Writing diverse characters might get your script noticed, but how do you make sure it’s also authentic? Screenwriting coach Jay Harley shares their advice on using your experience to write diversely and create authentic characters. 

Diversity is very ‘in’ these days

Lovely writers, if you’ve heard any of the BBC Radio 4 documentaries I’ve presented, just know that I’m speaking to you now, in my soft and gentle Radio 4 voice. It is hard to be an up-and-comer, with all the odds stacked against you. It is hard to get noticed now, if you don’t come from one of those under-represented backgrounds everyone is always talking about. I get you, we can’t all be lucky enough to be trans like me.

All you hear about these days is diversity, it’s everywhere and it’s a good thing, we know that. Perhaps you worry that to be competitive, you need to write more diversely. But you might find yourself asking how you can do that – and are you even allowed? The answer is YES, and here is my advice on getting diversity right in your writing. Take my hand, come on.

The trouble with tokenism

I can see how a push for diversity might look like you are being pushed out, perhaps before you’ve even begun. I can see how you might try to address that, by writing as diversely as you can. I don’t have to imagine it – I’ve read a tonne of scripts where the strong (white, able-bodied), female lead has a best friend of colour and a lesbian boss and a working-class husband who uses a wheelchair and is the main child-care provider.

But if you’re ticking boxes and trying to create a diverse cast just to sell your scripts, this is not ideal. What we need to think about really hard, with our soft and malleable open minds, is what producers and commissioners really want. For example, can you imagine that any of your brilliant, flawed, layered characters could have any ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability, regional accent or body shape? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if their characters weren’t tied to their biographies, but instead were drawn from your understanding of people and the way we behave.

To show your passion for diversity, try a disclaimer such as this on your front page:

Every role is open to casting from underrepresented groups and a diversity of casting is recommended to fully represent British youth / the prison population / the planet Kwargon…

This shows your intent, without limiting the imagination of your producers. They will very likely have ideas for a mix of people they would like to cast and, fingers crossed, will be open to suggestion if that “mix” isn’t quite mixed enough for you. As a writer who wants to get stuff made, this shows them that you are thinking about diversity and you’re not messing around.

Expanding your mind

So, instead of tying yourself in knots, trying to subvert expectations of gender or disability or ethnic roles, take a breath, open your mind and expand your definition of diversity. For all the things that make you one of the majority, as white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied, middle-class, etc. what are the specific experiences, that you are uniquely able to write about?

writing diverse characters authentically - script angel

I grew up in a lone-parent family and my mother fostered a bunch of kids with differing needs and experiences. Mum also helped care for two women with Down’s Syndrome and, as a kid, I often went to discos and socials with a bunch of adults with different disabilities. I lived in rural Worcestershire, in a house I was ashamed of. I also worked at a zoo, when I was 8. It was totally illegal. I was left to look after the animals on my own for a whole weekend when I was 12. I mean, that’s just ridiculous. But these are the specifics of my silly life, as a girl, then a boy, then a girl again. There’s loads of material here, loads of perspective that no one else can write. And trust me, I shoehorn my pet monkey, Flossy, into every story I write.

So, what is it about you? What’s the unique story that you can tell from your background? It doesn’t have to be true, it doesn’t have to be about you, but it can be founded on your experiences and observations, from the perspective only you have.

If, like me, you want to cast Susan Wokoma and Lolly Adefope in everything you write, then use your distinct writerly voice to create characters only you can create and your script will be a magnet for excellent, diverse talent.

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Hayley McKenzie