Diversity— in plot, in setting, and especially in characters—is more important for writers, I think, than for readers.
On one hand, it’s great that one of the features of modern spec fic is that it increasingly we are seeing more uses of traditionally underrepresented characters. Writers of spec-fic, the most creative genre, have relied on white, male, European POV’s for far too long. All other factors equal, the field will only improve with more diverse characters and settings. These are nearly truisms, and it’s hard to imagine any argument against them.
However, this can be over-emphasized as well. If the story doesn’t work, we get polemic or propaganda or an after-school special. None of these are ideal—the message is only ever as good as the medium.
But I wonder about characters as well. Yes, a diversity in characters is (nearly) inherently a good thing, from a literary perspective. But as readers, do we need characters who represent us? Is the story seriously affected by the “ism” of the POV character matching that of the reader?
I think we are doing readers a disservice. The idea that gay readers, for instance, need to have gay heroes is erroneous. It paints with very broad brushstrokes, first of all. No one is a robotic collection of their isms, and this line of thinking can ignore individuality. But it’s broader than that.
Many of us don’t easily lend to labels. I don’t have much in common with Frodo Baggins, with Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, with Lan from The Book of Transformations, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t identify with their stories. In fact, I enjoy them partly because they are original characters, not proxies of me.
One of the criticisms against the literary genre is that it is all too often features middle-age divorcees as protagonists. We have moved away from that in spec fic, as writers. We just need to ensure that we do the same as readers.