Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Writing Sympathetic (Gay) Characters

Originally posted on the Diversity in YA blog by Brent Hartinger.

If you’re an author, how do make and keep your main character sympathetic?

You could write a whole book on this very topic — in fact, many have. I confess, I find it a fascinating one, mostly because it was exactly this idea of “likable” protagonists that made me start writing fiction in the first place.

Some writers reject the whole notion that main characters must be sympathetic (and to a degree, I would agree: jerks and anti-heroes absolutely have their place in the world, in certain kinds of stories).

But when I started writing back in the 80s and early 90s, I found myself completely frustrated by the main characters in so many books I was reading, especially the gay books. I was looking for characters I could relate to, and too many of the ones I was reading were way too whiny and self-destructive for my taste.

My partner and I used to joke that there was a name for the genre: *sshole fiction.

This, of course, was the trend in literary fiction at the time. To be considered “serious,” you had to shock people with just how miserable, jerky, and/or self-destructive your characters were. That meant you were really baring your soul and being “truthful.” (That hasn’t really changed in literary fiction — it’s just that literary fiction has become even more irrelevant than before.)

And with regard to the gay books, I think it was partly a generational thing. The generation of gay and bi men before me went through some pretty serious sh*t. If anyone deserved to be wounded, they did. I know it’s a triumph that many of them survived at all. They were revealing their truths.

The thing is, I didn’t think these books were very truthful to me and my generation, not in the city I was living in. I think they over-emphasized the negativity and the self-destruction.

I was working with gay teens at the time — in 1990, I helped found one of the nation’s very first support groups for GLBTQ youth in my hometown in Washington State. And these books just didn’t seem to describe the kids I was working with either.

Sure, some of those kids had some really serious issues — from suicide attempts to HIV infections, I dealt with it all.

But I worked with hundreds of kids, and the truth is, I found most of them to be generally optimistic and mostly well-adjusted. In general, they had a “positive” energy, not a “negative” one — exactly the opposite of what I was reading in all these gay books (it goes without saying that there were virtually no actual gay teen books at the time).

More than anything, those kids and I laughed a lot — which, even now, is not what you think about when you think about GLBTQ teens, and it really wasn’t what you thought about back then, especially at the height of the AIDS crisis.

My theory has long been that we adults remember all the pain and angst of being a teenager, but for some reason, we forget all the fun. In my experience, the teen years are all about extremes — the bad and the good. I was closeted the summer of my eighteenth year, but I still don’t think I’ve ever been happier than those afternoons I spent driving around with my high school buddies, shooting skyrockets from the back of Scott’s pick-up truck (stupidly — don’t try this at home).

And let’s face it: the idea of a closeted gay kid showering with a bunch of hot high school jocks is kind of funny, at least from a certain point-of-view. So that’s where I chose to open my first book, Geography Club, the first scene of which I wrote in 1989.

Anyway, I tried really, really hard to reign in the angst and doom-and-gloom and self-destruction. Then in 1999, I was lucky enough to land an editor (Stephen Fraser at HarperCollins, now an agent at the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency) who had me reign it in even further.

I don’t know how much credit I can take for this, and I’m desperately hoping this whole post doesn’t come across as massively self-important. But I was determined that my story be a positive one and that my characters be likable and relatable — flawed, sure, but ultimately decent.

Mostly, I just didn’t want them to be *ssholes.

What advice would I give to other authors seeking to do the same thing? External obstacles are generally more sympathetic than internal or self-created ones — especially if it seems like the character isn’t interested in dealing with his or her internal problems. Pessimism and nihilism get old fast, and almost everyone recoils from whininess. Active is way more sympathetic than passive.

And I hesitate to say this, but … there’s probably some truth to the idea that characters in books can only be as sympathetic as their authors. It’s a good thing that Bret Easton Ellis writes mostly satires about self-absorbed *ssholes because, based on his recent essay in Newsweek about Charlie Sheen and his Tweets about Glee, it seems pretty clear that that’s what he himself is.

Did I “sell out” in order to attract mainstream attention for my gay book? Did I deliberately set out to make my books “accessible” to straight folks? I’m sure Bret Easton Ellis would think so (and I know that’s how some others saw it). But that’s not the way I saw it (at all).

The way I saw it then and still see it now, I was: (a) just reflecting my own sensibility, which has the aforementioned low tolerance for whininess, and (b) reflecting a very real “reality” about gay people: as a community, the ice was starting to melt. We had been stuck in place, both internally and externally. But that was changing. Our biggest problem had been internal: we didn’t even like ourselves enough to come out and ask for acceptance! But now we were emerging from our respective self-destructive ruts. It was finally possible to take on the external obstacles. We weren’t powerless victims anymore — and most of us didn’t want to read about characters who came across as powerless victims any longer, even if the characters were supposed to be ironic or nostalgic or “real.”

And I the fact is, I don’t think I was crazy in my thinking. Geography Club sold a hell of a lot of copies — and it seems to me that the non-angst-y, non-tragic, non-whiny feel I was going for is now pretty much the standard sensibility in both GLTBQ teen and adult gay lit. 

As for *sshole fiction? Well, when was the last time you read a Bret Easton Ellis novel?

What’s the lesson in all this? A writer must absolutely always strive to tell the truth. But the most important truths, the ones that will really get you noticed, are often the ones that no one else is telling.

Brent Hartinger's LGBT novels include Geography Club and three sequels: The Order of the Poison Oak; the Lambda Award-winning Double Feature; and The Elephant of Surprise. Geography Club has also been adapted as a feature film co-starring Scott Bakula and Ana Gasteyer, slated for release later this year. Visit Brent at www.brenthartinger.com.

1 comment:

  1. I agree wholeheartedly...I have queer characters in my book and my experiences growing up weren't all bad ones so I tried to reflect on that while telling my stories. Also as a writer of speculative fiction, I have the ability to create any world I want...why not create one where people like whoever they like and that's that or at least one where being gay isn't the main issue of the story...I'm sure there are members of the queer community who think I'm selling out too but growing up this is what I would've wanted to read, so there.