Writing strong book characters of different backgrounds

I wanted to talk about writing strong book characters of different backgrounds, and how it relates to mainstream novels.  I started to write my first novel, All In:  The Globe Trot Shuffle,without knowing what race my characters would be.  I am half Filipino (Mother), and half American/Western European (Father).  And my main character is also half Filipino with his mother from the Philippines.

I didn’t plan that when I first started.  You could tell by the name of the half Filipino character, John Gabriel Warden.  Actually, I started off with the idea that they’d all basically be of European decent.  Not to make a statement.  That’s just what you usually tend to see in the mainstream book market.

But the more I wrote with experiences in mind, the more the main character took on aspects of me.  I’m a US Marine Corps combat Veteran of the Invasion of Iraq.  So writing a fictionalized tale of it, I put some of my own experiences in.  And I didn’t go through and change characters backgrounds to make a statement either.  I just wanted to be realistic.

In my book, I didn’t even plan on having a Latino character.  Even though I served with many Latino’s in the Marine Corps.  My rough draft had four generic named characters with no background info.  Then I thought about my actual Marine Corps experience.  And writing with my experiences in mind, one of my characters took on a Latino personality.  I knew I had to develop that.

One more thing that surprised me was that another one of my main characters in the 4 man team is African American.  It is never explicitly stated that he is, and I didn’t plan on making another one of my characters a minority.  He just evolved that way in my drafts, and took on a persona of his own.  He is who he is, and I have an image of him in my head.  And I did serve with many African Americans in the Marine Corps, so this wasn’t surprising to me.

Now this did worry me at first when it came to mainstream publishing.  Writing a book about 4 main characters, and having just one be the traditional mainstream ethnicity made me feel like my book wouldn’t be marketable.  Even scarier was the fact that a lot of the support characters were of different races.  I can think back to all of the books that I’ve ever read, and the main character has always been part of the majority.  Maybe 98% of the books I’ve read are that way.  But I couldn’t write a story, and ignore true aspects of the military, and the world in general.  If I wrote a book that took place in America, that would be different.  And I hope readers will appreciate how I wrote my characters.  The US is a melting pot, and the military is even more so.  But like the title implies, it’s a Global story.

I wanted to write a book that people would relate too, and feel like they could be in those same type of situations.  And I couldn’t realistically write a book without having any characters of different backgrounds.  Because the Marine Corps is made up of people of all races.  Yes the vast majority are of Western European decent, like half of me!  But you can’t walk around a military base without seeing such incredible diversity.

My story also takes place across the globe, so I had to include many supporting characters of different races.  And I didn’t stereotype, or make caricatures.  I’ve actually traveled vastly, and worked in different countries.  So writing about a Muslim Arab interpreter and his family wasn’t that much of a stretch for me.  I’ve lived in Iraq, Qatar, and Oman.  Where some in the media would see a cliche, I was able to write characters based off of real people I’ve met.

I’ve realized a long time ago that people are the same, the world over.  No matter what race they are, what background they have, or what they believe in.  At the end of the day, they all want the same things.  To provide for their family, put food on the table, and to raise their kids.

I even wrote a hotel full of Filipino staff members from the Philippines in Kuwait!  That would be unusual for readers who never traveled, but if you ever visited the Middle East?  You’d find hotels staffed with many people from the Philippines.  So my book is in English, but has characters speaking a lil Spanish, a lil Tagalog, and a lil Arabic.  To name a few.

I think my main point is that I was worried about writing characters of different races as main characters.  I was worried that the book wouldn’t be well received.  But I want everyone to be able to read my story, and feel like they can relate to the characters.  Being of mixed background myself, I’d love to have read a book that had a character like me when I was a kid.  Or even as an adult.  So I hope that I have a story that resonates with people who didn’t have characters they could relate too in the past.  And if you’re part of the American majority, this shouldn’t throw you off from the book.  Their backgrounds are talked about, or mentioned a few times.  But as you read the book, you don’t get wrapped up into what they look like.  You live the story, and you feel yourself in that universe.  You see yourself like how they see themselves.  As Americans overseas.

I really tried to write a story with just the story in mind.  I wanted that to be the selling point.  I wanted people to be able to see themselves in the situations I wrote.  Also, I wrote it in a way that you could possibly not think about what their backgrounds are.  The people are who they are.  It’s not an issue they focus on.  If anyone is familiar with the military, they will know that’s how the military is.  The characters are like any group of friends you’ll see in the military.  From all different places, with all different backgrounds.  And the only color they adhere to is Marine Corps Green.  To people overseas, you lose the hyphen.  You are just an American.

One last thing.  My main character has an Asian mother, but looks mixed with Latino.  This wasn’t because I was afraid to write an Asian looking character.  This is because I know many half Asians, and they tend to look like everything but Asian or Caucasian.  A lot of mainstream media stays away from male Asian characters.  For some reason, it’s not perceived as marketable.  I don’t think that should be an issue.  There are many Americans of Asian or part Asian decent who have been successful in the media.  Having my character being half Asian could hurt me in sales in the long run.  But in the long run, I’m not too worried about it.  Maybe an Asian or half Asian person will have a character they can enjoy reading about.  Without needing to worry if the character is realistic or a caricature.  Warden isn’t focusing or making the readers focus on his background.  He’s just living life as fully as possible.

I believe that you won’t even see the races of my characters, even though you know them.  I think readers of different races will like that.  You know they are of different backgrounds, but that’s not essential to the story.  It’s not something that distracts them.  Or something they have to work through.  They just accept each other for who they are, and live life.  Just like Veterans would tell you how the military was like.

That’s it.  I wrote what I hope are strong characters of different races.  No it wasn’t for a statement.  And that doesn’t mean that they are all minorities.  You’ll see maybe one more Marine of non European decent.  A lot of the others are Caucasian.  That doesn’t need to be stated.  They meet non Europeans in non European countries.  But they do meet Europeans in non European countries as well.  The story takes place in Iraq, Kuwait, on an international container ship, South America, and the Caribbean.  I gave everyone their due credit when I wrote them into the book.  No stereotypes.  Just real people in real events.

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