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Writing diversity: Tips for inclusive stories

Writing diversity: Tips for inclusive stories Writing diversity: Tips for inclusive stories
In this article:

    Tropes in context

    Tropes are recognizable patterns in storytelling that can be used to shape reader expectations for your story. Tropes definitionally exist outside the bounds of any one individual story; they rely on shared cultural context to be identifiable and useful to both writer and reader. But this cultural context can be a double-edged sword. Sometimes, tropes come with negative associations due to cultural context and history, and using a trope can inadvertently replicate or contribute to these negative cultural biases and narratives. 

    It’s easiest to talk about this using an example. Let’s look at the “white savior” trope. This is a cross-genre trope in which a story about racism is centered around a white character’s benevolent actions in the face of systemic oppression. The Help, and Green Book, and James Cameron's Avatar series all use the white savior trope. On the surface, this trope is positive: white people can and should be allies in the fight against racism, and it’s good to depict this struggle. However, the problem comes in the emphasis of this trope. This trope stresses individual white people’s positive actions on behalf of oppressed people of color. Ultimately, the struggle around racism in these stories belongs more to the white people who are the main characters, rather than to the people of color who experience racism. In white savior narratives, people of color do not even get to own stories about their own oppression, and preference is instead given to white people’s feelings and personal growth. Very real experiences of racism and oppression are reduced to a plot device for a white protagonist to react to, and the experiences of racialized people are erased from the story.

    It’s important to note here that these stories do not intend to be racist. Indeed, they often aim to depict allyship. But because the writers are emphasizing white feelings over the experiences of people of color, these stories end up reinforcing on a broader level the very system of white supremacy they say they’re critiquing. Authors who use this trope might mean well, but the context and meaning of these narratives overtakes the author’s intent. The cultural context is more powerful than the individual narrative, and so the meaning is determined by that context more than it’s determined by the story itself. This is why it’s important to have a thorough grasp on the context of the social issues you’re writing about, especially if they’re not issues that directly negatively affect you. 

    Note: the following section contains discussion of some issues around consent we commonly see in Wattpad stories. 

    Even when we’re working well within our own experience, tropes can sometimes set us up for difficulty because of the implications, intentional or not, that they create in the text. Let’s take a classic Wattpad trope: forced marriage. In the forced marriage trope, the two romantic leads are forced by circumstances outside of their control to marry each other, regardless of their personal feelings. There is usually a high degree of conflict between them: they don’t like each other or want to be married to one another, though sometimes it’s just one person who doesn’t want to be married. This trope is exciting because it automatically introduces conflict into the relationship even as it locks the romantic leads into each other’s lives. There’s a lot of drama baked in! However, the very dramatic appeal of the trope also sets the stage for consent issues in the relationship if the author isn’t careful. Being unable to leave a relationship without serious consequences (either from the other person or from the people around you) is antithetical to good consent, where both parties are able to say yes or no without negative consequences.

    This is particularly intense if there is some expectation in the story that the marriage will be consummated. Another common element of this trope is dependency: one party is dependent on the other for shelter, money, or protection. This creates a power dynamic between the characters where one character is incentivized not to say no to the other because of their material reliance, which once again complicates the consent.  All of these factors can create a dynamic between the characters that is potentially toxic, coercive, or abusive. If your intention is to write a happily-ever-after romance, you’ll want to be more careful around these elements. 

    This is not to say you can’t write forced marriage. It’s a fun, spicy trope that can be done super well! But writing it well means attending very carefully to the nuances of the interactions between the characters to make sure it doesn’t cross a line into coercion. At minimum, making clear that both characters actively desire and are and are continuously consenting to intimacy is more important here than it might be in romances without this kind of trope. 

    All narratives exist within a cultural context that is outside of the author’s direct control. As writers, using tropes is  a particular narrative choice we can make that cues the reader to a certain pattern they recognize from other media. Using tropes well is about being aware of the implications they have for your narrative, both within the context of the story, and within the context of society at large in order to convey your intended meaning. 

    Writing conflict responsibly

    While we love the soaring highs and deep lows of a thrilling story, when you’re thinking about conflict you can include in your story, it’s important to make sure the conflict you’re including in fiction is not going to do harm in the real world by trivializing real experiences of harm and violence. It can be tempting to reach for the biggest conflict you can think of, or to take a “ripped from the headlines” approach in order to get to those really big highs,  but when those conflicts are based in real-world issues (like sexual assault, for example) you have a greater responsibility as a writer to make sure you’re handling them sensitively, authentically, and with respect. This is especially important when you personally don’t share the experiences you’re writing about. 

    If you do want to include complex social topics in your story, their weight in the story should be proportionate to their weight in real life. When these topics come up, they should matter to the characters, and should have lasting ramifications throughout the story. Crucially, you as the author should also have an excellent grasp of the topic you want to write about, and should plan out in advance how the topic is going to be included in your story. 

    Some examples of social issues that should be handled carefully and with forethought:

    • Sexual assault
    • Police brutality
    • Intimate partner violence

    This is not a complete list, just some examples that we often see in Wattpad stories of weighty topics that should be handled thoughtfully. 

    If you want to write about a serious social topic in your story, here are some questions you can ask yourself:

    • Why do I want to include this topic?
    • How much do I know about this topic?
    • Do I have lived experience of this topic? 
    • How much reading have I done on this topic? How many reputable articles and books have I read on this topic by experts and people who are directly affected? 
    • How connected is this topic to the rest of the story? What ramifications does including this topic have for the characters and the plot?
    • What do I hope the reader will take away from my inclusion of this topic? 
    • If this was the only story someone read about this particular issue, what would they come away thinking? 
    • Am I including this topic just to make my main characters look like good people? 
    • Whose experiences am I centring when I write about this topic? Which characters am I focusing on, and why? 
    • Would writing about this have a harmful effect on people who are more directly affected than I am? 

    The goal here is not to never write about hard social issues. Talking about social issues is vitally important, and fiction can be an important way to do that. We want to make sure that when we write about difficult and complex social issues, that we are doing it in a way that is sensitive, informed, and accurate. 


    Writing about social issues is a big topic, and we’ll be returning to it throughout our educational materials. Here are some great resources we recommend for thinking more deeply about how we represent social issues and oppressed and marginalized people in fiction:

    Write Inclusion Factsheets

    Storyline Partners

    Color of Change Hollywood: Normalizing Injustice

    Writing Consent in Sex Scenes

    Scarletteen: Navigating Consent

    Writing outside your experience 

    Below, we’ll be covering some of the basics of writing outside your own experience and social location. It can feel like a tricky topic; there is no one right answer here, and this is not the be-all end-all of the conversation. Rather, this module offers some ways to begin to think about writing identities and experiences you don’t share, but there is always more to learn. 

    What is a Social Location? 

    Social location is a concept that comes from sociology. Social location refers to the place an individual occupies in society based on their membership in identified social groups or categories. Our social location is the combination of all of our socially defined identities. Age, race, gender identity, sexuality, immigration status, and disability are all examples of identified social groups that comprise our social location. Some of those identities change across our life span–-for example, we move from being a child to an adult, or can become disabled, or move countries and become an immigrant. Others, like race, usually remain stable across our life course. 

    Our social location determines our access to power, status, and resources, and forms the frame of what kinds of life experiences we are likely to have. In this way, social location is different from personal identity. For example, you may strongly identify as a Pantser, or as a Marvel fan, and while those can be important ways to understand yourself in the world and who you feel like “your people” are, they do not comprise part of your social location because society does not unequally divide power and opportunities between Pantsers and Plotters, or MCU and DCU fans.  

    Our various identities and memberships in socially constructed groups can interact in unique ways. This is called intersectionality. Intersectionality is a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a Black feminist theorist. Intersectionality is the idea that social categorizations like race, gender, disability, etc, are overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination and oppression, and that holding multiple marginalized identities fundamentally changes the way someone experiences any one of those systems. Crenshaw originally coined the term to express how Black women’s experiences differed from and overlapped with those of Black men and white women, but the usage of the term has broadened to discuss the ways that all systems of discrimination interact.  For more on intersectionality, Vox has a primer and interview with Kimblerlé Crenshaw.

    Writing outside of your social location is not just a matter of adding on some characteristics. Writing a racialized character, for example, is not just a matter of giving them a darker skin tone. Because of the structure of the world we live in, having a darker skin tone comes with certain social meanings, life experiences, and oppressions, all of which are dependent on context and history. The life experience of a Black American woman, a Nigerian man, and an Indian woman are all going to be vastly different, even if they all have darker skin tones. Their social location informs their experience of the world and who they are as people; intersectionality means that each of these people is going to have a vastly different experience of race and racism and of gender from each other, and from white people.  If we were writing about these characters, they would all have different life experiences and histories that are not interchangeable with each other, which would inform their characters and how they act in the story. 

    When we write characters who occupy a different social location than us, the first step has to be imagining their social location as fully as we can. How are the groups that they are part of treated in the place where they live and grew up? How might that have affected their personal and familial history? Research is a crucial component here. Read books (nonfiction as well as fiction), articles, and Wattpad stories by people with the life experience you’re writing about. 

    Oppression and Agency

    Understanding social location is the first step, but it’s not the only step to creating a character who is different from you. While it is important to consider life difficulties you haven’t experienced, it’s also important not to reduce marginalized characters to their experiences of oppression. Marginalized characters should not exist to be a teachable moment or demonstrate the realities of oppression, and we’ll discuss how to prevent that. 

    In particular, we want to avoid so-called “trauma porn” representations of marginalized people, where the narrative spends a lot of time lingering on the violence marginalized people face. This is not to say you can’t include violence in stories about marginalized people. But it’s important to think about why you’re doing so. What is the purpose of including violence, slurs, depictions of hate crimes, and other types of suffering? What level of detail do you go into? Whose reactions and experiences are centered in the story? Does the character experiencing violence have agency, or are they reduced in the story to the role of object of violence? Depicting violence and bigotry should serve a purpose in your story, and the characters who experience it should also be depicted having experiences of agency and connection.  For further reading, consider The Guardian’s article on depictions of Black trauma.

    It’s important to make sure that your marginalized characters are fully-formed and well-rounded. In general, your marginalized characters should have a degree of agency appropriate to their role in the story. When a character has agency, that means that their actions and reactions matter to the story. The story is “about” them, and their struggles, feelings, and actions shape the story. GMCS  is a core part of constructing a character with agency whose actions matter to the story. 

    Main characters should have more agency and stronger GMCS than side characters. However, even side characters should have a few specific personal details about them to make them feel like they have many more dimensions than we see on the page. This will also prevent your marginalized characters from becoming stereotypes. 

    Secondary vs. main characters 

    A common approach to including diversity in stories is to make the secondary characters diverse. Even if the main characters are straight, white, and able-bodied, including marginalized characters as side characters is a way to increase the diversity of the world you’re representing. 

    While this can be a good solution, it comes with its own pitfalls. Namely, the “marginalized best friend” character. Without thoughtful engagement, writing marginalized secondary characters can quickly slide into tokenism. The problem here is that these characters often don’t have a lot of interior life or agency within the text. The story is not about them because they are not the main characters, and so they necessarily have a much more limited role in the text. Often, these “best friend” characters exist mostly to be a sounding board for the white, straight, abled main characters.  That is a reasonable role for a best friend character to play, but when the only role available to marginalized characters is that of support to the white, straight, abled characters, it inadvertently replicates the marginalizing and oppressive power dynamics of our society: white, straight, abled people are the important people, and everyone else exists to support them.

    There is no right or wrong answer here; these are complex topics that we need to approach with care and curiosity. If you are new to thinking and writing about characters who are different from you, writing secondary characters is a great place to start! Ensuring your side characters are well-developed and interesting goes a long way to escaping the “best friend trap.” While our character worksheet is developed for main characters, you can also use it for side characters. In particular, emphasizing the side characters’ goals and backstories, and giving them their own subplot can help them feel more dimensional and interesting. 

    Dealing with Frustration

    You might be feeling some frustration here, which is a normal part of the learning process. It can feel hard to “win”--if you don’t include marginalized characters, you are being oppressive. If you do include them as side characters, you’re still being oppressive. If you write marginalized main characters and get it wrong, you’re being oppressive. It is really understandable to feel frustrated and like all your choices are “wrong.” We all want to get the right answer here, but it’s important to examine those feelings and impulses. 

    The point here is not to be correct or to “win” an achievement. That thinking is understandable, but it centers the issue on how we individually feel and on our desire to be “good allies” over the responsibility we have to the experiences we’re writing about and the responsibility we have to wield our social power responsibly. You are not going to solve oppression with one story, but your story and characters should still be responsible to the context you are writing in. As much as you can, try to let go of anxiety about being right and instead focus on your specific goals for the representation in the story you’re working on.


    When writing outside your social location, it’s important to understand how your experiences and media diet have shaped the people you’re writing about. What conscious or unconscious bias might you be bringing to the work? Here are some questions to ask yourself to help unpack some of your thinking and perspective: 

    • How are people like you usually represented in media? What kinds of stories are told about people like you? What kinds of roles do characters like you occupy in stories? Where do those depictions come from? 
    • What aspects of your identity are commonly represented? Are there any aspects of your identity that aren’t represented? What unique experiences do your intersectional identities bring to your life that you don’t see represented? 
    • What kinds of stories are told about people like the character you want to write about? What kinds of roles do these characters occupy in stories, both positive and negative? Where do those depictions come from?
    • What is your motivation for writing about a character with this life experience? What are you trying to say with the inclusion of this character? What do you feel the potential pitfalls are for you as a writer?

    Collected Resources 

    Here are some resources we really like for thinking about sensitive social issues and characters who occupy a different social location than you.

    Write Inclusion Factsheets

    Storyline Partners

    Color of Change Hollywood: Normalizing Injustice

    The Radical Copyeditor

    MediaSmarts: Diversity in Media

    GLAAD: Where We Are On TV

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