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An Editor’s Plea for More Character Diversity

Posted by on June 7, 2013

This is a guest post by Rayne Hall. Thank you, Rayne, for sharing your thoughts with us today! You can find out more about her at the end of this post.

Rayne Hall - Fantasy Horror Author - Portrait by Fawnheart

I wish authors would write more about disabled characters.

In three decades as an editor, almost every story submission I’ve received has been about the same type: able-bodied, healthy, handsome, heterosexual, college-educated, Caucasian-white twenty-something westerners.

Wanting to give my readers variety, I often skimmed the slush piles for characters with a difference. But alas, all I found was more able-bodied white westerners.

Why do most writers feel compelled to write about the same kind of character? It’s not because editors want it.

Most editors want variety. When I chat with other anthology editors, one of the common topics is that we never get enough stories with main characters who are of different ethnicity, come from different cultures, or have physical disabilities.

Yet when aspiring writers tell me about a real-life experience they want to fictionalise and I reply that the idea is promising, they promptly say “Of course I’ll make the character younger than me – someone in her twenties – and she’ll be American and white, and she won’t be in a wheelchair.”

“Why?” I ask.

“I have to, don’t I?” the usual response is. “Who would want to read about black Nigerian woman in a wheelchair?” or “Who would want to read about a blind Japanese man who is eighty years old?”

Yet this is exactly what readers want, and what many editors are looking for, especially when selecting stories for anthologies.

An anthology is a themed collection of writings by different authors – a book filled with horror stories, with pirate adventure yarns, or with fantasy tales. Readers love anthologies, because they get stories by different authors in one package, all in their favourite genre. It’s like a buffet of their favourite foodstuffs in different flavours.

The different flavours are crucial. Readers who buy an anthology want to read about different characters. They want to dip into the experience of different people’s lives, want to know what it’s like to be a wheelchair-bound black woman in Nigeria or to be eighty years old, Japanese and blind.

As an anthology editor, one of my biggest challenges is find stories of high quality with different approaches to storytelling, different writing styles, different settings and, above all, different characters.

Character diversity is the key for new writers to enter publication, and for low-level authors to get into higher-level markets.

Let’s say I need twenty stories for an anthology about vampires. I want variety, so I seek twenty stories which are as different from one another as possible. Of the 3,000 submissions, one is about a blind black child in Ghana, one is about an Iraqi girl crippled by a landmine, a third is about fifty-year old Moroccan victim of thalidomide. And the other 2997 are about able-bodied white twenty-somethings in the USA.

If the stories about the blind black kid, about the landmine girl and the thalidomide man are good, they go straight to my shortlist, and I may publish all three. The other 2997 stories compete for the remaining seventeen spots, and most get rejected even if they’re great.

All editors want character diversity. Of course, the books’ theme and the target readership sometimes limit what kinds of characters you can use. For example, a YA magazine won’t be interested in stories about eighty year-old protagonists, a website dedicated to the glory of Ireland’s Celtic past won’t seek tales about Australian Aborigines, and an anthology celebrating traditional Christian marriage won’t care for a story about gay Hindus.

However, almost every market welcomes main characters with physical disabilities.

The trick is to use a disability you’re familiar with. Do you depend on a wheelchair? Are you blind? Are your joints crippled with arthritis? Give the main character the same challenges.
This allows you to write with honesty and conviction, and your story will ooze authenticity.

Even if you’re able-bodied, you probably have family or friends who’re not. From observation, you understand a lot about their handicaps, and you can ask them for whatever details your story needs.

I suggest you use physical disabilities rather than mental ones. Stories told through the distorted lens of mental disability are difficult to write, and only the most skilled authors can pull this off within the confines of the short story format.

Look at your stories in progress, your rough drafts, your list of ideas. Could you make one of them special by giving it a disabled character? Consider the stories you’re proud of that have been repeatedly rejected by editors. Would a re-write with a disabled character of a different ethnicity help it stand out?

If you have questions, if you agree or disagree with my suggestions, or if you want to discuss my advice, leave a comment and I’ll reply.


About Rayne Hall

Rayne Hall has published more than forty books under different pen names with different publishers in different genres, mostly fantasy, horror and non-fiction. Recent books include Storm Dancer (dark epic fantasy novel), 13 British Horror Stories, Six Scary Tales Vol 1, 2, 3, 4 (creepy horror stories), Six Historical Tales (short stories), Six Quirky Tales (humorous fantasy stories), Writing Fight Scenes, The World-Loss Diet, Writing About Villains, Writing About Magic and Writing Scary Scenes (instructions for authors).

She holds a college degree in publishing management and a masters degree in creative writing. Currently, she edits the Ten Tales series of multi-author short story anthologies: Bites: Ten Tales of Vampires, Haunted: Ten Tales of Ghosts, Scared: Ten Tales of Horror, Cutlass: Ten Tales of Pirates, Beltane: Ten Tales of Witchcraft, Spells: Ten Tales of Magic, Undead: Ten Tales of Zombies and more.

Rayne has lived in Germany, China, Mongolia and Nepal and has now settled in a small dilapidated town of former Victorian grandeur on the south coast of England.

For more information check out her web site or follow her on Twitter. If you’re interested in any of the books listed, you can find them on Goodreads via her author page or click on the direct links to a select few below.

CUTLASS Ten Tales of Pirates edited by Rayne Hall cover

BELTANE Ten Tales of Witchcraft edited by Rayne Hall

Writing Fight Scenes edited by Rayne Hall

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Dominica has a strong interest in exploring diversity in media, seeing people subverting corporate control of creativity through crowdfunding and indie publishing, and spending as much time as she can travelling the world and discovering culture. This is what she most regularly blogs about. In her spare time, Dominica is primarily focused on long-form improv theatre, and writing and publishing speculative fiction. You can find links to some of her free and published stories and screenplays on her writing page, or check out her pirate time-travel novel Adrift. Though born and raised in Australia to American parents, Dominica lived in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, between 2008-2014, until she moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. She also has a background in web programming, filmmaking, and stand-up comedy. For more information, check out her about page, or any of the specific pages about her various creative pursuits in the links at the top of the page.

10 Responses to An Editor’s Plea for More Character Diversity

  1. Jax Goss

    This is one of the things about Fae Fatales I am proudest of: that we ended up with such diversity without it being a prerequisite. 🙂

    • Dominica Malcolm

      I know, that made me happy too. 😀 I think with the Australian anthology I want to do I’ll be specifically mentioning I’m looking for diversity, though.

  2. Rayne Hall (@RayneHall)

    Thanks for hosting me. 🙂
    Questions, anyone? Ask me while you got me here. 😀

  3. Leslie

    Rayne, the reason most people write the same types of characters is exactly what you hint at in your plea to diversify: most of us *are* white, educated, able-bodied, Caucasian westerners. Why don’t I write a Nigerian woman in a wheelchair or a blind, 80-year-old Japanese man? Because I’d do it very badly, and the reader would know it was bad. Those experiences are light years from my own, and I would feel presumptuous trying to capture and convey them with the depth, accuracy, and respect that they deserve–especially in a short story.

    I know lots of people who deal with various forms of so-called mental illness, the one thing you say not to attempt; I know hardly anyone with physical disabilities, certainly not well enough to quiz them about their experiences so I can use them in my writing.

    I certainly understand your point about wanting variety, but I’m not sure it’s an entirely realistic expectation, unless the pool of people writing also becomes considerably more diverse [which would be an excellent thing]. And depending on genre, I’m also not certain about your assertion that readers want that much variety. “Serious” novels, if you’ll pardon the scare quotes, are often most successful when they defy expectations; genre fiction, on the other hand, is most successful when it doesn’t.

    In principle, of course it would be wonderful for stories of all lengths and types to feature a much wider variety of characters. In practice, though, for all the reasons stated above and probably more that I haven’t thought of, it risks being gimmicky and, worse, making for a bad story.

    Despite all that, I appreciate you pointing out the issue, and it will be in the back of my mind whenever I write.

    • Rayne Hall (@RayneHall)

      Hi Leslie,

      I agree it’s good to write from your own frame of reference, because it gives your stories authenticity. But this doesn’t mean you can write only about what you know; you can change a few things and still write an authentic, plausible, cliche-free story. (I’m making the assumption here that you’re a skilled writer. If you’re a novice, then it’s best to stick 100% to what you know.)

      Also bear in mind that while you may be white western able-bodied, not all writers are.
      You may be surprised how many writers are not white western and able-bodied.
      My article is for them as well as for you. 🙂

      Rayne

      • Melissa

        Now children, you’re BOTH right! 😀
        I have been thinking a lot about this issue myself. If all my characters are white-bread, that doesn’t accurately reflect the world, and that seems like an injustice to the world and to the reader and an abrogation of our obligation as creators of worlds inside our heads to transform this…Sorry, I was hearing the Star Wars opening theme in my head for a minute.

        Race is pretty easy in science-fiction. Everybody is some shade of brown. Or blue. Occasionally candy-striped. But that works in a fictional universe in my head where everybody pretty much gets along the way I tell them to no matter HOW many legs they have.

        The thought of trying to write a black protagonist in today’s Seattle, though, feels presumptuous. I’m pretty sure there are fundamental aspects of that experience that I don’t even know that I don’t know.
        Ditto for Gay, Lots of gay supporting characters because in those cases I don’t have to go deeply enough into them to demonstrate an understanding of the experience of prejudice from the wrong end.

        And it matters to me because…okay, because it just seems like good manners to acknowledge the diversity of your neighbors. Plus more interesting.
        It’s an ongoing challenge.
        And goodness yes, if someone else has an understanding of non-white-bread experience, please share. Because I worry about my understanding gaps.
        🙂

        • Dominica Malcolm

          I know there are people who argue that it’s difficult for a white person to write about racial issues that affect other races when they have no experience with it themselves. In that sense, I know there are things that I tend to steer clear from in my own writing when I haven’t even had conversations with people about the issues and things they face. It’s one of the reasons I haven’t written Australian Aboriginal characters, despite being from Australia. I’m aware of some sensitivities, but not enough, I feel, to write about them.

          On the other hand, I don’t think that every story that has multi-racial characters set in our current time period needs to explore racial issues. Sometimes I just want to present characters of other races in ways that everyone can relate to, no matter the colour of their skin, because I think people should be accepted regardless. And I think that people who don’t look like me also deserve a place in stories, because that’s what I see in the world around me (perhaps more so since I moved to Malaysia and white is quite a minority here ;)).

          Ditto lesbian, bisexual, and gay characters. I haven’t written trans*, but that doesn’t mean I won’t. I feel like trans* characters perhaps need to be handled a bit more cautiously, too. I find it easier to include lesbian and bisexual women because I identify as bisexual.

          I appreciated your comment; thanks for sharing!

  4. sdgrimm

    I have a couple stories going with disabled characters. I think it was you who got me thinking about it in the first place, and they have been very intriguing to write about. So thank you!

  5. Sarah Swainson

    I read lots of books where the protagonist is a successful author, which is the same as what the author is. Other common ones are lawyers, businessmen and obviously glamorous careers like models. It is disappointing sometimes that people can’t be innovative and even draw on experiences in their lives to give the characters more differences. There is also a balance between keeping things within your experience but also thinking outside of that. Personally I would want to read more stories where the characters had more ordinary careers. It doesn’t mean that the story has to be mundane, just different.

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