As the most colorful month of the year comes to an end, we must all remember that Pride should be a year-long celebration and not just a monthly event. Everyone at Bookstr is dedicated to promoting LGBTQIA+ representation EVERYWHERE. But since we’re mostly about the love of books, this article will be dedicated to queer representation in fiction. You don’t have to be part of the LGBTQ+ community to write queer characters, and we are here to help you do that.
We have interviewed authors Carly Heath and Koakuma Gyaru (pen name: Nekohara Mimi) about their experiences in writing queer characters, and asked them to share some tips for straight authors who want to do the same in this special pride month author workshop!
Carly Heath teaches art, design, theater, and writing, and her debut YA novel, The Reckless Kind, comes out November 2nd from Soho Teen. Set in 1904, the book follows a trio of queer teens who defy the expectations of their rural Scandinavian village by leaving their families, living on their own, and challenging the town’s patriarch in the region’s annual winter horse race. It’s a big-hearted novel filled with compassion and love that centers a found family devoted to supporting each other when their society has failed them.
Nekohara Mimi is a 27-year-old Brazilian woman who decided to write her first story online a few years ago when she couldn’t find it anywhere.
That old childhood dream came back to her life once more, but with a deep meaning now amid the frustrating attempts to set up a business or get a full-time job.
In that way, her books are romantic stories and fantasies she wishes she had on her bookshelf or phone to read at any moment. So she went for Slash, where she could share her stories with LGBT+ fiction lovers all over the world. Not caring so much about old patterns as she writes down what she want to read until the point of having series like My Alpha Mate and Mingan’s Curse that shows both straight and LGBTs couples as protagonists in each story.
Even though Neko Mimi isn’t traditionally published, you can find her work on Slash!
Now that we’ve introduced our authors, let’s step aside, and let them share the spotlight!
When brainstorming a book, do you make the conscious decision to write queer characters? Do you decide your characters’ sexuality/gender identity beforehand, or do they decide it for themselves?
Carly: “I think the premise of that question is worth interrogating further. Why is it that authors who write straight characters don’t get asked about their decision to make their characters straight? As writers, it’s important that we peel back the layers of our social conditioning to understand why certain identities are viewed as normal while some become Others. I personally believe the very idea of straightness is a myth perpetuated by the forces of colonialism and white supremacy. Prior to western imperialism ravaging the globe, there were many societies that not only recognized diversity in terms of gender and sexuality, but celebrated that diversity. And I believe if authors who claim to truly identify as allo-cis-het or straight really did some introspection about their identity, they’d probably find that they don’t easily fit in the neat box of straightness, but rather somewhere along a spectrum.
In short: as authors, it’s our job to create characters who are real and stories that reflect the nuances of humanity. An author who chooses to fill their book with a dozen exclusively straight characters is reflecting an agenda, not reality. So, yes, I make conscious decisions about my characters’ relationships to their gender and sexuality just as I do to other parts of their identity such as their appearance, their introversion or extroversion, their ability or disability, their intellect, their interests, etc… Sure, some character traits may come up as a surprise during the course of writing a story and other traits might be established prior to drafting, but just like in life, a person evolves. And sometimes that evolution is about traits changing and sometimes it’s about coming to a deeper understanding of one’s authenticity.”
Nekohara: “Honestly, I feel that it is not me who chooses what their names are most of the time, I prefer to believe that they decide it by themselves as I don’t really think about it while I’m creating the story.
And even when I do, something that started like a BxB [Boy x Boy], for example, may end up becoming a BxG [Boy x Girl]or GxG [Girl x Girl] at the end, so everything is a big mystery even to me while I’m planning and organizing my ideas.”
2. Do you usually do research before writing queer characters? Queer representation has almost become a box that some authors feel the need to tick off in fear of getting lashed out at by readers. This makes LGBTQIA+ characters in books either secondary to the plot or condemned to a tragic ending. How do you break that cycle? How do you avoid falling into stereotypes and clichés?
Carly: “I, personally, need to research because I write mostly historical fiction and so I need to understand the historical context for how my characters would think about their identity and how it would be viewed by their community. I also need to familiarize myself with the type of language that would be used at the time. Contemporary authors should familiarize themselves with harmful tropes and also how our language is evolving around gender and sexual identity.”
It’s also important for authors to be aware of the really great work that’s being done especially in the Young Adult genre around gender and sexuality. For instance, there are so many great books in the YA space that center on LGBTQIA+ characters and that have triumphant rather than tragic endings. So many YA books now are complex, nuanced, and aren’t at all stereotypical or cliché. If readers are wondering how to make their queer characters and stories more complex and nuanced, then definitely read some of the great YA novels that have come out recently. LGBTQreads is a great database that’s easy to search.
Nekohara: “I think it was the idea of not liking those tragic endings initially that made me do so. I’m not a fan of sad endings in anything, and somehow it just seems to reinforce the idea that if you’re an LGBTQ+ person, you’ll just get this sad ending in your life, which I don’t like.
So, for me, the main thing at these times is to listen to your character’s voice and let them come to life, instead of maybe doing thousands of searches online and unintentionally using these stereotypes that you see without even noticing.
Besides, it always helps to meet and talk to different people who help break this idea, as sometimes only one is not enough, and may create a new stereotype based on that person.”
3. What are some of the differences (if there are any) between straight characters and LGBTQIA+ characters in fiction? Do you work to include those differences when crafting your characters, or are they irrelevant to you?
Carly: “People who identify themselves as exclusively straight probably haven’t done as much introspection as people who have come to acknowledge their queer identity, so that’s a good starting point. I personally find it hard to believe that a person could 100% identify as fully cis, fully hetero, and fully allo—the reality of the gender and sexuality spectrum is much more multifaceted. That said, queer people do have to navigate a world constructed around centuries of erasure and persecution. Though American culture likes to proclaim Be Yourself, for queer people, that means first identifying which groups and situations are safe enough to Be Yourself. Still, microaggressions run rampant amongst even our closest friends and family members.
Something authors can do is conceptualize the different types of straight characters—are they the straight character who means well but has been so conditioned by the hetero-patriarchy that they aren’t safe to be around? Are they a straight person who uses their privilege to confront the oppressive beliefs of their friends and family members? Are they a straight person who is examining their own relationship to gender and sexuality and realizing that their identity doesn’t fit into a tidy box? Since I tend to have a feminist agenda in my writing, power structures and empathy are at the forefront, so, yes, I do think the experiences of those who think of themselves as straight and those who identify as queer are worth exploring.”
Nekohara: “I believe that there is no such thing as all people are different, despite their sexual choices, and I say that based on all the people I met since I was a child, including very close ones that were part of the LGBTQ+ community.
So, I always end up thinking more about the characters’ personalities and how to share that in the best possible way with the readers.”
4. As writers, we’ve all heard the phrase “write what you know.” And when it comes to writing queer books/characters, so many authors shy away from the task of crafting characters whose identity they don’t share. But why is it that this excuse is only applicable when it comes to LGBTQ+ representation, do you think? Authors who write mystery novels don’t need serial killers or FBI profilers after all.
Carly: “There’s a lot to unpack in that question. First, we really need to push back against any gatekeeping around who can identify as queer and who can write queer characters. Becky Albertalli wrote about this exquisitely in her Medium Article here. I personally believe if someone is drawn to writing queer stories filled with queer characters, it’s probably because they have been or are in the process of discovering that their sexual and gender identity doesn’t neatly fit into the allo-cis-het box even if they are “straight-passing” (whatever that means) or haven’t publically “come out” (do we all need to come out? Straight people don’t have to do that). It should also be mentioned that many authors don’t have the privilege of coming out and aren’t safe to do so, so they need to maintain a straight passing identity while publishing their stories.
Second, I do believe that novels where 100% of the characters are straight are a bit unrealistic. Now, I totally understand that some authors may live in a community or part of the world where writing queer characters in their stories is not a possibility, but if an author is in a place where they are safe enough to depict the reality of humanity—where gender and sexuality are experienced on a spectrum—then it seems like an author’s responsibility to use their privilege to reflect that reality. After all, western culture has worked really hard for centuries to erase sexual and gender diversity from literature and historical record, it’s time we do our part to put that representation back on the page.”
Nekohara: “I was a little afraid for a while because of what people online would say about my book. So based on that, I believe many are worried about the criticism they might receive, making excuses that don’t make sense, and along with it, perhaps they also feel they don’t know enough about LGBTQ+ people to write a book about them.
And it reminds me, someone once asked me something similar, and my answer to them was that I don’t overthink about it. I write romance novels, so I want to know more about the romance between these characters than anything else, regardless of whether they are a gay, straight, or lesbian couple, that is the only thing I wish people thought while writing about any couple.”
5. finally, What advice would you give to straight/cis-gender authors who want to write queer characters but are afraid of doing it wrong and offending an entire community?
Carly: “First, spend some time truly thinking about your own identity. Society categorizes gender and sexuality into these clearly defined labels. Do you really fit into these labels? A 2015 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows that even people who identify as straight might not truly be exclusively straight. If you’re an author who continues to believe you are 100% allo-cis-het, consider ways your straight characters can use their privilege to confront the oppressive systems that perpetuate gender and sexual conformity. While writing queer characters, seek the guidance of sensitivity readers to ensure your depictions are authentic. And really think about why western culture has been constructed around this myth of the gender binary and heteronormalcy—there’s an agenda that’s being perpetuated and it’s not based in any sort of “biological” fact. Who benefits from this agenda? And how can authors do their part to envision a more just society?”
Nekohara: “You can always share this first with someone who is part of the community and hear out their opinion on what they think, avoiding anything that may seem disrespectful to someone.
So, don’t be afraid to start it, human beings are not so different as we like to believe when it comes to their lives, there will always be someone quieter and someone who likes parties, and that is what makes us all human.”
Interviewing Carly and Nekohara was a real pleasure and we hope these tips were helpful for some of you! Meanwhile, if you want to learn more about writing queer characters, you can check out this series, which also features Carly here!