Writing diverse characters isn’t just trendy, it’s becoming more and more necessary if you want your scripts to get read and commissioned. Nothing wrong with heterosexual cisgendered white men – my very longterm partner is one and he’s just the best! – but there are a lot of other exciting stories to tell, and a lot of other compelling types of characters to create.
The good news is, more and more writers are including more inclusivity in their scripts; the bad news is since this is new territory for many, there are a lot of common mistakes writers make that can hurt their scripts. Learn the pitfalls below so that you don’t repeat them on your pages.
1) Relegating minorities to supporting roles only
Don’t be afraid to let your lead character be a woman, Latino, Asian, gay, trans, in a wheelchair, etc., even if that wasn’t how you originally conceived the story. If a diverse character only serves to help the main character achieve their goals, the character can feel like a patronising portrayal or simply fall flat. MORE: Top 7 Things Screenwriters Can Do To Improve Diversity & Inclusion
2) Assuming diverse characters can’t/didn’t exist in historical stories
Just because a story takes place in Victorian times, or 19th century New York, or the Old West, or Finland doesn’t mean that minorities weren’t around. If you’re writing an historical story, research the era to see how diverse voices might have come into play.
3) Assigning magical qualities to diverse characters
Diverse characters often end up being almost superhero-like in their abilities to help a white lead. (Think the “Magical Negro” trope from films like The Green Mile or The Legend of Bagger Vance). It may seem complimentary to have diverse characters with extra special powers, but it usually only serves to keep them “othered” and two-dimensional. MORE: Hollywood Diversity By The Numbers
4) Not being specific with a diverse character
Diverse characters are just like all characters in that they need to be fully fleshed-out, developed, and specific. Saying a character is “gay” or “disabled” is not nearly enough information. The character’s family structure, age, economic background, birthplace, education level, hopes, dreams, fears, etc, will all add to a complete picture of this person.
5) Being TOO specific with dialect/dialogue!
Be careful not to reduce non-English slang and dialects to stereotypical words and phrases. If your character needs to speak with an accent, in broken English, or with unique words, make sure to study these dialects and get lots of feedback from people who speak it so that your pages don’t end up being offensive. Also take care to consider if a language adjustment really is necessary as sometimes a diverse character who doesn’t have an accent/use slang/speak in broken English, etc., can be a much more interesting character or a fresher take. MORE: Stop saying ‘Diversity’, start writing VARIETY!
- Make lead characters, not just supporting characters, diverse. To start, go ahead and change their name/gender/ethnicity/physical ability and see how your story evolves.
- Include diverse characters in historical settings.
- Avoid making diverse characters flawless entities and instead give them full character arcs complete with strengths and flaws.
- Be specific not just with ethnicity, gender, age, and physical ability, but with all the elements that go into a character.
- Research dialects before putting them into a script.
If you’re not used to writing diverse characters, keeping the above tips in mind might take a little time and getting used to in the beginning. But it’s definitely worth it to keep your great story from turning into a stereotypical slog at best and an offensive, alienating mess at worst. By being more inclusive, you will help assure that more people will read and want your work.
BIO: Based in Los Angeles, Aydrea Walden has written for Nickelodeon, Highlander Films, Now Write! Screenwriting Book Series, MACRO Ventures, Makers Studios, and Disney. She blogs satirically about race and identity at the blog The Oreo Experience: A Total Whitey Trapped in a Black Chick’s Body, which has been featured at GOOD.is and Jezebel.com.