I have this as a prompt in my list of potential discussions — just “diversity”. You all probably know what I mean, given it’s so often talked about in book fandom these days: characters of all types of backgrounds, in terms of culture, in terms of gender, in terms of sexuality, in terms of disability… Basically, there’s been a huge drive in the last few years to encourage books that aren’t just about white men, and books which aren’t just by white men. And I think some people struggle a lot with this and feel like it’s gone “too far”.
One example people have of things going “too far” is when the majority of characters in a book are queer. But queer people are only meant to be a small percentage of the population! someone inevitably cries. Sure, but if you look at queer people in real life… we stick together. I know queer people just because they’re queer and so am I, and it’s not just about the pool of people available for me to date. Queer people often make friends with other queer people because we share experiences that straight people don’t. So it just makes sense that a queer character would surround themselves with other queer characters.
(Also, hey, queer people are people, with the same drives and motivations as everyone else. You’re not reading about an alien with unfathomable motives: what difference does it make if most of the characters don’t share your sexual orientation? If you’re straight, you’re hardly suffering for representation in fiction — you can just pick up another book instead!)
Another worry about diversity is when people not belonging to a certain minority co-opt parts of that experience to write about it or weave a world around it or whatever. I’m not saying it can never be done well, though I’d shy away from doing it myself if I were still writing, because you should respect that experience and do a ton of research to make it right. There’s not a lot of representation of this stuff out there, historically, so adding any is bound to make an impact. Even with all the research in the world, I’d have to ask myself if I was really the best person to write about it.
And of course there’s when people not belonging to a culture outright exoticise it. I mean, there’s a certain amount of the appeal of a different culture that’s always going to be about the exotic, whether it’s actually aliens or just a culture people aren’t too familiar with. But there are right and wrong ways to handle that, when it comes to real cultures, and research is the better part of valour 100% of the time when that’s what you’re doing.
Diversity isn’t easy — it doesn’t come just because you added a couple of black people to your fantasy school body or have a Chinese scientist on your crack team of experts. It also doesn’t have to be about flipping things round and making the minority the dominant group. Reality is diverse (and if yours isn’t, maybe it’s time to consider why)… it’s only right for fiction to follow suit.