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From the Blog: How to Avoid Token Representation

Three diverse women looking at a phone

What's the difference between token representation and authentic representation? NaNo Participant Nayantara discusses token representation and how to avoid doing it in your own writing!

The smart Asian character. The sassy Black character. The Gay Best Friend.

Too many stories written today that supposedly have “diverse” casts fall prey to “token representation”: a symbolic effort towards inclusion that gives the appearance of equality, without actually exploring diverse narratives.

Recently in the publishing industry, readers have been calling for more representation within their novels, whether it is the LGBTQ+ community, racially and ethnically diverse readers, people with disabilities, or other marginalised groups of people, and many authors have responded with this easy-way-out tokenism — leaving readers unsatisfied and indignant.

So, what exactly is the difference between token diversity and real representation?

Essentially, tokenism includes a character that checks boxes titled “diversity” in face and name, but does not acknowledge their lived experience.

For example, Cho Chang in the Harry Potter series and Lane Kim in Gilmore Girls are reduced to harmful stereotypes of their characters (both their names and characteristics) without acknowledging the diverse experiences that East Asian people have. Their Asianness becomes their entire character, yet at the same time, that same Asianness is entirely misunderstood.

In contrast, the recent Oscar-winning film Everything Everywhere All At Once stars East Asian characters whose lives are affected by their race and background. However, they are fully fleshed out characters regardless of it.

As actor, Anna Leong Brophy, said in an interview, she enjoys it when her “Asianness complements a role, but is not the full role.” Real representation acknowledges how someone’s lived experience as a person of colour, queer person, woman, or member of another marginalised community affects their life — but they have genuine feelings, thoughts, and characteristics far beyond simply their race or identity.

The terms “Black dude dies first” and “Bury your gays” are also commonly associated with token representation. Quite self-explanatory, they are tropes in which the cast’s “diverse” characters are killed early, to save the writer from having to explore or acknowledge their experiences.

Not only is this lazy writing that erases diverse narratives, it also creates the subconscious belief that marginalised groups of people have no place in these stories or in commercialised publishing in general. Everyone deserves representation, whether or not the cis-het (cisgender-heterosexual) white reader can relate to the character’s specific cultural experience.

What counts as good representation, then?

Good representation involves any story that includes a diverse cast and follows each of their story lines fully, allowing them to be well-rounded characters that contain depth and get adequate development.

My personal favourite example of this is Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology, where her cast of six main characters includes Black and Brown people, bisexual and gay people, people from different countries and religions, and people recovering from trauma — all of whom have their own, carefully constructed character arcs that acknowledge their identity, but also give them substance and characteristics far beyond that.

However, this is not to say every story has to be as international — The Poppy War trilogy by R.F. Kuang has a solely East Asian coded cast due to its setting. But even within this, her characters are from different ethnic, religious, and social backgrounds, and each have their own, carefully-constructed character arc extending far beyond their identity on paper.

As you begin writing for Camp NaNoWriMo, ask yourself the following three questions:

  1. Is my cast truly representing the diverse types of people who exist in this world (either real or imagined)?
  2. Are each of these characters individuals beyond simply their ethnicity, sexuality, gender, disability, etc?
  3. Do each of these characters have a fully fleshed out character arc?

You don’t have to be an author from a marginalised or minority background to write characters with diverse experiences. Just make sure to approach each character with empathy and respect, and devote adequate time to research (or to world building, if you’re a fantasy author!)

Good luck, and I know that you are going to absolutely smash your writing goals next month!

Nayantara is an 18 year old student, green tea connoisseur, bookworm, Spotify-playlist-maker, dancer, and writer hoping to study economics and political science at university next year — and hopefully find some time to work on her many unfinished novels in the meantime! Follow her on Instagram @ moonlitsunflowerbooks.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

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