There are many reasons why I chose to become an indie author rather than go the traditional route of looking for an agent and sending manuscripts out on submission. One huge reason was because I knew being indie meant I wouldn't have to worry about that dreaded term: marketable. Granted, I'd like to make a living from my work, but not if that meant I had to change major elements of my story to make it fit some narrow view of what marketable means. At heart, marketable is code for white, nondisabled, cisgender protagonists, and if he's a dude you're golden. Don't think that's true? Look around you. Turn on your TV, pick up a book, open a magazine to an ad, play a video game, go watch a movie. You'll notice you are awash in white dudes (unless the ad is for cleaning products, in which case you're pretty much guaranteed to see a thin, toothy, white woman promoting them--seriously, who gets that excited about housework). Of all of these mediums, television is the one that seems to be making the most progress, but even television has a long way to go.
Look, talking about these things can be uncomfortable. I get that. It's hard for me too. As a woman, I know what it's like to run up against male privilege. I have a chronic illness (Crohn's Disease, to be precise), so I can speak to that as well. But because I'm white, I can't speak to what it's like to not be white. Because I'm straight and cisgender, I can't speak to what it's like to be somewhere else on the sexuality and/or gender spectrum. Because I don't have a disability, I can't speak to what it's like to have a disability.
I get the fear of trying to create a character who's not like you. What if you mess it up? What if you offend people, despite your good intentions? But fear isn't a good excuse, especially if avoidance is how you deal with the thing you fear. When your setting is sci-fi or fantasy and you're already asking people to suspend disbelief as you tell a tale of aliens or dragons, why is it so hard to make your main character a woman, a person of color, a member of the LGBTQ community, someone struggling with an illness, or someone who has a disability? Creators of sci-fi and fantasy universes need to quit with the bullshit "but that's unrealistic because that's not the way the world works" excuse. Dragons are believable but a gay hero isn't? You can buy aliens decimating the Earth but not a woman leading the army that's determined to beat them?
When I write, I make an effort to diversify my characters. I'm not saying I get it right, and I certainly have room for improvement as the vast majority of my main characters are white. Yet even when I write a book with main characters who are most decidedly NOT white--Asleep--I can't help but notice that some readers default to a white setting. It baffles me, and it makes me realize how far we have yet to go.
This problem isn't relegated to books, of course. I'm also an avid gamer, and I could fill post after post about gaming's deplorable and inexcusable lack of diversity, to say nothing of what a hostile environment it can be for anyone who isn't a white, straight, cisgender male. Movies are still dominated by white cast members, even when the character isn't white in the book that the film has adapted.
And when I tried to find stock photos for Asleep? Finding white women and men isn't hard. Finding Indian men and Persian women was like trying to dig for diamonds in my backyard. I love my cover, but it lacks a person precisely because there was such a dearth of available stock photos. Don't even get me started on how few choices there were when looking for a non-thin woman for the cover of Phoning It In.
One of the major decisions I made while writing Phoning It In sums it up nicely. I wanted to portray the romantic and career struggles of a plus-sized female character without ever making her lose a single ounce. I've struggled with my weight and with body image issues, and I was sick to death with media bombarding women with the message that losing weight will cause their lives to magically become perfect. This is precisely what a lack of diversity does: it tells people, both explicitly and implicitly, that unless they fit a certain body type, a certain skin tone, a certain social class, a certain religious background...and on and on and on, there's something wrong with them. I reject that outright. Of all the things that are wrong in this world, the diversity that makes us who and what we are isn't one of them. But denying that diversity, ignoring large segments of the world's population, IS wrong. We live in the twenty-first century, and I know we can do better, be better than that. That is the legacy that I want to leave for my children, the knowledge that we human beings evolved enough to appreciate and celebrate our diversity.
Campaigns like #WeNeedDiverseBooks are importantly precisely because they seek to change the current paradigm. If you're reading this, I hope you're participating. If you aren't, I hope you'll change your mind and join us. Because the only way we can move forward is by taking a first step.
(This was a total coincidence as my 2-year publishing anniversary just happened to coincide with the campaign, but you can get my books for 99c today as they're all Kindle Countdown Deals. Be sure, too, to stop by my giveaways page to enter for a chance to win an Amazon gift card--it'll come in handy when filling your library with diverse books!)