Writing Diverse Characters for Fiction, TV or Film – a review

Life has thrown up more diversions – okay, my weak will did. I still intend posting a Thursday Creation Review every week – as originally planned. Well at least until my five outstanding reviews are written – three crime, one historical and one historical-fantasy. I’m hesitating over adding my review of the TV series Good Omens until I’ve read the book.

Anyway, today – a day late – it’s a non-fiction writing guide up for review:

Writing Diverse Characters for Fiction, TV or Film

by Lucy V. Hay

We’re living in a time of unprecedented diversity in produced media content, with more LGBT characters. more characters of color, more disabled characters, and more characters from various religions or classes. These characters also appear in genre pieces, accessible to the mainstream, instead of being hidden away in so-called “worthier” pieces, as in the past. This book discusses issues of race, disability, sexuality and transgender people with specific reference to characterization in movies, TV, and novel writing. Using such examples as the film Mad Max: Fury Road and the novel Gone Girl, the book explores how character role function really works. It discusses such questions as the difference between stereotype and archetype, why “trope” does not mean what Twitter and Tumblr think it means, how the burden of casting affects both box office and audience perception, and why diversity is not about agendas, buzzwords or being “politically correct.” It also goes into what authenticity truly means, and why research is so important; why variety is key in ensuring true diversity in characterization; and what agents, publishers, producers, filmmakers and commissioners are looking for—and why.

 Review 5 stars

This timely and excellent book was everything I’ve needed especially since attempting to write a novel about a queer Welsh detective and her Tamil partner. (There are days when I feel totally out of my experience zone.)

This is essential reading for any serious writer – especially one aware of the value in addressing the ‘diverse issue’. It was full of invaluable advice and information for me – a WASP, albeit one with Latin blood and in a wheelchair.

Lucy Hay has researched the hot issue of ‘diversity’ for many years. She has become a prolific advocate of diverse characters in all areas of fiction as a writer, script editor and blogger who helps writers via her www.bang2write.com consultancy, which I follow. This book builds on her knowledge and suggests how writers can embrace the thorny topic – “as long as they do it justice” with “due diligence”

That ‘due diligence’ means recognising where the debate is going, the mistakes and progress, how to ensure diverse characters function effectively – and not as stereotypes – plus, the potential and the pitfalls. Hay provides a wealth of observations, suggestions and links with which writers can develop their own craft. Many assets are provided to inform those that are serious about ensuring they tread wisely.

These range from a definition of ‘diversity’, and the myths surrounding it, to examples from modern movies and novels to explain aspects of how to handle ‘diversity’ – and how not to. All Hay’s thoughts provide food for further discussion and research.

I’m still learning and researching the best approach to diversifying my plots. This book has great insights that will help me as a writer as I progress into this complex area. Many of my characters are not ‘diverse’ like my leads, but there are techniques that Hay provides which will help them stand out as unique as well.

This book is timely and important so a guide that will be a stalwart on my desk as I now have both Kindle and paperback versions.

Utility – five stars

Content – five stars

Topicality – five stars

Authenticity – five stars

Readability – five stars

Structure – five stars

Editing – five stars

Tremor Warnings

Two recent events have shaken my routine. One a post and one a game. Nothing earth shattering, more tremors – warnings of what might or will occur.

This post about ‘diversity’, Social Justice Warriors, and the withdrawal of Amélie Wen Zhao’s Blood Heir set me thinking about my current WIP, Fevered Few and what I was attempting.

I’m a WASP hetero male trying to write a novel with a female queer protagonist in the North Wales Police. Am I heading for the pillory or worse – even if I am trying to use diversity readers?

I had already realised I needed to tread carefully after a somewhat different controversy arose over the sexuality choices in the game Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey.

It probably doesn’t help that I’m making my protagonist Welsh with a deaf sister, since I’m English and I’ve never even committed a crime – other than parking illegally or speeding. Okay, I’m disabled, with Quaker abolitionist ancestors and splashes of Latin and Scottish blood. But none of those are qualifications.

Okay, SF writers write about aliens but aren’t from another planet. However, we don’t see the aliens protesting; or is that why there are abductions and experiments?

Is the solution to stop writing my Welsh police procedural series and tackle a topic that I know about? Horses?

Dang, I’ve done that and got criticised for my lack of knowledge.

Falling? My life-story could be fictionalised, but who is inspired by that? Not me.

Insecurity 1. Meltdown imminent.

Later the same day, I went into Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate and got thrown into a quest that required me to press/punch/mash keys in quick succession.

Fail. Retry. Fail. Retry.

Fail. Retry. Fail. Retry.

Fail. Retry. Fail. Retry.

The fingers on my left hand locked up, and my hand became a useless claw while my head thumped.

Insecurity 2. Meltdown imminent.

That was not the first time that my hand and my reactions failed.  I had the same problem in Shadow of the Tomb Raider last week. Plus, it occurs when I type so when I’m working on a novel or a post – like now.

Meltdown

The harsh reality is that my multiple sclerosis is threatening to disrupt my life again – if I let it. I need to amend the rules…move the goalposts. Or change rackets.

Well, keyboards.

But not the typing element as half the keys are missing.

  • Step Two – Dictation software. I’ve ordered Dragon NaturallySpeaking Premium 13 – arriving on Saturday. However, training my Dragon will take time, especially as my speech is slurred – MS side-effect. It will mean that in a few weeks, I might get to write as fast as I talk.

Even after spending this money, I still need to decide if I’m writing the right novel – the one that will cover all these extravagances.

MS is a frustrating MonSter, and I must learn to roll with its punches and fight back. There will be other rounds, but I’ve got this one.

Yes, I need to consider Audible as my eyes are at risk – not just from reading. Double vision was my initial symptom back in 1999, so the warning is there.

More rabbit holes beckon.

The Warrior’s Path – a review

My reading to explore diversity and minority rights issues continues with The Warrior’s Path. This is the first Book in the When Women Were Warriors fantasy trilogy that I became aware of when I first embarked on this quest to move beyond the narrow taboos of modern society. However, this novel was in many ways different from the first read on this journey of enlightenment.

Warrior's Path

The Warrior’s Path (When Women Were Warriors #1)

by Catherine M. Wilson (Goodreads Author)

When she was a child, the author of When Women Were Warriors happily identified with all the male heroes she read about in stories that began, “Once upon a time, a young man went out to seek his fortune.” But she would have been delighted to discover even one story like that with a female protagonist. Since she never did find the story she was looking for all those years ago, she decided to write it.

In Book I of the trilogy, Tamras arrives in Merin’s house to begin her apprenticeship as a warrior, but her small stature causes many, including Tamras herself, to doubt that she will ever become a competent swordswoman. To make matters worse, the Lady Merin assigns her the position of companion, little more than a personal servant, to a woman who came to Merin’s house, seemingly out of nowhere, the previous winter, and this stranger wants nothing to do with Tamras.

 

Review 5 stars

When Tamras sets out on her journey to become a warrior, the evocative language makes it clear that this is a world of women warriors and her family is part of this tradition. However, the Path is not easy from the moment that Lady Merin assigns her to the position of companion to the introverted stranger, Maara whose past is a mystery.

The writing wove a spell akin to listening to a storyteller. Beautiful poetic phrases kept me reading. The opening flowed and wove me in like one of those fireside tales and held my attention throughout.

The tale is not rushed but Tamras has many things to learn at Lady Merin’s house and throughout there is always the feeling of things to come. We learn with her and yet Tamras already has the seeds of some wisdom in herself, but she must understand through situations and encounters. She grows as she discovers more about herself, about Maara, and about other characters – and they also grow.

This is a beautifully-rendered matriarchal society where the Mother is at the heart of the community. The whole mystical aspect of the Mother is portrayed in believable scenes filled with a deeply spiritual and sensual weaving that evoked in me images of shamanic journeys. The Mother relationship to the Child takes on a more profound meaning towards the closing scenes.

Realistic same-sex relations are the norm and they are the fabric that holds the society together – reminding me of the bonds forged by the male warriors of Sparta. The topic is treated as the norm, alongside the female-male relationships that many aspire to. This aspect was handled subtly as with many aspects of the telling. This is a rich and thriving community that is painted well – elements easing into place as the tale progresses.

The characterisation is rich and worth the steady pace as the seasons change. So many emotions are explored but not rammed at the reader. As winter drifts in then grips the world in its embrace, emotions and relationships are tested. The pace is raised as the tension mounts, but Catherine Wilson is never tempted to let frantic pace outstrip her crafted storytelling.

Words of great wisdom are crafted into the unfolding interactions – like some epic tales. Some characters show great insight, much of it gained with age and experience. Yet, other characters are shown as hasty in their actions and decisions. Spring brings new growth and change in any world so well-painted.

The inevitable conflicts sow seeds for later in the Book and in the trilogy. I was expecting frustrating loose ends, as in some other fantasy trilogies, but the closing scenes were warmly satisfying. The most pressing threads were tied up but more than enough simmered under the surface for Book 2. I came to rest in a comfortable place – one that reminded me of when I had finished The Fellowship of the Ring.

However, as with The Lord of the Rings, I couldn’t wait to buy Book 2 and Journey of the Heart has moved top of my ‘Must Reads’ list.

Story – five stars

Setting/World-building – five stars

Diversity – five stars

Characters – five stars

Structure – five stars

Readability – five stars

Editing – five stars

 

Ascension – a review

As my current WIP explores diversity and minority rights issues, my reading expands to understand the issues better. This novel was an inspiring insight and a great read.

Ascension

Ascension (Tangled Axon #1)

by Jacqueline Koyanagi (Goodreads Author)

Alana Quick is the best damned sky surgeon in Heliodor City, but repairing starship engines barely pays the bills. When the desperate crew of a cargo vessel stops by her shipyard looking for her spiritually advanced sister Nova, Alana stows away. Maybe her boldness will land her a long-term gig on the crew. But the Tangled Axon proves to be more than star-watching and plasma coils. The chief engineer thinks he’s a wolf. The pilot fades in and out of existence. The captain is all blond hair, boots, and ego . . . and Alana can’t keep her eyes off her. But there’s little time for romance: Nova’s in danger and someone will do anything–even destroying planets–to get their hands on her.

Review 5 stars

The blurb for Ascension hooked me as did most of the reviews. As an SF addict, I wasn’t disappointed, and the ‘diversity’ themes worked, although I am, I admit, an outsider in many ways.

Ascension had a great opening with subtle info and backstory from the family finances and the planetary economics – familiar inequalities – through to the disease that afflicts the protagonist. The thoughts, words and actions ensure that I was immediately attracted to Alana Quick as she stowed away on the Tangled Axon and gradually began unravelling things about the strange and diverse crew.

What drives the starship captain Tev? That was a question that kept being answered and yet only layer by layer. She was as intriguing to me as she was for Alana. All the crew were complex with carefully revealed backstories and motivations, and the characterisation was well-crafted.

Just like the jewellery which provided me with one of many puzzles, although I laughed as the reveal was not as I expected. The novel was filled with little details that both added to the world-building and set it apart.

The stakes were raimped-up at a crucial point and I found myself asking ‘Did that really happen?!’ Somebody was motivated to raise the danger-level, but why? Wearing my mystery-reader glasses, I had suspects, but the curveballs kept me guessing – and reading. The threat to the crew, the starship and Alana produced some great writing. The structure and the placement of the key moments felt spot-on.

Alana sensed so much and her words evoked so many feelings. I am a fan of deep POV and Ascension worked for me as it drew me into the protagonist’s mind – a mind torn by events, her attachments, her feelings, her fears and her declining health.

With so much to bear, her senses became even more emotive as the novel developed. I felt the chronic suffering in my own diseased body – yes, I have two chronic diseases – and Jacqueline Koyanagi did an excellent job capturing that. In fact, she caught the disease suffering so well that I was sure that the other ‘sensitivity’ issues were dealt with as carefully.

Alana unravels reality, not always making or taking the right moves, but as all the best protagonists do, by seeing through another’s eyes – except that moment is a revelation like no other. And we all need to learn why love burns, although for Alana it goes so much deeper. But I’m toying with you, avoiding spoilers. Suffice to say, that an unexpected twist leads to the clever climax and the hint that there will be more to enjoy.

A highly recommended read, especially if you want SF with a twist – a diverse breath of plasma.

Story – five stars

Setting/World-building – five stars

Characters – five stars

Structure – five stars

Readability – five stars

Editing – five stars

 

Dragonoak: The Complete History of Kastelir – a review

As my writing begins to touch on diversity and minority rights issues, I knew that I should expand my reading. This novel is my first fantasy that I’ve read that is willing to move beyond the narrow taboos of modern society.

Dragonoak

Dragonoak: The Complete History of Kastelir (Dragonoak #1)

by Sam Farren

After being exiled to the farmland around her village, Rowan Northwood takes the only chance at freedom she might ever get: she runs away with a passing Knight and doesn’t look back. The woman cares nothing for Rowan’s company, but nor does she seem perturbed by the powers that burn within her.
Rowan soon learns that the scope of their journey is more than a desperate grasp at adventure. She breaks away from the weighty judgement of her village, but has no choice but to abandon her Kingdom altogether. Sir Ightham’s past leads them through Kastelir, a country draped in the shadow of its long-dead Queen—a woman who was all tusks and claws and great, spiralling horns.
Hiding her necromancy is no longer Rowan’s greatest challenge, and what leads them across Kingdoms and through mountains is a heavier burden than she ever could’ve imagined.

 

Review 3.5 stars

I was drawn to read this book as the blurb, and the reviews promised an engrossing fantasy novel where diversity was the norm. I found the opening intriguing with a fascinating backstory trickled out, not dumped on me. Rowan Northwood as a narrator is driven to leave her village by the attitude of the people that saw her as a healer until they discovered her hidden power.

Her journey is one of discovery, about the world that she only knows from her brother Michael’s stories and about other people. However, she is not the protagonist as that is Sir Ightham, a female knight that is well-portrayed as the norm. At first, Rowan is intrigued and inspired by Sir Ightham, but as she discovers more about the knight, a real attraction grows. Personally, I found it difficult to relate to such a distant protagonist, but I kept reading knowing that through Rowan, I should discover more.

Many of the characters are not the fantasy norm exactly. This aspect of the world-building delivered, as did the world beyond Michael’s books, and this element kept me wanting more. The third intriguing character was an asexual called Rán, whose race, the pane, were central to the story – I must avoid spoilers and say little more about that.

When Rán appears, Rowan calls her ‘she’ and for the rest of the book Rán is a ‘she’. But the pane are asexual or transgender, and the pronoun for them individually is ‘they’. However, once I had adapted my mindset to using this gender-neutral pronoun, confusion set in. Why was Rán ‘she’ but other single pane were almost all ‘they’? What about this sentence:

A handful of younger pane crept up on us. Their leader, a girl with the first signs of a right horn showing, inched her way to the steps. I raised a hand to wave and they shrieked, scattering like ants.

I kept reading engrossed in the story – but after researching ‘gender-neutral pronouns’. Other elements threw me, like the treatment of the horses that grated with everything I knew as a retired equestrian journalist.

The jigsaw remained complicated and unclear – well to Rowan as the narrator but not the protagonist – but eventually, after some unnecessary scenes of excessive world-building, the plotlines took shape through new arrivals, encounters and interruptions. The mysterious quest remained unclear.

More began to grate. Some reviews had mentioned there were “a few typos”, but those would have mortified me if my writing had so many. I had to keep re-reading sentences and amending them. Anyway, back to worrying about the horses – but the focus is now on the Queen. A new intrigue so I’m not giving up. I want to reach a satisfactory conclusion.

Rowan is an observant narrator, even if it’s hard being an observer that senses so much. First-person POV is hard, but the reader gets to feel with the main character – although she’s not telepathic. So why the sentences that stray into the omniscient? Confusing and yet avoidable. But enough of that ‘writing style’ nonsense, there’s a mystery to resolve and here comes the next twist.

Finally, in the latter part of the novel, Rowan discovers more and events move faster. I began to find too many loose threads, and it was too late in the story to resolve many of them in time. At least, the central romance reached the next level – but romance is always ongoing.

Much better, according to the author it seems, to add other threads and keep the reader wanting more and let us forgive the cliff-hanger ending – Tolkien did that in Lord of the Rings, so it’s justified. Correction – not in the same way. Reading that trilogy in the 1970s, a glimmer of hope kept me questing, but this time I’m letting Rowan struggle on without me.

Dragonoak would be a good diversity fantasy if not for all the early draft failings like the pacing crisis, first-person omniscient POV, excessive typos and unnecessary scenes. At least, the author can edit the Kindle version one day. For now, I’m off to try a ‘diversity’ SF novel. Perhaps if there is a second edition, then I might join the journey and enjoy some of the inspiring prose.

But not looking at them wasn’t enough to banish them from my mind. Whatever they suffered seeped into the air, following me through busy streets, as though the shadow I’d felt last night had returned to claim me.

Story – four stars

Setting/World-building – five stars

Structure – three stars

Readability – three stars

Editing – three stars

Style – three stars