Writing Diverse Characters

Clipart of figures in different colors with the words "embrace diversity" above the figures.

One of my writing groups has a weekly craft talk where we vote on a topic. This week it was on writing diverse and inclusive characters.

Instead of writing a screed, I thought a bullet point list might be more useful.

If you want to write a characters that is nothing like you whether it is race, culture, religion, sexuality/gender, or any other marginalized groups, keep the following in mind:

  • Talk to more than one person; everyone has a different lived experience
  • Be respectful
  • Don’t make assumptions
  • Don’t write stereotypes
  • When writing a diverse character, think about why this persons race, culture, etc is important to the story
  • Be mindful of the language and terminology you use; a word that one person may find to be appropriate, another one will not
  • When reaching out to support groups, follow their rules of engagement
  • Use Google responsibly for research on primary and secondary sources
  • Describe the character authentically (re: no stereotypes)
  • Utilize your network
  • Don’t make that diverse character’s thing their main attribute such as don’t take someone who is mentally ill and sculpt their personality around their illness or someone who is BIPOC and that is their only quality
  • Write fully formed characters
  • Don’t write characters just for the sake of fulfilling some kind of quota
  • Check your hidden bias
  • Get feedback from sensitivity readers
  • Don’t be ambiguous or assume the reader will infer the character from brief descriptions
  • Don’t compare people to objects or food
  • Understand the difference between race, ethnicity, and culture
  • Don’t make your character a token character (see fulfilling the quota)

Here are additional resources to utilize when writing and researching diverse characters:

Why Research is Important: Where to Research

Image of a stack of books with Do Your Research Part Two

In Part One of this series, because who knows, I may do more, I discussed readers tend to catch, very easily, when an author doesn’t do research. In some cases, it can be jarring and takes away from the story. And honestly? It’s lazy ass writing.

Since I am a librarian by training (and career path), I thought it might be a good idea to list places you can research online without leaving your house.

  • Local library offers online databases and reference guides. Best part? It’s all free! Here is a link to the services one of my libraries offers:
  • Online newspapers for your area
    • Search for “city +newspapers” (sans quotes)
  • Newspapers.com has over 25,000 newspapers from around the world stretching back into the early 19th century. (There is a fee, of course, but it’s not terrible.)
  • Use Google maps and Street View to get to know the area and help build your own
  • Responsibly use Wikipedia
    • Wikipedia has come a long way on being factual in that a list of legit sources is now a typical component of an article rather than Vanguard66 just writing the article.
  • JSTOR provides access, for free (but there is a paid option), to over 12 million items such as books, journals, and articles across 75 disciplines. Great if you’re doing academic research.
  • Ancestry.com for your genealogical needs
  • Interlibrary loan (links to Michigan state ILL) can be tricky to find but it is available via your local and academic libraries. How does it work? You go to your home library and request a title they do not own and they will find it for you at a participating library. The book is then shipped to your home library and you get to check it out for 14 or 21 days or whatever. Once you’re done, you drop it off at your local library. MEL, for Michigan, is awesome because it is a separate website that allows you to login with your home library credentials, search for books and media like DVDs and CDs, and check them out and boom! Delivered to your home library to pick up. The ship time can be as little as a week or in Kentucky, as long as six weeks. Depends on where the book is coming from. You typically cannot check out ebooks.
  • WorldCat If you want to see which libraries have a copy of a book or if you just want to see where you’re home library is, WorldCat has you covered
    • You can also search for “city +library” (sans quotes) to find the local library for that area
  • Dictionaries and thesauruses such as Merriem-Webster, dictionary.com, thesaurus.com, and Oxford English Dictionary are great for the history of the word, other word options, various spellings, synonym,and antonyms. (Some sites like OED do have a subscription.)
  • ResearchGate for your scientific research
  • Google Scholar
  • PubMed provides thousands of articles in thousands of journals on the latest medical research which you can access for free
  • Academic libraries often provide, free of charge, day passes for non-students to use their materials
  • Museums and archives have libraries or collections you can request to visit for research
  • Smithsonian libraries and archives provides access to millions of digital objects and databases and journals
  • The following libraries will allow you to get a non-resident library card, for digital materials, for a small fee. This is especially helpful if you need access to a larger set of databases or digital materials. I have verified all these libraries.

Why Research is Important: A Study in Contrasts

Image of a stack of books with Do Your Research Part One

I’m a big fan of research. I mean, I even got a degree in it.

Thus, it really drives me crazy when I’m reading a book and it’s clear that there was little to no research was done.

Here is a contrast of what I mean:

women’s fiction book I read last week featured the hero and heroine in a tiny town in Michigan. The tiny town was located next to a larger city that does exist. The author took great pains to bring life to the general area by including real stores, places of interest, and things to do while weaving in her own things. The whole set-up was believable. I could buy her fake town existed. (I did some digging and the author went to a local college in Michigan so she presumably knows the area well.)

In contrast, the first book I started in a cozy mystery featured a small town next to the same larger city mentioned above. The author included one local flavor item and the rest was made up. The lack of real local flavor, and the glossing over of her own world, really burned me on the book. I did a do not finish (DNF) about 25% of the way through and promptly returned it to the library.

Now I know some may think that I’m being a bit obnoxious about this, but I hold firm in my stance. I know this area well as Mr. Scarlet and I have a cabin here and live there part-time. One of my books is placed in a small village near the same larger city and while the village will have its own flavor, the area flavor will be real and most importantly, believable.

Even fantasy stories, which are wholly (mostly) made up, have their own woes. I read a review of Travis Baldree’s Legends and Lattes recently where the reviewer noted that how could Viv open a coffee house with an obvious espresso machine when electricity did not exist in this world was one of the complaints. Readers notice these inconsistencies. It’s fine to make up your own world, just think about how it what you’re introducing can work.

The lack of research, or forethought into your story’s mechanics, is lazy writing. It also creates the lack of flavor and reality into your world making your story difficult to enjoy.

Do you want to be a lazy writer?

Next week, I talk about how to do research for your story.

Representation in stories matters

Picture of an Edwardian woman wearing a big hat and a flowy dress.
Lily Elise (1886 – 1962) was a famous English Edwardian actress and singer.

“Write what you want to read,” they said. So I am.

In Ruby Hart Takes a Picture mystery series, I imagined an aging (nearing 40) actress who knew her time on the stage was not going to last much longer and she needed to make a mid-life career change. I put her in the Edwardian era London as that era so much was happening. Women were becoming more political, cars were becoming more predominate, movies (where Ruby would have naturally moved to if she was younger) were becoming a thing. Electricity in households was more common. We can’t forget telephones! So much is going on in the world! I made her a photographer because while photography is over 50 years old at this point, it became more economically viable for the layperson to own a camera and women photographers were a thing.

For Going Crazy, I saw an over 40 woman with a mental illness who was getting her life back on track after having a breakdown. She also may or may not be in love with her best friend from college and she may have inherited a bookstore thanks to a dead aunt. (Yes, yes the “dead relative with something to bequeath” can be an over used trope, sue me.) As I too had a breakdown when I was in my early 40s, the struggle to stabilize can be difficult and it is compounded as you navigate and regulate your moods and feelings. Does she love Seth because she loves him for who he is or does she love him because he’s the safest thing for her to love. Big questions! (And hopefully I have answers.)

(And I’ve got ideas for a whole lot more.)

Representation is important to me and essential. I need to feel seen and understood. I want to read about others like me or like those in my life. I can only project myself on stock characters for so long.

Drawing upon my own life also matters because my experiences can be my character’s experiences too. With Ruby Hart, she’s changing her career mid-life and with Alex, she’s starting life over again also mid-life. These are two experiences that I draw deeply from and I want others to see themselves in Ruby and Alex and in any other characters I create.

Now, for the paranormal series, I believe witches exist and I occasionally read tarot cards. Take from that what you will.

(I only know of one Edwardian mystery series and while a handful of fiction novels have main characters with mental illness, I do not know of one who is bipolar. If you find any books that fit either criteria, let me know!)

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Writing those sex (sweet, spicy, erotica) scenes

Sex scenes can be closed door to sweet to spicy to erotica. Closed door is when the hero and heroine link hands, meander to the bedroom, and the chapter ends. Next chapter is the morning after. Sweet romance is where a description of a kiss happens with a bit more oomph; nothing overtly sexual. Spicy is overtly sexual (penis into vagina), and erotica is no holds barred. Double entry? No problem. Shackled to a wall? Also, no problem.

Writing sex scenes is hard. Yes, it’s great to have an imagination but at the same time,how do you write the scenes without becoming boring or cliche? How many ways can you say dick (cock, bulge, etc)? What about pussy (her center, wetness, etc)? Turns out, a lot!

I asked Sarah in one of my weekly writer’s groups, whose writing a m/m paranormal romance, how to write a sex scene that isn’t a cliche or boring.

Sarah pulled out a stack of books:

I bought them all.

Other resources included a PDF on a survey of preferred lewd names! (I highly recommend reading these as the variations of names for pussy, dick, ass, and so on gets pretty funny.)

I added the Sexy Thesaurus list I found a few years ago:

I’ve been inhaling spicy romances and there are a few common threads. (I primarily read on my Kindle so I’m using percentages instead of page numbers.)

  1. The slow burn starts around 20% mark.
  2. The first sexy scene happens at around the 50% mark. (Sometimes around the 40 – 45% mark but never after the 50% mark.)
  3. Second sex scene happens around the 75% mark.

As I read the sex scenes, I imagine what’s going on. Okay, so, she’s on her stomach with knees up and he’s entering her from behind. I can see that. In Morbidly Yours, there is a cuddle fuck (the couple are spooning and he enters from behind). Personally, I’m a big fan of cuddle sex and Morbidly Yours is the first book I’ve read representing this position. (I highly recommend Morbidly Yours.)

The thing to watch out for in reading spicy romances is becoming desensitized to the sex scenes which is not great for the inspiration or imagination. There is only so many times you can read variations of a cock/dick/staff entering a pussy/center/wetness. I treat each scene as titillation and research.

To that end, Scarlet writes contemporary romance and Kat MacFee will write erotica. Scarlet’s first contemporary romance is serialized on Instagram and Facebook beginning today (April 22, 2024). Kate will be writing for Kindle Vella and Unlimited.

If you’re interested in beta testing either author’s work, let me know!

 

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Introducing Scarlet

Scarlet MacKenzie came about a few years ago for several reasons. First, my government name has a long storied history keeping an online journal since 1998 and more recently a newsletter where I write weekly on my life and there is no theme or specific topic. Plus just regular life is attached to that name.

Second, I wanted to separate what kind of content I was writing. Government name was all over the place in non-fiction, poetry, and prose. I wanted a clear delineation between genres. Common thought process in the author world is that if a reader picks up a book by you in cozy mystery and then discover you’re also writing erotica, there is a possibility you can lose a reader. (You may also gain readers; it’s a crap shot.) In the many, many writer’s groups I’m in, it’s not uncommon for established authors to have more than one pen name based on the genres they are writing in.

In a recent weekly writer’s group meeting, discussion came up about pen names and online presence. One person, who is a hybrid author (published traditional and indie), discussed that even if you don’t have your work out yet, which I do not, it would still behoove you to get an online presence going to build your following. This has been echoed many times to me over the last year. Writing a book and doing my own PR (which I hate doing btw) is difficult.

Shit is a lot of work.

Also, starting a blog? I’m unhinged.

What am I going to write about here? Good question.

  • Updates to my work
  • Serialized stories
  • Bookish/author-ish things that I find interesting
  • Related crap

I’m going to keep the posts between 250 – 300 words so they are short and sweet. I’m going to post once a week to begin. I do not have the brain power to post more.

Until next time,

scarlet x

 

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