Ah, diversity. How often we hear this word as writers. And not without good reason. Until very recently, fiction for all ages was relatively lacking in diversity of gender, race, culture, physicality and mentality in its characters. It still is, but now our attention is being drawn to it more.
I read a post on diversity and the Neil Gaiman effect by my lovely agent, Laura Zats, (Check it out here: http://redsofaliterary.com/2014/03/02/notes-from-the-armchair-8-the-neil-gaiman-effect/ ) and I decided it would be appropriate for me to do a post on how I write diversity. And also, how I don't write diversity.
Writers have a tendency to write characters similar to them and the people they've grown up around. I mean, the first rule they teach in creative writing class is "Write what you know". So a lot of us start out writing what we know best: ourselves. So in my early writing there were a suspiciously large amount of brown haired, dark eyed, pale skinned, nerdy girls who were outcasts *looks around* so you know, totally different from ME.
But write what you know doesn't just mean write about yourself. It can also mean write about the world you see around you. And I grew up all my life right next to what is, apparently, the most diverse zip code in the US. Name a race or country of origin and we probably have it. In my high school years especially, I had classes with Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Indians, African Americans, Latino Americans and Caucasians. I was a minority in most of my classes in Junior and Senior year, actually, surrounded mostly by kids of Asian and Indian heritage. (I was in the International Baccalaureate program. Kind of like Advanced Placement but WAY more pretentious sounding. Its where all the cool kids went, in my humble but correct opinion.)
So naturally, since I saw so many diverse groups of people, I wrote books with the characters the same way. But, being a writer of fantasy more than anything else, I couldn't use nationalities to describe a race. Much like Hunger Games, where races are no longer acknowledged, I was limited by skin color. Dark skin, pale skin, tan skin, brown skin, olive skin etc. I saw my characters certain ways but I didn't always specify the exact way I saw them (I am sometimes bad at including all the appearance details of characters). I didn't think about it much until I read Ms. Zats post but... how many people will assume my characters are white if I simply omit skin color?
POCs are clearly common in our world. We see them everyday. So why are they so often absent from our media? Why is 'white' the definition of normal for us.
In the named cast of my YA Steampunk fantasy novel, HOUR OF MISCHIEF, I can count seven non-white characters. Two I picture as Indian in appearance. One I picture as Chinese, one as Latino, one as Arab and one as black. And my MC Janet? She's mixed race. In later books, there are even more named characters. But I can't say this specifically with ethnicity because this is a fantasy world. I never really specify skin tone for most of my cast. Hair, eyes and build, yes, but rarely skin tone. I mean it well when I don't mention skin, but during a time when the perceived 'normal' is Caucasian, the views DO need to be challenged.
Neil Gaiman made it impossible for readers to assume his characters in American Gods and Anansi Boys were just Caucasian. He didn't define the characters by their race but he wrote fleshed out characters that happened to be of a Non-Caucasian heritage. One day, specifying race might not be necessary or important. It will be another detail as arbitrary as hair or eye color. Same with sexuality. Maybe one day, diversity will become the norm. But until then, we have the responsibility as writers to change the established perception of the default race.
I personally can't wait for a day where diversity comes naturally to all of us and people don't throw temper tantrums when an actress with dark skin is cast to play a character who has dark skin (*cough* Rue *cough*). But we have to get there step by step. So for now, I'll add in details to make sure readers see my characters how I want them to be seen, and hope it might make a difference in how people see 'normal'.