“Diversity” is viewed by some as a bit of a buzzword in today’s entertainment industry, from the film industry to traditional and indie publishing. Getting mainstream entertainment to be more inclusive has been a long, slow process, whether we’re talking about representation of race, gender, or sexual orientation.
But in the traditional scene, editors and publishers are the writer’s “boss.” They can—and frequently do—urge authors to change their stories or their personas to fit a certain mold. And they do so even in the genres of sci-fi and fantasy, which are supposed to be more “progressive” than the mainstream.
Often they’ll urge writers to change their protagonist from female to male for “better audience appeal.” There’s the famous story of Bloomsbury forcing Joanne Rowling to write as “J.K. Rowling” instead, for fear no one would buy a fantasy book written by a woman.
Indie authors are much more nimble than the monolithic traditional publishers. We’re the speedboats to the Titanic of the Big Five. If we want diversity, we can include it. But that brings us to the age old question—just because we can, does that mean we should?
The answer is an unequivocal YES. Here’s why.
IT’S GOOD BUSINESS
This is probably the worst reason to include diversity, so it’s where we’ll start.
Diverse audiences exist. And because of the slow-to-change traditional scene, they’re often starving for content that represents them. Indie authors can capitalize on this by writing for, and marketing to, audiences who never get to see themselves as the hero of their favorite stories.
This can’t be done willy-nilly, of course. If you try to write an urban fantasy set in inner city Chicago, and your book is full of racist stereotypes, you could well face negative consequences for your clumsy attempt at diversity.
But it’s a perfectly acceptable option, especially in more speculative fiction, to simply include more characters who are women, LGBT, and/or poc, and write them just like any other characters—and to give them important, complex roles in your story. These audiences will often love you for it, and it may make you their new favorite author.
IT’S USUALLY MORE ACCURATE
Let’s face it, a lot of old fantasy is very white-male-dominated (and I say that as a white male). But when this is brought up, the first defense of the fanboy is that that’s “more historically accurate.”
It makes sense for Lord of the Rings to feature an almost entirely white and male cast, they say, because Tolkien was writing an English mythology, and powerful women and people of color simply weren’t as common back then.
Well, actually, that’s not true. People of color have existed across western Europe and even in England since at least Roman times. And if the Middle-earth stories could be confined to a time period, it would almost certainly be set in medieval times, well after the Romans.
Women, too, are much more prevalent and prominent in history than we generally admit. And it’s not only the rare cases like Joan of Arc, who everybody knows about—recent archaeological advances have unearthed the fact that a large percentage of Viking warriors were female. Not rare raid captains who rose up and seized power despite the attempts of society to control them, but just ordinary, rank and file Vikings.
As for LGBT representation, we can just point to the Iliad and Alexander the Great. Sorry folks, but gay warriors have been around—and in many cases, have been legendary—since the very birth of fantasy storytelling.
Of course, the entire argument about historical accuracy is moot, anyway, because:
IT’S A FAKE UNIVERSE, AND THE AUTHOR IS GOD
When it comes to sci-fi, and fantasy in particular, we’re usually not talking about Earth. Westeros isn’t Earth (we don’t have dragons, or winters that last for lifetimes). Middle-earth isn’t even really Earth. Look at the geography. Earth started with Pangaea and ended up where it is today, and at no time did it ever look like the maps of Middle-earth—much less have a special “floating continent” that could only be reached by flying boats (for the hardcore Tolkien fans out there, I’m referring of course to Valinor).
Too often, fantasy authors create amazing worlds filled with creatures, places, and magic that have never been seen on real-life Earth—and then omit the incredible women and people of color who have actually existed in our history.
At this point, I have to issue a pre-emptive counterargument to the point that always gets brought up when I speak to people about this topic: yes, authors can write whatever stories they want. Yes, they are free to write whatever characters they want. No, no one can “force” you to write a story you don’t want to write.
But that’s even more of an imperative to diversify. It’s your choice what you put in your book. If you’re an indie, it’s even more your choice than it would be if you were a traditionally published author.
The world is changing. It’s becoming more diverse already. Audiences are realizing there’s no reason they can’t see themselves represented in their favorite fiction. And if we as authors choose to ignore that, we can’t be surprised when audiences criticize us for it.
And besides, as I can tell you from personal experience, including a wide range of characters from a wide range of backgrounds makes your stories that much more fresh and exciting. Research becomes a joy rather than a chore. And you get to meet readers and audience who likely would never have found you if you fit the mold that traditional publishing wants to force you into.
And that’s maybe the best reason to diversify your work: it’s a lot of fun.