Around this time last year I read Memoirs of a Master Forger by Graham Joyce (to be published soon in the US by Night Shade as How to Make Friends With Demons). It is the book that won this year’s British Fantasy Award for Best Novel (a.k.a. the August Derleth Award), beating Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book in the process. It is indeed a very fine book, but when I blogged briefly about it last year I said, “As always with Graham, it is great stuff. There’s one small thing I want to have words with him about, but as I won’t be at World Fantasy I shall miss that opportunity and I’ll probably have forgotten about it next time I see him.”
That was very prescient, because I had forgotten about it. Graham, however, had not, and at FantasyCon he took me aside to have those words. The issue, as you may have guessed, is that the book contains a trans character, and she’s not portrayed very sympathetically – not horribly, just not very sympathetically. Because I know Graham well, I knew that wasn’t a piece of deliberate transphobia on his part. Having heard his explanation as to why the character is the way she is I quite understand why he did it. Indeed, just about every character of any significance in that book is a liar or a fake in some way, and given that the portrayal of the trans character could have been much worse. So all is well with Graham, but the conversation got me thinking about this whole issue.
There are two common stereotypes that the LGBT community really hates in fiction. The first is the lone good gay character who is the only one who dies at the end of the story. The other is the lone bad gay character who is an extreme stereotype of a gay man and is also one of the major villains. You see these ideas repeated again and again in fiction, and people rightly get annoyed about it.
Unfortunately if you call people on this they often react badly. It generates conversations similar to RaceFAIL, in which one side berates the other for being EVIL and the other side complains it is being censored, obliged to implement quotas, having its creativity constrained and so on. Often, of course, it is the people who are actually bigoted who complain loudest about being challenged, because they want to have excuses to parade their phobias in their fiction. On the other hand, honest writers get very worried because they are afraid of being accused of being bigots.
One thing I don’t want to happen here is have people become afraid to put LGBT characters in their fiction for fear of being accused of using an offensive stereotype. We’ll do much more for the advancement of LGBT rights if LGBT people are commonly featured in all sorts of fiction, just like straight people are. Indeed, I’m all in favor of books in which some characters just happen to be lesbian, or happen to be trans, or whatever, and this isn’t actually a major plot point. Because, you know, being lesbian or trans or whatever isn’t a major plot point, it is just who people are.
So how is a writer to go about writing LGBT characters without fear? As far as I’m concerned, the most useful thing to do is to remember that that old Highlander motto isn’t true: there need not be only one. It is a bit like the Bechdel Test – there needn’t only be one woman in a book, and they needn’t only be there to talk about the men. Well there need not only be one LGBT person in the book, and those people need not only be there to die, or be villains. If your book really has to include a gay person who dies at the end, include another one who doesn’t. If there is a good reason why a particular gay character has to be an unpleasant person, include another one who isn’t.
Why does this work? Well, if you have only one character from a particular subgroup in your book then that character will appear to many readers as standing in for all people in that subgroup. It doesn’t matter whether you intended that or not, people will still read your book that way. And the more oppressed a subgroup is, the more likely it is that members of that subgroup will assume bigotry as the explanation, because so often it is. So you have to make it clear that you didn’t intend the bad example to be typical by providing a counter example of someone more likeable, or with a less horrible fate.
I’ll admit that this is more difficult with trans people. There’s really little excuse with LGB folks. If your book has more than 10 characters then the chances are that at least one of them is not straight. Trans people are rather more rare, so you might wonder about how you can justify including two of them. Well, one possibility is that members of minority groups tend to stick together, so if you have one trans person in your story the chances are that she has friends who are also trans. That’s a very easy way to introduce another character without seeming like you are writing a novel all about trans people.
If that doesn’t seem possible for some reason, and it is absolutely essential that your trans character have a bunch of negative traits, have your other characters talk about him. Remember, whether you like it or not, readers will tend to assume that you are talking through your characters. You can stop them doing that by providing a mixture of different messages from different characters. So if Jim is trans, and also a nasty piece of work, have Sally complain about Jim in a bigoted way, and Simon say that no, that’s just Jim, he happens to know other people who are trans but not like Jim at all. Obviously such a conversation can come over very stilted, but you are a writer, it is your job to be able to make such things natural and believable.
I know writers get very defensive when readers assume that their characters are speaking for them, or that the author approves of ideas expressed in a book. For a good writer that is by no means always the case. Nevertheless, it is sometimes true. Writers do sometimes advance ideas in their books, and even if they don’t readers may assume that they are doing so. Everyone approaches a book on their own terms. That’s just one of those things we have to live with. So if you don’t want your book to be yelled at by LGBT activists, or any other sort of activist for that matter, a little thought as to how they might read it, and perhaps a small amount of corrective action, can save a lot of heartache later.
I sent this post to Graham before publishing it to make sure that he was happy with my doing so. He asked me to add the following:
I was glad to have good chat with Cheryl about this issue. I try to make sure that nothing in my work reinforces negative stereotypes of minority groups. I don’t give a damn what other writers think about that: it’s just a position I adopted a long time ago. I don’t want to be adding to the pot of meanness and prejudice that’s at large in society by rehearsing it in a book that I’ve written.
Though there is a clear tension between that position and creativity, and if you’re not careful your character becomes an innocuous cipher rather than a blood-and-bone human being. I’ve erred on both sides of this.
Cheryl was very helpful on some differences in the psychology of trans people and some general issues where my understanding is weak. From a writer’s perspective I like to make all my characters flawed in some way (I’m a flawed human being – why shouldn’t my fictional characters be, too???) though if you’re writing about an Asian person (for argument’s sake) you have to be sure that nothing looks like a comment on all Asian people. Racist-minded people would certainly be happy to interpret things that way (heck a certain species of anti-racist would often like to see it that way too so that they can impose their agenda).
So you have to steer a path, and it’s a writer’s job so to do. Difficulty comes not with the major characters, which are easy to balance up if you’re prepared to give your creation a moment’s thought. With the minor characters, it’s much trickier, especially if they are just there to stand on stage and hold a spear.
If you have some very minor character who is gay (again just for example) and you want to invest them with some humane but negative traits, how do you do that without the patent and transparent solution of having another counterbalancing minor gay character? Hmmm. I’d like a world where we can call someone a dipshit and not have anyone think it’s to do with their colour, gender or orientation. Meanwhile we’re a long way from that, and la lotta continua.