I get bored easily, and diversity is something I enjoy, both in my reading and my writing. But these days, it seems that “diversity” is a polarizing word. Some people think it’s a PC word for “get rid of white people.” Others, on the other hand, seem to put diversity at the top of their list of things they want from pop culture.
I know a wonderful woman who preferred the first season of CBS’s Elementary (IMDb description) over the first season of the BBC’s Sherlock (IMDb description). When pressed for reasons, her big one was that she felt Sherlock didn’t have enough diversity. She was missing the strong women and people of all colors in the foreground. Which was true. For me, the most important thing was the way the puzzle pieces fit together in Sherlock – both Sherlock and Elementary are in the mystery genre, so the puzzle is important. I’m not just talking about the mystery puzzle, though, but the relationships.
As I remember it, the first eight shows of Elementary were adequate, but there were so many missing, misshapen pieces. For example, Dr. Joan Watson had a boyfriend show up in one of the early episodes to add characterization. The Boyfriend did nothing else. IIRC, he didn’t hook into the main mystery, and he didn’t show up for the rest of the first season. In fact, I think he was a disposable artifact to show, “oh, poor girl, she has a heart, it has been wounded; see, see, she has Reasons.” Yet, we saw the Boyfriend get the kind of screen time and dialog that belongs to a Major Plot Point.
I’m still kind of mad and disappointed about that, years later. I saw Elementary start to pull its act together around Episode 8, and I heard that later seasons of Sherlock descended into meanness.
But anyway, my point was that for me, it was about the relationships between the people. They could have cast any actors in the parts; for me, the writing carried (or didn’t carry) both shows. But for her, the point was that they could have cast any actors in the parts, but Sherlock didn’t take bold steps in casting, while Elementary made stuffy Dr. Watson into a hip Asian woman. That made Elementary the show to watch for her.
I’m not sure what we can do about diversity. I’d be hesitant to manufacture it. I wouldn’t want to say, “OK, I need a lesbian in a wheelchair. Now, how do I make that happen?” I would certainly consider things like that. “OK, here’s my character. What happens if I made her from India? Nope. China? Nope. Brazil? Oh, yeah, then she could know all about X, Y and Z and it would be really cool for the story!” Maybe a checklist would be helpful for that, but I tend to just depend on what I’ve been reading on the internet lately to help boost my diversity.
For some reason in my current WIP, my characters have been morphing into a very diverse cast. I’m writing about misfits in West Berlin during the 1970s. And I like that, but it makes me very, very nervous, because I’ve only met a few transvestites. And now, my antagonist seems to be a person of small stature.
He started out as a leprechaun, but fantasy tropes have their own special type of stereotypes – not exactly offensive, but kind of stale. I knew my man Thomas wasn’t a Lucky Charms kind of leprechaun. I knew he had to “pass” in real life as a real person, while doing his magic on the side. And the real world analog would be one of the Little People.
Fortunately, we have the internet, so we can avoid some of the obvious traps. I didn’t know that midget was considered the “m-word” in LP communities, but the history behind that resentment is fascinating. There’s a great post here on film critic Roger Ebert’s blog about how that came to Ebert’s attention. It’s also a great piece for figuring out how to negotiate polite words. Both parties, Ebert and actor Daniel Woodburn, are models of civilized discourse. I think the result was a win for everyone, including the general public.
With a little research, I found some great seeds to make my leprechaun into a real person. Michael J. Anderson, who was in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, had a career as a NASA computer programmer before going into acting. So . . . with that sort of real life model, would it be so far-fetched to make Thomas a shoe designer who fell into drug running (hollow heels), and then decided to pursue a more peaceful career as a jazz drummer? That’s a rhetorical question! Doesn’t matter if it’s far-fetched or not; right now, it’s what the story is demanding out of my antagonist.
Anyway, if you get the urge to go diverse, don’t ignore it. Dig deeper, and you may find your instincts can lead to a three dimensional character that will be anything but boring.