One challenge I've been facing as I work on the second draft of my new novel, The Bucket List, is creating an extended cast of diverse characters that reflects our real world, but in a way that doesn't come across as tokenistic or othering. Unlike a visual medium, if writers don't state a minor character's race, or give an otherwise clear signifier, often we assume that character to be white. To avoid that, I stated a handful of minor characters' ethnicity.
But in my first round of feedback, it was clear this wasn't working.
One reader said, "I appreciate that you are being conscious of making your characters ethnically diverse, but something seems a little deus ex machina about it. Make your descriptions read a bit more organically." Another was blunter: "Like, EVERY person of color in this book is either black or Japanese, and you always mention that they're black or Japanese which feels kind of....weird, if you're not going to be like "x is white," too. It makes them feel like tokens in her world to show how diverse and with-it she is."
In exploring the fix for this, this reader said, "It comes down to Lacey [the protagonist] and how she sees things. The fact that this is from her voice is what triggered it for me the most. I do think that a lot of people think about identity in the way she narrates (that's why we never talk about "my white friend Jess" or "this straight girl I met at a party"-- because if we have to mention identity, it's already because we're thinking about someone as the other). So figure out WHY Lacey would be noticing black and Asian people to this extent, and WHY that becomes part of her internal narration."
I'm working on this. As an example, the breast surgeon character who Lacey initially described as black, is now portrayed as: "I’m introduced to Dr Laura Williams, a breast surgeon. She is six foot and almost disconcertingly beautiful; a tall Kerry Washington, in a white coat."
As I round out my world into one that is diverse, I am trying to show this through my characters' voice, and the ways she, specifically, would be noticing race, or difference or any kind. The aim is for it to feel more organic and read seamlessly.