Writing Diverse Stories with Diverse Characters

First thing’s first: it’s not as scary as it seems. You can always find common ground between communities—start from there and work your way up.

Now, that is not to say writing from the perspective of a person of color, when you, yourself, are white as a winter snowstorm, is as easy as pie, nor should you write the piece exactly as you would if the perspective were your own. You should always do research on a community before diving in headfirst, even if it seems unnecessary. You don’t want your writing to come off inauthentic, and you don’t want your voice and your experiences to shine over the community you’re supposed to be representing.

If it sounds daunting, it should. I know that worrying whether or not you’ll get this or that right, whether or not your work will come off authentic or hackneyed, is intimidating. I know the kneejerk response, from many white/straight people, is, “Never mind, I’ll just write about my own community, from a perspective like mine, so I don’t screw it up.” And, sure, writing what you know makes sense some of the time. It’s easy, and you don’t have to strain to sound authentic. But it’s also less challenging, and it’s also less inclusive. People like you may relate to your work, but will others? Will those outside your own race, outside your orientation, fully relate to your writing if it never includes someone like them?

Representation matters. If you’re white and straight, you’re probably used to seeing fair, positive portrayals of people like you in the media all the time. Picking up a book, the main character is almost always the same color and orientation as you. But other people don’t have that luxury, and even when the characters are from their communities, they’re frequently stereotypes and offensive. Why? Because white writers and straight writers often don’t make an effort to fairly represent and portray communities they’re not a part of. Their LGBTQIA characters and people of color are dehumanized caricatures, whereas their white, straight counterparts are well-rounded, varied and well-developed. Imagine the only representation you see of yourself in the media, in literature, is an ugly stereotype or one-note background extra.

That is not to say white straight people should “save” people of color or LGBTQIA people by writing for them. Obviously, the people best qualified to write about these communities, are people from these communities. No argument there. At the same time, there’s already plenty of white, straight characters in lit, in movies, in TV—do we really need more? To that end, it only makes sense that some of the myriad white, straight authors out there start to seriously consider branching out and casting stories with a wider range of characters, or picking plots that are relevant to a wider, different range of readers. Not to take away from writers of color or LGBTQIA writers, and not to do so instead of those writers, but in conjunction with them, and in support of representation. Not only that, but writing about people unlike yourself can widen your world view and make you think differently, and more compassionately, about communities you may’ve previously given little thought. (And other white, straight people who read your work could have a similar experience.)

So now that you know why it’s important, here are some things you can do to research and educate yourself on the nuances of other perspectives.

Talk to a person of color or queer person.

This is always a good place to start. Approach a friend and tell them a little bit about your character or story, then get the ball rolling by asking something like, “I’d really like to have this story be authentic, but my privilege as a [straight; white] person obviously blinds me to what other people go through, and I’m not sure where to begin. What are some things I can do to make this feel as real and respectful as possible?” It’s important to listen to what they say and not talk over them—a good (white; straight) ally listens to those they support above all else, and the same applies here. If something they tell you would require you make some changes to the character(s) and/or storyline in order to be more respectful and authentic, do it. Part of writing from a different perspective means tweaking certain things as you learn more, and being okay with that.

Go online.

Perhaps the best resource available is the web. Use the online world to hear as many different opinions from the actual people you’ve chosen to write about as possible. You can also post to message boards online asking for help with specific aspects of any given story—e.g., “What is it like to do X as a person from Y community? Have you faced discrimination for that?” Finding a magazine geared at and written by the community you’re focusing on can be extraordinarily helpful in informing you of the specific equality struggles and discrimination they’re facing, as well as personal essays about aspects of their lives you may not have considered before or had to deal with personally. Across various Internet channels, you can read about representation, history specific to communities outside your own, and what not to do with your writing, which is also important—by looking at previous failed attempts at representation in the media, you can hear why people criticized those portrayals and learn from those mistakes.


A good way to get in the head of someone unlike you, is to read a book from the perspective of someone unlike you. There’s plenty of books, fiction and nonfiction, from history to contemporary, explicitly written about, or told through the eyes of, people of color and LGBTQIA people. Read one or more of these to get a sense for what you’re doing and familiarize yourself with the differences (and similarities) between writing from your perspective and someone else’s.

Use your experience.

As touched on in the beginning, there’s a lot of common ground to start with. Use these as the bones for your story and your character. You can pull from your life, your friends, your interests and experiences a lot more than you may think, because a lot of that is universal. In addition, your experience as a white and/or straight person can give you insight into how white and/or straight people act toward those outside their communities, and their innermost thoughts about those individuals. While you’ll need to do research to even remotely comprehend how it feels to be on the receiving end of racism or homophobia/transphobia, you may, unfortunately, have insights on the mentality of the characters responsible for any bigotry your storyline chooses to explore.

Pursue feedback and be open to it.

As you work on the project, share it with those from the community you’re representing. Again, if something jumps out at them as inauthentic, offensive, stereotypical or inaccurate, change it. Don’t argue, and don’t say that you know better, because you don’t. It’s important to be especially receptive to feedback in this case, when dealing with something so foreign to you, so sharing your work and continuing to ask for advice and comments during the process is key.

To summarize this, and add to it, here’s…

Some Things You Should and Shouldn’t Do

You should be considerate, mindful and aware when writing about people of color or queer people if you, yourself, are not a part of either community.

You shouldn’t craft a stereotype. Not all people of color own restaurants associated with their ethnicity, for example (so having your sole Chinese character own and operate a Chinese restaurant could be viewed as stereotypical). Having a one-note character of color or queer character is worse than having none at all. As hard as it may be to believe, people of color and queer people have jobs, problems, and victories just like any white, straight, cis person. They also face a unique set of challenges due to their identities, but that doesn’t mean their entire lives revolve around the discrimination and bigotry they face, or that that’s the only story of theirs worth telling (in fact, focusing exclusively on that could come off as other-ing). So, if you want to write about the poor treatment unique to these communities, be careful not to craft a Perfect Minority Character Who Powerfully Overcomes Adversity Everywhere. This—a flawless protagonist surrounded by one-note villains loudly and overtly judging them for their orientation and/or race, but who manages to triumph over them all with grace—is a trope. Though that doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t be redone without resorting to stereotypical levels (by making your lead have flaws and be realistic, and not exclusively faced with a constant stream of negativity, you could easily change the narrative). Likewise, the histories of queer people/people of color, while often ripe with equality struggles and discrimination, is also full of amazing successes and/or lesser-known stories. Before crafting a slave narrative, for example, consider one of the many other black history stories that are, at the moment, underrepresented.

Commit fully to well-rounded characters, not empty cutouts. Avoid narratives and characters that are problematic, like stories of White Saviors “rescuing” the downtrodden minorities. Look into tropes and stereotypes associated with the community you’re writing about in order to learn what qualifies.

You should listen to those around you, and not be afraid of constructive criticism.

You shouldn’t reject valid advice and comments. If you refuse to change a trait or plotline considered offensive, you can just stop now, because you’ve clearly missed the point of writing outside your own experience.

You should approach writing a queer character or character of color as a well-developed and fleshed-out character, like any other—and as such, you don’t need to make them flawless. Real people have flaws, scars, damage and issues, and people of color/LGBTQIA people are no different. Though you should be considerate of the community you’re writing about, that doesn’t mean the characters need to be perfect human beings. They shouldn’t be. No one’s perfect just by virtue of their race or orientation, and ignoring that truth would negate some of your work’s credibility, realism and relatability. It’s also somewhat insulting.

Other than that, you’re good to go. Always research, research, research, and never forget you’re writing about people. You’re not writing about some disembodied colors or abstract romantic preferences that are exotic and quaintly different than your own. You’re writing about people, full stop. Remember that, and you’re already halfway there.

A Note About Genders:

While this article was intentionally focused on writing about POC and LGBTQIA people, for those trying to write about someone outside their gender, here are some basic tips:

Men Writing Women

If you’re writing from the perspective of an intersectional woman, e.g. a queer woman and/or woman of color, be sure to follow the above guidelines first and foremost. For women in general: As a man, there’s a lot of nuances, discrimination, oppression, and plain unfair treatment women go through that you don’t fully understand. For this reason, it’s smart to do some of the above-mentioned research if writing from any woman’s perspective. Speaking to female friends, reading women-oriented articles and posts online, et cetera, can help strengthen and authenticate your writing. This is especially important if you’re planning on exploring sexism and misogyny in your work. (You can also examine your own male privilege and how it affects women to lend credence to this.) Researching feminism, intersectionality, and reading book(s) told about or from women can be beneficial. It’s also important to avoid offensive portrayals and tropes in your writing; it’s very easy for a man to write about women in a sexist/misogynistic way. Don’t.

Women Writing Men

If you’re writing from the perspective of a man of color or trans/gay/otherwise queer man, follow the initial guidelines. If you’re writing about a white, straight, cis male, well, you should probably have a good idea of what they’re like from the constant portrayals of them in every movie, TV show, or book. Now you’ve just gotta go for it. Any questions you do have, a quick Internet search should clarify.

Either Gender Writing Non-Binary People

The initial guidelines for writing about LGBTQIA/queer people should amply cover this.