The stories I have to tell
There are lots of topics boiling away in the real world that I keep wanting to comment on. Some of them are about drama in sci fi fandom, some are about controversies in the community of writers, some are arguments about civil rights, some are arguments about police use of force, and so on. Each of varying importance in the scheme of things, to be sure, but all involving real people and real harm in one way or another; therefore all worthy of some consideration.
But I’m supposed to be working on some hefty writing goals for the month. And I’m supposed to be trying to spend less of my time and energy getting outraged and ranting about things. So I keep stopping myself from writing about them, and try to turn my attention back to my fiction writing.
But even then, I am confronted with some of those same issues. What are the stories I’m trying to tell, and why am I telling them this way?…
On one level, the first novel in my fantasy series is about the end of the world and how people face mass mortality. On another level, it is about a thief who has been saddled with a cursed magical item, and about all of the people who are either trying to steal it from him, or help him and/or the item fulfill their destiny. Either way, some might characterize it as a very typical fantasy plot. But there would be some people who might be angry that some of the characters are not heterosexual. There may be some who view one of the shape-shifters as an analog for trans* people, which might offend some, as well.
Since this novel hasn’t yet been published, you might say my speculation about who might be offended is borrowing trouble. If I were fretting about these things, it would be. But I’m not. The book is very nearly ready to publish, and I am quite happy to let it out into the world and let people decide whether they like it on its own merits.
And calling those “might be” statements speculation isn’t accurate. I’ve had people react to other stories I’ve written with questions like, “But why did that character have to be gay? What message are you trying to send?” or, “Why did you decide to make the cop a woman?” or, “Why are all the scientists in that section of the story women?” There’s a fundamental assumption that an author has to have a reason that they make a prominent character something other than male (and white and heterosexual and cisgendered), so there must be some kind of message or agenda involved.
I understand that assumption. I was raised in the same society in which straight white men are assumed to be the default. I internalized all of that. I have written plenty of stuff that followed that sort of worldview without realizing it. Because I’m a gay guy who grew up in a homophobic society, and because the civil rights struggles of both racial minorities and women were prominent parts of my formative years, I thought I knew better than that.
Yet, when I applied the Bechdel Test to a bunch of my stories, I was shocked to discover that my writing was no less chauvinist than any “clueless white guy” out there. Sure, I had both queer women and men in my stories, but the main characters were overwhelmingly male, while most female characters were relegated to supportive roles.
The crazy part was how easy it was to completely flip that ratio by looking at a story and simply asking myself, “what if I tell the same tale from her point of view?” It was usually substantially the same story. It was often a better story. Not because one gender is superior to the other, but because I’d looked at the tale from more angles, made myself think about the relationships in more than one way, and thus gained a more complete understanding of all of the interrelationships of personality, conflicting needs and desires, and actions of the plot.
Why are more of my characters queer? Not because I’ve got an agenda, but because as a queer person, I know that we exist, and in greater numbers than most people realize. Of course my imagination is going to include queer characters. Just as my background in math and the sciences means that I include characters knowledgeable in those things. And my experiences growing up among and being a person of faith (as well as questioning it, being a victim of it, and trying various alternatives) means that some of those characters will have various kinds of relationships with faith. And so on, and so on…
And because some of the people I know and love are straight, and some are trans*, and some are bi, and some are queer in very different ways than I am, and some are conservative, and some are not, and because I empathize with all of these people I love—there will be characters who have those traits, as well.
I see the world with all of those kinds of people in it, from my particular perspective, based on my particular experiences. It’s not exactly the same as your perspective, or hers, or his, or theirs, or those people over there. So the stories I tell will be at least a bit different than everyone else’s. But there will also be some similarities.
Which is a good thing. We tell stories and we listen to or read stories to look at the world from a different perspective. We exchange stories see how all of those different perspectives, no matter how divergent, are still fundamentally human.