Five Reasons to Embrace Diversity in Fiction, Even If You’re an Incorrigible Bigot

Hello, class! Great to see so many… er… homogenous faces here and ready to learn! My name’s Mr The Overthinker, and I’m here to tell you all about how great it is that games, films, novels, comics and all sorts of things are embracing diversity in their characters. See, first off, having a variety of characters from different backgrounds means that a wider variety of readers get to see someone they can relate to represented as a hero that they can look up to, and –

What’s that?

You guys hate anyone who isn’t the same race as you? Oh. Oh, OK. Um… oh, and you’re not a fan of ‘the gays’. OK, I’m not sure that’s something the LGBTQ+ community likes being referred to as, but – sorry, did you say people with any kind of disability are out too? Right, right… so… how do we feel about transgender people….?

No, OK, should have guessed. Well, uh, this wasn’t in my notes for this class, but that’s OK, we’ll get over this little hump together.

So basically, what I’m hearing is that you guys just hate anyone who isn’t exactly like you, am I right? I’m seeing some nods, I won’t ask for any more audience participation than that, but pretty much the situation is that we’ve got a class of racist, sexist, transphobic, homophobic, ableist, xenophobic – basically all the ‘-ist’s and all the ‘-phobic’s, got ya.

Well, no fear! Lucky for you, there are at least five good reasons that diversity is a great thing in fiction, even if you are, as indeed you are, a bunch of irredeemably bigoted dickhea – I mean, students.

1. More Cohesive Motivations

It’s easy enough to decide ‘oh, my character wants this or that’, but it only becomes believable if you’re able to explain why they should want this or that. Are all your characters pretty much the same in terms of background and culture, and therefore motivated by a fairly small shared pool of things? Then how are you going to give them a believable range of desires and stories to follow, when it’s going to be harder for you to explain the intellectual and/ or emotional reasons for them to be engaging in this journey in the first place?

Where a character comes from shouldn’t define who they are, but it can be used to inform the things they fear, the things they love, the things they want to escape from, the things they want to aspire towards. You might be able to come up with a reasonable explanation as to why your Straight White Man Character #336 is looking for MacGuffin #336, but it’ll probably be a fairly similar explanation to why SWMCs #1 – #335 were looking for MacGuffins #1 – #335. And that gets old fast. So it only makes sense for characters to have a bigger, more disparate and diverse pool of life experiences to draw on when thinking about why they’re pursuing whatever it is they’re after (or, conversely, running from whatever they might fear).

2. A Range of Strengths and Flaws

What makes a character interesting? Classically, the idea of hamartia, the fatal flaw, was used to take a character with great strength and give them something that humanised them, that made them more relatable, that made it possible for them to fail and therefore for their story to have stakes. You can’t have stakes if you’re totally invincible and flawless; Achilles, the classic example, needs his Achilles heel or his stories will all just boil down to ‘then Achilles won because he was the best’. Not just that, but characters need different flaws so that their stories, their stakes, can be unique to them.

Having characters who’ve come from a variety of backgrounds, who struggle with a variety of internal and external issues, means that you can create more interesting, more unique stakes. Better than that, the struggles faced by the characters can be both thematically appropriate to their own arcs and informed by their backgrounds in a way that makes the whole world and story deeper and more believable. Why would you not want to tell an inspirational story about someone overcoming prejudices or their own physical limitations, or even self-doubt? Heck, even stories about straight white men are quite often about them learning to overcome their limitations in one way or another, but having something that looks like a disadvantage ready in your character’s very DNA means that you get a strong, coherent moment when they learn to overcome it, accept it, or turn it into a positive.

3. Greater Possibility for Interpersonal Relationships

I’m sure you bunch of straight white homophobes love a good, classic romance story between a cisgender white man and a cisgender white woman, right? But, wait – doesn’t that mean that the only love that could blossom in one of your stories would be between a cisgender white man and a cisgender white woman? What if you’ve got two male characters, and they’re just so perfect for each other, but you simply can’t pair them up romantically because you hate ‘the gays’? Wouldn’t that just be so frustrating?

Well, I like to assume that everyone in a story is pretty much pansexual by default unless I’m told otherwise. That way, literally any character could be paired with any other character! It gives such an enormous set of possible relationships; you’re never limited to just a particular subset of people, so you’ve got the freedom to create whatever romance you want.

Interpersonal relationships aren’t just romantic, though, obviously. Characters need friends, and having a more diverse cast means that they get the chance to spot similarities between themselves and others as well as learn from how others are different to them. You can’t have everyone be the same or nobody has the opportunity to learn anything from anyone else, which limits the possibilities for character growth and development.

You can use the similarities and differences between two characters (and/ or their backgrounds or life choices) to highlight themes, or even to present new problems which they’ll need to work out how to solve.

4. Bigger Worlds

This one kind of goes without saying, I think, but if all your characters are totally homogenous and from the same background and locale, you’ve got a very small world. You can only have things happen within this one tiny bit of existence, and really, isn’t that just dull? You certainly can’t play off the dynamics that might arise between characters of different nationalities; you want a world with two nations allied with each other and at war with a third? Well, you can’t do it without having diverse characters!

I mean… you could… but what you bunch of xenophobes would probably do would be have all the people from the allied nation be ‘perfect’ in your view, and all the people from the enemy one be totally demonised. But that’s boring. People like nuance, you know, and you can’t do nuance if you’ve got nations filled with people who all look and think and act the same. That doesn’t actually achieve the feeling of a larger world at all; it creates a sense that everything is unnaturally simple, neat, and compartmentalised.

5. More Unique and Interesting Problems can be Solved

This is the big one, and kind of a summation of all the other points.

I’d argue that most of the drama and the real interesting stuff that happens in fiction is, in one way or another, to do with problems and solutions. Characters come up against problems to which they need to find solutions; the solution might not work the first time, or it might lead to or be interrupted by further problems, but basically any time a story’s action is moving isn’t it because somebody is trying to solve a problem of some description?

It might be that the problem is something like ‘how do we win this war?’, or it could be ‘how do I get past this guard?’ or even ‘how can I find the strength in myself to admit this?’, but the satisfaction of an arc resolution generally comes from a character that we’ve grown to know and love solving a problem in a way that shows their own growth and unique take on things. Think of the end of the first Harry Potter, for example, in which Hermione (the smartest member of the group) uses her logic, Ron (as the only one of the trio to have grown up in the wizarding world) applies his wizard chess skills, and Harry (as the brave and pure-hearted one) overcomes Voldemort using basically nothing but courage and the genuine desire to do good. It’s a pretty cool sequence, and it works because you need each of these three characters’ unique perspective and skills in order to solve each of the problems they’re faced with.

Now, if you only have one type of character – if all your heroes come from the exact same background – you’ve suddenly massively limited the range of problems to which your cast are able to come up with unique solutions. You can’t really have them face an interesting variety of issues, because they’ve only got the experience and knowledge to overcome a pretty selective snippet of things. Take that last example again: if Hermione and Ron were just clones of Harry, they wouldn’t get past the potion-logic puzzle or the wizard chess. (Or, probably, the Devil’s Snare. Or work out that the trapdoor under Fluffy was where they needed to be in the first place. In fact, they’d probably all have got squished by the troll, like, half a book ago.) The only kind of problems this trio of Harrys would be able to solve would be to do with Harry’s own unique skillset, so basically flying and recklessness, and while it’s great when Harry does get to use those things to overcome an obstacle it wouldn’t be half as great if those were the only things he was using, constantly. It’d just get so boring.

In short, if you have characters with a wider range of backgrounds, interests, and dispositions – and therefore different knowledge, experience, and skills – you can pit them against a wider range of problems, which means you can do more interesting and satisfying stuff. More variety = more interesting story.

And that was Five Reasons Diversity is Really Great, Even If You Personally Suck.

Well, class, I hope you learned something today. If you didn’t, it’s probably because I’m really bad at explaining things in general, and also because I don’t really belong to any minority groups. I myself would be a terrible example of a diverse or representative character: I’m a white, cisgender male, and I really don’t have anything notable in my ‘backstory’. (My brain may be wired a little differently to ‘neurotypical’ people, but that’s my only point of, er, diverseness.)

I would really suggest going and finding writings by people of colour, people from the LGBTQ+ community, neurodiverse people, people with disabilities, people of various beliefs… all kinds of people, in short, about why being able to see themselves represented in media is genuinely affecting and important to them as human people. It’s all well and good me trying to tell you that I personally think diversity should be embraced, but I cannot claim to have personally suffered because of a lack of people who look like me and to whom I can relate culturally in visible positions, either in the real world or in pop culture. A lot of people have experienced that, and their thoughts on why it is important that this institutional imbalance is fixed will be infinitely more insightful than mine.

Still, I don’t think that precludes me from continuing to assert that for me, personally, I just want to see everyone represented. I think stories – games, books, movies, whatever – can be so much richer, more interesting, more believable, when they’re populated by a mix of complex, nuanced, differently-strong and differently-flawed people in the same way that the real world is. I don’t think it should be seen as some big effort, or as shoehorning something in to meet a quota; I just think it’s better.

This has been a satirical presentation by OverThinker Y, the corporate view of which is that diversity and representation are great things that should be embraced because they’re just self-evidently important, and that using them as means to an end is not the best way to think about them but that framing it in this way can be kind of useful sometimes anyway. Toodles.

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10 comments

  1. I’m glad you enjoyed it! I do feel very strongly that diversity and representation should be embraced for their own sake, as there is self-evidently a real benefit to Actual Human People is this is done and a detriment if not; I don’t think seeing them as tools to use in order to almost shortcut your way to better characters is the right mindset at all, but I hope this sort of gently tongue-in-cheek presentation of why it can make stories better might still provide a useful way for some to think about it!

    That was a long comment response. Thanks for reading, anyway!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh, gosh. That’s a good question.

    Something that springs to mind – thanks, recency bias – I’m currently watching season 2 of The Sinner on Netflix (just a couple of episodes in) and there’s a character who’s female, gay, a police officer, and a person of colour. All of those things inform who she is, but she’s never singled out or reduced to any of them; she feels really defined as a character independently of the writers just pointing to any of them and saying ‘there, that’s who she is’, but nor does it feel token. So that’s kind of cool.

    I’m also a fan of How to Get Away with Murder, which features a LOT of characters who are of various sexualities and races and none of them are ever reduced to that. It’s a big part of their lives and so there are big plot lines about the difficulty two male characters face when they’re getting married (especially as one, who also happens to be a person of colour, is HIV-positive) or about how this awesome female black lawyer is taking on THE SYSTEM and all that sort of thing, but there are also characters who just happen to be gay or Latino or whatever and it’s not a big deal at all.

    So those are two examples that just come to mind based on what I’ve been watching recently, I guess! They’re both shows which have featured LGBT+ characters of colour in a way that uses it to inform who they are as people without treating them as tokens or ‘just’ those aspects of who they are. It strikes me, though, that I can’t really think of a story where there have been disabled characters in the same way.

    Again, though, I gotta say that I’m really not an authority on this, and it’s the people who are actually affected in their day-to-day lives by under-representation who will probably be able to answer these kinds of questions better!

    Like

  3. Might I suggest the anthology of Unbroken edited by Marieke Nijkamp? It’s a whole anthology about people with disabilities written by people with disabilities. It’s all short stories so maybe you can find a new author to like.

    I’ll definitely check out those shows! Thank you for answering my question 😄

    Liked by 1 person

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