Thursday, January 16, 2014

Diversity in Fiction: Don't Force It

Did you ever see the movie Bedtime Stories, starring Adam Sandler? There is a scene in the movie that shows the main character, Skeeter, saying good night to his niece and nephew. The kids want him to read them a story, so he takes a look at the books that are sitting on the end of the bed. "What do ya got here anyways?" he asks. "RAINBOW ALLIGATOR SAVES THE WETLANDS? Uh, no. ORGANIC SQUIRREL GETS A BIKE HELMET?" Skeeter then sets the books down and exclaims, "I'm not reading these communist books to you guys! Don't you got any real stories?" 

It's a funny moment because, of course, the books are ridiculous. Not because they are about saving the wetlands or wearing a bike helmet, but because they were obviously written to teach specific lessons.

And that is a big fiction writing no-no! 

An author's job isn't to teach lessons, but to write good stories, with complex characters and interesting plots, with layers of meaning and plenty of character-development. Stories that explore what it means to be good or bad or young or old or black or white or male or female or just plain human! Stories that can teach us something about ourselves or (and!) others.

They do this by telling a story and letting the lesson unfold naturally on its own.

People talk about this a lot concerning picture books especially. "Don't write just to teach a lesson!" we picture book authors hear over and over. And rightly so.

But this is just as true of other works of fiction. 

As a reader, I don't want to read a book about addiction if it was written just to show how terrible addiction is. I don't want to read a story about abuse if it was written just to raise awareness about abuse. I don't want to read a story about discrimination if the point is just to teach me how bad bigotry is.

And yet, I see many authors talking about how important diversity is in fiction. And I don't disagree. But the online chatter (on tumblr, twitter, and in blog posts) about race, gender, sexual orientation, etc., from fellow authors almost seems as if they are telling me to purposely put more diverse characters into my stories.

But guess what? I don't want to write with an agenda. I want to write the stories that come to me, as they come to me, without wondering if my characters are diverse enough.

So that is what I will continue to do. When a plot concept nags at me, or a new character whispers in my ear, or a situation inspires a series of "what-ifs," I will do what I have always done. I will write. I won't force anything into it.

I will let the story be what it will be.

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