Since I’m now writing books that fall into the category of diversity, I decided I better educate myself when I ran into a new-to-me term — Casual Diversity. Casual diversity is when diverse characters populate a story but the story is not about diversity.
For example, let’s say you are writing a series of fantasy novels. In this fantasy world, some characters have amazing powers but these powers are often feared. In most territories within this story, these characters live under a veil of suspicion and have to directly serve their king or queen. Only one territory is different but it is also geographically separated from the others and harder to reach so there has been less cultural exchange. Your story is about a gifted character who wants to prove, to herself and others, that she isn’t all that bad even if her gift can easily result in someone’s death.
What the heck does this have to do with diversity? This story idea may sound familiar if you’ve read Graceling, Fire or Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore. Her stories are about characters struggling with magic. They are not about diversity, at least not directly. And yet there are two men who are a couple and also two women. These aren’t the many characters but important secondary characters. Casual diversity.
But not all authors and editors love this idea. The concern that I’ve seen expressed most often is that in an attempt to create books with diverse characters, authors will more or less randomly assign a culture or race to various characters. “She’s black. He’s native american. And that one? That one’s muslim.” While I can see their concern, to me that just sounds like sloppy characterization. After all, we should all know the backstories for our characters and a character who is Black, Native American or Muslim will be shaped in subtle ways by their background.
Personally, my greatest concern is that these diverse characters will fall into stereotypes and cliches– the gay best friend who loves to shop, the sassy black girl, Chinese genius, and the black male athlete. Let’s face it. I’ve seen these characters.
That said, I don’t think that casual diversity is a bad thing. In fact, I think that it’s a necessary thing. We’ll know we’ve finally got it right when books that appear to be casually diverse are populated by three-dimensional characters that are both read and compelling.