behaviours by Best Resources for Achievement and Intervention re Neurodiversity in Higher Education.

Writing Characters With Autism by Disability in Kidlit.

Salt and Sage Books Incomplete Guides book series on writing asexual, black and autistic characters, fat positivity and sexual assault, written by own voices authors.