Posted On October 2, 2015 by Print This Post

How To Write Diverse Characters: A Simple Test by Sonali Dev

I’m especially pleased to welcome Sonali Dev back to RU since this is where I first met her, before she was published. She occasionally shared an excerpt of her writing, and I immediately liked her voice. Since then I’ve become a huge fan of her books. Her latest, THE BOLLYWOOD BRIDE, just came out a few days ago. Don’t miss it!

I am told there’s a push for diversity in romance. Between #WeNeedDiverseRomance, the formation of a diversity committee by RWA, the presence of more diverse panels and workshops on the RWA National conference schedule than ever before, and the fact that a sum total of five whole entire books that touched collectively on diversity of race, culture, and sexual orientation finaled in the RITAs out of hundred odd books are all signs that yes, indeed, there is a push for diversity in romance. But all snark aside, all of this also underscores how badly there needs to be a push for diversity in romance.


Consequently it’s fantastic that there seems to be a desire among writers to write more diverse characters and diverse stories. I’m going to skip the discussion about whether or not writers should write outside of their ethnic, racial, religious and sexual identities because it is my belief that we need more diverse stories and characters in our literature and we need them yesterday. And given that such a vast majority of published authors in romance are Caucasian, restricting who should write what will only slow change. And the faster people consume less homogenous books, the faster more non-homogenous books will be brought to the shelves making it easier for writers from diverse backgrounds themselves to sell. Okay, so I didn’t quite skip the discussion, but that’s not the point of this post.


The point of this post is to answer the next question, How Do We Write Diverse Characters?


I usually respond with an eye roll, but where does that ever get us? And astoundingly enough, the question gets asked so much that maybe the answer isn’t as obvious as it might seem after all. So, naturally I’ve been obsessing about it and I found that the answer lies (as so many answers do) in a John Grisham movie.


I’m hoping you’ve read or watched A Time To Kill. It is one of those movies that, once you’ve watched it, won’t ever leave you. How can it, when the fight is for justice for a little black girl who was raped by a couple of white men, who are shot by her father after they are acquitted of their crime? The father, Samuel L Jackson, is on trial and Matthew McConaughey is the young lawyer who is trying to sway a jury in the South in the nineties to rule justly on behalf of a black man. Yes, some tough holding up of mirrors going on there.


However, McConaughey’s closing statement in the face of a mostly decided jury is the best encapsulation of race relations I’ve ever seen and I believe it hits straight at the heart of any possible solution.


He starts his closing remarks with an apology for being inexperienced and asking that his shortcoming not be held against his client. Then he goes over why we as human beings seek truth, and then finally he goes over the rape. In graphic and heartbreaking detail he describes what the little girl went through, what she lost forever. When everyone is neck deep in the heinousness of the crime he ends with:


“Can you see her? Her raped, beaten, broken body, soaked in their urine, soaked in their semen, soaked in her blood — left to die.


Can you see her? I want you to picture that little girl.


Now imagine she’s white.


The defense rests, your honor.”


So, how should you write diverse characters?


Write them the way you would write a character from your own race, your own religion, your own sexual orientation. With empathy, love, meticulous attention and care. Like a human being with human experience you can embody yourself. Strip them down and write them as if they were you, and you them. Not as an Other.


And of course, since things are seldom that simple (although really, in this case they are) here are some simple guidelines:

  • If you’re writing a negative character, make sure that their negative traits do not reinforce stereotypes. If you want to write a negative stereotype, stick to your own race, ethnicity, religion, please.
  • Positive stereotypes are also delicate. Especially if you mean to make them humorous. You know how you can make fun of your own mother but it’s not okay for anyone else to do it? It’s a bit like that.
  • If you place your character in a setting where she is a victim of a historical or social injustice, and you do not belong to the ethnic group that was victimized, do not absolve or justify the injustice. You don’t have the right to do that. At best you have the right to acknowledge and show solidarity.
  • Don’t use research as a crutch to be hurtful and insensitive. History is almost always written by the victors.
  • When in need of details and verification, ask for help. Not from Google but from a friend who has experience from within. If you don’t have a friend, well… maybe make one before you take on your character? Being inclusive in real life should be the only basis for you wanting to be inclusive in your writing— how else will you affect any modicum of authenticity?


In closing (since we are using a courtroom drama as our guide), the way to write diverse characters is to write characters. To tell their story as you would tell your own. And no matter what you write, run the A Time To Kill Test. Close your eyes, run your character’s experience through your mind, fall into it, then imagine that it is you you’re writing about.


Have you written diverse characters? If not, what’s holding you back?

Author ZOE ARCHER joins us on Monday.



sonali dev

Sonali Dev’s first literary work was a play about mistaken identities performed at her neighborhood Diwali extravaganza in Mumbai. She was eight years old. Despite this early success, Sonali spent the next few decades getting degrees in architecture and writing, migrating across the globe, and starting a family while writing for magazines and websites. With the advent of her first gray hair her mad love for telling stories returned full force, and she now combines it with her insights into Indian culture to conjure up stories that make a mad tangle with her life as supermom, domestic goddess, and world traveler.

Sonali lives in the Chicago suburbs with her very patient and often amused husband and two teens who demand both patience and humor, and the world’s most perfect dog.

Bollywood Affair

Sonali’s debut novel, A Bollywood Affair, was onLibrary Journal’s and NPR’s list of Best Books of 2014, it won the American Library Association’s award for best romance, and is aRITA® finalist,RT Reviewer Choice Award Nominee, and winner of the RT Seal of Excellence. It was recommended by USA Today as a ‘must-read romance’ and hailed as a ‘stunning debut’.

The Bollywood BrideNOW AVAILABLE!



Ria Parkar is Bollywood’s favorite Ice Princess—beautiful, poised, and scandal-proof—until one impulsive act threatens to expose her destructive past. Traveling home to Chicago for her cousin’s wedding offers a chance to diffuse the coming media storm and find solace in family, food, and outsized celebrations that are like one of her vibrant movies come to life. But it also means confronting Vikram Jathar.

Ria and Vikram spent childhood summers together, a world away from Ria’s tragedy-ridden family in Mumbai. Their friendship grew seamlessly into love—until Ria made a shattering decision. As far as Vikram is concerned, Ria sold her soul for stardom and it’s taken him years to rebuild his life. But he’ll risk it all again if Ria can find the courage to face the secrets she’s been guarding for everyone else’s benefit and finally stop acting and start living.

Rich with details of modern Indian-American life, here is a warm, sexy, and witty story of love, family, and the difficult choices that arise in the name of both.

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15 Responses to “How To Write Diverse Characters: A Simple Test by Sonali Dev”

  1. My superhero fantasy series involves a polyamorous/polygamous arrangement that I’m researching a bit to get it right. (It helps to read “Savage Love.” 😀 ) However, “Applesauce and Moonbeams,” a soft sci fi, has given me headaches. It involves a very straight telepathic psychiatrist whose mind is blasted into the body of the villain—who is gay. Our Hero then discovers that just by being in this body, he is now gay as well.

    I did this for comedic/thematic principles, because Our Hero is so certain that people should fit society’s designated slots for them (his job is to help them do just that), and here he’s in a situation where he can’t control the basics of what he now is.

    It doesn’t help that the villain is, well, a villain. I worked hard to try to show that the villainy didn’t have anything to do with gayness. (Once I read a Regency where every gay was intensely villainous: pedophiles, rapists, torturers. I couldn’t believe such a book could get published.) So I ran the book past several gay friends, and they assured me that they didn’t see anything wrong with it. Were they just being kind? Pass the aspirin.

    Posted by Carol A. Strickland | October 2, 2015, 7:49 am
  2. Thanks, Sonali Dev, for sharing this fabulous post. Now, if readers will only take away BOTH sides of your message: to write characters outside of your own race/ethnicity/nationality with the same respect and caring as you would a character of your own race/ethnicity/nationality, AND at the same time, be aware of the differences between your experience/privilege and those of the character you’re writing. The two messages seem conflicting to many people, but it is vital to hold the truth of both close.

    Posted by Jackie Horne | October 2, 2015, 8:35 am
  3. Excellent post Sonali! What a wonderful, concrete example of how to put your characterization to the test. It’s the infusion of empathy used in this method that gives characters dimension and keeps them from becoming cartoonish. Thanks for giving us something else to tuck into the writers tool kit 🙂

    Posted by Pamala Knight | October 2, 2015, 8:54 am
  4. Sonali, Your advice is right on target, in my opinion. I’m in the depths of a writing project where there are three different ethnic groups. Although I can’t say that my individual heritage has all three, my family’s does. It puts me in a unique situation. Whatever I don’t know already, the answer is just a phone call away. Yes, my antagonists (2) are my major race because that’s my strongest perception of life.

    Posted by Glynis Jolly | October 2, 2015, 9:23 am
  5. Thanks for a wonderful post, Sonali! I’ve written diverse secondary characters, but I admit I’ve been more hesitant about writing diverse main characters because I’m not sure I can do a good job of it.

    I admit a lack of confidence about this, although for some reason I’m not bothered about writing male POV. Or even werewolf POV. I even hesitate to write British characters, and I know that culture very well. One of these days I’ll just jump in the deep end and do it! Thanks for the nudge – and the excellent advice!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | October 2, 2015, 10:35 am
    • Thanks again for having me on, Becke!

      I love doing posts at RU.

      I think your reticence is natural and responsible. And it’s this precise feeling of added responsibility that helps with writing characters seemingly different from us.


      Posted by Sonali Dev | October 2, 2015, 1:24 pm
    • Well stated Becke. I have had a similar lack of confidence. Sonali, thank you for the practical advice and encouragement!

      Posted by JulieB/Julie Spahn | October 6, 2015, 4:49 pm
  6. This was an excellent, thought provoking blog. I will save it for future reference.

    Posted by Carol Baldwin | October 2, 2015, 11:54 am
  7. Great advice, Sonali, and I’m thrilled at your continued success. I teach a class for writers on this subject, and I agree with every point you made. The one thing I would add is that some writers have voiced an “I have a right to write about anything and anyone I want any way I want” mindset. Dropping that and embracing a more “I’m willing to be open to understanding more before I write” would be a great step for those writers.

    Just as an FYI, I have recently sent you an email with a question.

    Posted by B A Binns | October 2, 2015, 12:44 pm
    • Hi BA,

      Thank you! You are absolutely correct. Of course everyone has the right to do anything they want, but there is a right, responsible and sensitive way to do it based on knowledge and understanding and not on ignorance.

      And I just checked again and I don’t have an email from you. My email: Could you resend, please!

      Thanks again for being an advocate of diversity all these years!

      Posted by Sonali Dev | October 2, 2015, 1:17 pm
  8. Sonali – Thank you so much for spending the day with us today. Have a wonderful weekend!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | October 2, 2015, 8:15 pm


  1. […] How To Write Diverse Characters: A Simple Test Sonali Dev on the Romance University blog, about how you can use a simple test inspired by a movie to help you write diverse characters. […]

    October Links | Becky Black - October 10, 2015
  2. […] How to Write Diverse Characters on Romance University […]

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