(This post originally appeared on Kristina Perez’s blog as part of the Like a Virgin pitch contest, but given that this conversation seems to come up a lot, I wanted to bring it back to my own.)
Once upon a time, I wrote a manuscript. The main character was a girl who was smart and funny and insecure and sad and happy and searching and a hell of a poker player. She went to a new school and she made friends. Some were boys, and some were girls. All the boys were straight, and one of the girls was not.
And there I had my first lesbian character.
She didn’t sound any different, or look any different, or act any different. She just… was. As people are. And maybe I gave her a little bit of an open ending.
Once upon a time I finished writing a manuscript, and I thought, “Hey, I gave that character an open ending. She’d be the perfect subject for a sequel.”
And I thought. And I vaguely plotted. And I realized, “No, I can’t do this.” I wasn’t a lesbian; I’m still not. How could I be sure I’d be getting her character right? What if I was all wrong, or offensive, and people hated my book and/or me?
I couldn’t do it. So I didn’t. Instead, I wrote another Me.
Me isn’t me, Dahlia Adler; my life, especially growing up, was defined by my religion, and nobody (including me) writes Modern Orthodox Jewish MCs in mainstream YA. But Me is that character – that cover – that may as well be me, or who I think I was in high school. Me is smart and funny and insecure and sad and happy and searching and WHITE.
So I wrote another Me, and I thought, “Ugh, why is everyone in this manuscript white?” And I made the best friend Korean-American. And because the best friend character was an actress, I thought, “Who would play her in a movie?”
I came up with nobody. I thought of Keiko Agena, who was something like 33 by the time Gilmore Girls ended, and Jamie Chung, and then my mind went blank.
And I wanted to shake myself.
I left the main character a Me, because I wanted to leave the best friend the experience of trying to make it in Hollywood as an actress of Asian descent. But I swore the next manuscript I wrote would have a main character who wasn’t a Me.
Because everyone deserves to have a character who looks like them, lives like them, loves like them. And some main characters shouldn’t be able to be played by Shailene Woodley.
So I wrote another manuscript, and it had two points of view, and one was a trailer-park-dwelling white girl and the other one was middle-class girl who happened to be Latina. And again, I panicked, and I thought “What if I get this wrong, and what if I’m offensive, and what if everyone hates me?” (I know, I sound awesome, right? Get in line.)
And I thought about scrapping her POV, for a few reasons, but mainly because I was scared. Scared anything I wrote would seem like I was feeding stereotypes I didn’t even know existed. I was writing this girl who both does and doesn’t know what she wants, and tries to please everyone, and doesn’t really fit in, and is struggling to take control of her own life by understanding her own wants and needs, and is basically A Teenager, and all I could think was, “What are people going to think I’m trying to say about Mexicans??”
But at the same time, I didn’t want to let her go. I wanted a Person of Color to be one of my main characters because in real life, PEOPLE OF COLOR ARE MAIN CHARACTERS. So I went online, to forums, and read what other people were saying about the same issue.
And someone said, “Just try writing a person.”
And I wanted to shake myself.
I wrote a person, and her name is Victoria, and I think she’s awesome. She doesn’t always know what she wants, but she knows she wants to earn her way there. She loves and values the people in her life, and she knows she’s lucky to have a great family in a world where that’s all too rare. And she sometimes slips in Spanish words, like I slip in Hebrew or Yiddish ones. And her mom constantly attempts to make churros, like my mom made rugelach when I was a kid. And her grandparents live in Mexico, like mine lived in Israel.
It was the first time I didn’t write a Me. And that’s how I ended up writing… me.