by Kimberly Mitchell
With the launch of the #weneeddiversebooks campaign last spring, the idea of diversity in children’s writing is everywhere these days. As the diverse books movement moves forward, all writers of kid lit should consider how to create diversity in their work.
Creating characters outside your race and ethnicity can sound daunting. It doesn’t have to be this way. My characters often represent cultures and races outside my own. In Traders of Incense, my protagonist is an Arab boy, based on my time spent in Yemen. In Pen and Quin and the Mystery of the Painted Book, Pen and Quin are Mexican American twins. My motivation behind creating these protagonists stems from my desire to connect with readers and view the world through the eyes of others.
Here are some suggestions on how to create authentic, diverse characters.
1) Mine your own background and experience.
I’ve had the chance to travel to some spectacular places, from Yemen to Peru. The people I’ve met and the cultures I’ve experienced changed the way I view the world.
Where have you traveled? It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as the Middle East. Perhaps you grew up in the South and now live in the Northeast, or vice versa. Or you came from a predominantly majority town and now work with people from different backgrounds.
Use these experiences as launching points for characters and settings in your work.
2) Consider your relationships.
Who do you hang out with? Are your friends, colleagues, and mentors different from you ethnically, economically, or culturally? If not, now is the time to examine those relationships and diversify! It’s difficult to write diverse characters when your own life doesn’t reflect diversity.
If you want to create characters outside your own experience and do so in an authentic way, you must reach out to people different from yourself with an open mind and heart. Be open with your intentions as a writer, but be authentic in your desire to develop the relationship. People love to talk about their families and traditions if you let them. My friends from other cultures and backgrounds have been great sources for me to draw on when creating my characters. Enjoy making new friends and learning new things!
3) Cultivate familiarity.
As you create your diverse characters, you must be familiar with the background and family you’ve chosen for them. Cultivating familiarity means putting yourself in a position to really know what it’s like to be your character.
It could mean studying a new language, traveling to a new city, or finding those places in your own city where your character would live, work, and play. Get familiar with it until it feels natural to you. Until that happens, your characters won’t feel authentic.
4) Do your research – and not just on Google.
Let me say that Google Earth is an amazing invention. I have used it countless times in my own work. A 360-degree street view? Yes! However, the internet cannot provide all the information you need to create your characters.
Doing your research should include finding places and people like your characters and talking to them, participating in events, and reading stories similar to your own, especially when those stories reflect the types of characters you’re creating.
5) Authenticate through readers.
This one is huge for writers creating characters outside their own backgrounds. If possible, I always include beta readers with ethnicities or backgrounds similar to my characters and ask them to read the story with an eye toward that aspect of the work.
For my story that includes Mexican-American protagonists, I asked friends who are Mexican and American, and now raising their Mexican American sons, to read the story. Listen carefully to the response of your readers, and be willing to tweak the story according to their response.
6) Be prepared for kickbacks.
As hard as you try, you won’t fully be able to escape criticism. There will always be people who question your ability to write a story about a Latina girl if you aren’t Latina, or who claim you can’t speak for a Muslim boy if you’re not Muslim.
Certainly you want to avoid stereotyping as much as possible, but if you use your experiences, relationships, research and authentic readers well, you’ll be able to weed out many of the difficulties of writing across diverse backgrounds.
7) Love your characters and your story. Let them speak for themselves.
As writers, we get to choose the types of characters we create. We can’t let the fear of stepping outside of ourselves dictate our choices. The alternative would be simply staying within the comfort of your own race, background, gender, ethnicity, social status and nationality.
And I, for one, refuse to do that. The children we write for deserve better.
Kimberly Mitchell loves journeys, real or imagined. She has traveled to five continents and speaks four languages. Kimberly is represented by Marlene Stringer of the Stringer Literary Agency and hopes to find publishers for her middle-grade novels soon. She lives in Northwest Arkansas with her husband and the best souvenir she ever found, a Yemeni cat.