When I first really started writing and publishing, I was pretty well convinced of a few things that I could and could not do with my books. Silly things, too. I won’t go into all of them here (we don’t have time for that, and it’s far too early in the morning for that much vodka), but I’ll touch on a few. Namely, a few relating to QUILTBAG+ representation in books. See, I don’t know if the environment is the same, but when I was starting, you didn’t do that. At most, you could have a romance heroine’s best friend be gay, but they had to be a stereotype and they couldn’t have too much time on the page. That was pretty much the entire QUILTBAG+ experience in fiction for me.
So this is three things I used to believe about writing diverse characters, and how I got past them, in the hopes that my trials don’t have to be repeated.
1: Including QUILTBAG+ main characters. This was basically unheard of for a long time, and is still something I see a struggle with for a lot of writers. Most main characters are straight and cisgender, and it was just this sort of unspoken rule that there wasn’t representation of anything else. There wasn’t room. It wasn’t marketable. Your book would ‘just be a gay/trans*/asexual/whatever book.’ It was mostly fed by New York publishing’s resistance to any kind of change to their status quo, deviation from their formula.
This seemed, at least to me, one of the biggest stumbling blocks. It wasn’t doable. My characters had to fit the mold, no matter if I felt the same way they did or not. Mass appeal had to come before everything else. And so I wrote straight, cisgender characters as a default. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with it. But there is definitely something wrong with the idea that it has to be that way.
And, as big an issue as it was for me, it was one of the easiest things to get around, too. It took one thought from me. One idea that occurred: how awesome would it have been to have an openly gay character to read as I grew up? Someone I could relate to in a real way. Someone who maybe even had things figured out. My role models were never real people. For years, I aspired to be more like my fictional heroes. To have one I could relate to in that sense would have been incredible.
So if you’re wondering whether you can or should write a QUILTBAG+ character, think about how it would make someone feel to read it. Just one someone, even if it’s not yourself. A person who picks up this book and sees that the main character is like them. That should answer your questions pretty quickly. It did for me.
2: Without a romance, it shouldn’t matter. To some degree, it’s a valid point. If I’m walking down the street, a passerby isn’t going to know or even care that I’m gay. It doesn’t matter. And the same can be said for incidental characters or, at times, secondary characters. Maybe it really never needs to be said.
But if this is a character that the reader spends a lot of time with for whatever reason, chances are good that their gender of sexuality will somehow inform their behavior or their personality or their inner monologue. That’s not to say always—there are times when it’s really not important whatsoever—but often.
This one took a bit more for me to get over. I had to get past this idea that being QUILTBAG+ is a purely personal experience. It’s not. It colors the way people interact with you, the way the law treats you, the way you see the world around you. It’s much deeper than just attraction and love. It’s a big, glaring part of culture and really shouldn’t be ignored. Even if it doesn’t make it directly into the story, you should know as the author, since it can make your character reactions very different, depending on a lot of different factors.
3: Stereotyping. This is easily the stickiest issue of the three, and one I still consider very strongly. I don’t think it’s something you should actually ever stop worrying about. Writing a stereotypically gay/lesbian/bisexual/whatever character. Once I figured out that it was okay for me to write QUILTBAG+ characters, this reared its ugly head.
See, in a lot of ways, I am a walking gay stereotype. Musicals: love them. Fashion: yep. Makeup: absolutely. I have a lisp. I use ‘feminine’ gestures and language and body movement. I’m incredibly emotional. I’m practically a checklist for the media’s stereotype of what it means to be gay. And I know all of that about myself, and I thought that writing a character I could relate to in those ways just wasn’t doable. I’d be perpetuating those stereotypes.
Now, I won’t tell you to go off and do this in your fiction. Everyone deserves fair representation, no matter how they might act or not act. Thing is, that includes those stereotypes.
Getting past this was basically the same as getting past just writing QUILTBAG+ characters to begin with. If a ‘stereotypical’ lesbian picks up a book expecting to see herself, but all she sees are clever subversions, that doesn’t help her any more than putting the stereotypical lesbian character helps others. Everyone deserves to see someone they can identify with, plain and simple. Should you stop breaking stereotypes? No. Keep it up. But if you find that your character fits in with those stereotypes, you don’t necessarily have to axe them from your book either. It’s a fine line, and not something to be taken lightly, whichever way you choose to go.
So, did I miss any burning issues you have as a writer? If so, let me know and I’ll happily whip together a follow-up post to cover more of these. And make sure you subscribe to Queer Sci-Fi to keep up to date with the Midweek Mingle and all the other great articles posted here.