How To Write Strong, Diverse Characters

Looking for a new perspective on diversity? Here it is.

by Tennyson E. Stead

Until my brain injury in 2013, I lived my life as a cis-gendered white male. Apart from my experience with disability, which I admit was eye-opening, I’m about as diversity-challenged as a human being can get. I went to boarding school, for crying out loud. Nevertheless, my approach to writing characters has earned me a reputation as someone who provides fantastic performance opportunities to underrepresented people.

Mastering these techniques has taken me more than a decade of practice, but it’s the kind of practice that puts focus on the specificity and the structural integrity of my screenwriting in general. Teaching the core principles that make a screenwriter successful when it comes to representing diversity won’t take us very long at all. To a large degree, that’s because these ideas are not even a little bit complicated. Please, don’t be intimidated by them.


In film, characters are defined by the mission that drives them and the details of how they go about achieving their goal in the face of adversity. Because this article is not about the fundamentals of screenwriting, I’m going to refer anyone who needs that information to a blog post I’ve written called “WHY I PASSED ON THAT SCREENPLAY.” If you’re new to screenwriting, if you struggle with what “active writing” means in film, or if you’re challenged by the boundaries between screenwriting and other writing fields like journalism or literature, this article is going to help you out. In fact, I’d recommend this article to anyone who can’t give me a fast, working definition of the words “action” and “motivation” as they pertain to acting.

Why is this relevant? When writers start fussing over the pitfalls of speaking for another culture or demographic, all that structure and all that experience goes out the window. Instead, writers bog themselves down in questions about the meaning of this or that passive character trait. Meaning is a function of action. Giving your character a mission that’s urgent, deeply personal, and nigh impossible is your ladder out of the bottomless pit that is Hollywood’s track record when it comes to representing diversity….

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