Diversity: The Added Bonus

I take pride in my efforts at fiction. I like to believe that, eventually, readers will enjoy both my stories and my writing. I have trouble, though, understanding those whose response to even the barest mention of diversity is to insist that nobody can tell them what to write, and to denounce diversity as an infringement on their freedom of speech. I just don’t think that my work is so sacred as to be beyond reproach. Besides, in my experience, diversity is not only right, but its own reward.

Resistance to diversity, of course, is a struggle against historical inevitability. Increasingly diverse populations want diversity in their fiction. You can already see the demand on best-sellers’ lists, and it is only going to continue. Moreover, the call for diversity is one of the best things that could have happened in fantasy. Far from shunning it, or acquiescing with grumbles, any writer with ambition should welcome diversity for the new stories and maturity it brings when you attempt it.

To explain what I mean, I need to talk about my work in progress. Ordinarily, I dislike doing that – it seems a form of boasting, and a claim to a status that I do not currently have. I also believe that talking about an unfinished work to anyone except my critique partners is the surest way to ensure that it is never finished. But please bear with me so I can make my point:

My current work in progress has its origins in a long-ago D&D campaign. From there, it morphed in a failed attempt to sell an outline for a Choose Your Own Adventure type of book. With these origins, my first attempts to write a novel was heavily imitative. It had a wise old dwarf, and a horde of evil barbarians, against whom my Chosen One hero would eventually prevail. Kind readers would have called it generic, a faded photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of J.R.R. Tolkien and T. H. White. Blunter readers would have called it garbage.

Increasingly, so did I. All the same, I struggled on, increasingly puzzled about why I could barely get past the first few chapters. And why couldn’t I get more than the haziest idea of what would happen later in the book? For once in my life, persistence was not paying off. I put the manuscript aside many times, and took it up again just as often, never making much progress.

Then people began to advocate diversity and representation. Books that practiced diversity started to appear. Reluctantly, I acknowledged that, as much as I admire Tolkien, he might not be the last word in how to write fantasy. After all, Tolkien had published over sixty-five years ago. Virtuous elves and evil orcs might have been fine in his day, but just maybe the world had moved on a little?

Slowly, like a spring thaw, my manuscripts began to change. The dwarf changed to my version of dwarves, became human, and a member of a minority. My barbarians stopped being brutish and primitive, and became another culture, driven from their homelands by the ancestors of my main character. Suddenly, my crude concepts of good and evil became a clash of cultures, with something to be said on both sides. My pallid love interest became a young woman caught between two cultures and inclined to be sarcastic about her situation.

Best of all, I realized that, instead of imitating earlier fantasies, I could draw on my own experience. For over a decade, I have collected Northwest Coast art. In the process, I have become tolerated in certain First Nations circles locally. Those who had started out as barbarians in my novel became a beleaguered culture threatened with extinction, and my hero’s proud family history tainted with genocide.

The result? Suddenly, I knew what I wanted to write. My handful of chapters doubled, then tripled. I knew what was coming – not in a detailed way, but with a reasonable sense of the marks I had to hit, and how the story must end. I stopped struggling and learned to enjoy writing. I now believe that my inability to write was my unconscious, frantically telling me I was doing things the wrong way. Accepting the call to diversity freed me to write, because it changed the nature of my relationship to my materials.

I now believe that accepting diversity made me into someone who might one day have a decent chance to become a professional fiction writer. That, of course, is not its main purpose, but for me it was an important side benefit. It’s very satisfying to be able to do the right thing and help yourself at the same time.

If diversity places demands on writers, it gives as much as it demands. It gives us a new perspective and a new maturity. It gives us new stories to tell – deeper, more thoughtful stories. Original stories. Stories for our times, and stories truer to the historical past that is the basis of our fantasy. Even if diversity and representation were not right in themselves, writers should welcome them as gladly as they would anything that makes them better writers.

Better writing in return for being socially responsible? That seems more than fair to me.

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