“If I add a BIPOC character to my novel, will it improve my chance of finding a traditional publisher?”
I’ve been asked that question several times over the years. There are several motivations behind posing it. However, I believe that there are four alternate questions that writers might find more productive to consider.
Should a Caucasian writer add a BIPOC character or write a story centered on a diverse population? I’ve observed a few motivations that would cause a writer to raise this question:
- Expressing Themselves as an Ally – While the word “ally” has baggage attached depending on your politics, this word describes people who want to champion the stories and experiences of diverse people. Many writers want to do their part in increasing the number of BIPOC stories told by developing stories that include persons of color.
- Fear of Reduced Opportunities – Breaking into traditional publishing isn’t easy, especially since the number of publishers releasing fiction has decreased over the past decade. Publishers, including Christian publishers, have made it known that they’d like to increase stories from BIPOC authors and increase BIPOC stories. Some hopeful Caucasian authors feel that unless they add diverse characters to their writing they won’t be able to find a publisher.
- Attempt to Be Trendy – Some writers like riding the literary waves of writing trends. During the pandemic, literary agents and publishers were inundated with pandemic-related stories. In recent years, BIPOC stories have been on-trend (even though I hope that this isn’t a trend, but a permanent priority); so some writers have pursued the trend.
I’m not here today to judge anyone’s heart. I’d like to offer some insight for those who want to include BIPOC characters or stories in future novels.
Here are four questions for Caucasian writers to consider BEFORE writing BIPOC characters or novels:
- Is this a story that you have the right to tell?
I’ve asked this question many times to Caucasian writers during pitches. We should be inspired by others’ stories, but when those stories involve the tragedies or injustices of BIPOC people, a Caucasian author needs to ask whether they should be telling that story. While writers routinely craft stories about experiences that they may not have had, there is a difference when it comes to race because our country’s racial history is a weight that still rests on many diverse people. A Caucasian author has to ask, “Am I prepared and informed to recognize the weight and consequences of the story I’m eager to tell?”
In my opinion, there is a difference between telling stories with BIPOC characters and fictionalizing historical events impacting minority races or cultures. I’m more comfortable with stories written by Caucasian writers that involve the former, but I prefer that BIPOC authors tell stories that involve the latter. I believe that novels can be a powerful tool to help us explore unique or unfamiliar situations. Character-driven stories feature diverse persons learning from each other and dialoguing about their differences can inspire, encourage, and motivate readers in many ways.
On the other hand, I believe that fictionalized stories of specific racial events should be championed by the authors of that race. These events are tied to real people from real families. Often, members of that race carry generational trauma from the event. Healing comes when people have the chance to tell their story, even if it is decades or a centuries later. I believe that readers gain more from these stories where the author knows not only the facts, but as a member of that race, the writer can conveys the delicate nuances that elevate a good story into a transformative experience for a reader.
This doesn’t mean that I won’t consider a query from a Caucasian writer who has written a novel that centers a racially driven historical event, but I will ask the question of why the writer believes that he or she is the one who should tell that story.
2. If you write a BIPOC character and all references to color or race were removed, how would the reader know that it was a BIPOC character?
If you’re writing a BIPOC character, create a backup version of your story and delete any references to color or race. If you’ve written an authentic BIPOC character, there should remain such items as references to food, how the character feels about driving in certain areas, what it’s like walking into unknown environments, music history, styles of worship, observations on mainstream culture, and how they move differently in mixed crowds versus when they are with others in their diverse community.
3. Do you recognize the signs that you’ve written into stereotypes?
I wrote a blog post about three stereotypes to avoid when writing about African-American characters. While this isn’t specific to all BIPOC groups, this is a starting point.
4. Are you aware of your bias in writing?
In your stories, what characters are sympathetic? Which characters have the most power? If you are writing stories with BIPOC characters, do they live near your Caucasian characters or on the other side of town? Are they co-workers or subordinates? These are just a few questions for you to ponder because our perspectives naturally bend toward what we see reflected in culture. You need to be mindful of how much you want to lean into or away from that natural bend in your stories.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION: I pray that my comments and questions are helpful information for you. What books have you read that handled the depiction of BIPOC characters and their lives well? What race was the author?