Diversity is the spice of life and has brought humanity several great things from tasty foods, fun festivals and a variety of sports to different arts and music. However, diversity can serve as a double-edged sword, resulting in conflicts, because — let’s face — it humans often have a fear of “otherness.” Whether that “otherness” is another race, culture, sex or sex orientation, sometimes it brings out the worse in other people, which is sad to see.
No matter what diversity is being used to describe — race, culture, sex or sexual orientation — it has become a buzzword in today’s world. Movies and books might very well find themselves criticized for not having enough diversity. Perhaps fearing this criticism, diversity is introduced just for its sake in a variety of creative projects, including in the adaptations of books — where not much diversity could be found — to the big or small screen. Diversity is something that is almost being pressed on writers nowadays.
Now don’t take me the wrong way, diversity is a good thing; however, writers should not feel forced to tackle this topic or even address it unless their works call for it and they as a writer feel confident to enter those waters. With that said, diversity can add flavor into a book or a completely crafted world in a work of speculative fiction. Particularly in a completely crafted world, diversity should appear in whatever form a writer chooses because it adds realism to a piece, even if that diversity is only briefly featured.
This entry will be largely geared toward those speculative fiction writers; however, writers in other writing disciplines might find some helpful seeds to take away and plant in their own works.
Research, Research, Research
If you are a writing a novel based on the planet we know as Earth and plan to have characters from different creeds and cultures, you will have to research those creeds and cultures. You can also seek out people who either have experience with the culture or are from it. The same things can be said about writing a male POV vs. a female POV. If you are a woman and writing a male main character, seek out the opinion of a male reader to see if your character is realistic; the same is true for the other side.
If you are a speculative fiction writer, plan to still research real cultures and peoples. Research can provide tremendous inspiration when putting together your own peoples to populate your world. Perhaps, your people will share similar aspects with feudal Japan, similar to Star Trek’s Klingons, which have a warrior code comparable to Bushido. Or maybe you have a culture that cherishes hospitality like many Middle Eastern cultures.
Don’t just research one culture or people but several. You might find many traits you would like to use for one of your cultures, or you might find a springboard to jump toward what you envision your people to be like. For example, you read about a special ceremony done by People A, but it doesn’t quite fit what you have mind. However, now that you know about that ceremony, you can take what attracts you to it and adjust it to match your people.
Write down any idea that pops into your mind as you research, plus also save any sources you use for future reference. Remember in the planning stages there are no such thing as a bad idea, but just because you write it down, don’t feel obligated to work it into the final draft of your book.
Map It Out
After researching and plotting out your peoples, it is time to map them out. This requires a lot of thought with perhaps the best way to start off is to ask: How do these different cultures/peoples interact with each other? If you don’t want a lot of external conflict in your story, you are probably not going to put the warlike People A, who hate People B, right next to, well, the warlike People B, who hate People A. Doing this would open up a can of worms that might derail your story in a way you don’t want it to. However, this configuration would be perfect for an action-packed story where war is a driving factor.
Of course, different cultures and peoples don’t have to interact negatively on the scale of an all-out war. What if you have a group of people living in a country where they are on the low wrung of the ladder? Do they face segregation? Are they pointedly ignored, unable to do business with other groups of people, restricted to one section of a city or country? This could make for a good story without things having to resort to outward violence on the scale of a war.
It is important to note while placing your peoples that many different cultures and groups of people can populate on continent, country or region. In my fantasy books, I utilize different races, some of which are staple fantasy races, but within those races there are many different groups of people with different values, beliefs and variations in appearance. For the most part, several of these different groups interact fine with each other, but one occasion, there are blow ups. And that is part of the fun with packing different cultures in what might be relatively close quarters: It can add drama, tension and so much more to a story.
Of course, some cultures and groups might get along just fine, or even have an symbiotic relationship. If you are more idealistic than me (I am particularly pessimistic), you can definitely take this route with peoples who just get along or have learned to get along. Not every book needs to be dark or edgy or focus on the worst in human nature. There are a lot of possibilities available, along with many story ideas!
Now that you have your cultures and have an idea of how they interact with each other, you have to be answer the big question: “Why?”
Why does one group of people react a certain way toward another group/culture? And who knows maybe geography will give you the reason for that strife, such as conflicts over certain resources, or perhaps it has to do with their beliefs or customs being incompatible. Or maybe, as it was with Tolkien’s elves and dwarves, it was a moment in a shared history that caused the strife/mistrust. No matter what angle you take, you have to be prepared to answer the why.
Additionally, you better be able to answer the question about why a group of people has certain customs or beliefs. How did they evolve to the point in which they appear in your writings? You may never share this in the book, but it is something you as the writer should personally know. Knowledge of their past and evolution might open the path to some interesting side plots or be used to enrich a main plot. Also while working on your individualized groups, ask yourself about the people within your different groups. Are women and men treated differently? If yes, why? What are different groups’ views on children and why? Or how do various groups view sexual orientations and why?
There are so many details to consider, and it can be extremely time consuming depending on how deep you take it, but the rewards can be multiple.
Diversity is not something writers should shy away from since it can add so much to a story and allow a writer to connect with many different readers; however, it is not a writers obligation to be politically correct. Personally, I’ve enjoyed exploring a variety of cultures and peoples, but that has worked for the books I was writing, and that is key: Do what is best for your own writing projects.