Writing Diverse Characters in Fiction by Bob Proehl

Those of us lucky enough to be returning to some semblance of normalcy in recent weeks and months have clocked those little moments where we rediscovered something we barely knew we missed.

For me, it was sitting outside a coffeeshop, pretending to read a respectable-looking book, listening to people I didn’t know talk about some mundane thing I had no interest in. I think it was lake house rentals. They were going into excruciating detail on costs, locations, amenities, and I was slurping it up as eagerly as I did my iced coffee.

Dear gods how I’d missed eavesdropping.

People often try to split writers into opposing camps—planners vs. panters: FIGHT!—but one of the few I find compelling is those for whom writing is akin to watching a movie in their head and describing what they see and those for whom it’s more like transcribing a radio broadcast that’s coming at you through heavy static.

Like with most binaries, no one’s permanently on one side or the other, but most of us tend one way. For me, writing is fundamentally an act of listening. Sometimes that means zeroing in on weird transmissions from wherever it is stories reside. Sometimes it’s surreptiously listening in on nearby café conversations to pick up a trick of cadence I might use later.

Sometimes it’s being willing to listen to advice from people who know better.

When I started working on the Resonant Duology, I knew from the outset I wanted the books to have a diverse cast of characters, for a number of reasons. On the highfalutin end, I was interested in how intersectional politics would apply to the classic sci fi trope of a superpowered minority group. How would having a conventionally marginalized identity, due to race, gender, religion, orientation, affect the way a character responded to their more fantastical fictional identity group.

More basically and more importantly, I wanted the books to have a cast that looked like the folks around me. But creating and voicing characters outside my own demographic space presented a huge responsibility. There is, unavoidably, an act of appropriation that happens when a white cisgender male author writes characters who are not white males (you can slot in various identities for this sentence and at its core it remains true, although in many cases the dynamics that underlie that appropriation shift radically).

It was important to do it, but it was crucial to do it right.

The biggest challenge was the character of Fahima Deeb. In many ways, she’s the central character of the duology. The first book traces the compromises she makes to keep the people she loves safe, and the second tracks the consequences of those choices. Fahima moved to the center of the books for the simplest reason: she was the most fun to write. Scenes with Fahima left like they crackled on the page. She’s funny and smart, with cold pragmatism that conceals a vulnerable heart.

She’s also a queer Muslim woman, and those aspects of her identity had to be not just occasionally referenced, but essential to her character. Those identities inform the decisions she makes, which shape the entire plot of the books.

In writing Fahima, I drew on the history of Muslim communities around where I grew up, and in imagining her background, I thought of the home of a high school friend whose mother taught me to make tabouleh and let us play really terrible David Bowie covers in the basement. In the book, Fahima hails from a few neighborhoods over from mine, an area of Buffalo that saw some of the first fearmongering arrests of Muslims under the US Patriot act in the early 2000s. I reconnected with people I knew back then and ran ideas by them. I regularly pestered a friend from Syria (currently living in Brooklyn) about the finer points of etiquette in middle class Muslim families.

And finally, thankfully, I was lucky enough to have a sensitivity reader go through the entire book. If you don’t know, a sensitivity reader is someone hired by an author or their publisher who is a member of a demographic group being portrayed in a book. They read the book and give notes—correcting mistakes, flagging bits that are potentially or almost certainly offensive. A good sensitivity reader can be a huge help in getting it right. Unfortunately, their work is often received poorly by authors who were already sure they’d gotten it right, and were really looking for a pat on the back and a “This Book Has Received a Sensitivity Read” seal of approval. They treat a sensitivity read like a legal read—where a publisher’s legal department goes through a book to make sure nobody’s going to get sued—and believe that a sensitivity read is something you “pass” rather than something you listen to, absorb, and use to improve representation in your book.

More than anything I’ve worked on, these books were shaped by the advice and guidance of others. I found myself constantly checking in with friends, with colleagues, and with groups that provide amazing resources for how to “write the other” (if you need a place to start, writingtheother.com is indispensible). Much of this was asking questions, but an even bigger part was realizing that I often didn’t know which questions to ask. I had to learn to know what I didn’t know. Being open to hearing people’s responses to early drafts, to storylines and ideas, and being willing to change my own plans according to those responses, was a critical part of creating characters who represented the lived experiences of real people, rather than my own ideas about what those experiences might be. I had to learn that in some cases, there were kinds of stories that weren’t mine to tell, that are and should remain the property of “own voices” authors.

When I talk about listening to a book in order to write it, I sometimes say that the toughest thing is to get myself out of the way, because the book is smarter than I am and knows what it ought to be. It’s about silencing some part of yourself to create a clear channel for that signal, that strange broadcast.

In hearing advice from friends, critique partners, sensitivity readers, about character who were dear to my heart and essential to my story, that same skill, the ability to be quiet, was essential. I’ve heard of authors who hire sensitivity readers only to bristle at the responses they get. But that’s all interference. It’s what keeps you from hearing the transmission clearly. For a book to reflect diversity in its characters, it needs to channel various voices, and in order for that to happen, the author, needs to remember that there are folks out there who are smarter, and when they speak, you need to listen.