As a kid, the books I read were full of white or race-nondescript characters. As a teen, I thought color-blindness was the way to go in my own books, especially since I didn’t know many diverse people and could only pull from a very limited supply of media representations. Was every Gay person like the guys from Queer Eye? I was sure my black characters would come off either carbon copies of the two people I knew or like a bad copy of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
The first books I wrote, may they never be released to the public for the sake of us all, were about a guy that I described as having tan skin (he could have been in the sun a lot or he could have abused tanning beds, I never really went into detail, but the INTENT was middle eastern descent. I even made up names that sounded really terrible but kind of Middle Easternish in my head) and a girl with cappuccino colored shoulders and dark hair and eyes. But they had no history, no backstory, and no race-based character traits. Did they get searched at the airports or refused service in restaurants because of their race? Were they rubbed raw by microaggressions every day until their entire would was abrasive to them? They weren’t written as people who deal with a lot and are strong because of it. They were written as white people with darker skin, possibly with yoga pants and a pumpkin spice latte in hand. They could have been been bright blue with 14 fingers and it would have made as much of a difference. I’m not even sure if the reader could tell that these people weren’t white because I was a teenager and a terrible writer at the time.
But a lot of Sci-Fi Fantasy is like that. You have dragons breathing fire and green people traveling through time but heaven forbid you have a black guy on your team.
I tried to break that ambiguity habit in some of the other books I wrote in high school. I was actually a little aware that we needed something more. I included a Gay couple in one book that I’m currently rewriting to make it worth reading and in another book that I plan to rewrite, the female love interest was Hispanic (the best friend was of Chinese descent but I was not too clear about it).
In college, I tried really hard to be more diverse. I had a gay romance story that may someday be available to the public and a book about kids with special abilities where I have a gay couple running the boarding house and taking care of all these kids. I had a few POC characters as well but not very well done and they will be better written when I release them.
White Cis-Het Authors, don’t be afraid to write diversity. Just because you can’t share their experience doesn’t mean you should erase them from your art. Some readers won’t even pick up a book by a diverse author and White Cis-Het authors could provide a gateway. Create characters that are not you. Create characters that are a mixture of different people, complex and full of great assets and terrible faults. Create a Lando and a Mace Windu (Star Wars), a Sulu and an Uhura (Star Trek), a Korra and an Asami (Legend of Korra), a Jinx and a Blue Beetle (DC Comics) and a Jubilee (Marvel Comics), a Garnet, Connie, and Amethyst (Steven Universe), a Dumbledore (Harry Potter) and a Wallace Wells (Scott Pilgrim). And it’s okay if they’re side characters in your stories, if that’s easier to write. Some kids are more likely to approach something with a main character like themselves. In fact that’s why the Audience Surrogate is so popular (See Shia Labeouf in Transformers). But having that Surrogate interacting with a diverse cast of characters, some better and some worse than himself, is important to teach us how to treat people.
We need complex, positive characters that people can reflect on when they encounter the often negative stereotypes about others. Imagine if George Zimmerman had seen Static Shock (DC Comics) walking down the street with a pack of skittles.