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Diverse Characters And Writing With Sensitivity

In last week’s blog we explored the ways in which we can write to make a difference in the world. This got me thinking about another related topic: that of cultural and social sensitivity in writing. Including more diverse characters is something that has been discussed in many forms of media in recent times, and for good reason. For a long time, the media has been controlled by the wealthy, usually men, and usually white. But readers are expecting more from the books they read, and we all want to see ourselves represented in media. Books are a big part of that, so today we’re going to explore why it’s important to include diverse characters, and how to do it properly.

Why does diversity matter in literature?

  • It allows readers who often don’t see themselves represented to feel seen and heard.
  • It helps readers who are not of that background to learn more about different people.
  • It builds empathy.
  • It better reflects the world we live in.
  • It helps people to feel less alone.

All of this is especially important in children’s literature, as these books can have a formative impact on how children relate to and understand others, including the language they use.

Some key tips for writing with cultural sensitivity

  • Ask if you’re really the right person to tell this story, and ask yourself why you are including certain characters or messages. This might involve some soul-searching, but it’s better to make the decision before you put pen to paper than to write a manuscript you have to throw away because it is unintentionally harmful.
  • Do your research when writing about people of different cultures, backgrounds or experiences. Racism, homophobia and other prejudices come, first and foremost, from ignorance.
  • Sometimes there is a fine line between inspiration and appropriation. If in doubt, don’t use the material.
  • Be very careful when using stereotypes, tropes and cliches. They can be damaging, so think about ways you can subvert them or avoid them entirely.
  • Employ sensitivity readers. If you’re writing about people and issues separate to you, paying someone who has a different perspective is a prudent choice, not only to avoid negative press, but to make your book as good as it can be. A sensitivity reader can add an extra layer of depth and perceptiveness that your book would lack without them.
  • Look at books that have been criticised for their lack of sensitivity. What were the main complaints and how can you avoid those same mistakes?

In the wake of the tragic terror attack in Christchurch on the 15th of March 2019, celebrating and understanding diversity of all types is more important than ever. It’s so important that we have representation from people of all walks of life, but it’s also paramount that we do so with tactfulness and grace. Writing diverse characters, especially if they are from outside of your own experience, can be difficult. I hope this article has given you a few things to think about with regards to making your own writing more diverse and more sensitive.

Some further resources:

Holly Dunn

Holly is a Nelsonian, studied in Wellington, and lived in the UK for about three years before returning to Nelson in 2017. She has worked as a bookseller both in New Zealand, and in the UK.

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