Inclusivity in Literary Prose: Writing Diverse Characters

Authors can give voice to a variety of diverse peoples and cultures through the characters they create. Creating realistic diverse characters can be a challenge when these characters are vastly different to the author’s background or anything they have experienced. Cultural appropriation and stereotypes are both harmful ways in which attempts to create diversity in one’s work can go wrong. Inclusivity and diversity in literature are critical for teaching readers acceptance, respect and understanding of cultures, beliefs and minorities unlike themselves. As challenging as writing diverse characters can be it can be a deeply rewarding aspect of a writer’s work. Authors such as N. K. Jemisin, Jay Kristoff and even William Shakespeare have tried their pen at writing diverse characters with varying success across each. This essay will provide a discussion on the different techniques used in writing diverse characters and their effectiveness, such as the level of research, subverting stereotypes and the use of sensitivity readers. After this, I will provide critical reflection on my process in writing diverse characters in the short story narrative ‘The Tengu Trick’ and where I might improve in future. As each author, reader, culture and community interpret literature differently this is not a criticism of what works and what does not, rather a brief examination of some techniques employed for writing diverse characters in literary prose.

The conversation of diversity is rapidly evolving with the demand for accuracy and inclusion pushing more authors to research and get it right. Robin Moeller and Kim Becnel argue the importance of acknowledging social and historical contexts of the various races that exist (2019, p. 10) and how incorporating them into literature is fundamental to ‘show and reflect a spectrum of human experiences’ (2019, p. 2). Jay Kristoff’s dystopian steampunk fantasy, The Lotus War trilogy (2012-2014), is set in a Japanese inspired world with the protagonist being a Japanese inspired girl. Kristoff has been criticised after an online interview, since removed, had the author explain the only research he did was through Wikipedia, anime and drinking sake (Qwill 2012). Understandably this kind of comment portrays Japanese culture as a novelty to the Australian author and a lack of respect for the Japanese culture and people. The inability to acknowledge the issue of under researching diverse cultures is a problem and can lead to cultural appropriation within the work, regardless of its fantasy elements. N. K. Jemisin wrote an asexual character as the protagonist in her 2012 novel The Killing Moon though reflects now on how she did not explore asexuality enough before creating that character. When reading the story, it is not as clear or representative of asexuality is, which is a large part of a person’s identity. Jemisin has since said, ‘I did not understand […] that asexuality was an identity. I thought about it as a broken sexuality. My story reflected my lack of understanding of how that worked’ (Shapiro 2019). She also talks about how she has since utilized social media platforms, like Tumblr, as a means of learning more about identity and society through the lens of the younger generation (Shapiro 2019). The internet is an extensive tool in learning and crafting diversity, though the accuracy of sources can lead to writing well-informed diversity, or a half-realised character/world. In the modern world research opportunities are readily available through a variety of means and technologies that a writer such as William Shakespeare did not have. However, the social and political anxieties of the time surrounding the English fear of being conquered or converted into Muslim culture were high (Vitkus 1997, p. 147). With Anglo-Islamic contact increasing during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Shakespeare would likely have gained his information about Turkish culture and people from events at the time. Research comes in many forms for creating diverse characters, however, a deeper understanding is imperative in being accurate as well as avoiding stereotypes.

Character stereotypes are gradually being dismantled as writers become more mindful and active in subverting them in their work. However, stereotypes are still an issue when writing diverse characters. Sterling Brown talks about the danger of stereotypes in literature, how they encompass a range of cultures and groups, and typically stress divergence from Anglo-Saxon norms (1933, p. 179-180). Brown explains how a writer’s lack of research and understanding ‘illustrate dangerous specious generalizing from a few particulars recorded by a single observer from a restricted point of view – which is itself generally dictated […] to perpetuate a stereotype’ (1993, p. 180). Jay Kristoff’s minimal research into Japanese culture meant that his characters are harmful and offensive stereotypes, from the oversaturation of Japanese (and Chinese) exclamations and phrases to the stereotypical depiction of a sexualised sixteen-year-old Japanese girl. With Kristoff’s growing success in the literary world, readers are discovering the perpetuation of stereotypes in more of his work as well, revealing a pattern of harmful depictions due to insufficient research or personal experience. Shakespeare’s Othello has also been criticised over the years for racial stereotypes, depicting the Moor Othello as a bestial, uncontrollable man seeking to corrupt white women. I would argue that Shakespeare subverts some racial stereotypes common at the time by having Othello rise to an honourable rank, win the heart of a woman through words, not force, and is portrayed as an intelligent and equally capable man as any Christian character. However, through the transgressions of others, Othello is the victim of racism, not the embodiment of racial stereotypes. Although Jemisin has mentioned the inaccuracy of her asexual character, she nonetheless subverts expectations and the stereotypical protagonist by having an LGBTQ+ central character. As important as subverting stereotypes is, it is commendable when an author is open to growing and improving even when they get it wrong. As author Susan Dennard has admitted when asked about writing diverse characters, ‘I’m going to get it wrong. But it’s better that I tried, so I have to deal with the fact that I may get it wrong’ (Mason 2016). A technique that may aid in avoiding stereotypes, or cultural appropriation, in an author’s work is employing a sensitivity reader before a final draft.

Sensitivity readers are a form of editor or beta reader who will highlight any issues with a draft surrounding diversity and/or offensive content. Many authors, such as Susan Dennard and Jennifer Weiner, to ensure their work is as accurate and true to the essence of the diverse characters and worlds they are creating. In the interview with Jay Kristoff about the kind of research he did he mentions he ‘had my friends yell curse words at me in Japanese’ (Qwill 2012), which hints at having some form of sensitivity reader, or advisor. With most of Kristoff’s typically given in sarcastic, joking manners it is difficult to gain a clear idea of who may have helped the author with his Japanese inspired world and characters. N. K. Jemisin is a woman of colour, so her need for sensitivity readers is going to be different to a white author. She says that ‘Sensitivity readers are supposed to be about protecting marginalized people’ (Brown 2019), and that she uses them for authenticating her depictions of other groups, protecting groups and acknowledging the subtleties of their dynamic in society (Brown 2019). For a writer like William Shakespeare, the sensitivity reader and political correctness was not a concept at the time of his life. However, the conflict with the Ottoman empire was of constant interest, with Shakespeare’s play encouraging a ‘contemporary fascination with Moors and Turks’ (Vitkus 1997, p.150). The level of interest and attention given to Turks and Moors during the time of Othello being written suggests the possibility of Shakespeare being in contact with a character similar to Othello. This is different from employing a sensitivity reader, but it would provide some explanation for the less than stereotypical portrayal of an Islamic character in Christian society. E Lawrence explores the contention that sensitivity readers function as a form of censorship. In their paper, they contest that censorship is a form of suppression, with sensitivity readers working as necessary feedback during the editorial process to assist in not only the technical facets of an author’s work but the emotional cost as well (Lawrence 2020, pp. 34-47). Sensitivity readers are therefore an important device in creating diverse characters as it ensures diversity isn’t used simply as an aesthetic to the story, but a truthful representation of diversity and inclusivity.

My creative process for writing diverse characters in the semester workshop and my completed portfolio has been heavily research-based. Because there are two mythical characters, one the Japanese Tengu and the other the Chinese Monkey King, in my narrative researching the mythologies and variations of the two creatures has been a large focus. Online websites, short stories, and YouTube videos have provided background information, translations and various images depicting the Tengu and Monkey King for me to draw from in creating my versions that are recognisable for those familiar with them. Speaking with friends in person who share Asian backgrounds with the characters has also been a significant help in understanding the significance of these figures within their culture. I have also visited Japan which gave me valuable insight into the culture and temples, as well as, briefly getting to know the people in Japan. Face-to-face learning and experiences have played a significant part in creating this world and its diverse characters. Having known someone with Dementia is an experience I was able to implement into my Tengu character for one of the writing workshops, however, I think with more thorough and wider research I could have done the character more justice as a truer representation. Research has also helped with the setting and how I could alter the expectations of seeing these characters in their own countries. Through my research, I was able to discover significant historical dates and events that allowed flexibility and accuracy to coincide, such as the Anglo-Japanese Friendship Treaty that resulted in a celebration of culture during the Japan-British Exhibition held in London 1910. I saw this historical event as a profound opportunity to show diverse characters and cultures coming together.

Writing from the first-person point of view was both a limiting and freeing technique that I feel adds to the mystery gradually unravelling as to who and what these characters are. This proved limiting in that the cultural diversity of my characters is not realised so much by early descriptions of their appearance, but by their surroundings and personal reflections that directly inform the reader what the Tengu is. In having the Tengu narrate the story I have also tried my hand at the stream of consciousness narrative technique in which the thoughts, dialogue, emotions and actions of the narrator have a fluidity to them almost like a dream state. This technique is relatively new for me with the hopes it would add to the tired, unsteady and unfamiliar sensations the Tengu has after being asleep for so long. In many of the different drafts, I have created for this creative work the point of view has enabled more humour, personality and mystery to form through my Tengu character in ways that may not have been so effective if the narrative was written in the third person. Instead, I wanted to attempt a narrative style that was new for me and that functioned as part of the story to improve the overall tone. If I had my friends act as sensitivity readers, as well as, a source of information, perhaps the representation would be more authentic, and I would also have gained a better idea if I have enabled or subverted cultural stereotypes.

There is so much to learn, acknowledge, and understand when it comes to writing diversity due to it constantly changing and evolving within modern society. Having explored just a few ways authors can approach writing diverse characters, in this brief comparison of how research, stereotypes and sensitivity readers have been used, or not used, in Jay Kristoff’s Lotus War trilogy, N. K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon, and William Shakespeare’s Othello; I have found that there is always room for improvement. To create rounded, authentic and respectful diverse characters research, the breaking of harmful stereotypes and working with sensitivity readers are imperative for an author. I aim to further explore techniques and ideas for writing diverse characters well in any creative narratives I work on in future. Diversity and representation are prominent issues that I, as a writer, can improve upon by employing suitable writing techniques in producing inclusive and diverse characters.

Written by Emily Morrison and submitted to CWR3002 in conjunction with ‘The Tengu Trick’

University of Southern Queensland

Dr Nike Sulway

18 October 2021


Brown, J 2019, The WD Interview: Author N.K. Jemisin on Creating New Worlds and Playing with Imagination, Writer’s Digest, viewed 13 October 2021, <;.

Brown, S 1933, ‘Negro Character as Seen by White Authors’, The Journal of Negro Education, vol. 2, no. 2, pp. 179–203, viewed 2 December 2019, <;.

Jemisin, NK 2012, The killing moon, Orbit, New York, NY.

Kristoff, J 2013, Stormdancer, London Tor.

Lawrence, E 2020, ‘Is Sensitivity Reading a Form of Censorship?’, Journal of Information Ethics, vol. 29, no. 1, pp. 30–44, viewed 10 October 2021, <;.

Mason, E 2016, ‘Susan Dennard on getting diversity wrong, and why it’s important to try anyway (Posted 2016-09-06 13:43:00): The author sat down for a chat about her newest book, “Windwitch,” diversity in YA fiction and more’, The Washington Post, viewed 11 October 2021, <;.

Moeller, RA & Becnel, K 2018, ‘Drawing Diversity: Representations of Race in Graphic Novels for Young Adults’, School Library Research, vol. 21, viewed 10 October 2021, <;.

Qwill 2012, Interview with Jay Kristoff, author of Stormdancer, The Qwillery, viewed 15 October 2021, <;.

Shakespeare, W 2015, Othello, T Spencer & S Wells (eds), Penguin Books, London.

Shapiro, L 2019, ‘Who Gave You the Right to Tell That Story?’, Vulture, 30 October, viewed 11 October 2021, <;.

Vitkus, D 1997, ‘Turning Turk in Othello: The Conversation and Damnation of the Moor’, Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 48, no. 2, pp. 145–176, viewed 10 October 2021, <;.


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