NOTE: There's a piece at the beginning of the book about why you might want more diverse characters in your fiction. So by the time people get to this piece, they've presumably agreed that they're interested in trying to write fiction with visibly diverse characters (in terms of class, gender, ethnicity, etc.) -- otherwise, they would have put down the book already. :-)
EthnicityEthnic today is often used as a code-word for people of color -- or, to be even more specific, brown-skinned, yellow-skinned, black-skinned people. Not white. As if white people didn't possess their own complex ethnic and cultural heritages. It's a strange blind spot in the cultural dialogue, and it's misleading and damaging to erase white peoples' ethnic background. When you do that, it makes it a lot easier to see ethnic issues as people of color issues, something white folks don't have to pay as much attention to. It leaves the responsibility of being aware of and engaging with ethnicity on the people of color, when really, the responsibilty belongs to every human being.
When I'm editing an anthology, I'm always startled by how many characters in submitted stories are generic white. The generic part is important there -- they're not just white, but some vague version of white that lends no interest to the character or the story. As a first stage in creating more vivid characters, I ask simply that you give your white characters some specificity in their whiteness. They could be immigrants from Ireland, or third-generation Polish-American, or in this country so long that they're not sure exactly what all of their ethnicities are, but they do know that their great-grandmother left Germany when Hitler came to power, because she didn't approve of his politics. And she took a few Jewish friends with her, and eventually married one of them. That's a lot more interesting and more specific a character than the generic white one. Whatever the color of your own skin, you as a writer can take on the job of giving your white characters an ethnic background -- or more than one.
The second step is to write people of color as characters. A lot of writers are hesitant to take this on -- white writers are worried about writing people of color, and even people of color become hesitant about writing other people of color. I feel some of this too -- in particular, I worry about writing black American characters. I worry about getting it wrong, being offensive, contributing to damaging cultural stereotypes, making people mad at me. But if you're going to write well, you have to get past those fears. Your library of characters contains the whole human race, and you have both the right and the responsibility to portray any member of it in your work. You just do your best to get it right.
So here are two rules for you to test yourself on, from this point forward in your writing:
a) If you're writing a white character, make sure they aren't generic white. Give them an ethnic and cultural history, even if it ends up barely mentioned in your story. But be sure you do mention it -- it's not enough for you, the author, to know their history. Unless the reader gets an intimation of it as well, that character might as well be generic white.
b) If you're writing a white character, and if there's no good reason for them to be white, change their ethnicity. This one's harder than it looks, because it's surprisingly easy to come up with reasons that seem good on the surface. But really poke at them, and try to figure out if it's possible to change the ethnicity without compromising the story you're trying to tell. Who knows? It might make your story more complex, more interesting -- it might make that story better.
1. This one's simple. Take a story or scene you've already written, and change the ethnicity of the protagonist. Don't just do an edit in a computer file -- retype the entire story, with that change in place, and make sure it's present in the story. See if it changes your tale.