The power of representation

Whether I have one reader or 100,000 readers, I take the power of representation seriously. As authors, we have the opportunity to create characters, who in the best of circumstances can introduce readers to someone unlike a person they’ve ever met in real life, and in the worst case scenario, we create characters who reveal our own biases.

Here’s an example. If you’re a fan of the TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race, you may have heard about the backlash involving words like “she-male” and “tranny.” Some members in the transgender community are offended by these words.

The happy family — as represented in mid-century media.

Because I am not transgender, I believe that I don’t get a say in what transgender individuals should be called. What I mean is that I believe that a group has the right to refer to themselves any way they wish, and I should try to abide by that. The same way I’d rather be called “gay” than “fag.” But, representation goes beyond our chosen and imposed labels.

When I or any other writer begins to create characters, we have a responsibility to try to create characters who escape stereotype. Stereotypical characters are flat and they don’t fully represent reality.

In the following, I focus primarily on the importance of queer characters. I use queer to try to encompass the multiplicity of sexual expression: bisexual, lesbian, gay, questioning, transgender, genderqueer and so on. And within each of those expressions are individuals. For example, if you have a character who is a gay circuit boy, do you explore all that has happened to him to lead him where he is, or just create a flat character who likes to party? Also, when creating queer characters, do we think about other intersections? Often, when someone says a “gay man” we immediately picture a middle class, white, gay man, and not a gay man with a different race and/or class background.

If, as a writer, you try to tackle an expression beyond your own, you should try to make that character as sympathetic and well-rounded as possible.

So, when tackling characters, here’s a short checklist I use:

  1. Have I thought about my own biases? We all have them. Being aware of them makes us better writers (and better people, I think). If I have a bias against drag queens because one read me up and down, maybe I should try to create a beloved drag queen character to stretch my writing muscles.
  2. Do I have only one character of a particular race/gender/sexual expression? If so, do I try to avoid the pratfall that this character represents everyone within that social category?
  3. Is my character well developed enough to ‘run the gauntlet’? By run the gauntlet, I mean do I know enough about my character to put the character through a series of tests to see what he or she would do in any given circumstances/scenes (even if the scene doesn’t make it into the story).
  4. Am I trying too hard? Let’s not work too hard to “other” our characters. In other words, being gay does not define every choice a character makes. Whether your character is straight/gay/black/white/male/female is not a defining trait in whether s/he runs from a werewolf.
  5. What do my characters talk about? Have you ever heard of the Bechdel test? Basically, the test is whether female characters are fully developed or whether they only exist around men. I think the same can go for queer characters. What characters talk about is a powerful way to develop them. Dialogue is a strong tool to show interests, political persuasion, background—any host of topics. How a character talks about topics (word choice, grammar) is equally important. This can tell a reader such traits as class background.
  6. How do other characters see a character? Identity is how we see ourselves and how others see us. Seeing your gay character through other characters’ eyes can tell a reader much about him or her. One character may think that your gay character is so wonderful he hung the moon while another may hate his guts. Maybe they’re both right. This can help address an important aspect of character development. Sometimes our identities are a performance. If a gay man wants to be seen by others as butch, he pulls on ripped jeans and a leather harness.
  7. Am I using societal bias for my own gain? Ouch. This question is a tough one, because it’s an easy trap to fall into. Have you ever seen any long list of movies from Psycho to Sleep Away Camp to Insidious 2 where the killers are men in dresses? That storyline is so played out, and gender nonconformity is portrayed as a dysfunction rather than an authentic expression. And in a society with very few positive representations, it is also pernicious. So, for instance, if you have a character like this, stop and ask yourself whether it’s fair.

This checklist is a reference tool—a guideline. Do I always succeed? Of course not. But I think that by opening the dialogue (with myself and with others), I’m taking an important first step in creating queer and other characters who are multi-dimensional.

As a gay man, I want positive representations of everyone in the queer community. And, I guess, the first place to start with those is in my own writing.

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