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  • Writer's pictureJen Trinh

Race-y Romance Novels

In less than two weeks, Falling for You will be out in the world.

I am PANICKING. Just a little. I feel like I'm riding a road bike down a bumpy-ass hill, just nonstop micro ups (glowing reviews!) and downs (marketing, boo!).

Luckily, I have so many people who are helping to keep me calm. Thank you.

For every down bump, there's an up bump to help balance me out. Newton's Third Law of Writing?

I'm deep in final-edits mode, but I wanted to do a quick post about writing diverse characters in books. It's been top of mind recently because the characters in Falling for You are very different from me. Asher's white and Lina's Blasian (black and Asian), and they have a pretty diverse set of friends and family. I hope that I did them all justice, but I won't know for sure until the reviews come back.

I tried to be proactive, though. If you want to write diverse characters well, you have to educate yourself. Follow other authors and readers, people who are willing to tell you what they want, what works or what doesn't. Have meaningful conversations around what representation means.

Which brings me to the incredible resources that I've found.

The Inclusive Romance Project (IRP) is a diverse community of writers, in terms of race, age, gender, sexual orientation, neurodiversity, and publishing experience. The founders really are trying to create an inclusive space. There's no fee to join. You can be indie or traditionally published. And there's a #deirealtalk channel on their Slack workspace, where people can openly discuss diversity and inclusion in romance. It's been humbling to interact with so many different romance authors, and I applaud the founders for their efforts.

Let me give you an example of why spaces like IRP are so important. Recently, a highly-experienced author of color posted her work-in-progress to the group, which happened to contain some negative stereotypes about Asian men. After someone pointed them out to her, she acknowledged what had happened, apologized, and then asked if other authors were willing to help her address them (I was one of the volunteers). We talked about the historical context of the stereotypes, why they might offend people, and how to rework the scene to remove them, yet save the important elements. Everyone was open, honest, and respectful—the ideal learning experience. If only we could all have conversations like that!

The lesson was clear: we all make mistakes, no matter how woke we think we are. If you do mess up, it's okay; acknowledge it, and work to educate yourself. Do better.

I know that I'm going to make mistakes, and I won't be able to make everyone happy. But I'm doing my best to learn! And honestly, the learning process itself has been so rewarding.

This past weekend, I had a conversation with one of my beta readers, who happens to be a black woman. I was absolutely thrilled to hear that she loved Falling for You, and that I'd done a reasonable job in writing characters who felt real to her. She laughed and cried and cheered for my characters. But she couldn't quite tell what race some of them were. Like Neisha Hill, Lina's PhD advisor? She's supposed to be black, but my reader thought that she might've been Indian. And I'm telling you here that Lina's Blasian (half-black and half-Cambodian), but in the book, I deliberately left her kind of ambiguous. Overall, though, my beta reader was okay with having subtle hints. She told me that it annoys her when authors feel the need to deliberately point out a character's race, sometimes in ways that can be borderline-offensive. I actively wanted to avoid that.

That topic also came up in a podcast that I found last night called Three Black Chicks, where, as the name suggests, three women of color get together and talk about stuff. Their latest episode was about interracial (IR) romance. They went over the long list of problematic tropes that they hate in IR books, including the "exotification" of black women, how some authors tend to fixate on their physical attributes in ways that are incredibly demeaning. They wanted more romance novels where race was handled in a nuanced way, or where people could just fall in love who happened to not be white. The episode was super informative and fun, and I highly recommend that you check them out! Also, they graciously offered to review an advanced reading copy of my book. We'll see how it goes. 🤞🏼

Representation isn't just important in one's writing; it's also important in the marketing collateral for your book. How else can you sell your book to interested readers?

The most important piece? Your cover!

"Illustrated vs. photorealistic covers" is a highly-debated topic. (I agree with Penny Reid's take on it.) Unfortunately, it can be really tough to find good stock photos that will represent your characters well, especially if they're not white. Illustrated covers offer an affordable, more flexible alternative, yet also leave some room to the imagination of your readers.

For the cover of Falling for You, my husband and I actually debated about Lina's proportions, the fullness of her lips, her curly hair. We looked at many photos and illustrations of black, Asian, and Blasian characters before settling on Lina's skin tone and her lip color. There are so many details that go into capturing what a person looks like! Hopefully, we did okay.

But diversity means a lot more than just race. It's understanding the multidimensionality of our identities, of our experiences. And even though I wrote them, my characters are simply not me.

So to try to get to know them better, I interviewed and / or sought the opinions of:

  • people who have dealt closely with grief

  • people familiar with the music world / NYC music scene

  • a person who has a trust fund

  • a half-black woman, who very kindly schooled me on black hair

  • people who have continued on in academia (unlike me)

  • my parents

And more.

It's all been utterly fascinating. And honestly, I prefer this kind of research over my previous research on quantum materials LOL.

Anyway, these are the types of things that I'd been exposed to before, but now that I'm actually writing these characters, portraying people's experiences, creating content for and about them...these issues of representation are front and center.

I'm so grateful for the folks who are willing to help me get it right.

ICYMI, I was recently interviewed by fellow romance author, Katherine Grant. Check it out here. Katherine also participated in the Social Distance Book Fest, where there was an entire panel discussion on Diversifying Romance. She wrote up a nice recap of the panels here.

Okay, back to editing!


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