Friday, August 3, 2012

The Fear of Writing Diversity

My sister has Down Syndrome. She has a hilarious personality, gets grumpy when she watches too much TV, and says funny things like, "[Bro], I have some advice for your driver's test. Cut your hair." She's a big and special part of my life, and I always sort of had the intent to write either a book about her or a book about a character with Down Syndrome.

But I couldn't, because I was sure I would get it wrong.

I was worried that I wouldn't be able to represent her properly as a character in a book. My thought always went along the lines of "I am not someone with Down Syndrome, therefore I can never accurately portray someone with Down Syndrome in a book, therefore I will not write them."

And I didn't.

But then I realized a few things.

1. People with Down Syndrome are still people.
2. Everyone is different.
3. I am a person.

I know writing a character with Down Syndrome would require some amount of research just because of the way a life is affected by that, but what I realized in realizing these things is that I'm not writing "Person with Down Syndrome", I'm writing "Person".

And I can do that.

I became unstuck from the thought of "what if I can't get my sister exactly right?" because I realized that yeah, my sister has Down Syndrome but she isn't THE representation of everyone with Down Syndrome, just like I'm not THE representation of 18-year-old white Canadians with curly hair. 

My sister is not a representation; she's a person. And if I chose to write a character with Down Syndrome, that character isn't a representation either. They are a person who is different than others with Down Syndrome and that's OK because people are different from each other.

The #yalitchat on Twitter the other day was about diversity in YA. And I think part of the reason why there is so few books with POC (Person of Colour) MCs or anything other than Caucasian MCs is because of this weird fear writers have (including me) that they're going to get it wrong or they're going to misrepresent someone along the way.

We have this mindset of "I'm not that, so I can't write that."

But I think that we need to stop worrying about that because people aren't just lumped into one huge group of White Canadian Females with Curly Hair that all have the same personality and charateristics and likes and dislikes, or one huge group of People With Down Syndrome who are all clones of each other and we've got to get our character-clone exactly right.

Stop being so afraid, and just write people who are different, because every person is different.

Because really, that's exactly what diversity means.

What do you think? 
(Also check out this awesome post by @ravenamo on writing POCs!)
(Also just so you know I did eventually succesfully write a short story that featured a character with Down Syndrome. ;) )


  1. Actually I'm south Asian and I've been really hesitant with ethnic characters in my books because I feel like readers won't want to read about ethnic characters.

    1. I really don't think that's true - there are so many people that would love to see a more multicultural cast of characters in books, including me. I live in a city that is known for it's multicultralism and I encounter people of different cultures every day. It's a normal part of life for lots of people, if not everyone. Don't be afraid to portray different aspects of life, including that of the life of a south Asian. ;)

  2. I hope you do it because I'd love to read a book with a character who happens to have Down Syndrome (or Asian character, too for that matter). I like reading about different people for whatever reason, I think it makes books more interesting. Though I'm sure it's work to pull off to get it just right. But all characters take a lot of work in some form or another.

    1. I like reading about different people too - it's completely fascinating. I think it is work to pull of characters that maybe we don't have a complete understanding of, but part of the point of this post was that we don't have to have it exactly right, because everyone's different, so our character can be different too.

  3. Well i am south Asain too ! and i second you ! every othe rperson is different :)

  4. Wow, I guess I've never really thought about stepping out of the box and writing about someone other than a white girl. Unless an alien counts. . . But I'm starting to realize all of the ideas that getting out of this mindset opens up. I guess "write what you know" isn't the best advice. ;) Great post!

    1. I think people definitely use "write what you know" as an excuse to stay in their writing comfort zone. And thanks!

  5. Hi Gracie -- I mean Alyssa -- I haven't been on your blog in forever, so the name change was a surprise! :)

    I've encountered this question/problem before, coming from the opposite direction: a blogger who complained that multicultural people aren't written enough. So I thought to myself, OK, I'll try to be more conscious of that in my own writing. But then she complained that white people writing about other races wasn't fair because multicultural characters should be represented by ethnic writers, otherwise it was cross-cultural appropriation.

    I was confused about this for a while -- is it ok for someone who's not part of a group to write about that group? Then I realized that she and I were both being silly and that as long as you treat the character like a person instead of a stereotype (as you said), it should be fine.

  6. I totally agree with you: a person is a person. Some experiences will be different but we're all just human at the end of the day. People should focus on that when they're writing and everything will come out much more authentic :)

    I tagged you in the Lucky 7 meme :)


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