Teachers Write 7.15.15 Q and A Wednesday and Christina Diaz Gonzalez on Writing Diverse Characters

I’m eagerly awaiting the next book from this morning’s Teachers Write guest author. Christina Diaz Gonzalez joins us today! She’s the author of The Red Umbrella, A Thunderous Whisper, and the upcoming MG novel Scholastic is calling “Percy Jackson meets The DaVinci Code,”  Moving Target. Christina’s guest post today is all about writing authentic diverse characters.

Write what you know. It’s sage advice passed on to writers at every level. But look closely at those words. Some people interpret them to mean that you are limited to writing about people who share a common background with you. That diversity is a minefield that is best avoided.

Well, I think that’s all crazy talk!

We need books that reflect all the faces and facets of the world we live in and you should be writing about them. (And yes, I’m speaking directly to you — the one reading this post while sipping some coffee and contemplating that story with diverse characters who may not share your heritage, race, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, galaxy, dimensional strata etc.— you can do this.

By the way, your hair looks really cute today, but I digress.)

You should write whatever comes from your heart, your head and your imagination… but (here’s the key) you must do it well. Look again at that sage advice. It says write what you know, not write who you are. This means that you should be able to write about anything and anyone. You just need to know what you are talking about and make those characters and their experiences authentic.

This then begs the question, how do I create authentic diverse characters? Well, since you need to write what you know… get to know more about these diverse characters in your head by learning more about their real-life counterparts. Here are some basic steps to get you on your way:

1) Interact! You know about the little piece of the world you live in because you interact daily with the people around you. If you want to truly know about other people’s experiences, talk to them and, more importantly, listen to them. Ask questions. Become friends. Observe. There is nothing like a direct source to give you information. Nothing!

2) Research! Look for primary sources that give you a deeper understanding of what your character might be experiencing. Read secondary sources to further your knowledge. Just know that the internet and books will only give you a limited perspective.

3) Review! Have your writing reviewed by several people who have a familiarity with the experiences of your character. Make sure that you aren’t unwittingly writing something that might be construed as offensive, inaccurate, or demeaning. (Note I said several people because one person is not an accurate representation of any group. The more feedback, the better.)

Thanks to social media, you can connect to a wide variety of friends from all walks of life… make use of this resource!

4) Universality! There are universal experiences and feelings shared by all people. Put a little bit of you into your characters. This is not an “us versus them” situation. We are linked by common needs, desires and fears. Find yours and then find them in your characters.

5) Re-check! When you think you’re done, think again. Go back and think of how a child who is similar to that character would see him/herself after reading your depiction. Is the character nuanced like your reader? Are you promoting a stereotype? Are you happy with how you just made that child feel?

Today’s assignment:

Imagine writing about a “diverse” character (someone unlike you or your background). Make a very basic checklist of their attributes (name, age, gender, race, ethnicity etc). Go to the list above and decide how you can learn more about this character. Think of the people you can approach in real-life (or even online) that will help you further understand how your character relates to the world you will be creating. Share with me your thoughts on this and I hope you will all be including nuanced, “diverse” characters in your stories, so that our books reflect the reality of our world!

Note from Kate: In addition to sharing your reflections on this activity in the comments, feel free to ask questions about this topic as part of Q and A Wednesday! We’ll have other authors popping in to chat along with Christina.  Please remember that comments from 1st time commenters need to go through moderation, which can take a little time – anywhere from a minute to a couple of hours, depending on my access to my computer to approve them, so please be patient & only post once. Thanks!

50 Replies on “Teachers Write 7.15.15 Q and A Wednesday and Christina Diaz Gonzalez on Writing Diverse Characters

  1. Hi, Christina.
    Thank you for your thoughtful and helpful post today. I’ve been thinking about this issue lately. I’m writing a historical MG novel (1918), with an African-American boy as a secondary character. My dilemma is writing a character that is historically accurate, without offending modern day readers. What are your suggestions for creating an authentic historical diverse character?

    1. I’m super interested to hear any feedback on this too… but think it is an additional layer of the difficulty of trying to write a diverse character when you are not one by the definition we are using here. 🙂 It’s hard enough, without adding that historical layer! I hope some authors who have done it well will chime in for you.

      As I posted on my page, this topic is of particular interest to me because I suddenly find myself writing an Indian-American main character and the voice in my head keeps screaming, “YOU ARE NOT QUALIFIED! You have no right!”

      Also, the character is struggling to fit in and really wishes she were more like her mother (white, blonde, beautiful) vs. her father both physically and spiritually Indian – moreso: Hindu. And I’m terrified in exploring this that it is going to come out wrong and seem negative – she is mostly grappling with her father’s devout religious practices which feel old-school and non-scientific to her: e.g. placing fruit at the feet of statues and praying to them on an altar, etc…

      Complicated stuff!

      Love teachers write for exploring this all!

    2. It’s really important to remember that historical people were still people – so when we talk about authenticity, there’s no one right way to write a character from a certain cultural background at a certain time in history. I’d recommend relying on a wide variety of primary sources written in the voices of people who lived in that time period and shared your character’s background – history texts and many other reference materials tend to lump groups of people together, and while it can be useful to know that many slaves didn’t read, for example, there was in reality, a huge spectrum of literacy and interests among the real people who were part of that world. Primary sources do a better job showing that diversity within the framework of history, I think.

    3. Aloha from Hawaii, Wendy! There is a 6 hour time difference so that (plus the fact that I’m on vacation mode) is my excuse for replying a little late! Having written 2 prior HF novels I think it’s important to remember that these characters (secondary or primary) need to have their hopes and dreams expressed. Readers make allowances for differences in views based on historical situations, but this is where research will be critical. Also, keep those characters relatable to modern-day kids. Think universal qualities. I applaud you in bringing in diverse characters into your stories and just remember that even secondary characters are the heroes of their own stories.

  2. Very similar question from me….didn’t know how to word it. I’m writing historical fiction 1934 set in an area that is racially white. There are difference then…ie. Catholic v. Protestant….but I’m not sure that would be seen as diverse today? I feel like I should seek diversity in this era…but am a little lost. Going to hit the newspaper archives for some ideas to do the exercise Christina suggests

    1. Race isn\’t the only kind of diversity – even in an area that\’s truly all white, you\’re going to find diversity with religion, cultural backgrounds, immigration, disability, gender or LGBTQ issues, etc.

    2. As Kate points out, diversity isn’t just racial or ethnic, and I think the Catholic and Protestant distinctions could be really interesting. That said, you might be surprised at how much racial diversity existed when you research. While working on The Water Castle, which has chapters set in 1909 in Maine, I used the book Maine’s Visible Black History, which was eye-opening. While researching The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill, which is set in Vermont in the 1950s, I found a story of a Chinese family being persecuted as Communists, which I integrated into the book.

      1. Excellent point, Megan. I’m already planning to incorporate a bit of the Catholic-Protestant conflict in my ms. I also never knew that African Americans serving during WWI were mostly in non-combat positions. They weren’t considered smart enough to fight! That was an interesting discovery that will go in my novel.

  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Christina. I appreciate your refreshing take on the ol’ sawhorse: Write what you know (plus, your hair’s in much better shape than mine this morning).

    It struck me that adults who write successfully for children, MG, or YA readers — whether they realize it or not — likely already embrace your advice. While we were all these ages at some point in the past, that past unfolded a while ago. We can still draw on universals, as you say, yet we must also acknowledge that growing up in 2015 isn’t the exact same experience we went through. For that matter, it was never the exact same experience for each of us! Hence, the constant need for interacting, researching, reviewing, and rechecking. I can’t think of a better reminder at what is the midpoint in my summer, with my thoughts starting to feel the tug of soon-to-be-known students I will meet a month from now.

  4. Hi, Christina!

    Thank you for the very interesting, thought-provoking post. As a middle school teacher in a “diverse” (race, ethnicity, culture, religion, economic) district, I often try to put myself in the shoes of my students. I am not entirely sure that this is helpful with my writing, but starting today, I am going to be more cognitive of this approach and attempt to connect it to my characters. I believe that it is important to take all of those aspects (listed above – next to diverse) into account when trying to connect with a student and guiding them to success in and out of the classroom.

    With that written, the current-day middle grade and young adult authors have helped us with wonderful books about fictional characters that seem very real-life (Examples – Glory Be, Esperanza Rising, Mockingbird, Petey – just to list a few). These novels help us discuss different “diverse” issues within the classroom, which sometimes help us to break down the different stereotypes and prejudice views of the world. Now, I have to keep all of this in mind with my own writing.

    Thank you again. I can’t wait for your new book. Happy writing!

  5. Oops, I forgot my question for today. Many authors have shared different unique ways that they brainstorm for ideas with my students. The students who are intimated by the “blank” page in front of them find these ideas helpful. So, my question is:

    Do you have a unique way of brainstorming that you would share with sixth grade students?

    Thank you in advance.

    1. Hi Andy! I’m always open to new ideas as they can come from anyone or anything. One thing I suggest for students to do is to look close by, to their own families. This is what I did with The Red Umbrella (I had heard of Operation Pedro Pan and how my parents were 2 of the 14,000 kids sent alone to the US, but I took the story for granted because, well, it was MY family history and so I ignored it). The thing is, EVERY family story is unique and amazing, but if we don’t do something to preserve those stories (immigrant stories, valiant soldier stories, even how Grandma won a blue ribbon for the best peach cobbler in the state of Georgia — they are all great) then those parts of our family histories will be lost to the passage of time. So ask your students to write about one interesting story in their family (however big or small) and you never know how much a future generation may cherish that snippet of life.

  6. Good Morning,
    Thank you Christina for this wonderful post!

    I love that TW has spurred my brain to think of lots of things I could write about. It appears I have more to say then I ever thought.
    The exercise for today is excellent.
    This brings to the surface my recent unexpected trip to the United Arab Emirates. We all have thoughts about what it must be like to grow up as a Muslim women in the Middle East. However, through my travels, meetings with government officials, and school visits, I quickly saw that the UAE is very different from what most think the Middle East is about. They strive to be the role model of what the Middle East could be and what Islam is really about. The women are highly respected and treated as such. However, when we see girls and women ‘covered’ here in the U.S. we assume they are repressed and that is what Islam expects. We are afraid to talk with them. One day I would love to write about a middle grades or high school young lady who either is in the UAE or has moved to the US and all that entails. The UAE captured my heart that week and it is my goal to share what I learned with as many people as possible. In order to do this, it would take a great deal of research as I don’t know a lot about Islam, just a little about the UAE and even less how it feels to immigrate to a new country and ‘look’ so different. I do know how it feels to put on the abaya and cover my head as I did this for my school’s international night and for the children in my classroom. The results were intriguing. You don’t expect a 5 year to say that everyone who wears that is going to kill you and why would you go to the Middle East, everyone is mean. There is much to be learned about other cultures and beliefs.

    1. How wonderful Anna and what a fascinating trip! I think travel and meeting other people is one of the best ways to open our minds to the world around us. Now that you are inspired, go learn more and talk to people who may have gone through experiences that you are considering for your character. DO the research and write the story that is growing in your heart. Good luck!

  7. Your advice along with watching a profile on Harper Lee has truly inspired me. So I am going to take my tea (with 5 Splenda!0 and my cute hair to the library to think, create and s-t-r-e-t-c-h my brain and increase my word count!

  8. Great lesson Christina! It gives me a lot of food for thought!

    I have a burning question I have been thinking about for a couple of days. In the classroom, my students often struggle with finding ideas, and I struggle with helping them to think of ideas. What do you do as an author, when you have an idea for a character, but don’t necessarily know what his/her problem is yet? How do you find your character’s story?

    1. Marisa, in addition to any other answers you get to this today, tune in to Friday Feedback this Friday! Author Amy Fellner Dominy is sharing character mapping which can often flip that switch!

    2. Oooh, Marisa… great question! When I have a character show up, but no real plot I start playing around in different settings. Almost like playing dress-up. I can write a page or two with the character in DC and she is a Russian spy or maybe I’ll whisk her away and she will be a turn-of-the-century girl struggling to read, then BOOM! I throw her in the middle of a crisis where she has to use her brains to get off a remote island. Anything extreme is what I usually inflict on my characters… just to see how they will react. Pretty soon, they seem to get fed up with my playing around and decide to tell me their real story and that’s when I get down to business. Until then, have fun!