Thursday, 24 September 2015

Writing about diversity from the outside in

by Anne Goodwin

While it’s generally agreed that diversity in the book world is a laudable aim, there’s not a great consensus as to how to facilitate it. Recently on Words with Jam, Debbie Reese cautioned against outsiders writing about Native Americans in books for children, while Farhana Shaikh, in the UK, saw no reason why white writers shouldn’t create BME characters. Having recently published my debut novel about a woman whose particular minority background I don’t share, I’m particularly sensitised to this polarisation of opinion. I want to avoid inadvertently perpetuating negative stereotypes but I also believe that diversity in fiction is everyone’s responsibility. While it would be painful to be accused of racism or homophobia, straight white writers have to do our bit.

I didn’t set out to write a “diversity novel” but, as the story evolved, I realised this was the right way to go. While I’m no expert, feedback, in the form of reviews, suggests I’ve done a good-enough job, so I thought it worth passing on some tips based on my experience of writing about diversity from the outside in.

Learn your craft

If you’re relatively new writer, it might be advisable to defer your “diversity novel” until you have honed your skills. Creating authentic characters of any kind is challenging; do you want to add another layer of complexity to the mix? Sugar and Snails took me seven years from inception to publication, partly because I didn’t realise what a complex task I’d set myself. On the other hand, my passion for the story made me determined to make it work.

Find a safe place to explore your prejudices

We’ve all grown up with assumptions about those who are not like us. The more we can be aware of our stereotypes and prejudices, the less likely they are to contaminate our fiction. If you can’t access equality and diversity training, at least examine your attitudes in confidence with a close friend.

Avoid stereotypes and ration the humour

Make sure your characters don’t conform to cultural stereotypes, and don’t make them the butt of your jokes. While most novels benefit from a sprinkling of humour, the truly comic novel should be left to those writing from inside.

Do your research, but don’t get lost within it

You’ll need to read around your subject and check up on facts, but don’t let your fear of mistakes impede the flow. If you keep your focus on why this topic interests you, you might find you don’t need as much background information as you originally thought. It can be liberating to let go of one’s grandiosity: you’re not writing the definitive text on a particular community, but one possible version of life within it. A journey of the imagination encompasses myriad possibilities.

Dig deep to find your personal connection with your character

Despite diverse cultural practices, at the emotional level, human beings are fundamentally the same. Connecting with your character emotionally, will make your fiction live and breathe. Give them some aspect of your own personality or history, or dress up in their clothes, so that you feel less the creator than the conduit for their experiences.

Let your readers get close and personal

First-person or close third-person points of view help reduce the distance between character and reader. Invite them inside your character’s mind, let readers live the story through their eyes. That doesn’t necessarily entail forgoing suspense. Consistent with her secretive personality, the exact nature of Diana’s identity issue in Sugar and Snails isn’t spelt out until halfway through.

Sensitively seek feedback from those in the know

Just as fiction with a school setting might benefit from feedback from a teacher, try to get the perspective of someone on the inside. But do this sensitively: your acquaintance might not identify as strongly with the minority community as you assume. Consider also when to show them your manuscript: a polished final draft is more engaging than a crude early one. With Sugar and Snails, we didn’t seek an opinion from any experts-through-experience until the proof stage. Fortunately, they loved it.

If you believe in it, do it!

Finally, if you’ve considered these points but are still uncertain, why not just give it a go? Writers need to be free to write that story we want to write, regardless of what others think. If you’re committed to your project, and you’re prepared to do the work, you’ll get there eventually.

Author bio


  1. Hi Ann,
    Thank you for a great post. In the two months since the original interviews came out, I have spent so much time reading around this topic, delving into the differences of opinion and learning an incredible amount. There is some great, thoughtful material out there. For me, the key lessons (so far) are:
    - Always approach writing who are different from yourself with (in the words of Joseph Bruchac) Honesty, Empathy, Knowledge, and Respect.
    - Know that you are still sometimes going to get it wrong.
    - Know that when you do, you will (rightly) be criticised. Accept such criticism with grace and do what you can to put things right.
    - And finally – do everything you can to support those writers who are writing out of their own experience and who may be struggling to get their voices heard.
    Good luck with your book,

  2. Thanks, Cat. You sum it up beautifully.

  3. Hey. Very informative article. I`ve learned a lot from it. Seems like I read something like this on New York Times.

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