Representation: Why It Matters, & How To Do It Well

These days we've all heard about people talking about representation in fiction. But something that many people aren't really clear on is why exactly it's important, nor how it can be done in a way that isn't annoying or even unintentionally offensive somehow. So for those of you who still have questions or concerns where representation is concerned, here's an article to help you out.

But first - a prerequisite disclaimer! While I am writing this article to the best of my knowledge and experience as a queer disabled person who has spent a lot of time reading and talking with a wide variety of other marginalized people about what's good or bad representation, plus spent a lot of time analyzing the rhetoric and technologies of white supremacy, I am just one person, and you should definitely look at what other marginalized folks have to say about writing respectful representation as well. If you're a marginalized person and find any of this insulting or feel like I've overstepped anywhere, please let me know!

Last revision: November 6, 2020.

Table of Contents

Why representation matters

Simply put, representation makes people happy and makes the world a little bit of a brighter place. Here's how it works:

Seeing people like oneself represented in fiction creates a sense of welcome and inclusion. Human beings are very good at looking for cues to tell them whether they're wanted or not. When you fail to see anyone like yourself, your brain tells you that there's probably a reason for it, and that reason is probably that you're not welcome or wanted here. That never feels good. Seeing people like yourself does the opposite - it tells you that this is a place that accepts people like you. That boosts morale!

Seeing people like oneself succeed in fiction can make one more optimistic about one's own ability to succeed. Even if they're only fiction, stories that show people like ourselves succeeding and getting their hearts' desires makes us feel like there's hope for us, too. You can probably think of at least a few stories and characters that gave you a sense of hope at some point. Adding representation helps you bring this sense of hope to even more people.

It makes one realize that someone out there understands and cares. Feeling like you're completely alone in something is one of the worst feelings in the world. You might find yourself wondering if you're a freak, and if so, what's wrong with you. You might feel like there's no hope that anyone out there will ever be able to understand, let alone sympathize with what you go through. But seeing someone like yourself tells you that you're not alone, and that there are people who understand you and care about you.

It can teach valuable skills and lessons one can't learn from watching any other character. Many characters can teach us how to be brave and strong in a generic way, but very few of them have much to say on how we can deal with being disabled, non-straight, non-cisgendered, non-white, and all of the complications and challenges these things tend to entail. People who belong to these categories can always do with this kind of support.

It helps other people realize that members of minority and marginalized groups are human and deserve to be treated well. The less people understand about each other, the easier it is for them to demonize each other and treat them horribly. Showing people that members of marginalized groups are people who aren't so different from themselves makes them more likely to treat them with empathy and kindness.

Common arguments against representation refuted

"I can't make my story more diverse because it's set in a time/place where there was no diversity to speak of." Every time and place that ever was had diversity of some kind. Not everyone was able-bodied. Not everyone was neurotypical. Not everyone was cis-gendered and straight, and far more people than you might think got away with it! At least 50% of the population was female. And there were often far more non-white people in white-dominated areas than many people assume - for example, there was a substantial number of Black people in Elizabethan England. So no matter when or where your story is set, some form of diversity is almost always possible.

"It's my story and I can write it how I want." You definitely can, but ask yourself this: why are you so bound and determined to write a story with such a homogeneous cast? What does this accomplish for you? Is the idea of doing something nice for people and having a positive impact on the world just that daunting?

"The audience just doesn't want it." Yes, they do! Countless people ask for more representation every day. Maybe part of your audience really doesn't care about it, but why only worry about them when you could be appealing to a far wider audience?

"They'll think I'm pandering!" There will always be a few people who will complain that any representation beyond what they're personally acclimated to is "pandering," but these people are usually in the minority. Most people will be just fine with it, especially if you make sure the characters you create are interesting and well-developed.

"My cast isn't big enough to include people from all of these categories!" No worries! No individual story needs to have all of the categories covered. What's important is that you make an effort to add a reasonable amount when and where it works. Furthermore, it's often easy enough to make a character belong to multiple categories.

"I don't think I should make my cast diverse unless I have a really good reason for it." All of the reasons listed in the prior section are good reasons, so you've already got all the justification you need. Besides, when it comes to diversity, the question shouldn't be "why?" but rather, "why not?"

"I don't know how to reveal that my character belongs to a marginalized/minority group without slowing down the story and distracting from the main plot." Don't worry, Dropping In Characterization Without Dragging The Story has you covered!

"I don't see where making my characters more diverse will increase the actual quality of my story." Allowing for marginalized/minority characters gives you a greater pool of backstories and traits to draw from, decreasing the odds you'll end up with your characters coming off as knockoffs of each other after awhile. Racial diversity also helps make your characters more visually distinct from each other, which is very valuable in a visual medium.

"Can't people just relate to non-marginalized/minority characters?" People belonging to marginalized/minority groups can and do relate to non-marginalized/minority characters all the time in many ways. Still, when a big part of who they are is constantly excluded from stories, this can lead to increased feelings of loneliness, exclusion, and even a sense of being unwanted by the world at large. On the other hand, depicting people who belong to these categories has the opposite effect.

"People shouldn't be looking to fiction for validation or life lessons!" On the contrary, this is literally how the human species works. We tell stories to encourage and guide each other, and look to stories for encouragement and guidance ourselves. This is why we created myths and why we read fairytales. This is why we share our own personal stories with others and why we listen to other people's personal stories. Of course there's nothing wrong with writing something for simple entertainment, but simple entertainment is not nor ever been the only factor in why we tell and listen to stories.

"If I include representation, people will just find a reason to be offended at how I portray the character! In every case I've seen where a bunch of people were offended at how a marginalized/minority character was portrayed, it was because the author did little to no resaerch to find out what would constitute respectful portrayal (let alone hired a sensitivity reader), and instead relied on stereotypes and unquestioned assumptions. If you take all of the measures listed below, the odds that this will happen to you are pretty low.

How to write representation well

Get as much first-hand information as possible. In order to write members of marginalized and minority groups well, it's important to get to know their perspectives and life experiences. Know that you'll probably hear a lot of things you didn't want to hear, so whenever you find someone willing to talk to you or find an informational video, blog, social media account, or whathaveyou, remind yourself that your personal opinions and feelings are irrelevant right now and that you are here to listen and learn. Set aside any judgemental or defensive feelings you might have and just listen. Try and find a variety of sources, since one person's viewpoint is just one person's viewpoint, and will not give you the three-dimensional picture you need.

Don't be that person who's just looking for permission. Some people don't actually care about being respectful. Instead, they just want to find the one member of a marginalized/minority group who will tell them that what they're doing is just fine so they can claim a real [insert group here] told them it wasn't offensive. Just because one single member of a group claims it's not offensive, doesn't mean it isn't. If several people tell you no, listen to them over the one person who tells you yes.

Engage with media made by marginalized creators - and pay close attention to what you see in it. Check out fiction created by the marginalized groups you want to represent, and make a conscious effort to notice to the differences in how marginalized creators depict themselves versus how non-marginalized people do it. Engage with their social media, YouTube Channels, etc. and take notice of how these real people behave compared to how you've seen them depicted in fiction by non-marginalized creators. If your mental models of what people in these groups are like have been largely informed by non-marginalized creators, then get rid of those models and replace them with the real thing.

Make sure your representation isn't limited to expendable or temporary characters. This one pops up far more often than it should these days, given how much this has been publicized as a problem. Essentially, characters belonging to marginalized or minority categories often end up used only when they won't have to be around for long. They might be slated to die (whether immediately or after a brief arc), or they might be minor characters who pop up once and are never heard from again, or they might otherwise disappear from the story in short order. Representation should also include characters who will be a major part of the story for a substantial period of time.

Make sure your representation isn't limited to minor or supporting roles. It's not uncommon for marginalized/minority characters to be put into positions where they don't have a personal role in resolving the main plot. They might get used as bosses, supervisors, teachers, assistants, shop clerks, socially awkward best friends, etc. Aim to do better. Put minority/marginalized characters into leading roles. Make them people who have a direct, hands-on impact. (This of course isn't to say that minority/marginalized characters can't fill the aforementioned roles, but rather that they shouldn't be limited to them.)

Make sure they aren't all doomed to unhappy endings. Having such characters always come to unhappy endings sends a bad message ("no happy endings for people like you!") and is just plain demoralizing. Just because a lot of characters die in your setting doesn't let you off the hook, either - unless the plan is to have everyone die, there's no reason some of these characters can't make it to the end, too. And if it happens that you legitimately need to get one of these characters out of your story, death might not be the only option.

Be careful to avoid treating similar categories as the same category. For example, some people try to make their stories "racially diverse," but include only two races: Black and white. Latinxs, Middle Easterners, Asians (West, East, and South), and whatnot often get left out. Similarly, all Asians may be treated as interchangeable. Mixed race people are often lumped in with non-mixed people, even though mixed-race people often have difficulties that others don't. It's important to remember that just because these people are all minorities in the US, doesn't mean they're interchangeable for one another. Likewise, gay men can't be expected to stand in for and represent lesbians or any other non-straight people out there, one form of disability can't represent all disabilities, etc.

Don't make being a minority look like some kind of hip and edgy youth trend. Many minority characters are depicted as young, cool, and waving their minority status around like it's the latest new gadget. This gives off the impression that being a minority is just a new trend these days, rather than something that some people have always been and will be for a long time. While there are some people who enjoy being loud and proud about their minority identities, if you make this the default or only depiction of your marginalized/minority characters, you make it look like it's a new trend the young people are into these days - or worse, is something they're just doing for attention or clout.

Make sure they're as complex and well-developed as everyone else. Minority/marginalized characters often have relatively weak characterization and development compared to their non-marginalized counterparts. While a white character might have complex motivations, a non-white character might have a simple, straightforward one. A male superhero might do what he does because of some noble ideal or long-term goal, but female superheroes are more likely to be here just because it's a living and/or the trash isn't going to take itself out. At best this makes your marginalized/minority characters less interesting; at worst it's obvious that you were just being lazy. (And remember, "art/culture fan" is to being a deep or complex character what "clumsy and naive" is to being a flawed character!)

Remember that the character's marginalized/minority status shouldn't be treated as a primary reason for your audience to like this character as a person. No matter what anyone's political affiliations or opinions about representation, pretty much nobody likes it when creators act like the main reason you should their characters is because of their marginalized/minority status. Whether people think it's pandering, fetishization, or just plain laziness, it's going to rub just about everybody the wrong way. Just aim to have a well-developed character with an interesting and satisfying story arc.

Be careful that you don't end up making members of a given category overly similar to each other. It can be easy to slip into habits like making all of your trans characters come from abusive fundamentalist families, or making all of your East Asian characters music nerds. Keep an eye on your characters and make sure you don't fall into a rut like this with any given category.

Use due diligence when trying to work with any trait that might be considered stereotypical. Some stereotypes come from romantic ideals, malicious propaganda, or from ignorant misconception. Some actually do have a grain of truth to them, but are either outdated, grossly exaggerated, or are used so often that other possible traits are often ignored. So if you haven't already, do your research and see just what's up with this stuff. If you are going to use any of the traits that actually are actually grounded in reality, avoid creating a character who is nothing but a giant walking stereotype, or pile of stereotypes. Instead, aim to make a three-dimensional human being who simply happens to have maybe one or two traits like this. In addition, it also helps to make sure that this character isn't the only member of this marginalized/minority category that we see in the story, and to make sure that the others have different sets of traits.

Be mindful of the power dynamics systemic oppression has tried to enforce, and make sure you don't repeat or reify them. For example, whiteness often tries to frame white people as generally well-intentioned saviors and protectors toward POC, when the reality is that white people have pretty much always been interested in maintaining hierarchies and institutions that benefit white people at the expense of POC. Common ways this is expressed include (as this article details) is by making a white character's Black friend the supportive, nurturing or grounded one; or by depicting a Black character as fundamentally aggressive or antagonistic.

Don't forget that people can belong to more than one marginalized/minority category! Some writers seem to get stuck in an either/or mindset where, for example, a character can be female or Black, but not both. Obviously many categories overlap in real life, so don't forget to take this into account!

Get sensitivity readers. Get people from relevant marginalized groups to go over your story and scan for any offensive tropes you might have missed. If they criticize your story, listen. Don't make excuses or try to justify what you're doing. And unless they're your friend and you both regularly help each other on stuff, or they've otherwise made it clear they're willing to volunteer their time and effort, don't expect them to do the work for free, either - be ready to pay them, whether it's an upfront fee or a portion of the profit from your work. If paying a sensitivity reader isn't feasible for the time being (maybe you're writing a fanfic for a series with a diverse cast, or you're in some other gray zone, creatively speaking), then at least keep yourself open to criticism and be willing to make corrections if you're called out. And definitely make an ongoing effort to keep up with what marginalized folks are saying.

You might also be interested in:

An Anti-Racism Primer For White Folks
Simple Ways To Fill Out & Humanize Your Character
Basic Tips For Writing Better Ensemble Casts
Ensemble Cast Development Questions
Character Development Questions
On Writing Empowered & Empowering Characters
Wonder Woman boosts girls' self esteem, study finds (Offsite)

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