I remember the first time one of my characters came out of the closet.
I was 17, working hard on one of my first non-academic works of fiction, what was supposed to be a coming-of-age love story between two college students. I had been working for months, but it seemed like no matter
what I did, neither character was interested in the other. I had cast them stereotypically as good looking, young, skinny, and white, they were in all kinds of romantic settings and situations. And romance refused to blossom.
Finally, as I mentally played through a scene in my head while washing dishes at work (you know you do it too), it hit me so hard I dropped the mug I was holding.
I rushed home and re-read my rough draft, and sure enough, it had been there the whole time. These weren’t two people falling in love, these were two people falling into friends: spending nights drinking wine and gossiping, taking walks in the rain to class, sneaking into a closed museum on a dare. I even wrote a scene where they talked about cute boys on campus.
My male character was gay.
And just as it so often is when someone comes out, I think I knew it the whole time.
This story has a happy ending, though. I rewrote the piece as a friendship story and got it published in some LGBQ anthology somewhere – I don’t recall where, but it happened.
My job was to write my character as he was, not to try and change him, but accept him as the person I had created.
One of the great challenges and responsibilities of good writing is to make real people; people just like those we know outside our heads. People with flaws and personalities, and bellies, and weird hairy spots. People who refuse to fall in love with their intended mate, who run off on side quests, who tell inappropriate jokes.
And just as with real people, they aren’t all going to be straight, or even gay.
People come in all flavors, colors, interests, regions, and – yes – sexual orientations. They come as pansexual, bisexual, gay, straight, bi-curious, asexual, non-binary, trans.
And so do our characters. If we are really good at writing them, not all but many will be, in some way, queer. And that’s okay – better than okay – people are queer. As writers we don’t have to wave any rainbow flags or make them tortured souls or anything else that isn’t genuine to them as people. We can write them away from stereotypes, away from popular culture, just as they lovely vibrant brainchildren they are.
But we also shouldn’t straight-wash them either. Our sexuality contributes so much to our sense of who we are, how we enter a room, who we notice noticing us, who we want to talk to and not, it’s an inseparable attribute from our identity in daily life – so much so, that those who haven’t had reason to question their sexuality rarely notice it. Queer characters have a different flavor that brings depth and reality to fiction, no matter the strangeness of the fiction we write.
And we can even chase after the less-than-straight characters. We can choose to write, realistically and without pretense, a character who is gay, bi, trans, or whatever. It gives us a chance to try something new, and to connect with an underrepresented and very large audience of readers eager to find something that speaks to them and their reality after so long living in the heteronormative doldrums.
I know a lot about this. As stated in my own coming out post, I am demisexual, have been all my life, and I would desperately love to find a character I could relate to as being like myself (Liz Lemmon from 30 Rock is pretty damn close).
Don’t worry about getting it wrong. That’s what editing is for, and if we feel lost there are many queer people out in the world who would love to help us find the right voice.
When characters come out of the closet, the best thing we can do is: greet them, offer them clothes that don’t smell like moth balls, and, as always, keep writing.