By the time I was nine, I knew I was ugly. In all the books I’d read, (and I’d read a lot) no girl character was allowed to have brown hair and brown eyes. Brown-eyed girls had hair of ebony or raven, or maybe auburn, (which I’d pretend was kind of close to mine, except for the being-red part). Girls unlucky enough to get stuck with mousy brown hair at least got blue or green or even the highly coveted and way-more-popular-in-books-than-real-life purple.
At age nine, I met two protagonists with my same hair-eyes combo. They were from the Babysitters Club books: Kristy & Mary Anne-aka the tomboy and the mouse-and, despite the fact that they were the two most like me in personality, them not being the pretty one, the glamorous one, or the artistic one, definitely sent a message. Brown-eyed brunettes were boring and unattractive.
By the time Beauty and the Beast hit theatres two years later, I was already blowing my allowance on bottles of Sun-In and yearning for a pair of tinted contacts. (Not that Belle didn’t have her problems-her whole storyline involves her turning down a figurative beast to love the literal one who imprisoned her (Stockholm Syndrome much?)-but at least she was beautiful…)
But I was lucky. I got to see myself way earlier than my Chinese Canadian friend who had to wait another seven years to see herself in Mulan (again, not without problems), and way, way earlier than the other friends who are *still* waiting to see someone resembling themselves in popular fiction twenty years after that.
So I was a bit shocked this week when one of my writing friends told me she’d heard agents advising their white clients to keep all of their characters inside their experience. ALL of their characters: main, side, every last one. Which would mean for a writer like myself my books would have to be populated by nothing but cis, het, relatively able-bodied white folks.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m all for staying in your lane when you’re writing a POV character. Personally, I don’t think I’d ever know enough about the experiences of someone from another cultural background or sexual orientation or disability to properly convey them, especially in today’s world. And double especially since I’m already working with the disadvantage of being a Canadian trying to represent American life. On top of that, I’d hate to have my version of those experiences published over a much more authentic story told by someone who lived them.
And I’m not trying to say there’s no responsibility involved with including people outside your experience as side characters. You can still perpetuate harmful stereotypes and tropes with side characters, so you can’t just add these characters in like diversity sprinkles-you actually (gasp!) need to think through what you’re writing and what message (intentional or otherwise) you’re sending with the choice of your characters’ identities.
How do you do that? Read #ownvoices books and blogs to figure out what good representations and what problematic representations are already out there. Hire sensitivity readers to double (or triple or quadruple) check your work. And then listen to them and fix it.
But to completely exclude these people from your writing all together? To present a homogenous world and erase any and all people who don’t match the “norm” of the author? To me that feels like taking giant leaps in the wrong direction. The world I live in is filled with diverse people, why should my books be any different?
Because books aren’t just mirrors, they’re also windows. As nice as it was to see someone like myself as a beautiful princess, what made a difference was so many other people seeing her as beautiful, too. Suddenly brown-eyed brunette didn’t automatically equal tomboy or nerd (although, she does start the book as a book-loving nerd, so maybe I can’t give them too much credit).
Good representation can break down stereotypes, give you a glimpse into someone else’s life, and actually increase empathy. Perhaps if more people read good representation, there’d be less hate in the world today…
Which is why I feel like we shouldn’t be aiming to erase *all* diversity in books, merely bad/harmful representations of those diverse people.
What do you think? Should writers “stick to what they know” for all their characters? Or is it okay to include diverse secondary characters, so long as it’s done with research and thought? Tell me what you think in the comments.