5 Ways Screenwriters Can (and Should) Include Diversity in Their Writing
Diversity in writing stories has become a more prevalent topic in Hollywood in recent years — why? The film and television industries are actively making their projects more diverse and inclusive. It's an amazing and long-overdue movement to offer more representation of race, religion, disability, and gender.
It's not a political thing. It's just the right thing to do. According to the Center for Scholars & Storytellers' AIR Report, movies that have a more diverse cast of characters and accompanying storylines make more at the box office than those that don't.
It's pretty simple and straightforward when it comes to why Hollywood is pushing for more diversity in writing, as well as in front of and behind the camera.
- Again, it's the right thing to do.
- The business side of things points to the equation of more representation equals more audience.
According to United States' (the leading movie industry in the world) census data alone:
51% of U.S. residents are women (US Census Bureau)
40% of U.S. residents are people of color (KFF)
26% of U.S. adults (18+) live with a visible or invisible disability (CDC)
16% of Gen Z U.S. adults (18-23 in 2020) identify as LGBTQ (Gallup)
6% of U.S. adults (18+) identify as LGBTQ (Gallup)
So, not only is it the right thing to do to offer representation through diverse inclusion through casting and crew hiring, but it's also a pretty wise business decision.
With that in mind, here are five ways screenwriters can do their part in this industry-changing movement already well underway.
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Tell More Diverse Stories in All Genres
The obvious and most effective way to do your part as a screenwriter is to tell amazing diverse stories in your screenplays.
- We've had an all-Asian cast film make over $230 million at the box office (Crazy Rich Asians).
- We've had a story about one of the most common disabilities in the world (deafness) take home multiple Oscars and garner a $25 million acquisition from Apple (CODA).
- We've even had an all-black superhero movie garner over $1.3 billion worldwide (Black Panther).
- Before 2011, the thought of an all-female cast (lead roles) comedy was considered box office poison — or a huge gamble at best. Bridesmaids went on to gross $288 million. The film led the way for more female-driven films.
These are just a few of the massive successes of representation over the years.
Screenplays focused on A-Story elements of race, religion, disability, and gender are in high demand in Hollywood right now. So if you have a story to tell that features these diverse elements, go for it. And you can accomplish this through the more in-demand genres that Hollywood seeks out most in the spec script market:
- Contained Action Thrillers
- Horror Thrillers
- High Concept Comedy
Look no further than what Jordan Peele has done in his work — Get Out, Us, and Nope — three high-profile original films within a traditionally predominantly white genre with its lead cast.
Yes, it isn't easy to sell a drama — whether or not it has representation within. But what you can do is blend diversity with the genres Hollywood does seek out in the spec market.
So, write those screenplays that feature story and character-driven diversity. Hollywood wants them. And blend them with the genres that Hollywood can make more money off of.
Use Character Description to Showcase Diversity
It's natural for a script reader to assign either their own race (76% of the U.S. population is white) or the race of most lead actors or actresses (59% of actors in the U.S. are white) to a character in their head unless they are prompted otherwise. And when we say "script reader," we're talking about anyone involved with development or production that reads the script — including directors and casting directors.
So, use the character description to inject diversity into your screenplay.
Old Hollywood mindsets will declare that doing so limits your screenplay and its casting. That's old-world thinking and no longer applies. Since we know that Hollywood is actively trying to create more diverse projects, it's wise to embrace that and offer more diverse screenplays for them to cast.
Make Sure Diverse Lead Characters Have a Story
While it's an important step, it's not enough to just use character description to stipulate a character's race. If you want to give certain audience members a form of representation, you must also do your best to represent those diverse choices beyond the superficial elements of color, religious titles, gender titles, and disabilities.
You must also attach those diverse choices to the story elements you present.
- Instead of just having an African-American as a sheriff taking on a threat, have them living and working within a predominantly white small town. They have the A-Story of dealing with the threat and the B-Story of possibly dealing with prejudice.
- Instead of just having an Asian character being a master of martial arts, have them have no knowledge of it (which is closer to reality than Hollywood usually portrays Asians) as they learn more about their own culture from their motherland.
- Instead of having a woman be a deadly Special Forces soldier, have them be the first as they deal with the threat at hand and being a female soldier in a predominantly male-driven environment.
- Instead of just giving a character a disability, work that disability into the core concept by having them either have an advantage or disadvantage dealing with the central conflict of the story because of it.
Don't just check a box by assigning a race, religion, gender, or disability to a character. That's not accurate representation. Work those elements into the story to create depth.
Stop Typing "White" Into the Character Description, Unless Vital to the Story
As a former studio script reader, I always wondered why people bothered to put "white" or "caucasian" into the character description. Nine times out of ten, it had nothing to do with the character and how they fit within the story.
As I mentioned before, it's natural for script readers to assign their own race when not being told otherwise. For screenwriters, it's just as natural to visualize our own race as well — or the 59% of the actors out there.
Assigning "white" or "caucasian" character description has just become a habit over the last one hundred years of screenwriting. But if you have read as many scripts as I have over the years, you'll see how hilariously meaningless those designations are. And, sure, it goes deeper and deeper into the psyche of our society when it comes to race.
So, a very simple way to do your part in this diversity movement in Hollywood is to refrain from labeling characters as white or caucasian unless those characters need to be just that. It's perfectly fine if that character needs to be white. There's nothing wrong with that. It's your story.
But the moment you take the meaningless designations out of your script is the moment that a future casting director attached to your project can see an opportunity to diversify the project by not having this pre-labeled description to deal with.
Give Your Supporting Characters Diverse B and C Stories
If you look around the world we live in, diversity is usually not an issue. The people around us come in different colors, shapes, and sizes from different backgrounds. It's actually quite amusing to see any pushback when it comes to presenting characters and stories with more diverse inclusion. It's representative of the world we live in.
Screenwriters can do their part by not only offering diversity through lead characters — but through supporting characters as well. And like we mentioned above, it's not enough to check a box by assigning a race, religion, disability, or specific gender (or non-gender) to supporting characters. We're not just checking boxes here. We want to work some necessary depth into these choices so that the representation is real and cathartic for those that identify with them.
- Maybe a supporting character's religious beliefs conflict with the actions being taken by the lead characters?
- Maybe a supporting character's disability helps or hurts the ensemble's efforts, and they must all embrace it?
- Maybe a female soldier's presence within an otherwise all-male platoon helps the mission?
Creating more diversity and representation in film and television isn't and shouldn't be politically driven. It's just the right thing to do. It offers more audience members the experience of being able to closer identify with the characters they see onscreen, and it can help inform other audience members about the experiences and cultures of people from other races, religions, abilities strengths/struggles, and genders.
Screenwriters can do their part with these five simple actions, but for those who already have a written script, you can use tools like Final Draft's Inclusivity Analysis to find out how diverse and inclusive your screenplay is. In fact, this feature in Final Draft, which was designed with input from The Geena Davis Institute, measures character traits like gender, race, religion, orientation, ability, and more so you can gain insight into how inclusive your script is.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner, the feature thriller Hunter's Creed, and many Lifetime thrillers. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies