Fact: I am a cis-gender, heterosexual white woman. I was born and remain unquestioningly female; and I have been happily (more or less 😉 ) married to the same man for 31 years next month.
Fact: Up until now, all my stories have been about cis-gender, heterosexual white people.
Fact: That is about to change. Here's why.
I recently attended Romancing the Capital, a fabulous romance convention hosted by author Eve Langlais in Ottawa, Canada. This year's conference included a number of writers' workshops on the first day and some excellent panels on the second, and two of them have had a profound impact on me.
First, I attended an ask-me-anything hosted by fellow author and friend ‘Nathan Burgoine on Queer Inclusive Writing. Why? Because over the last few years, as my circle of friends in the writing community has steadily widened, extraordinarily white privileged me has become aware of a huge, yawning chasm in the publishing industry that excluded different. People of different abilities, people of different shapes and sizes. People of different colour. People of different gender and/or sexual orientation.
As this awareness has grown, I've tried to become an ally. Up until now, I've done that by amplifying and supporting the “own voices” movement where I can, because I honestly felt that I had no business writing about characters living lives I knew nothing about. Imagine my shock when, in listening to ‘Nathan's talk, I realized that my actions–or rather, my inaction when it came to the writing part–made me a part of the problem.
You see, while in my real life I am surrounded by people of all sizes, shapes, colour, genders and sexual orientations, my written worlds failed to reflect that. I always prided myself on writing real characters in realistic settings…except they don't, because I have unthinkingly followed the traditionally accepted path of sanitizing my writing.
Was this my intent? Not for a millisecond. I try hard every day to be aware of the world around me, and I really thought of myself as ‘woke' — or at least as waking. But as ‘Nathan explained to us the impact of such sanitized stories on those who are not included in them (the differently abled, the queer, those with a different skin colour than the acceptable pale one, and so on), my view of my writing–and myself–was shaken to the core.
Imagine, ‘Nathan said, growing up in a world where you never see a reflection of yourself. Imagine what that does to your sense of self when you never see people like you in the stories you read, the comics you buy, the movies you watch. Imagine the impact on your mental health when people like you don't exist, and you are simply…erased.
I damn near cried on the spot.
Because while I may never have intended to hurt anyone with my stories, I have inadvertently done exactly that via omission.
Impact vs. intent, people. It's a thing. A very real, very damaging thing.
Once I'd caught my breath, the next question for me was, how do I fix it? How do I not intrude on own voices but still include all these very real other people in my writing? Enter the following day's panel, People Aren't a Sub-Genre, with writers Eve Vaughn, Sheri Lyn, A.M. Griffin, and again, ‘Nathan–and the discovery that including diverse characters really isn't that difficult. In fact, it couldn't be easier, because you do just that.
You include them.
Not as main characters, as a rule (it really is best to leave that for own voices), but as secondary ones. As the neighbour who watches over your character's house while s/he is on vacation, as a friend who offers to sit on a kid or walk a dog, as doctors or nurses in a busy emergency ward, as clerks, politicians, police officers, soldiers and anyone else your character might come into contact with or even see on a day-to-day basis. In short, you include diverse characters as people who live and work in your made-up world alongside your main characters, just as diverse people live and work in the real world alongside all of us.*** Give them a place. Write them into existence so we see them and so they see themselves. Let them lead normal lives with normal problems. Let them be.
It really is that easy. And it makes so much sense. I'm just sorry it took me this long to see past my own privilege to the incredibly diverse world of readers that exists around me…but I guess that's part of the whole privilege problem to begin with, right? And why we need to do better as writers.
So what happens now? Now I work on improving, starting with my Grigori Legacy series, which I'll be spending the next couple of months rewriting to be more diverse and inclusive, and with Abigail Always, the next book in my Ever After Collection, which will release in time for Christmas and will have a bit of a twist to it. And I'm hugely excited for both projects…
Because people in my world really do come in all colours, shapes, sizes, genders, and abilities…and now they'll do the same in my characters' worlds, too. I'll see you in my very diverse worlds to come.
**A proviso from the panel, however: don't rely on stereotypes or lazy tropes. As Eve and A.M. said, not all black girls are sassy law clerks or lawyers wearing tight pencil skirts. And to quote ‘Nathan, “Stop killing the gay guy” (which I hadn't even known was a thing *sigh). And please, if you're in any doubt as to whether you've done something right, hire a sensitivity reader to go through the manuscript for you. Have a friend who can help? Great…but ask if they have the time (don't assume), and please, offer to pay them!