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02 September 2021

Three tips for writing diverse characters

by Michael Mann Author Interviews, From Our Students, Writing Tips

Michael Mann our took online Writing YA & Children’s Fiction course in 2018. After taking the course he became a client of Curtis Brown agent Stephanie Thwaites. His debut middle grade novel Ghostcloud will be published by Hachette Children’s 7 October.

Here Michael draws on the guidance he received during our course as well as his own experiences of creating a mixed-race protagonist for Ghostcloud.

We need diverse voices. That much is clear. But the question is how

As I worked on my debut middle grade novel, Ghostcloud, I was finding it tricky. If I changed my hero’s skin colour and nothing else, that felt superficial. How could I go deeper? And why was it so hard? I’m mixed-race, and gay, shouldn’t it come naturally? 

Luckily, Catherine Johnson, tutor on Curtis Brown’s Writing YA & Children’s Fiction course, came to my rescue when I took the course in 2018. Yes, she said, of course it’s hard – because you’ve probably never read a kids book with a mixed-race hero, let alone in a magical adventure. And if you’ve never seen it done, it’s hard to do. But that, she said, was the all the more reason to try. She told me that, like any part of your craft, it would take time and effort. And that part of the challenge was to find your own voice, which only you can do, through trial and error.

She was right, of course. So, in this blog I don’t give easy solutions, but I do talk about some mistakes I made, and things that helped me – hopefully some of them will speak to you.

Start with what you know

In my first draft, the hero of Ghostcloud was half-Chinese. I’m not sure why – I think it was because I liked the name Luke Li! And perhaps, because I felt less exposed than if I made my hero half-Indian like me.

Luckily, a course mate challenged me on this, ever so gently on the CBC forum. She, it turned out, was half-Chinese. She said that she often experienced this through lots of little things – like how annoyingly straight her hair was. She asked if I had similar moments with my own heritage.

And suddenly, I did. One in particular jumped to mind. I’m half-Indian, but in the winter, I go pretty pale – and almost nobody believes I’m half-Indian. I find myself apologising, ‘Yes, I know, I look pretty white.’ And I knew at once why it had come to mind. My hero, Luke, is stuck underground and hasn’t seen the sun for two years… If he was half-Indian, like me, he’d be pale as a ghost. And I knew at once how he’d feel – how he’d long for the sun. How he’d feel like half of his identity had been taken away. And how perhaps, at the end, he would claim that back. 

I then began to see how other characters in my book might feel similar – ‘in-between’ in some way, like they didn’t quite fit. This grew into a wider theme in the book. 

Of course, I’m not saying your character has to have your heritage (I’ve other characters in the story who don’t!), but for me, starting with what I knew, and with the little things, proved a way in.  

Diversity and discrimination (and not doing too much)

Luke’s friend Jess, a new girl in the power station, dreams of being the first female plumber in the plumbers guild. And though she’s mocked for this, she believes in herself, and time and time again, proves her doubters wrong.

Though this started as a fun detail (I always thought the world would be better with more female plumbers…) Catherine Johnson said it needed developing. Diversity and discrimination sat by side, she said, but the latter was too often ignored in kids’ books. She asked if my new world was sexist, racist, homophobic? I didn’t know, was the truth, but soon I did, and by the end, my magical world felt a lot more real.

I would add a word of warning. Though sexism weaved itself naturally into the story through Jess’s arc, when I tried to explore racism, I couldn’t make it work. Perhaps, it was because my hero was mixed-race but white-ish? Or perhaps I just wasn’t an experienced enough writer? Either way, in the end, I had to be realistic. It’s better to do a few things well, than everything poorly. Diversity doesn’t have to mean including everything. And sometimes we have to listen to story, and see where it takes us.

A little can be enough

Finally, though I wanted to avoid being superficial, going deeper on diversity doesn’t mean it must dominate. Ghostcloud is primarily about adventure, courage, hope and friendship. My hero’s heritage is in there, but it’s in the background.

We are all made up of a multiplicity of identities and our protagonists should also be like us. I’m mixed-race and gay, and though I want to embrace my heritage it shouldn’t have to define me, unless I want it to, or always be centre stage.

And that’s what I wanted for my characters too. I wanted Luke to be hero first, mixed-race second. I wanted him to ‘own’ his heritage but then go off saving the world. And I wanted the kids who read it, who I teach, and who see themselves represented, to feel like they can go out and do just the same.

Ghostcloud is available now for pre-order.

Follow Michael on Twitter @mikebmann to keep up with his author journey.

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