Readers, today we hear from Jason Henry Evans’ latest installment on How to Write and Publish Historical Fiction. This month, Jason addresses diversity in historical fiction, the what, the why and the how.
It is January of 2018 and having diverse characters is still a big deal in historical fiction. But how do you add diverse characters when the market you write in is pretty, well, white?
I mean, how much diversity was in the English Regency? How much diversity was in Ancient Rome? Or Tudor England? How much diversity was in the Highlands of Scotland where my Highland Romance takes place?
Ah, never fear, gentle reader. Never fear. We will go over this.
But first, let’s check our privilege at the door and understand what diversity really means.
What Exactly do we Mean by Diversity?
Diversity is not only about race.
Diversity is about sex.
Diversity is about orientation.
Diversity is about gender.
Diversity is about age.
Diversity is about ableism.
Diversity is about thought.
If you are a new writer without a formal education in history, sometimes the world can seem pretty vanilla. Sometimes it can seem segregated, too. But with a little research and a little creativity you can peel that veneer off of the tableau you’re looking at and discover a rich and varied world.
Also – and let me be blunt – you are writing historical fiction. No one is going to get 3 units transferable to the college of their choice by reading your book. You don’t have to be absolutely historically accurate to write a compelling piece of historical fiction.
Don’t get me wrong – you do have to get the details right. You gotta know your stuff about horses, crops, firearms and swords. You have to know your way around corsets and fabrics and etiquette and politics. But you do NOT have to be perfect.
How do We Write Diversity in Our Stories?
So, how do we write diversity into our stories?
Maybe you are writing a romance set in the English Regency. You feel diverse characters would add richness to your story and make it pop. But you can’t bring yourself to make one of the supporting characters from Africa or Asia. That’s OK. What if your character were disabled, in some way? A veteran of the war in the colonies who’s now in a wheel chair? Or, perhaps blind? How many romances have disabled characters? What about a supporting character who is very old, but wise? Someone who can reminisce about the love of their youth and give good advice to the protagonist.
Cultural and Ethnic Diversity Occur Natural in Times of Great Exchanges
But if you did want someone to stand out because of their ethnicity and background, please remember, the settings of most of our great pieces of historical fiction have been during times of great exchanges. Many take place in cities or on frontiers where cultures meet, clash and trade. It is there you will find the diversity you seek.
My first novel takes place in 1590s Ireland, in the Queen’s Army. It is a hotbed of war and culture clash. English Anglicans work alongside Irish and Highland Catholics. There are Italian mercenaries and French smugglers. And the Spanish. Boy, are there lots of Spanish. More importantly, able bodied women who work in and with the Queen’s Army. Sometimes, they fight too.
Don’t Force Historical Characters to Adopt Unrealistic Modern Attitudes
I’ve said this before, but there have always been gay and transgendered people. Why not have a gay or transgendered character in your novel? It would not feel right to me for my characters to adopt modern attitudes about the gay and transgendered. I think that would be going too far. (Although, open minded people always existed.) But wouldn’t it be a lovely subplot to add to your novel if your protagonist discovered one of their friends were gay and have to wrestle with that knowledge? And, as the book moves forward, your character realizes that their friend is their friend and comes to accept them? I would read that book.
Ethnic Diversity in Historical Fiction – It Comes Naturally
But maybe you really want ethnically diverse characters in your novel. Ok. Then let’s talk about diversity.
Any story set during the Columbian Exchange is going to have diversity. Native Americans went to Renaissance Europe. (Many, unfortunately, as slaves.) The French, Spanish, Papal and English courts all had ambassadors from the Ottoman Empire. (Turkey.) Those ambassadors brought staffs of servants and slaves from throughout North Africa, the Mideast, and Persia.
If your story is set later, say the 18th century, the same thing applies. However, now you can add Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, and people from Southeast Asia as potential characters into the mix. The closer to our modern period you get, the more diversity becomes apparent. Mexican miners in 19th century Colorado. Black cowboys and buffalo soldiers. Chinese migrant workers who toiled on the railroad and in San Francisco immigrant communities.
Is your story set in Medieval Europe? Crusaders sometimes came back to Europe with Armenian and Arab Christian wives and servants. Spain before the Reconquesta was a home for Jewish and Islamic scholars and artist for a millennia. People who came from around the Islamic world. As far south as Timbuktu, and as Far East as Jakarta. That is diversity.
Remember, adding diversity to your story can be as simple as thinking about outside the box about the culture you’re trying to explore. There have always been diverse characters, we just have to illuminate them.
Jason Henry Evans: Life is funny. In 2004 I moved from Los Angeles to Denver, newly married with a desire to be a great teacher and husband. I dedicated myself to public education and realized my heart was not in it. So I moved on. At the same time I stumbled into a creative world of art and literature I now call home. It hasn’t always been easy, but it has been worthwhile.
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