I’ve been reading a lot of articles lately about the need for diverse characters in fiction. I wholeheartedly agree that it seems like mainstream fiction focuses on the same types of individuals. But I’ve noticed a lot of people who talk about diversity center their concern on the fact that it’s very rare to find someone of a different ethnicity or race as a main character. This is a large problem and should definitely be fixed, but I also see another one that may be less obvious. Just as there are not a lot of people of different races featured in fiction at the moment, it is equally as tough to find books highlighting characters of different cultures or abilities.
I was born with spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy. That’s basically a really long fancy term to say that sometimes my brain and my muscles do not properly communicate. Thus, I am mainly confined to a wheelchair to get around. In school, I was one of the only disabled students in my class. Communicating with other children was difficult. They often did not know how to treat me because I look different than everyone else. There were not a lot of books to help them understand that though I needed more physical help than other students, intellectually, we were the same. Even now, at 23, I have to actively search if I want to read a book about a character with a physical disability. Many of the books that I’ve found, such as Wonder, or Freak the Mighty, while great in their own right, emphasize the characters’ differences rather than the ways they are equal to their peers. These books have their time and place, but I believe that it is just as important to show the other side of that coin in order to give those who wish not to be distinguished by their disability, but their accomplishments, a voice.
In one of my favorite television series, Switched at Birth, one of the main characters is white, but grew up in a Puerto Rican family, and therefore considers herself Puerto Rican. When she finds out who her birth parents are (because she was, you guessed it, switched at birth) she has to battle with her cultural identity vs her racial identity and how it affects the way others see her. This was the first time that I’d seen a character who, according to their race, most people would automatically assume to be of a certain culture or to have certain privileges, but because of the way they were raised, identified as a different culture.
All this to say, while race does indeed need to be better represented in fiction, it is not the only way to include diversity in your novel. Everyone is different and those distinctions come from a variety of cultures and experiences which shape us into the people we are and who we want to be. Diversity is as unique as those trying to represent it. The next time you try to insert it into your novel, think of ways it might go beyond the obvious expectations.