The Incidentally Gay Character

A number of people who read Tragedy lately have specifically approached me about Garren. Some of those comments were from people who have not read Fathers and Sons, and they (perhaps understandably given the lack of representation in genre fiction) asked if my reference to Garren’s husband was a typo. Just to be clear to those who were not prepared for this: yes, Garren is a gay man. I am not afraid of that fact, and indeed, neither is he.

Incidentally, Garren was not originally written as a homosexual character; this fact evolved slowly from my experiences with him. When it came time to discuss his past it just seemed natural that he preferred relationships with men, and that was that. I made a conscious decision not to “hang a flag” on Garren’s sexuality while writing the scene in question, and I’d like to give you a little insight as to why.

Even though I didn’t set out with an agenda to have a gay character, I put considerable thought into how I wanted to deal with issues of skin color, gender, and sexuality before I started writing Tragedy. I think there is great merit in highlighting the struggles of minority groups through stories. As I’ve said before, societal shifts are slow and subtle, and the media can be an incredible vehicle for change. However, when I was thinking of what I wanted to portray in my work, I decided to take a radically different approach. I thought to myself, what if I made a series of societies in which color, gender, and sexual orientation were non-issues? What would that look like?

How could a story like that affect a reader’s perspective?

In the end I decided that I wanted to create a world where those problems are not paramount in order to showcase our human similarities. I’d like to think that all of us are more similar than we are different – I see it in my life every day. We all experience love, loss, hardship, and triumphs – these are things that bind us, and in my mind, these things are the most important. This was one of the chief motivators behind writing Fathers and Sons – it is a story about love, family, and loss in which the main character’s homosexuality is far less significant than his emotional journey.

I’m very pleased that most people seem to like Garren a lot, regardless of their views on his sexuality. Several have even pointed him out as a favorite character. Garren’s strength, honor, and compassion are the attributes that most people remember about him. It’s hard for me to play favorites with my imagination-children, but if I had to… well, I don’t want to make the kids jealous. 😉

As an aside, this is probably a good time for me to explicitly state that you’re not imagining things – yes, Elden is bisexual. He shows up only briefly in Tragedy, but rest assured I am having tons of fun with Elden in Suffering. 34,000 words and counting, folks. This is real!

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Do I write like a woman?

I’ll go ahead and say it since you’ll probably either find out or figure it out eventually: I consider myself a feminist. Now I’m sure I’ve lost a few of you with that statement alone, but for those of you still listening, I’d like to get a few things out there.

  • I do not hate men. In fact, I love men. The majority of my characters happen to be men, actually, which causes mixed feelings.
  • I believe in equal rights for all people – gay, lesbian, queer, straight, bisexual, transexual, extraterrestrial, lens-glare white to mahogany brown. I understand that there has on occasion been friction between the feminist community and the LGBT community, so I want to be quite clear on that point in particular.
  • I’m not looking for a fight. I’d like to believe that all of us have more in common than we have differences.
  • I define who I am. Although I believe in a lot of feminist principles and loosely categorize myself as “a feminist,” I refuse to be defined by the actions of others under the same title. Do not ask me to defend the questionable actions of others. I speak for myself, and myself alone.

Now with that all out of the way (or so I’d hope), I’d like to continue on and discuss this article (blog post?) that I read earlier today. “Michelle Rodriguez Made Me Cry at Comic Con” by Kate Conway relates Kate’s personal experiences at Comic Con, specifically a panel called “Women Who Kick Ass.” The women on the panel recounted several stories about how other males on the set treated them, at times, with a lack of respect, and how the writers seemed to have difficulty writing believable scenes for them. Maggie Q described a classic scene in which her character was performing kung fu in high heels (and anyone who has ever worn high heels will tell you that there is nothing you would rather do less than perform fast, athletic movements in heels). This kind of ridiculous scene is rampant in all manner of fantasy and science fiction.

Tangent: Seriously guys, why in the world would someone as “efficient” as Seven of Nine wear something as frivolous as high heels and a catsuit? As minor and somewhat irrelevant as it is, that kind of thing has always bugged me. Fortunately Joss Whedon and whoever he works with proved that women do not have to be seen in only fancy shoes and tight-fitting outfits by choosing reasonable clothing/shoes for the characters in Firefly.

Digressions aside, the following quote from Kate Conway’s article inspired this post…

In that moment, though, I didn’t know any of that. As the moderator started wrapping things up, apologizing for having to leave “right as things were getting good,” Michelle leaned forward to her mic again.

“We gotta start writing,” she said again. She meant women. “Writing, and directing, and producing the kind of content we want to see. Because otherwise, nothing’s gonna change.”

I’ve seen this kind of sentiment expressed a lot lately amongst the growing subset of feminist nerds on the internet. Anita Sarkeesian is perhaps one of the most high-profile feminist nerds, and she frequently brings up topics which either directly or indirectly lead to the conclusion that the media at large needs more fictional women as lead roles/main characters/playable avatars, and more real-world women in creatively powerful positions. These assertions are surprisingly controversial, and Anita, among other public feminist nerds, has faced a pretty severe backlash as a result.

On the writing side of things, close to half of all fantasy titles are written by women according to Slate’s Alex Heimbach, while only about 1/4 of science fiction authors are female.  The more equitable distribution of women writers in fantasy is certainly something to be happy about, and it’s equally pleasing that many of the most successful fantasy writers of the last couple decades have been women (hello, J.K. Rowling). Unfortunately, most of the data will show that there is still a disparity in female representation in general media, particularly when you look at Hollywood writers and female characters. This infographic pretty much speaks for itself:

I’ve been reading feminist philosophy, data and what have you for a long time – I’ve done enough research to firmly establish my opinion that yes, we do need more strong female characters and yes, we do need more women with creative power (and more trans* and non-binary people, for that matter). I’m not saying we should stifle the creativity of males, but merely the position that it would be good for women and people in general if we were better represented both in print and in films. Women in the United States and in many countries all over the world still face a culture which is silently permissive of rape, perpetuates a substantial wage gap (especially if you are both female and a minority), and attacks our reproductive health choices. Portraying strong and capable women in media is one way to push society towards a world where women are viewed with complete parity to their male counterparts.

Ever since I started this journey towards actually publishing works of fiction I’ve had to evaluate my own work from a different perspective. If I’m going to stand up for my beliefs and “be the change,” as it were, it would make sense for me to put a little thought into what kind of change I hope to represent. One conversation in particular brought me to this realization.

Several years ago during an interview for a scholarly position, one of my interviewers noted that I listed “writing” as a hobby. She proceeded to ask me about what I write, so I told her: I was, at the time, working on a novel about a girl named Zikaly –

“Do you always write stories with heroines?” my interviewer interrupted excitedly.

The question caught me off-guard. It seemed a strange thing to ask – almost every story I’ve ever written has included a woman as one of the primary perspectives. It had always been my natural instinct to first write from a comfortable perspective (in this case, a female one) and add on more ambitious perspectives as the story progresses. My characters tended to (and still do) evolve pretty organically, regardless of gender. Gender was something that I typically assigned on reflex, with no conscious intent. It wasn’t until this interview that I realized that these seemingly small creative choices could potentially make a profound impression on my prospective readers.

The way that I approach gender, race and sexuality in my writing has been changing since that encounter as I’ve started to accept that someone else might read what I’ve written. With Tragedy more than any other story, I’ve tried to be as gender- and race-inclusive as I can. I will be the first to admit that I fail at those goals in many ways. My two main characters are pretty light-skinned (though I do describe Teveres as “honey-skinned” because my gods he is delicious). Most of my POV characters, and really most of my characters as a whole, are male. I do have a gay man and a bisexual man in the story, though they are not usually in the spotlight. It might be hubris that I believe I am decent at writing about other genders – and maybe hubris again that I think I can write well for women when I, like so many others, fall into many of the creative traps that are all around me in the media.

All of this leads to my question, and the title of this post: Do I write like a woman? Does my gender make my perspective as an author somehow different from my male counterparts? I’m not sure. I can’t read my book the way you can; what I’ve written will never be new to me. I do know one thing for certain – none of my characters, male or female, will ever willingly enter a fight wearing heels.