Flipping The Paradigm: S.Y. Humphrey on Writing Diverse Characters

Shannon Humphrey is the author of Skin Trials, a sci-fi series about genetic engineering and the truths that lie under the skin.

BELINDA: Tell us about Seren, what inspired her?

As a trial lawyer, I deal with a lot of inequality and societal issues. Plus, I’m always thinking of how to make my stories marketable, but different than what’s trendy. Also, many sci-fi heroes channel a main character at the bottom of society who rises (Hunger Games, Gender Game). So over two years ago, I started wondering about flipping this paradigm. Rather than starting from the bottom in an apocalyptic/dystopian setting, with an unlikely heroine, what if the main character fell from the top in her perfect world? What does it look like if the roles were reversed and a powerful person loses the one thing they can’t always control—what’s inside them? Rebels know something about Seren she doesn’t. It was provocative and I wanted to dive into that.

BELINDA: What made Seren’s story important to you?

For a long time, I didn’t like the main character Seren. I didn’t realize I was writing her based on my own prejudices of wealthy people- snarky, arrogant and cold. But that wasn’t fair. When I got the responses back from advanced readers, I could see they weren’t connecting with her. That had to change if I wanted this book to really draw readers in from the beginning. That’s when I started looking at Seren as a person, and not just a rich person – with friends, people who loved her, fears and dreams. I worked hard in rewrites to shape her world and emotions, as someone readers could empathize with. That way, when she confronts the coming terrors, readers would root for her. She became more important to me in this process of humanizing her.

BELINDA: What messages/examples are you hoping reader will take from Skin Trials?

Hmm, I think the biggest message in Skin Trials is that power concedes nothing without a very strong demand. That’s the name of a book actually, by notable civil rights lawyer Connie Rice. Many powerful people will stop at nothing to maintain their firm grip, no matter what they must do or who they must destroy. The people in this series will have to fight very hard and will put a lot of pressure on Seren’s world, pushing the new United States to the brink of war. There will be no easy answers or solutions, and every avenue will require huge, selfless sacrifice on all sides.

BELINDA: What advice would you give to non-diverse authors who are writing about marginalised/diverse characters?

Find friends who are culturally conscious. There are lots of us! And ask one of us to take a look at what you’re doing, to see if you treated the subject matter with respect. 

BELINDA: What would you like to see more of in fiction? 

Hm, I’d like to see more minorities thriving and flourishing, rather than poor and destitute. That archetype has gotten very tired for me. And I imagine for a lot of people of color. It’s why movies like Crazy Rich Asians, Black Panther, Aqua Man and Get Out are doing so well. I’d even like to see a little more humor and satire in minority stories. I SO miss the Wayans brothers, Chris Tucker and old school Eddie Murphy.

BELINDA: What are some of your favourite books featuring diverse characters?

Octavia Butler’s Kindred and Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring. I read each book in one night. I still need to absorb Jesmyn Ward, N.K. Jemison, Nnedi Okorafor, and Tananarive Due. Ask me after I’ve read them!

About S.Y. Humphrey

Shannon Humphrey, author of Skin Trials.

Sci-fi author and appellate lawyer Shannon Humphrey is a 2018 Hedgebrook Writing Resident, former President of Black Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles, and one of the National Bar Association’s Top 40 Lawyers Under 40 in 2015. She published her first novel, coming of age story Hope Defined, in 2013. When she’s not whipping up avocado recipes or doing yoga, she’s out in the wild of Los Angeles, discovering the world with her Sony camera.

You can find out more about Shannon and her books on her website, and connect with her on Instagram and Facebook.

Featured image by Pexels from Pixabay 

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