No matter where you go in the world today, diversity is a word on everyone’s lips. Love it or hate it, the concept has, thanks to a particularly vocal segment of society, become a fact of modern life. And that has spilled over into fiction of all sorts. After all, stories are ever a reflection of an author’s worldview, so it stands to reason that something so prominent finds its way into anything we write.
In this two-part post, I’d like to offer my opinions on diversity as it pertains to fiction in various sorts of media. That includes the written word, video games, movies, television, and even theater. Anywhere a story must be written, it seems that the writer must take diversity into account, and I feel there are right and wrong ways to go about that.
For this part, I merely want to speak what I believe. In the following entry, which I will post next week, I will then look at my own efforts as a kind of case study for what I feel to be the most appropriate method of dealing with the concept.
First off, let me define what I mean by diversity. In this context, I refer to people, or rather characters, who show visible differences in what might be termed intrinsic factors. These are the divisions we’re most familiar with, the ones most evident in appearance or association, and those that are hardest—if not entirely impossible—to change. Race, sex, religion, national origin, culture, and sexual orientation are some of the most common. (Gender, as it exists in a social context, has become a bit more involved, but it works essentially the same way for our purposes here.)
Nothing in a fictional work should, in my opinion, give a reader, viewer, or player the impression that the author sees those who vary from the norm in a negative light. (Unless, of course, that is the true purpose of the work, as in extremist literature of all sorts.) The purpose of fiction is to create a story. Thus, the best authors leave their biases at the door, so to speak.
The fictional world—the secondary world, as some call it—can have its own biases, and those may be different from our primary world. In that case, it is the writer’s responsibility to explain those differences, those biases, in a way the is both entertaining and enlightening. If there is to be a message, then let it stand on its own merit. That goes for diversity as well as its lack.
The use of force
And this, I feel, is where so much modern media has gone astray. Too often, we see authors and screenwriters “force” diversity where it detracts from the story being told. As Hollywood has become far too fond of reboots and reimaginings, we can watch this unfold on a daily basis. In only the past year, I’ve seen reboots and story concepts that, for diversity’s sake, promise to change a character’s race (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), sex (the oft-rumored “female James Bond”), gender (Supergirl), and orientation (Star Trek).
My question is a simple one, yet one that would likely lead to my firing if I worked at one of these studios: who wins? If the object is to show that women/people of color/LGBT/whoever can be protagonists, then shoving them into roles defined by someone who is one of straight, white, or male can only be considered a failure. If your argument is that marginalized groups deserve their own heroes, then make them some heroes. Don’t try to remold preexisting heroes into a more diverse image for the sake of diversity. That, to use a term these people like, is no different from cultural appropriation.
The problem, as I see it, boils down to polarization. One side wants to see more diversity, and they’ll stop at nothing to achieve that goal. But those who don’t seek diversity in and of itself are then pushed to the other side, lumped in with white supremacists, homophobes, etc., for no reason other than they are not sufficiently progressive. Conversely, they then become shunned by those same elements for being too progressive. And the gap only continues to widen.
A better approach
Instead of this increasing bifurcation of society, I think a far better approach, at least regarding the creation of fiction, can be had by writing in a natural, organic fashion. Instead of forcing diversity, keeping quotas of minorities and the like, look at the story as a whole, the world it creates.
For fiction set in the real world of the present, this is almost too easy. We have demographics at our fingertips, so it’s not too hard to make a story that is both diverse and true to life. Historical fiction needs a little bit more work, but some common sense can tell you that it’d be silly for, say, Thor or Achilles to be black, or Guan Yu to be white. (Sexuality, especially in ancient times, is a whole different ballgame, particularly once you leave the familiar Christian West.)
Constructed worlds bring their own rules. In fantasy, you can make a case for just about anything. The men of Middle-Earth are white, if only because they are explicitly contrasted with the southern Haradrim. Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage series has a race of “savages” that, upon further inspection, are not African in appearance, but…ginger. Female warriors abound in literature—Brienne of Tarth (Game of Thrones) is the example most pertinent for TV audiences. Non-heterosexual relationships aren’t at all uncommon. And a good author lets all that fade into the background unless it’s absolutely pivotal to the story.
That doesn’t even get into the possibility that other races might have differing notions of what constitutes diversity, or different intrinsic factors. One can easily imagine polyamorous elves, matriarchal orcs, or shapeshifters to whom the very concepts of race and gender are nonsensical. A fictional world with multiple races and sub-races might have an incredibly complex system of lineage and rights, but equally plausible is the idea that diversity plays by different rules. If there are beast-men living in the next country over, then why are we so worried about skin color?
Science fiction set in the future brings its own baggage. Although I do love The Expanse (except for the very depressing Persepolis Rising), this is a case where I feel it breaks the rule of organic diversity. As far as I can tell, seven books have produced one stable, monogamous, straight couple for a major character: Duarte, the current villain! Race is also hopelessly muddled (one of the series’ main points, to be fair), and the whole thing sometimes comes off as an experiment in throwing as many diversity-friendly adjectives as possible into a character. “Oh,” I can imagine the authors saying, “we don’t have a half-Asian transgender character yet. Let’s get right on that.”
In the future, we can imagine the boundaries of the present falling down. But it’s no less a stretch to imagine them rising back up. As humanity expands its reach—and especially if it expands into space—communities might become more monolithic, rather than more diverse. If anyone can found a space colony, why wouldn’t a group experiment with a “pure” society? Human nature tends towards mild xenophobia. We like being with people who look like us, talk like us, believe the way we do. That’s why we’ve created echo chambers on the Internet, and it’s why you shouldn’t feel bad positing, say, a Nazi colony on Mars. (Now, I wouldn’t want to read about that, much less write about it, but you do you.) On the other hand, liberalism, multiculturalism, and globalism are on the upswing right now, and projecting that into the future seems like the safer bet.
Whatever your genre, whatever your medium, diversity should not be a goal in itself. Instead, natural storytelling should create diversity where it is needed, where it is expected. New York City and San Francisco today don’t have the same demographics as 13th-century London or 1st-century Palestine. Rather than attempt to check all the boxes, think about what characters would be where. Put them where they belong, rather than where society wants them to be.
Now, if the purpose of the story is to tell of a character or group’s struggle against adversity because of their intrinsic properties, then that’s okay. Slaves in the antebellum South are going to be black, no question. Medieval women will have a harder time than their modern counterparts, and a story focusing on them can certainly have a higher female:male ratio. A story that focuses on the X% doesn’t have to follow statistics.
Really, a story for the general populace doesn’t, either. Diversity is fine. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a master spy who happens to be a woman. There’s no reason why a superhero can’t be black, or trans, or whatever descriptor you want to give them. But you shouldn’t tout that as an accomplishment. Because it’s not.
It’s just who they are.