Diversity as it relates to Peace, War, and Dumbledore


When well-intending authors want to include diversity in their fictional works, a variety of questions tend to go through their heads, like…

-Am I a poser, if I’m a pale person who wants to include Arabian knights in my fantasy story?

   -If I’m a person of color, non-cisgender, or ability impairment, do I have to write a book about pale, able-bodied, straight people in order to conform to genre norms?
  -Am I required to have diversity in my book, and if so, is there a minimum / maximum amount?
The answer to all these questions is a resounding “No” and maybe even a “Hell no!” in the case of minimums to meet.
*Hint: If you are only interested in writing diversity to meet an arbitrary quota for the selling of more books, please don’t bother.
Yet, the topic of diversity turns authors with hither-to healthy egos into nervous nuts for fear they might do it wrong and offend someone.

While the unfortunate plight of the timid diversity writer is not J. K. Rowling’s fault, she did give us a glaring example of how to do it wrong. Behold, the handling of her hitherto beloved character, Albus Dumbledore:

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After Rowling revealed this informational tidbit that was in no way backed up by her books, Albus Dumbledore became to diversity in fiction what the Vietnam Conflict was to America’s reputation abroad: a years-long quagmire with no satisfying end that serves as naught but a cautionary tale to future generations.

“Are are sure you want to write diversity, Nervous Writer Person? We don’t want another Dumbledore on our hands” sounds suspiciously like what congress says every time shit goes down overseas:

“Are we sure we want to take a stand on this? We don’t want another Vietnam on our hands.”

At this point, I think most of us agree diversity in fiction is a good thing. What’s a little less clear is how to achieve it without pandering, stereotyping, or making our book an object of outrage.

There’s no one set of rules to keep from upsetting folks with our books, but here are some guidelines on which most book-lovers seem to agree:

   1. Don’t award your characters posthumous attributes. Once your work is published, it is too late to change them, and they are dead in the sense that Latin is dead. For those who once wrote it every day, the ink is dry, and the pen is lifted. It’s real hard to go back in time and change it to something the author likes better now.
   2. Be respectful. Some stories, particularly very old ones written in an age with no internet and fewer fact-checking resources, show lack of cultural understanding but not in ways that are – as they say – “problematic.” For instance,  “The Nightingale” by Hans Christian Andersen prominently features the emperors of China and Japan interacting in ways they would not have in those days. Yet, Andersen’s handling of the subject matter is less like that of a flagrant culture appropriator and more like one who is spellbound by a far-off, exotic land. In contrast, H. P. Lovecraft used diversity in his fiction only to highlight his own bigoted, classist feelings that color / poverty / mixing of race = bad. Today, few diversity fans want to pick up Call of Cthulhu except to throw it at somebody, but “The Nightingale” is still a great little fairy tale illustrating the power of friendship and the danger peer pressure. This leads me to believe if we write of a culture as one looking at it through loving eyes, readers will be more inclined to give us the benefit of the doubt if we make a mistake somewhere.
   3. You can write anything you want. All people have their preferences, and they might not like your take on cultural themes, but that doesn’t mean you cannot write them. Which brings us to…
   4. You can’t please everyone. Let’s face it, you were never going to please everyone with any one book. There are, believe it or not, folks out there who don’t like Harry Potter, The Hate You Give, The Little Prince, Alice in Wonderland, to Kill a Mockingbird, The Sword in the Stone, Flowers for Algernon, and Huckleberry Finn. You don’t have to agree with those people. You don’t have to marry those people. But they have a right to their opinions, and if they hate your book as well… I mean, at least you evoked some strong feelings, right?
   5. Don’t half-heartedly embrace diversity in order to sell more books. Each of your characters should add to your story, or they don’t belong there. If you stick one or two persons of color, disability, or what-have-you into the mix, and they don’t make your story better for their presence, that is pandering, and your readers will know it.
   6. Research / Think things through as you write. We do not live in an era of isolation. Contrary to what some might think, the internet is at our disposal for more than games, porn, and the wasting of time. If you’re in love with a culture that’s different from your own, snoop around on Google for a while, and see what all you can learn about it. Failing that, read books. Watch documentaries. Figure out how to write a believable character from that marginalized culture you revere. Or if you’re writing fantasy, flesh out the culture of that different-looking character and how his culture has shaped him. How does he interact with the locals in lands where-in he’s a stranger? What makes his perspective unique among your cast of characters? Is his race that of proud, fierce warriors or sneaky, smooth-talking manipulators?

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(there might be better examples out there than the Clingon and the Ferengi from Star Trek, but it would take some concentration and a better attention span than I possess to think of them)

So that’s my glancing blow at how to navigate the pitfalls of writing diverse characters. If you disagree, good deal! I’m overjoyed me seriously enough to read and take issue with my stuff.

Until next time, happy-and-prosperous writing, y’all. May the Lord smite us with money 😉

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