Naturally, this came at a splendid time for me, as I recently finished, and am now shopping around to agents, a YA fantasy novel that happens to feature a young gay couple as primary characters (though not protagonists.)
Reading through the endless discussions on the subject, I’ve found myself second (and third, fourth…)-guessing every word I wrote about those two. Are they a Gay Best Friend cliché? Should they have had a more (or less) physical relationship? Should I not bother having them at all because they’re not protagonists? Is their (minor) homophobia plotline worth telling or just an out-of-fashion retread of an issue that most YA readers no longer face? Is it insulting that the characters are non-human? Is the book going to be seen as nothing more than a trite liberal polemic because it deals with gay, feminist and race issues? Even though I’m queer myself, and have been politically active on these issues since I came out at 13, I’ve still wondered if I had the “right” to speak for these characters.
Of course, I can’t predict how any given reader is going to see things. And it’s a guarantee, for any creator, that you’re not going to please everyone. Also, any time a creator deals with any contentious social issues, there’s always going to be someone who tells you you handled it wrong because you didn’t do it exactly the way they would have. If this thing ever gets published, I do expect to have to nod politely and agree to disagree with some folks about specifics. But I still worry that I’ve actually overlooked something important. And–this is key, I think–I worried about that before I even wrote the first words of the story, because I love these characters and want to do them proper justice.
My point in writing these characters wasn’t tokenism or soapboxing or creating my own gay BFFs (have some already, thanks), but because the characters themselves made me smile. They are, in my utterly humble opinion, endearing, complex, hilarious, heartbreaking and even occasionally frustrating. One is a brash, impulsive troublemaker with a sharp tongue. The other is sensible, highly skilled and exasperated with his mate as often as he’s desperately in love with him. They are, in other words, people. Even though they play a help-the-protagonist role, they’re not there just to make her life more interesting. They have stories of their own.
The same, I’d like to think, is true of the (many) PoC characters in the story, and I’m actually far, far more worried about that issue than the gay one (seeing as how I’m functionally anglo.) These characters aren’t in there just so readers get a chance to taste the whole rainbow. They’re there because a) they’re important to the plot, b) the (alternate history) setting is such that they necessarily exist in that world and c) I like ’em as people. Yeah, my protagonist is a straight, white chick (although not exactly gender-role compliant) and the other characters do sort of revolve around her, plotwise, but they really, really aren’t there just for decoration. (And FWIW, her people are a minority in this setting, and kinda considered jerks by the rest of the world. It wasn’t deliberate on my part to set up a quasi-role reversal–that’s just how it worked due to the setting.)
There is, of course, a chance I’ve screwed something up with this. I’m hoping that I get constructive feedback that will help me clean up potential pitfalls before it goes to press (if, FSM willing, that should actually happen.) But even so, and even if I do eventually face the acid keyboards of the YA bloggerati, I’d still rather have had these characters in the story than not.
I’ve seen it implied that only people in a given oppressed group are truly qualified to create works about their people. Frankly, I think that’s hogwash. Not the least because it implies that creators in these groups are somehow responsible for primarily creating works about themselves or people just like them. Dunno about y’all, but if I was supposed to be some sort of standard-bearer for fat bi women with chronic illnesses, I’d politely decline such a dubious honor. Also, there’s really no way we’re ever going to see anywhere near proportional representation in creative works if only those people being represented are supposed to… represent. There’s a huge space between being devoid of these characters and having stereotyped tokens, and a good writer is going to be in that space. It may be that I’m not, actually, a good writer, but I certainly try to be, so that’s the space I hope I occupy.
I hope my gay couple eventually makes it to print, but even if not, I’m still fairly confident that I did them justice. And I think that’s what all creators should strive for: honoring their characters, and not worrying so much about whether everyone else thinks you did it exactly right.