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!

  9. Thanks, Christina. I especially liked tip #5, thinking about how a child from that nationality or cultural background would feel if he/she were my character. Great stuff to think about.

  10. 7/15/15
    Hi Christina ~
    Thank you for joining us today at camp! I am a huge RED UMBRELLA fan and can’t wait to read MOVING TARGET. Our 800 7/8th graders will make a great audience.
    I find your advice compelling. My WIP is set in a retirement community and the two HS protagonists have to work there to pay off damage they incurred. I was inspired by my parents’ stay in a retirement community and the folks who were so active. Their stories are terrific primary sources. Visiting a retirement community nearby my school is a must to continue observing, researching, and adding. In my WIP, Theodora Seyforth is a 70 year old woman in the community who is lively, lucid, and wants to learn to skateboard. The boys are stunned. The premise that friendship is an ageless phenomenon is my intent.
    Thanks again for your insight,
    Kate Schoedinger

    1. What a great hook for a story! I’m already intrigued and you are so fortunate to have such wonderful primary sources!

      I hope your students all enjoy Moving Target — it features a strong Hispanic-American girl in some pretty incredible situations and places— it was lots of fun to write!

  11. Christina – When I first read your post, I really did not know if I was up to the challenge but after a few minutes of wait time and a little research, I gathered all of my courage and gave it a try! THANKS for the encouragement!

    Soon I am going to live with my Auntie and Uncle I am go excited. They live in the tiniest town you have ever seen. The one main street houses the diner, which faces the east and through large plate glass windows customers gaze at the mounds of fresh baked pastries. My Auntie and Uncle live above the diner and I am greeted every morning by the luscious smells that permeate through the floorboards.

    In my eyes, Uncle is the best pastry chef in the world and when I give his teddy bear stature a hug, he always smells of sweet maple and brown sugar. He is not particularly tall or old but his hair looks as if a small amount of salt has been sprinkled in the pepper. He loves singing opera in his kitchen while he works and sometimes when he laughs the entire diner lights up with a smile. I don’t know that he has ever done anything else in his life except work with food.

    Clean and neatly organized, his kitchen is like a scientific lab area. Absolutely nothing leaves his kitchen without his artistic flare and plating perfection. I watch daily with a compelling curiosity as he measures precisely the white billowy flour and sugar as fine as sand. One of my favorite books to read is the encyclopedia and Uncle patiently answers my scientific questions about how the chemicals of foods. Precisely how they interact with one another and finally the taste buds as his customers savor his delights.

    I plan to incorporate your lesson in to my classroom with a slight variation for younger students and have them “research” someone in the class that they do not know very well. In addition, for Slice of Life writing I will encourage the students to include diverse details of the people in their stories. Again, Thanks for the lesson.

    My questions for you are
    1) Do you begin your writing process from a plot line that your have thought of and then develop your characters around the plot?
    2) My other question is if the plot line happens to be “diverse” do you use similar steps as a diverse character to learn more about the situations?
    Again, thank your for your feedback, knowledge and insight!

    1. Hi Sheila!
      I’m so glad the exercise inspired you — GO GET ‘EM!

      As for your questions, 1) I usually stumble across intriguing story lines (some are no more than fleeting moments of “hm… isn’t that interesting”) but it isn’t until a character seems to pop up in my mind and say “hey, I have a story to tell” that I really perk up. So that means that most of the time I don’t have a plot line (in fact, I rarely have one). I will eventually figure out the ending of the story and then have to choose a beginning. From that point forward, the character is taking me on an adventure.
      2) If the situation involves some sort of diversity aspect, then I absolutely use similar steps as I described to learn more about the situation. I use them even when its not diversity related!

  12. This was a perfect exercise for me as I had an outline in my head for a secondary character (although could also be a primary if I went that direction?) who is a young Mexican boy. What is helping me is that I am basing him on a student at school so the dialogue especially is what I think he might say. Here is an excerpt from the 1000+ words i wrote this morning that introduces this character:

    As Penny and I rounded that far end of the pond, we came up right behind the fisherman, or boy as I realized he was about my size. Then, something suddenly flashed above me and a large bird swooped down from behind us, oblivious to the humans below it. All three of us, Penny included, watched as the bird, an osprey I realized immediately, stretched out its talons, splashed into the water and came up almost immediately, grasping a large fish with its feet, and flew off just as fast as it had appeared. I had barely been able to get a good look as I quickly pulled up my binoculars, but it was definitely an Osprey, just by the way it grabbed the fish, and I got a good look at the trademark black eye stripe on the whitish head.
    “Oh man! Did you see that?!” said a brown-skinned boy I thought I recognized from school, as he bounded up the little path between the willows toward us. “I seen one of those where my abuela lives in Veracruz! It’s so cool!”
    “Uh, yeah,” I was still in a bit of a trance at having witnessed that awesome predator-prey interaction, still holding the binoculars up toward where it had vanished from sight. “Yeah, that was an osprey. Pretty neat, huh?” I was hesitant to show what a bird nerd I was but decided what the hell. “It’s an Osprey and all it does is hunt and eat fish, rarely anything else. Everything about its body, feathers, talons, beak is made for fish. Hey…I’m Cooper.”
    “I’m Armando. Man you sure know a lot about birds,” he said, his eyes at my binoculars. His hair was dark black and he was dressed in cut off denim shorts and a cool Mexico soccer jersey, with flip flops.
    “Yeah, I guess, I mean, yeah, I like birds,” I replied, unconsciously touching the binoculars with my right hand, “especially the raptors, the birds of prey like that one and hawks and eagles.”
    I kind of doubted he had actually seen one, and I think he saw it in my eyes, as he sort of answered me, “Yeah that makes sense, because I usually see them along the coast, especially when we go home for Christmas.” So maybe he did know what he was talking about as that information would go along with the fact that most Osprey from the US headed south for the winter along the Central American coast (okay so I am a total bird nerd, but I had done a report on the Osprey last year).

  13. Hi Christina,
    I wonder if people writing about people different from themselves shouldn’t also try to understand and share how their particular character relates to their particular culture- their cultural perspective, maybe? I’ll see if I can explain. I’ve worked on the Navajo Nation for 10 years. While I’ve met many possible role models for characters- a Navajo ethnobotanist, a Hopi who is passionate about Navajo history and getting it down for future generations, etc. I think in order to paint the picture of your character you have to understand how traditional or non-traditional they might be in their cultural perspective. Even how their dying language affects cultural perspective. The generations are so different. I encourage my gifted students to write about “being Navajo” and why it’s special. We also talk about how important it is to learn to speak their language. Less than 6% graduate high school fluent in Navajo. I have gifted students identified in storytelling and writing. I hope they get their own voices heard and their own stories told. There isn’t much out there. Videography is becoming very popular among the younger Navajos. We make documentary movie clips for History Day and this year we’ll make movies about possible future scenarios- their life stories. YouTube might help create more true to life characters because at least those Navajo kids are telling their stories. I can’t help but think trying to understand not only different cultures, but the individual ways people relate to their culture would help create more true to life characters that everyone can relate to.

  14. Christina,
    Congratulations on “Moving Target”! I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy and share it with my students!
    Thank you for the practical direction on crafting diverse, authentic characters in our writing. These are wonderful directives I can utilize in my writing, and with my students! In my current WIP there are two African American high school students who have very significant roles in the story. Taylisha and Jamison are siblings, growing up in predominantly white suburbia. I’m a little more comfortable crafting the character outline for Jamison, perhaps because he is male, but I am more concerned with the authenticity of Taylisha. Here is a brief sketch, as well as an excerpt, and ideas how to authenticate her character.

    tall 5’11” or so
    short hair
    african american
    18 yrs. old
    hip style

    When Everett first meets Taylisha, she is performing a poem at a local coffeehouse:
    “Regal. Her air. Her presence. Her gait. And especially her words, all regal. She towered over the audience, both in frame and in fortitude, her words gushing forth with confidence and purpose. Those words turned to movements as she danced about the room. Her poem inflamed us, enthralled us, convicted us, and comforted us.”

    How to authenticate my character:
    – Interview / discuss with some similar African American girls, especially my friend from school yrs. ago – this character is loosely based on her
    – Listen to the conversations of people similar to this character.

    1. Yes, yes, YES! You are most certainly on the right track. I would also be on the look out in your community for poetry slams (or even on you tube)and see present-day kids in action. Observe them. And definitely talk to your friend!

      I can’t wait either for Moving Target to finally be released and be able to share it with readers everywhere! (August 25 —counting down the days)

      1. Thanks for the encouragement! Authros like you that take the time for educators – it is very inspiring! Shout out to you from all the young writers in my school!

  15. This is a wonderful prompt. Thank you Christina. I need to ponder this a bit more. Right now my character would be names Aurora Delasflores. She would be 13, hispanic, from the US. I’m not sure what state yet. I think I would start learning about her through reading first-had accounts. I’m reading Sonya Sotomayor’s book, My Beloved World right now. I may also see what Twitter has to offer to inform first-hand experience for my character. Thank you for taking us on this journey!

  16. My Q – Have any of the authors used personal interviews to inform their characters? How do you go about asking people to interview them? Open-call for interviewees or other methods?

    1. I usually try to contact an established group (ex: Operation Pedro Pan Group for when I was doing research on this or the Guernica Historical Society when I was doing research on the Basques during the Spanish Civil War). I’ve found that people are extremely giving, especially when they see your interest and desire to be accurate and learn. Good luck!

      1. Christina – THANK YOU. I so appreciate the time and energy you’ve given to Teachers Write! And thank you for that advice. I would not have thought about going to organizations. Very much looking forward to your books!

  17. I have a question about using regionalism/colloquialism in a fictional piece. I recently wrote a story for my writing group. The story is set in the Bahamas, a place i’ve been to a number of times since I was a child. As part of the feedback from my group someone stated that they felt my use of vernacular for the women in the marketplace might be offensive to readers. I felt, however, that since this is how i’ve heard the women speak in the marketplace, it was authentic. My story feels very true to my experience with that location and I was wondering about other people’s thoughts on this. (The idea of using particular diction based on how you’ve heard it). I hope my question makes sense, it’s difficult to explain in writing. I’ve included an excerpt from the short story below. My first version used the expression “honey chile” which is how i’ve heard it. I’ve since revised this paragraph to read “honey child”, but do not necessarily agree with the change.
    “She kept to her business as she was trained to do, and put on what she called the “honey child” act. As a little girl she learned this act from her aunties and other local women who worked into old age at the marketplace across the street from the properties. They were wise Bahamian women who sat on folding chairs fanning themselves, waiting for visitors to arrive in the heat of midday. Woven black dolls and cow shell necklaces crowded their sarong-covered tables. As visitors passed they called out in slow, caressing voices, ‘Good morning honey chile’- they would say to mothers and bouncing blond daughters stopping by to shop, ‘A hair braiding for your little princess?’ Typically the mothers politely declined and moved on to other tables. ‘God bless, honey chile’ was the response her aunties gave to customers as they walked away, though Eve knew there was nothing in the lives of those women and children her aunts would ever pray for….”

    1. It’s always great to get advice from your critique group (I know I listen to mine), but I think you need to speak to someone from that community. Have a Bahamian read it. Have several read it. You can contact Bahamian groups if you don’t know someone in particular. What you are looking for is authenticity. I know that having grown up in the South, there are tons of colloquialisms that can be used, but I can surely pick them out if they are being over-used or not applied properly. This goes for all dialects. Talk to the people you are depicting. Good luck!

  18. Sorry I didn’t get to post earlier. (Had to rush one of our pet cats to the vet.) My characters in my WIP are based on former students of mine who both have disabilities. One has selective mutism and the other has Rett Syndrome. I want the disabilities to be only one aspect of them but not defining them. Due to the nature of working with students with disabilities in the regular ed classroom, I have gotten to know their mothers fairly well as well as a specialist who has come to speak with my students about Rett syndrome. My question is whether or not I should ask these mothers for insight or even have them read excerpts of my WIP?

    1. They would be an amazing resource, but I suppose it all depends on your relationship with them. Since they are former students of yours, I don’t think it would pose too much of a problem, especially if you couch it along the lines of how inspired you are by their children. If possible I would meet with them for coffee and get some insight. Go back to your manuscript, revise as needed, and then ask them if they would be willing to give you some feedback. I’m thinking they will say yes!

      Best of luck!