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I started writing a novel directly tied to my background in which the protagonist and her surrounding environment have many characteristics in common with mine.

As I wrote the first chapter, I realized that my novel idea is heavily dependent on racial and cultural themes around immigration, cultural integration and belonging.

After some thinking, I now have this fear that, on the slight chance my novel becomes a success, I'll be boxed into the "minority novelist who wrote something inspiring and worthy of celebration" type, and I honestly don't want that.

There's nothing wrong with writing a story that celebrates one's background and sheds light on a segment long ignored by mainstream media and popular culture, but I have other stories to tell and am afraid that my first novel might box me into something I don’t want to be wholly defined by for the rest of my writing career.

To overcome this, I had the idea of stripping away these cultural themes and narrating what the protagonist did, not where she’s from. I hence changed the novel’s genre (from romance to thriller) and main character’s name and background. However, the ending will be the same if I decide to move in either direction.

Are my fears valid and did I make the right decision changing the story? Has anyone faced a similar challenge?

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    Welcome to Writing.SE tawsonfield. Please check out our tour and help center. Thanks for starting off with a meaty question. I think you'll have to assume that some people will add the minority tag to your name and not because of your deep exploration of themes and characterization. For some, it's a way of dismissing your accomplishments (they'll never admit it though) or at least lessening them ("wow what a terrific writer!...for a [blank] person"). Or of making the book niche or genre when it really belongs in the larger categories. Nothing you do will keep this from happening. – Cyn says make Monica whole Jul 5 at 17:18
  • Have you published anything else before this novel, like short stories? – Monica Cellio Jul 5 at 17:25
  • As a half - answer, pen names now or in the future can avoid this issue somewhat – Display name Jul 17 at 20:38
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Author talking points and author background might give a reviewer or journalist something to write about.

1st-time fiction authors are – publicity wise – a dime-a-dozen. If there is a way to talk about the book and it's author, some "angle" that suggests the main character is unique and authentic because it comes from a unique and authentic experience, that's a way to market both the novel and the author together. There is no such thing as bad publicity.

However, no one wants to be a "token", or to be presumed to be writing the narrow, insultingly stereotyped "I'm a people too" type of minority characters penned by non-minorites. If you don't feel drawn to fight the tide of reader expectations and existing societal limitations, sure, skip that battle. Write the story you want to write.

You might end up writing a different story about a completely different protagonist that gets published before this one, so you could always make the talking point that you are a writer writer, not a minority writer.

You can also just avoid talking about yourself completely. (Reviewers will have more to say after your 2nd novel because there will be something to compare and talk about.) We should all be so lucky as to want to be left alone by publicity hounds, like Garbo.

Have your cake and eat it

I'm pausing at the part where you say:

I hence changed the novel’s genre (from romance to thriller)

You've punched up the novel and made it more exciting (?), or am I hearing the expectation is that minority protagonists are relegated to romance stories, and thrillers are out-of-reach or too far fetched? If that's the case I'd try to challenge that expectation because it's limiting your options as an author – even if it's true and "minority thrillers" are not a marketable product.

There are historical settings where every character is an immigrant or indigenous minority: San Francisco gold rush, New York's Five Points, London's Limehouse. You can create a situation where the majority population, who presumably control the local power structures, become the outsiders and your minority MC has the unique perspective.

I don't want to read too much into your story, but a thriller can explore issues of minority vulnerability: fear of police, mistaken identity, invisibility, mafia. Those same vulnerabilities would be all kinds of trigger-warning in a romance (!) but in a thriller with healthy suspension of disbelief, I think there are more excuses for a reluctant detective, or some family drama call to action, or protagonist is an outsider in both worlds.

Maybe that's the kind of minority cliché you want to avoid, but "generic" protagonists have these things. If it works as a pretext to action, you can still have the MC be self-aware and comment on it. You can also play against those kinds of tropes. Do both. There's a something there with built-in dimensionality. Exploit what you like and pretend the rest doesn't exist.

Put it in the story

You can even add some aspect of your qualms into the story. I generally feel where there's a story issue I debate – should I, shouldn't I – the debate itself is probably more interesting than my idea. How can I storify the very debate I am going back and forth about? Maybe there are 2 characters, one for and one against. Maybe the character over the course of the novel experiences both sides of the issue. Maybe (especially if it feels too personal) I can choose a "safe" avatar to explore the issue that doesn't feel like it points back to me.

I like characters with a unique perspective, and I like underdogs who have to work around other people's limits and expectations. I like characters who are more than their stereotypes, and yet who are self-aware and exist within my universe of experience (indigenous minority). That character doesn't need to look like me or have my specific experience for me to relate to them and trigger my empathy.

Protagonists work better when they are underdogs and are forced to think outside the box and problem solve. Chosen One protagonists that discover they have a fantasy birthright by virtue of their genetics do not appeal to me at all.

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Narrating what she did, instead of where she is from, is always a good idea. Here's why!

What she did (and what she experiences) is immediate, we can imagine the scene. If she is bullied, or discriminated against, we can identify.

Where she came from doesn't really tell us much, it is indirect and requires the reader to infer from a location or setting how that influences what she does or experiences. But that is a recipe for failure, because we all know that given exactly the same circumstances of location, even down to a neighborhood, the outcomes can be wildly different. Some people become multi-millionaire celebrities, others end up in prison for life, or working at the local McDonald's for life. Or they take a middle road, join the military and never rise above a middling rank. Start a business and struggle a lifetime to reach a mediocre retirement that was never enough.

Where she came from is not predictive of who she becomes. In fiction, we like to see people succeed by grit through hardship and self-sacrifice. Which can include racism, failing to integrate culturally, and not belonging, or having friends, or being understood. Being rejected or discriminated against are hardships, and fair game for fictional characters to overcome.

Write what she does, and what she experiences. There is no particular reason to change your story from Romance to Thriller. A Romance ending is fine for a thriller, though, many thrillers wind up with love being found.

As for being "typecast", I wouldn't worry about that. Non-minorities that would like to write about minorities have the opposite problem, they are seen as posers writing about something they have never truly experienced. Your story may not get published without the "street cred" of having lived it.

I see nothing wrong with being known as a minority writer that appeals to both the minority and non-minority audience. Agents and publishers are not going to publish bad fiction out of sympathy; they are there to make money from good fiction, end of story. If your personal history helps sell it, embrace it.

But if it bothers you, then when you get an offer from an agent make it clear to them you do not want to be the new voice of your minority, you really want to be free to write other kinds of fiction and your next story isn't likely to be as minority-driven as this one. Then prove you aren't a one trick pony.

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There are two main ways around this: Hide your identity as an author or publish something else first.

For the first, pseudonyms are your friend--and this is one of the only good reasons to have one.

For the second... well, I'd say it is obvious enough?

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Of the three best selling book series for boys of an elemenatry/middle school age, all three were written by authors who syled their name thus: [first name initial][second name initial] [full surname] (J.K. Rowling, K.A. Applegate, and R.L. Stein, in order of most success to least). Of those three, only Stein was a man. Both J.K. Rowling and K.A. Applegate feared that their works would not be read by their target audience (young boys) if their given names were on the cover as at the time they were releasing their novels, market research showed boys avoided books by women. In addition, Applegate (who frequently used ghost writers) could be argued to have masked two people as her husband Michael Applegate (himself writing a series for adults at the time) jointly wrote Animorphs at the time and hid his involvement so kids wouldn't look in the adult section for more books by their favorite author (he was acknowledge in the dedication section of the book along with the Ghostwriter of the book if there was one and in later books, the Applegates' newborn son.).

Both the writer of Nancy Drew (Caroline Keen) and the Hardy Boys (Franklin W. Dixon) are psuedonyms of non-existant writers to hide that both series were created by multiple people at a publishing company and that all books are ghostwritten. Writers hired to write for the company are contracted to assume the pseudonym for the time.

  • I'm not really sure that using initials for first/middle name hides an ethnic identity, it's usually the last name that gives it away. Also I don't think the OP necessarily wants to obscure their identity, they just don't want to be labelled a "minority author" for writing a minority protagonist. – wetcircuit Jul 17 at 16:26

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