An editor’s Plea: Characters should be more diverse.
April 10, 2014
I wish authors would write more about disabled characters.
In three decades as an editor, almost every story submission I’ve received has been about the same type: able-bodied, healthy, handsome, heterosexual, college-educated, Caucasian-white twenty-something westerners.
Wanting to give my readers variety, I often skimmed the slush piles for characters with a difference. But alas, all I found was more able-bodied white westerners.
Why do most writers feel compelled to write about the same kind of character? It’s not because editors want it.
Most editors want variety. When I chat with other anthology editors, one of the common topics is that we never get enough stories with main characters who are of different ethnicity, come from different cultures, or have physical disabilities.
Yet when aspiring writers tell me about a real-life experience they want to fictionalise and I reply that the idea is promising, they promptly say “Of course I’ll make the character younger than me – someone in her twenties – and she’ll be American and white, and she won’t be in a wheelchair.”
“Why?” I ask.
“I have to, don’t I?” the usual response is. “Who would want to read about black Nigerian woman in a wheelchair?” or “Who would want to read about a blind Japanese man who is eighty years old?”
Yet this is exactly what readers want, and what many editors are looking for, especially when selecting stories for anthologies.
An anthology is a themed collection of writings by different authors – a book filled with horror stories, with pirate adventure yarns, or with fantasy tales. Readers love anthologies, because they get stories by different authors in one package, all in their favourite genre. It’s like a buffet of their favourite foodstuffs in different flavours.
The different flavours are crucial. Readers who buy an anthology want to read about different characters. They want to dip into the experience of different people’s lives, want to know what it’s like to be a wheelchair-bound black woman in Nigeria or to be eighty years old, Japanese and blind.
As an anthology editor, one of my biggest challenges is find stories of high quality with different approaches to storytelling, different writing styles, different settings and, above all, different characters.
Character diversity is the key for new writers to enter publication, and for low-level authors to get into higher-level markets.
Let’s say I need twenty stories for an anthology about vampires. I want variety, so Iseek twenty stories which are as different from one another as possible. Of the 3,000 submissions, one is about a blind black child in Ghana, one is about an Iraqi girl crippled by a landmine, a third is about fifty-year old Moroccan victim of thalidomide. and the other 2997 are about able-bodied white twenty-somethings in the USA.
If the stories about the blind black kid, about the landmine girl and the thalidomide man are good, they’re go straight to my shortlist, and I may publish all three. The other 2997 stories compete for the remaining seventeen spots, and most get rejected even if they’re great.
All editors want character diversity. Of course, the books’ theme and the target readership sometimes limit what kinds of characters you can use. For example, a YA magazine won’t be interested in stories about eighty year-old protagonists, a website dedicated to the glory of Ireland’s Celtic past won’t seek tales about Australian Aborigines, and an anthology celebrating traditional Christian marriage won’t care for a story about gay Hindus.
However, almost every market welcomes main characters with physical disabilities.
The trick is to use a disability you’re familiar with. Do you depend on a wheelchair? Are you blind? Are your joints crippled with arthritis? Give the main character the same challenges.
This allows you to write with honesty and conviction, and your story will ooze authenticity.
Even if you’re able-bodied, you probably have family or friends who’re not. From observation, you understand a lot about their handicaps, and you can ask them for whatever details your story needs.
I suggest you use physical disabilities rather than mental ones. Stories told through the distorted lens of mental disability are difficult to write, and only the most skilled authors can pull this off within the confines of the short story format.
Look at your stories in progress, your rough drafts, your list of ideas. Could you make one of them special by giving it a disabled character? Consider the stories you’re proud of that have been repeatedly rejected by editors. Would a re-write with a disabled character of a different ethnicity help it stand out?
If you have questions, if you agree or disagree with my suggestions, or if you want to discuss my advice, leave a comment and I’ll reply.
Please click the book cover image to read more about author/editor Rayne Hall and her books. Many are anthologies she has edited.