I recently bumped into two articles. One, this one, is about the cop-out answer of waiting for LGBT characters to appear in a story ‘organically’ as though the muses must deliver them to you, fully-formed, or it couldn’t possibly be craft (said in a nasally stuffy artiste voice).
The second? This article, about the various LGBT characters in books that were turned straight for the movie versions.
They’re a great point-counterpoint. On the one hand, how unsurprising that the LGBT characters get straightwashed, especially as you go back in time even a decade or two. A queer character? Horrors! Unless, of course, they’re campy, die, provide comic relief, die, provide a moral warning, or, y’know, die.
On the other hand, what a great opportunity to highlight that all it takes to change a character’s sexuality is – y’know – craft. Because un-queering shouldn’t be any harder than queering, no?
Well, no. And yes.
When I hear the “I wouldn’t know what to do and I don’t want to do it wrong” argument from (mostly) straight authors about writing LGBT characters, I can empathise in a way. Let’s be honest – it’s easier to write characters that are in your own sphere of experience. There’s a reason most of my main characters are somewhat geeky lanky white gay guys. Often with glasses. Usually without abs.
But the world around them is not full of other lanky white gay guys who often wear glasses and usually don’t have abs.
Also, they’re not every main character I’ve written. And when I didn’t rely entirely on my own experiences, I did this thing I learned about in… gosh, I’m gonna say, grade three? Maybe even grade two? Whenever.
Okay, I’m being flippant. But truly, the first character I wrote in a published piece was a burly fitness fellow who was a personal trainer. Writing ‘Heart,’ I bugged the crap out of my fitness trainer friend to make sure I understood the character – and boy was he tired of hearing from me – and the reality was almost none of the details and questions I was asking made it to the story, because really, Aiden’s story was more about his relationship with Miah than what he did for a living and how he looked – but I had a very well-rounded understanding of his character.
Ditto Leah, from ‘Old Age, Surrounded by Loved Ones.’ I’m not a quick-decision type of person, a businesswoman, a twin, or a lesbian. I’m not super-close to my family. I’m not sure, in her place, what kind of choice I would make. But she made the choice that – I hope – I crafted her character to make.
And that’s the part where craft comes into it for me. I got some brilliant advice from Greg Herren on writing characters once at Saints and Sinners. He talked about how, when a character was about to make a significant choice, that he worked backwards from that choice and ensured the character’s background and personality connected to make that choice valid. Basically, what would it take for me, if I was in this position, to choose this? Would it take a different family? A different experience in college? A different response to a previous life decision?
Working backwards in that way is a huge part of how I write. It’s not organic – it is, frankly, the opposite of organic. It sometimes fails, too and I realise the choice I want this character to make is wrong, and I need to rewrite or redirect (that diversion may be more organic, but still, it’s craft to figure out a new path) or find that point of authenticity and work backwards again in a different manner.
To take another example, if I look at Kieran from Light, there are similarities to me, for sure. Buckets of them. He’s perhaps a wee bit sarcastic. He’s got glasses. He’s a cat guy. He’s gay.
But he’s also not me in many, many ways. He believes in God, and goes to church. That was a choice I made because I was walking a line with the villain of the book having potential ties to religion himself, and I didn’t want to write a book where the only people with faith were the awful, hateful people in the book. That was a conscious choice, and required a heck of a lot of research on my part (again, much of which might not have made it into the book in the long run, but I learned about Sunday school, what people learn in Sunday school, the difference between a Catholic upbringing and a Unitarian one, etc.) Kieran’s mantra is “I can handle this.” He doesn’t ask for help. I learned – the hard way – that’s a stupid way to be. I ask for help. So I looked at Kieran’s past and wondered what it would take for him to be that way, and decided it would take two things: one, for him to always have managed to handle what had come his way thus far, and two, for him to have assumed it was his job to handle whatever comes his way, even if no one had asked him to.
Again, that’s work. It’s not organic. And I’m still writing a character that has things in common with me.
To my mind, all fiction writing comes down to ‘what-if?’ and ‘then-what-happened?’ Maybe it’s having some roots in fandom and being a queer guy, but when I watch a movie like ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past,’ my natural instinct is to wonder what would be different if the writers and directors had bothered to include a queer character. Jean-Claude Beaubier (Northstar) had the same starting power skillset as Quicksilver, for example – and Northstar is a French Canadian gay guy. What would have changed if the movie had included recruiting him instead of Quicksilver?
Well, how about this: That fun scene in the basement of Quicksilver’s house where there are a few laughs and the wallet-stealing and the like? Instead, we’re in Canada (where Logan is from, I might point out, and a character in canon he would have a likely reason to know just as much as Quicksilver, since they both had ties to Alpha Flight), and – given the time period – how much fun would it be to put Charles, Logan, and Erik at a LGBT rally? Erik, who survived a Nazi death camp, could even take the opportunity to point out the pink triangle (wow, a learning moment!). But if you still want fun, hey, Erik was a snappy dresser, and maybe having a guy flirt with him could be amusing, if handled well (especially if Charles is amused by said moment and Erik decides to pretend to be with Charles to brush the flirt off, which could lead to a bit more amusement, no?) Lord knows I’d flirt with Erik. Hello, Erik. Again, you still get your laugh/lighthearted moment. Thereafter, Northstar is recruited instead of Quicksilver. The rest of the story plays out entirely the same.
Except queer kids in the audience get to see a character that is in some way like them, and the world is shown to actually have some of the diversity it has.
It’s not hard – or, scratch that, yes, it’s hard, but it’s only as hard as every other part of writing you care to attempt to do well.
I’m not throwing stones, either. I have a huge amount of work to do in this area myself. I’m trying very hard, going forward, to be more bi-inclusive with my work (something I realized I’d never done to date). And with Triad Blood, I’m including a Métis character (because, frankly, my book is set in Canada, and I want to include some wonderful Canadian culture). One of the first things I did was reach out to my Aboriginal friends, as well as friends who had ties to Aboriginal peoples in Canada, and asked super-stupid questions (and told them to please tell me when I was being super-stupid, which they did).
One of the biggest questions I asked was, “What pisses you off the most about the representation of Métis in genre fiction?”
The response I got – almost every time – was “What representation in genre fiction?”
Ouch. That really sucks. Believe me, as a gay guy, I know how it feels to read book after book, watch movie after movie, and never see yourself. It’s getting better – in a limited, narrow way – but growing up? I never saw myself. I want to try to help with that, and I want to try to help with that beyond my own narrow identity.
And I’m terrified I’ll screw it up. Scratch that, I know I will screw it up. I’m sure I’ll make mistakes. I made mistakes in Light, I made mistakes with Leah in ‘Old Age, Surrounded by Loved Ones.’ I will continue to make mistakes. I’m not sure of another way to learn, frankly.
This is where, I think, the real hesitancy to try to diversify happens with most writers (and here, let’s be honest, I’m mostly meaning ‘straight white writers.’) I feel it, too, and I know what it’s like to find yet another token queer character in a book or movie whose entire purpose is to die to show you the heroine is in real danger, or to give the hero a moment to appear sad he lost the gay-best-friend. Tokens aren’t great. They’re better than nothing, and they’re somewhere to start, and you can learn from tokens. I’d rather have a token than nothing, and I’d rather see the tokens develop into something better. Do tokens do harm? Yes, if they continue and propagate and stagnate and never, ever change. But if we don’t do anything because we’re afraid to do something less than perfectly, we’re screwed. We won’t get anywhere.
The flip side to that is to listen to the criticism (amend that to the constructive criticism) and learn from the mistakes and do better next time. The character of Miracle Woman in Light is by no means perfect, and I got some specific criticism of her – and praise for her – from readers. I paid extra attention to what black readers were saying, and I hope I’ll do better going forward. It was especially interesting to get different feedback based on geography – what black readers in the US said about the character was different from what black readers in Canada said about her. That struck me – and since the character herself was from the US, I realized there was some disconnect there on my part. I screwed up when the people I spoke to about what I was doing with the character were all fellow Canucks.
This post is already too long, and I hope I’ve not TL;DR’d too many of you. Maybe I should sum up my opinions on including diversity in fiction into bullet points instead.
Anyway. Go write. And ask yourself – seriously – if you’ve never included an LGBT character in your work so far, why? If the answer is “I’m afraid I’ll screw it up,” then consider this permission to screw it up, and an invitation to ask me anything you’d like. I can talk pretty freely about being a queer ex-pat Brit who lives in Canada. I can talk about one of the worst coming out stories I know (I generally ‘win’ when we’re playing the “who had the worst coming out?” game when queer folk gather, which is totally not worth a trophy, by the way). I can point out that if you have a gay guy best friend in a mystery novel with a leading lady sleuth and you kill him to show the heroine is in danger, I will not be pleased because wow has that been done to death (no pun intended). And I will be so happy you asked, because it means you care that queer folk exist.