Okay, so this may be more accurately titled "Diversity in YA Fantasy", since that's what I tend to read and write, but in truth, this applies to all books.
Earlier this month, I was talking to a fellow author about the topic of diversity about a book that she was reading that was having some issues with its diversity. Not that it was lacking it, but that the words being used seemed unusual, forced.
There is nothing worse than forced diversity.
And before you say, "but at least there is diversity!" hear me out. It has taken years for diverse characters, both of color, and of different orientations, to appear with any prevalence in novels, as well as POC to actually author those novels. And just like anything included in a novel, it shouldn't be forced.
First, ask yourself, why are you including characters of color and LGBTQ+ characters. Because you think you're supposed to? Wrong. LGBTQ+ characters should exist in any society, even if their society doesn't support them. But remember, a relationship is a relationship. Any description of character relationships outside of your orientation should be described the same way you would describe your usual relationship. What about characters of color? In Fantasy, this is where it can get tricky. You have to understand your world. What ethnicities live on each continent? Do those cultures mix? Are people able to travel, live in another country, on another continent? Do your characters travel? Understand that information, and you know what kind of diversity can be included in your novel. Anything outside of Fantasy (and Sci-Fi) has much simpler rules, as it is based in our own world. Again, describing a character should be natural, the same as you would describe any other character.
Here are some easy ways to remember what you should and shouldn't do:
DO: Describe the character as you would any other.
DON'T: Give people of color or LGBTQ+ odd, forceful descriptions. If it feels forced, sounds forced, it is forced.
DO: Use descriptors from nature for skin tones, like "ebony, ivory, fawn, ochre, sand, walnut, wheat, hazel, gold, etc."
DON'T: Use food for description, like "coffee, mocha, latte, etc.", with the exception of "olive", as that is a unique skin tone.
DO: Use simple descriptions like "light" and "dark".
DON'T: Overuse descriptions. We don't need to know every chapter if they have white skin or black skin or brown skin or anything in between. Sprinkle your description throughout. I promise your readers will remember, and if they're anything like me, they'll go back and reread sections if they don't.
DO: Know your characters' orientations, even if it isn't prevalent to the novel.
DON'T: Make every LGBTQ+ relationship at the forefront of your novel, unless that is what your novel is about.
DO: Include diverse characters in every role. MCs, love interests, supporting characters, cameo roles, and antagonists.
DON'T: Have every diverse character killed, or make them all evil/bad guys.
Remember, diversity should never be a last minute thought, something tossed in to connect to more readers. Including diversity is part of your worldbuilding, and something you should absolutely know ahead of time, even if you're a pantser like me. And if it ever, ever, feels forced, reword it. If you aren't sure how, ask a friend to read and give suggestions.
Diversity in fiction is important. There should be representation for every person out there in some way. And if your excuse is, "I don't write diversity because I don't have any experience with it," I promise that is a lie. Even if you are white, heterosexual, and cisgendered, what about friends, acquaintances? You know people who are not, and if you feel like you need help, talk to those people! Even Fantasy needs a little research.
Reflect on the books you've been reading, or your current WIP. How are you doing with your diversity? Is your book inclusive? Every author needs to ask themselves these questions. And every reader should too. Unless the Fantasy world has some isolated island with no possible visitors, restricted borders, or the like, there should be no reason for there to be no diversity, both in ethnicities and orientations.