Guest Post: Writing Diverse Characters by Ella Martin

Hello, darlings. We talk about diversity a lot on this here blog, so when Ella started talking guest posts for her upcoming release (WILL THE REAL PRINCE CHARMING PLEASE STAND UP? from Astraea Press in July of this year), I told her my space was up for grabs. She has an interesting, valuable perspective on writing diversity. I’ll let her take it away!

Ella Martin: The Case for Diversity in Contemporary YA

When I told Jessie my debut YA contemporary romance’s release date was rapidly approaching and volunteered to write a guest post, he asked if there were any LGBT characters in my book, since much of his blog’s material is about writing and diversity/queerness. My response was “no,” as none of the primary characters are LGBT, though my novel WILL THE REAL PRINCE CHARMING PLEASE STAND UP? does feature an ethnically diverse cast of characters. But it’s not to say that no one at Westgate Prep, the fictional high school my characters attend, is LGBT. This is, after all, the 21st century, and the school is set in Southern California.

And that’s the thing about being inclusive when writing contemporary YA. High schools—even exclusive private prep schools like Westgate—are microcosms of the cities surrounding them. That means it’s impossible to accurately write a contemporary YA story unless its cast of characters comes from just about every walk of life. A quick survey of any busy high school cafeteria will illustrate how many different types of people attend that school—and how cliques are seldom solely based on ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation.

Perhaps the larger question is how to write characters who are different from you, the author. After all, how do you write a character of a different culture or sexual orientation when writers have for years been told, “Write what you know”? How do you accurately the wants, needs, desires, and struggles of a person who is nothing like you?

This is the part where I ease my creaking bones into my rocking chair and share a controversial truth:

Generally speaking, all people want the same things.

I know! It’s a crazy idea, but believe it or not, it’s true. A 15-year-old girl of mixed descent has the same basic desires as a 15-year-old girl whose parents identify themselves as Asian, Middle Eastern, Latin, Black, or White. And those first stirrings of infatuation and young love are the same in any language, regardless of whether the object of her affections is male or female. And everyone at age 15—whether or not they’ll admit it—is still trying to figure out who they are and what to make of how they fit into the world. This may mean identifying as a Jock when people have labeled you a Brain your whole life, or it may be much more dramatic, like identifying female when you were born with male genitalia.

Of course, the struggles your characters will face may vary by person and setting. And by all means, research those struggles because those challenges they face will shape your characters like nothing else canTalk to Black students in affluent areas and ask how they feel about the assumptions complete strangers have of them based solely on the color of their skin. Work it into your character’s back story. Talk to Asian students and get their thoughts on how they feel about teachers expecting them to excel in certain subjects because of their ancestry. Empathize and have your character act accordingly. Reach out to transgendered teens to get their varied stories about how their families and friends accepted them (or didn’t) and how they might respond to myriad reactions from those people who love them unconditionally (or are supposed to, in some cases). Use that information to help shape your character’s personality.

Being true to your characters, whether or not would be considered diverse, means acknowledging their challenges and allowing them to behave in ways consistent with their responses to those challenges. It doesn’t always have to be the story, but it will impact the way your character will behave. Does it make her more defiant? Does it make him more timid? Is this why she flinches whenever she hears a door slam? Is this why he feels he needs to have the last word in any discussion? Characters, regardless of race, creed, culture, gender, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status, are more than the challenges they’ve overcome. At the end of the day, characters are people.

And as writers, we owe it to our characters to treat them as such.

~

ella

Ella Martin is a prep school survivor and YA author represented byJulia A. Weber of J.A.W. Literaturagentur. Her debut novel WILL THE REAL PRINCE CHARMING PLEASE STAND UP? is a contemporary continuation of Snow White in which a 15-year-old girl discovers “happily ever after” only happens with the right guy. It will be available July 2014 from Astraea Press.

You can find her here:

So, what do you guys think? Are you conscious of writing diversity into your stories? What are your strategies? Talk to us in the comments!

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3 comments

  1. Thanks for hosting me, Jessie. We really do need more diverse books–and I truly believe the best way for us as writers to start making that happen is to surround ourselves with more diverse groups of people so we can properly allow the characters we create emulate their strengths. =)

  2. Excellent post, Ella! You’ve made many of the points about diversity that I try to exemplify in my Teen Wytche Saga. High school is a microcosm of the outside world. Wishing you tremendous success with WILL THE REAL PRINCE CHARMING PLEASE STAND UP?

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