Characters and Diversity. Part 2 – Wealth

Hello Story Empire friends, Gwen with you today.

Last month I initiated a series on including diversity in our stories. I explained that I would address the topic through personal experiences. The first post focused on race; you can read it here if interested.

This post looks at diversity in terms of financial status. Similar to the prior post, I begin with a story.

When I was around ten years old, our family moved to a different farmhouse about eight miles from our other home. It had two bedrooms, but dad enclosed the porch and created an additional room. My three brothers slept in that space, and the four girls slept in the adjacent room. Mom and dad had the third bedroom. I never thought of the house as small when I was growing up, but now I realize how crowded it was for a family of nine.

Because of the move, my sibs and I needed to change grade schools. Mom wanted us to attend the Catholic school in town and not the school just a couple of miles from our house. She was concerned that each of us have a proper Catholic education. At the country school, all the kids came from families involved in farming. We wore hand-me-downs and clothes that our mothers made for us, and our shoes were often covered in dirt. I never thought this unusual until I began school in town.

At the new school, there was an unspoken hierarchy of those from wealthy families and those from working families. My self-consciousness sharpened as I began seeing what I hadn’t seen before. My saddle shoes and homemade skirt were unlike what the other girls wore. I never noticed shoes before fourth grade. But from that time forward, I suffered them.

Photo from Canva

What does this have to do with our characters?

Each of us recognizes the haves and the have-nots, and that awareness began in childhood. At a young age, we observed the difference and internalized it in unspoken ways. Most commonly, we associated it with self-worth.

If you plan to include this aspect of diversity in your stories, I offer four suggestions to consider:

  • Reflect upon when you first noticed the haves and the have-nots. Think about what triggered that awareness. At the time, did you consider yourself rich or poor, or neither? Did you feel that you didn’t fit in? Use those sentiments to give life to your characters.
  • Unravel your buried judgments about wealth. When you see someone drive up in a limousine or someone begging on a street corner, do you associate either with intelligence or the lack of it, with privilege or bad luck or laziness? Do these contrasting circumstances, in some small way, affect your sense of the value of a person? How might you use this in a story?
  • Research financial disparity. Find out who is homeless and why they are. Look into who is working two jobs. Identify the struggles of a single parent. Review the statistics. If you plan to include the diversity of wealth in your story, it is helpful to lay the foundation through research.
  • Walk in your character’s shoes. Whether rich or poor or somewhere in-between, take the time to walk where your characters walk, figuratively or for real. Feel the difference between searching through a trash can for food and ordering lunch at a lush restaurant. Visit a shelter or a soup kitchen, and sit next to someone you might otherwise avoid. Then, bring that experience into your story through your characters.

Wealth diversity is not as transparent as race – except in the extreme. We may notice high-end accessories or the make of a car, but we don’t know what is in the bank. We may walk past beggars or long stretches of homeless lean-tos and tents, but we don’t see the families who have crowded together inside a motel room. If we include wealth diversity, our words can expose the different realities.

That’s it for me today, dear readers. Next month I’ll address diversity in terms of physical ability. Till then, take good care of yourself and find ways to celebrate the wonders of life.

81 thoughts on “Characters and Diversity. Part 2 – Wealth

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  6. Very good points and a subtle warning here, Gwen. We don’t understand what’s behind apparent wealth or poverty. I think we could easily make a mess of that. This was one of the hardest things for me in writing a childhood story. I only had my own experience to draw on. I couldn’t have written about a wealthy upbringing if I wanted to. I had one experience as a child when I went to play with a wealthy friend. These people had servants. I had never even imagined that having servants was a real thing. I suppose I could have researched that, but I’m not sure I would know where to begin. As an adult, I have learned about people, along the lines with your suggestions, but trying to figure it out from 50 years ago is hard. Maybe reading memoirs or other stories would give us the insight we need.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Dan, for these insights. We never really know another person’s struggles and easily project onto them a story that is just a story. Your suggestion about reading memoirs made me pause because I realized that I have never read a memoir by one of the “rich and famous.” Now I shall. 😊

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  7. Hi Gwen, my mom also grew up in a three bedroomed cottage. One room was for mom and dad and the latest baby, one was for the girls and the other for the boys. They were 8 children. They also had an outside toilet but it was a flush system. I don’t remember even noticing economic difference particularly when I was at school. I went to ordinary schools and there was a mix of kids from different economic backgrounds but we all wore school uniforms so I think the differences were less obvious. I do remember slipping behind the couch when I had friends over for the afternoon to read a few paragraphs from my latest book. That little secret sip got me through the afternoon. Friends were not my preference over an afternoon of reading. I was a weird kid.

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  8. What an excellent post, Gwen. I love your personal stories that are accompanying this series. I never really realized we were poor until I became an adult. But my sister says I lived with my head in the clouds and never saw reality. 🙂 Could be true. In New Orleans, I saw the vast differences between the people living on the streets and the ritzy ladies being escorted by police from Sunday morning mass. I love what you say about walking in our characters’ shoes. Great post!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Jan. I’m so pleased you’re enjoying this series. Your example is perfect. As kids, we register the difference but aren’t reflective about it, until much later in life. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  9. What a wonderful post, Gwen 🙂 It is important to understand not only how we view the have and have nots but see it from all sides. Bringing this into our characters can add that extra depth so we can understand from another point of view. Worrying about having a place to sleep over having the latest video game is completely different world and can interact.

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  10. A wonderful post you’ve written, Gwen. I often lean toward middle and lower income classes when creating characters. That sense of lack is such a great catalyst in moving the character through a story. I’ve seen it in real life as well. You’ve given me even more to consider on this subject.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I got online late today, so just read this. One of my friends, and she was right, accused me of reverse snobbery. I’ve never been picked on, ever, but in my early writing, (I’m sure it’s because I identified myself as lower middle class), I always treated rich people as shallow or snobs. But that’s not any more fair than stereotyping poor people as lazy or not as intelligent as they should be. People from all walks of life are individuals. Some good. Some not so good. It’s not fair to judge anybody.

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  12. Excellent post, Gwen. I like your suggestions for exploring wealth and poverty and the range of variations in between. I have distinct memories of the “rich” kids walking home on the opposite side of the street from us “middle-class” kids. The sins of entitlement (though not limited to wealth) seem to be a major theme in a lot of my books. Another thought-provoking addition to your series.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. This post has generated a few memories. When I was a baby, apparently, we lived on food stamps. My father was raised on welfare and my mother lived with very little means in the woods, her father being a lumberjack. My father worked hard and made lots of money – and spent more of it. We were not raised, ever with name brands (I wanted Addidas, I got North Stars. two stripes instead of the desired three). My mother just didn’t believe in that stuff. As a result, neither do I!
    Another story is, my mother went into Holt’s Renfrew to look for a gown. She asked the sales person if they had it in another colour and she received the reply: “It’s a very expensive dress.” To which my mother replied “I didn’t ask you the price, I asked you the colour.” The next time she went into the store, that same person rushed to her to help. My mother: “No,” turning to another salesperson “I want her to help me out.”
    We so quickly judge and, Lord knows, in today’s world of underdressing, that is a big mistake!

    I do think, however, when I read (same as when I watch something), I want to know how they came to be where they are financially. Don’t be having them spend oodles of money without telling me where they got it from! My goodness, I am long-winded today… Apologies…

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’ve made an important point, Janis. I think you are absolutely right. Whether race or wealth or so many other aspects of life, when we write, we make assumptions and we all need to become more aware of that inner process. Thank you.

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  14. I always like to look at how stereotypes are included in stories. The wealthy are usually depicted as ruthless and cruel. The financially challenged as hard-working but sometimes lacking in good luck. I think your background to this post about your own situation points out the fallacy in those stereotypes. Good post, Gwen. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Good points, Gwen. Even at a young age, you notice the haves and have-nots, and where you fit in. Even those who have can find themselves feeling like a have-not depending how they see themselves.

    Those who have may not want to be classified that way and try to hide it. That also makes for an interesting twist when writing. You never truly know how someone may relate to or feel about their stature and status, everyone has something they want or something they want to hide.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Plenty of food for thought here, Gwen. In my research about about care homes I was aware that most of the staff were very poorly paid and some of those doing the night shifts had young children, but the extra money if afforded was too vital to turn down. Most of the staff were kind and dedicated, but difficulty in recruiting because of the poor pay meant that those who weren’t suited were taken on as well. The notion of ‘walking in someone else’s shoes’ is an excellent one and guarantees a layer of authenticity that no amount of reading can capture completely. I’m really enjoying this series. x

    Liked by 1 person

  17. This is a great series, Gwen. Including wealth diversity in our stories can add a lot of depth to characters (or show the shallowness of some). I recently read a book that took place in a small New Mexico village. The residents were poor, but the author was quick to say they had a different kind of wealth in that they were close-knit families and they were happy. Needless to say, I highlighted that passage.

    By contrast, one of my favorite authors always had main characters that were middle-upper class. She didn’t come across as snobbish, but it struck me poor characters were usually the antagonists.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Joan, for sharing these excellent examples of how we can bring wealth or the lack of it into our stories. When we include diversity in any of its forms, I believe, like you, that we add depth and hopefully understanding.

      Liked by 1 person

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      • I have been thinking, Gwen, and it is true I tend to make my main characters wealthy or middle-income. Joan is also right that antagonists are often poor. I agree they are in many books I’ve read, but I find wealthy villains find money useful when they’re doing evil deeds.
        I’ve asked myself WHY I prefer to write mainly about the wealthy, and the answer is simple. Poor tends to equal ill-educated and writing the way they speak, remembering it must be understood both sides of the pond, is a chore. 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

      • Great insight, Sarah. Thank you. Since beginning this series, I’ve become more aware of my own characterizations. I hadn’t thought about speech, but you are absolutely right.

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