As an author of color, I often hear from writers like me that they think their main characters need to be white in order to be widely read. I’ve been a Pitch Wars mentor twice (a mentoring program where an agented/published writer or industry professional picks one writer to work on their manuscript for three months) and I’ve received so many submissions from writers of color whose main characters are white. This led me to wonder why they didn’t write from their own perspective.
And the answers I get the most are: they think the majority of people don’t want to read about people like them, or they don’t want to put themselves out there for people to say they’re not Asian enough or they can’t claim the heritage because they’re mixed. And then they would ask me how I decided to write from my own background and how I had the courage to do so.
In the last few years, publishing has been shifting, as it realizes that more diverse voices need to be heard. Not just in terms of cultures and heritage, but a whole score of underrepresented voices. And as more agents and editors are looking for books from these perspectives, this is a great time for anyone who has not seen themselves represented in novels in the past to tell their stories. To write the book that they want to read and that will resonate with readers like them.
How do you write from your perspective, you ask?
Write from Your Own Experiences
This does not mean the novel has to be about you. It only means to write from what you know.
If you are half-Filipina and half-white, your main character can be the same and you can draw on your own experiences to help build your MC’s backstory. If you’ve felt hesitant to claim the Asian side of you because all your life you’ve heard you aren’t Asian enough, use those same feelings of not belonging for your MC.
The character can be completely different from you and have life experiences that are not based on your life. But if you draw from your experiences, it will make the characterization deeper and more authentic.
In my debut novel, The Tiger Mom’s Tale, my main character is half-Taiwanese and half-white. I myself am one hundred percent Taiwanese and I’ve been asked why I chose to make my character mixed. I was born in Taiwan, but moved to the States and was raised here from the age of seven. Half of me always felt that I wasn’t Taiwanese enough, and the other half wasn’t American enough, leaving me unsure of where I really belonged and which was my true identity.
When I started to write this book, I wanted my main character to have that same sense of not belonging. I wondered what it would feel like to look Asian on the outside, but be brought up by a white family, and hence, my MC Lexa was born.
So, in that instance, I drew from my own experiences and backgrounds, but my MC’s story is completely different from mine. I’ve found that drawing from my own experience really gives my characters a depth that might otherwise be missing, especially as a new writer. As I get more comfortable with my writing, I am exploring ways to expand the worlds that my characters come from.
Don’t Worry about Pleasing Everyone
There is no way that everyone who reads your work is going to identify with the characters or situations. As writers, once our books are published, they are no longer ours. They now belong to the readers, whose opinions of it will be based on their own life experiences.
I was really surprised that the harshest critics of my debut were Asian American women, and in some instances, Taiwanese Americans. Because there are so few books written from this perspective, people who didn’t see themselves in my book felt I represented the culture wrong.
This is why it’s even more important than ever to have more books published from underrepresented voices. One or two authors cannot represent an entire culture or identity. I’ve come to understand that it’s not my job as the writer to please everyone. I can’t. I can only write from my perspective and my own experiences and hope it will touch or resonate with someone.
Along this same vein, it’s really true what they say about developing a thick skin in publishing. There is rejection at every turn. Starting with querying, then submissions to editors at publishing houses, and then eventually the reviews.
People will tear your work apart, some nicer than others. If you can’t handle that, don’t read your reviews. And keep telling yourself that you can’t please everyone. Continue to write, from your true self, the story that you want to write.
Use Sensitivity Readers
What is a sensitivity reader? If you’re unsure of any representation or perspective, it’s always good to have someone read over your work.
For example, in my debut, the mother realizes after over thirty years of marriage that she is in love with a woman. This has never happened to me or to my mother, so I had someone who has, to read passages to make sure I was getting their feelings and thoughts as accurate as I could.
Also, because I grew up in America, there were scenes and thoughts from Taiwanese people who lived there, and I had sensitivity readers to make sure the way they spoke and thought was as realistic as possible.
You don’t have to hire someone to do sensitivity reads. I didn’t. I simply asked the people in my life who represented what I was trying to portray in my book. And if you don’t know anyone, you can always ask in your writing groups or even on social media if anyone knows someone who is willing to talk to you. We all make mistakes along the way, but for me, I want to strive to get a point of view and perspective as correct as I can.
The world is so diverse and there are so many cultures, heritages, and points of view that have up until now had so little written about them. I am excited that publishing is starting to take notice and hope more underrepresented writers will share their stories in the near future.
Lyn Liao Butler was born in Taiwan and moved to the States when she was seven. In her past and present lives, she has been: a concert pianist, professional ballet and modern dancer, a fitness studio owner, a personal trainer and instructor, an RYT-200 hour yoga instructor, a purse designer with an Etsy shop, and most recently, author of multi-cultural women’s fiction. Lyn did not have a Tiger Mom. She came about her over-achieving all on her own.
When she is not torturing clients or talking to imaginary characters, Lyn enjoys spending time with her FDNY husband, their son (the happiest little boy in the world), two stubborn dachshunds, and trying crazy yoga poses on a stand-up paddleboard. So far, she has not fallen into the water yet.