Pride 2014: Should You Write Only What You Know?

It's a bird! It's a plane! No, it's my attempt to make a Pride flag using LGBTQ+ YA books!

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s my attempt to make a Pride flag using LGBTQ+ YA books!

Excellent question, that.

I believe the answer is no.

But wait! There’s so much more to this post than a simple Q&A! After the note, I’ll tell you how and why you should write about what you don’t know.

Note: This post is a behemoth. I tried to make it as short as possible but it’s still two-thousandish words long. Sorry about that. If reading such a long piece may prove exhausting, I suggest that you grab chocolate or something to keep up your energy. Cheers!

Consider “the greats.” J.R.R. Tolkien told of a hobbit’s struggle to destroy an evil ring. J.K. Rowling wrote about a boy wizard who attended a school of magic. Agatha Christie penned story after story about murderers.

All of these authors – among the most successful in the world – wrote of things they didn’t really know about, not from personal experience. Tolkien was not a hobbit, Rowling is neither a wizard nor a witch, and I certainly hope Dame Agatha never murdered anyone.

And yet, their stories are utterly believable. They understood their characters, plots, and themes so well, and that makes their readers – us – understand those characters, plots, and themes as well. Even though we aren’t magical, murderous hobbits.

And I believe you don’t even need to be “one of the greats” to write about experiences that are not your own. The idea for this post has been rattling around my mind for ages – the kick in the pants I needed to make me write it came from questions in the comments of my post for the May 2014 Teens Can Write, Too! blog chain.

I wrote primarily about diversity, specifically diversity in gender and sexuality. Diverse characters are necessary in all books because, well, the real world is diverse.

(And if you still don’t think diversity is necessary, you’re probably always represented in fiction. You’ve never had to hunt through each and every line of a book for even the tiniest mention of a character like you. Sure, you can relate to those who are different, but it’s nice to know that your kind exist in a fictional world.)

Most of the commenters on my post agreed and yet a common question was, “I’m straight and want to include LGBTQ+ characters in my stories, but I don’t know how to write them. Can you help?”

Engie the magnificent (and slightly dorky) lesbian writing-adviser, at your service. I think two things are necessary when writing about what you don’t know – whether that’s sexuality or gender or race or whatever.

Imagination

Let yours run wild. More than once, I have received blog comments along the lines of, “Is it weird that my character is LGBTQ+ and also a princess / alien / best friend of a dragon / assassin / whatever?”

NO. No, it is not. Is there any particular reason a dragon’s best friend must be heterosexual? (If there is, I’m really sad.) You have an imagination – so use it! Want to write about a bisexual detective? Go for it. Or perhaps you’re more interested in a transgender princess? I’d read about that. Or a character who is queer and some other minority? That’s cool.

If writers had more imagination, there wouldn’t be nearly as many of the same old stories about contemporary teens coming out. And that would be GLORIOUS, because I really want to read about that bisexual detective.

Imagination is useful for more than just writing one-of-a-kind characters, though. Use it to relate to those who are different from you – I often hear, “I know that including LGBTQ+ characters is important, but I don’t think I could write them well. I just can’t relate to those people.”

Time for a quick survey. Any Lord of the Rings fans here? Raise your hands high! What about Harry Potter? Chronicles of NarniaThe Hunger Games? Doctor Who?

If you love any of those stories: Congratulations. You have related to characters who are vastly different from you. You don’t share all of the same life experiences. Some of these characters aren’t even the same species as you.

I would say that I’m not that different from you, but you know what? That shouldn’t matter. People shouldn’t have to be exactly or even mostly alike for you to relate to them. If you can relate to a hobbit, I am fully confident that you can relate to someone who is queer. For one thing, we’re more likely to be your height. (Except for five-foot-tall me, ha ha.) For another, we actually, you know… exist. If you can relate to hobbits but draw the line at relating to certain types of real people, I think that’s pretty messed up.

I don’t know why that’s so difficult to understand. Maybe some kind of subconscious “no homo” reasoning is at work here: “If I relate to LGBTQ+ people, that might mean I’m LGBTQ+!” Um, no. It just means that you’re capable of sympathy, like a normal human being. I was concerned about Eustace when he became a dragon in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader but I did not, unfortunately, also turn into a dragon.

One last note on using imagination to relate to people: I do this all the time. I have to. Most of the people I know (and characters I read about, or see on TV shows) are straight. If I can do it, so can you. Keep this in mind.

Research

One of my current writing projects is a high fantasy story. (Actually, many of my current writing projects are high fantasy stories. But I digress.) My favorite part of writing it – aside from RESEARCHING SWORDS AND TREBUCHETS, WHEE – is the cute romance between the main character and her girlfriend. (Co-queen? I don’t know. I’ve only just started writing it and I’m not sure if I want to bother exploring all the politics-in-monarchies stuff.) I initially envisioned them as lesbians but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that they should be bisexual. Bi girls need fictional representation more than lesbians do.

I am not bisexual. But guess what? It’s not hard for me to write characters who are, not if I search for information when necessary. (Also, to keep it simple, all my examples from now on will be about writing bisexual girls.) Research is your friend, people. Don’t worry about not having personal experience with your topic – make up for it by acquiring general knowledge.

Here are some items you can use for research.

+ Nonfiction sources. These could be books, magazines, newspapers, websites, videos, whatever – the format doesn’t matter. This is where you’ll want to look for cold, hard facts. I use mostly books, because I love them and am trying to read as many as possible this year. Currently, I’d like to get my hands on a copy of Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution by Shiri Eisner, because A) research is good and B) queer theory is my idea of light reading. But I won’t limit myself to words on a page. GayWrites (a news website) has a YouTube channel and because its producer is bi, she tends to post a lot of content concerning that community.

+ Fiction sources. Again, these can come in any and all formats. When used discerningly, stories can be sources of facts too, but I think they are best used to determine how to tell your story. For example, how many pages should be devoted to discussion of a character’s sexuality? (Answer: However many you want.) Or maybe you want to know how to avoid stereotypes.

My example: I recently read Malinda Lo’s Adaptation and Inheritance, science fiction stories with a bisexual female protagonist. I also beta-read a friend’s novel draft in which the main character’s love interest is bi. Funnily enough, neither activity was intended as research. But hey, they were still helpful. I saw several different methods of introducing a character’s bisexuality.

On a less positive note, some stories might teach you how not to write a certain kind of character. For example, visibility is important: Doctor Who‘s writers say that River Song is bi, but this isn’t actually mentioned anywhere in the story. Whoops. It’s not wrong to be a fan of something that maybe doesn’t do the best job with its representation of [insert group here]. Just use it as an opportunity to do better in your own stories.

A good resource for finding diverse fiction sources is Diversity in YA. There you can find book lists with all sorts of themes, from “Ten Diverse Dystopian YA Books” to “Cute Asian Boys 2.0.”

+ Friends. Any people, really. But it would be less weird to ask a friend for help with research than to ask some random person, wouldn’t it? If I were worried that a character’s personality were unrealistic or offensive, I’d ask one of my friends or fellow bloggers who are bi to help.

-~-

I’d like to add, though, that while friends can be helpful, it’s probably a good idea to use the other two sources first. Sometimes I get nice, sensible questions about how to write characters like me but sometimes the underlying tone of a question is more like, “I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO WILL YOU WRITE THIS PART OF THE STORY FOR ME?”

I’m happy to help. But I’m not going to be there 24/7. I do have a life, you know. I have school and work and in my free time I make witty remarks to friends and cry over fictional characters. I’ll lend a hand but I’m not going to hold your hand while you write the story, if that makes any sense. It gets frustrating to explain the same basic things over and over, so excuse me if I’ve been a little short with you. (…suddenly I know how my parents must feel at times. I’ll try to work on remembering things better.)

I think plenty of other queer people (and those in other minority groups) would agree: If you have a question or two, fine, but ultimately you are writing the story. Don’t be that person, the one who makes me wonder if straight people everywhere collectively forgot how to perform Internet searches. I’m really glad I wrote this post because A) it was fun and B) now when people ask me for pointers on how to write LGBTQ+ characters I can say, “I have a post for that. Read it.”

…which is why I’m giving very general advice. There are a lot of blog posts (and probably entire books) about how to write characters who are different from yourself. However, I was asked to write one and I’m trying to make it different. So I decided to be as general as possible instead of stating, “Do this. Don’t do that.” I guess what I’m trying to say is that this is written mostly to say, “Yes, you can do it!” and then it goes on to say that “YOU can (and should) do it!”

So, I’m sorry if you were expecting something a little more specific. If you wanted a long list of pointers. This post is long, but it emphasizes research. It’s purposely a bit vague in the hope that it pushes YOU to learn more, to search further.

-~-

I might still get complaints on this post, though – “Are you trying to be difficult?!” No. Writing is difficult. And it should be difficult for the writer, not the people who are being bombarded with the writer’s questions.

Here: I’ll make this as easy as I can, while still laying most of the responsibility for research on your shoulders. Following are a bunch of potentially useful links. YOU should be the one to sift through them and take note of the suggestions that keep popping up.

All the links lead to posts on Malinda Lo’s blog because she writes about this subject prolifically. Also, since she’s queer and Chinese most of the posts deal with sexual orientation and race, but there are a few about gender.

-~-

Oh, wow. Now I need some chocolate. This post turned out much longer than I initially imagined it would. Anyway. Go forth, readers, and write diverse stories! Don’t worry about whether you can write stories about characters who are different from you, about things that you have not experienced, because you can! Just do plenty of research first! And imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes!

And don’t forget to feed me chocolate!

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About nevillegirl

Elizabeth. University of Iowa class of 2019. Triple majoring in English & Creative Writing, Journalism, and Gender, Women's, & Sexuality Studies. Twenty-one-year-old daydreamer, introvert, voracious reader, aspiring writer, and lesbian. Passionate about feminism, mental health, comic books, and cats.
This entry was posted in Books and Reading!, LGBTQ+, Nevillegirl's Adventures!, Non-Neville Posts, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to Pride 2014: Should You Write Only What You Know?

  1. “Maybe some kind of subconscious “no homo” reasoning is at work here… I was concerned about Eustace when he became a dragon in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader but I did not, unfortunately, also turn into a dragon.” Brilliant and on point.

    For the full experience, why not write about a queer dragon?

    • nevillegirl says:

      Thank you. 😛 I enjoy being sarcastic and analyze-y.

      That sounds like an excellent idea. A dragon that keeps kidnapping princes instead of princesses…

  2. magicfishy says:

    *offers chocolate*

    Excellent post, as usual. And now I’ve been sucked into an eternal black hole of Malinda Lo’s blog again. Oh well.

    (Bisexual queens? Yesssss.)

    And yes, it’s odd that most ‘but I can’t relate to them!’ complaints are directed towards minority characters. Because… They have other aspects of their personalities too? Hopefully?

    • nevillegirl says:

      *messily eats chocolate* Thank you.

      Pfft. Her blog is so cool. There’s just so much STUFF there. A lot of my favorite authors don’t update their blogs frequently…

      (Indeed! 😀 Unless… unless they’re princesses and then maybe become queens at the end? IDK. I keep changing my mind and coming up with new ideas for awesome stuff.)

      I know, right? We have hopes and dreams and fears and incredibly embarrassing moments just like anyone else – and while it’s true that what makes us different is important, if people focus on that and go “oh you’re weird we have nothing in common” then it’s really frustrating.

      • magicfishy says:

        I mean, obviously a straight person might not relate to /specifically LGBTQ+ issues/, but still.

        Bisexual princesses are also good. (I’m also planning a fantasy bisexual thingy. But it’s not high fantasy. And a comic. And about dragon slayers/scientists who want to protect the dragons. It /is/ about bisexuals, though. Why am I telling you this.)

    • nevillegirl says:

      Mhmm. Like coming out. But if we can relate to straight people, they can relate to us.

      (Ooh! I’D LOVE TO READ THAT.)

  3. Miriam Joy says:

    *wonders absently if Engie is referring to The Quiet Ones* Oh Kay. I love her. (I have an unexpectedly high percentage of bi characters – more than any other flavour of queer, I think – in my writing on the whole, and I’m not entirely sure how that happened, but I’m just gonna go with it.)

    Good post – and fear not the writing of behemoths. My all-time most popular post was 2400 words long… :/

    • nevillegirl says:

      Yes. Yes, I was. 😀
      Kay is adorable and awesome. She was probably my favorite character.
      (I think most of my characters would be lesbians / queer women. I usually don’t mention what their sexualities are, though, it’s just based on their relationships and whatnot. I mean, it’s a fantasy world, “bisexual” doesn’t necessarily exist as a word.)

      Thank you! I was hoping that people would like it. I think my longest post was 3000+ words… but it had a decent number of comments.

  4. Miss Alexandrina says:

    Awesome! I love that spine of BOY MEETS BOY – looks like it should be a ‘typical’ romance but then ‘subverts’ it by excluding the expected. 😛

    I have a bisexual detective!* If I ever get around to writing the ideas I have, she’s having relationship problems with her girlfriend at the beginning of the case. Maybe I’ll start writing that story just for you. 😉
    *At least…she will be. She comes to understand she’s bi in the third book of her teen trilogy that I haven’t written yet when she dreams about the sister of a guy she used to love (siblings are attractive together, right? xD)

    (FYI, what made Dame Agatha’s book so close to truth was that she worked with poisons in a chemist’s before she became published. But you probably knew that.)

    • nevillegirl says:

      *agrees* It has a really cute cover, too. It looks really fluffy and then it’s like, “‘Boy Meets Boy’? …oh. Hey!” 🙂

      Ahaha, thanks. That sounds cool.
      And yes, some siblings are definitely attractive together. 😛

      (Yes, yes I did know that. 🙂 But I was thinking more about knowing the mind of a murderer – not HOW they’d murder, like with poison or whatever, but WHY. What drives someone to commit murder? I’m hoping she never killed anyone… O_o)

  5. Lark says:

    *applauds*
    Brilliant post, Engie. I always feel weird commenting on here because everyone else is all eloquent and things and then I’m justlike “oh, good job”. XD Sorry, I swear I try, I swear I actually sometimes have interesting thoughts about things, I’m just finding it a bit hard to put into words.

    • nevillegirl says:

      *takes a bow* *shares her chocolate with you*

      Thank you. And don’t worry about it – there are blogs I comment on where I feel like I’m practically drooling on the floor (the blog-floor… yes sure why not) because everyone has such lovely comments and then I’m like LOL NICE POST.

  6. wondrousadventurer says:

    An all-around marvelous post — equal parts fun to read and important(ly?) informative!

    I was a bit amused by your adamancy to not use minority members as your own personal Google. I’m afraid I must be the exception here; I tend to take every opportunity possible to not only answer people’s questions, but info-dump what I know upon them the minute they express interest in an issue I’ve got personal experience with. Perhaps I’m a pushover, or just a little over-eager — although knowing how I generally behave in other ares, I’d say it’s probably a combination of my being quite a lot of both…

    I do, however, agree wholeheartedly with the other sentiments expressed! In particular, the fact that people’s reluctance to relate to minority characters is a bit… backwards (seeing as those of us that ARE minorities end up relating to characters quite a bit different than us all the time, since we’ve got little other choice…). You dealt with that absolutely brilliantly, which is good seeing as it’s such an integral idea for people to understand. It’s important for people to remember that a character’s story is what will really make them powerful and relatable — to everyone! To steal your own example, nobody relates to Frodo because he’s a hobbit. They connect with his story, with his struggle to overcome darkness (and being aided by good friends) when things get rough — not the fact that he’s short or eats a lot.

    (…actually in retrospect I probably saw myself in that, too. But let’s not get into THOSE intricacies…)

    • nevillegirl says:

      Thank you very much! 😀

      Yeah… some people do like talking about that a lot, some people don’t, some people are somewhere in between. I think I’m somewhere in the middle – hey, I wrote this post, didn’t I?
      I don’t know. Maybe it’s selfish. But… I guess… I guess I’m much more willing to explain on my own time, and I just don’t like being grilled. I don’t mind a few questions, and sometimes /I’m/ the one bringing up LGBTQ+ topics, but… IDK. I guess I feel differently about answering questions for real-life stuff and answering a ton of questions for writing purposes, because I’m already involved enough with my /own/ stories.

      Thanks again! I hoped that part (about relating to characters) was clear enough. Also, I just like talking about hobbits. But seriously, it was a lot of fun to write. 🙂

  7. orphu44 says:

    Ahh, this post is here! And I can read it all the way to the end! *dances*
    I would try to articulate my thoughts better, but as it’s already been established that drooling enthusiastically on the floor is acceptable, I might just revert to that.
    Your copy of Ash looks different from mine, as well. (I continue to be needlessly surprised by this sort of thing.)
    (And all these mentions of potentially LGBTQ+ stories with DRAGONS and DETECTIVES and TRANSGENDER ROYALTY is making me want to write so many different things …)

    • nevillegirl says:

      *facepalms, giggling* *hands you a bucket so the drool doesn’t make a big mess everywhere* Thank you for your enthusiasm.

      (And the royalty was actually bi, but… trans royalty. Hmm. That would make an interesting story. *hands you a small pet dragon*

      • orphu44 says:

        Well, there were the bisexual queens as well, but I might the possibility of a transgender princess that you mentioned near the beginning of the imagination bit.

    • nevillegirl says:

      Oh, yes. I got confused, because I fangirled much more about the bi queens. But yes.

  8. themagicviolinist says:

    “I did not, unfortunately, also turn into a dragon.” XD It begs the question: what kind of dragon? (A Hungarian Horntail, maybe . . . ?)

    Fantastic post. 🙂 I definitely think we need more diversity in books, not only in YA, but also MG. Younger kids can “handle” it, too, and I’ve yet to see so much as a kid with gay parents. Also, I think we need more diversity in a subtler way. Not just in the obvious, “LET’S SEE HOW MANY DIFFERENT RACES/CULTURES I CAN FIT INTO ONE STORY” kind of way, or even a book with main characters that are bi/gay/queer, etc. (though we do need more of those). But even just minor characters, secondary characters, antagonists should be something other than heterosexual. I think so often for those of us who are heterosexual, that becomes the default, but it shouldn’t be.

    I also have a problem with authors describing their character as “black” or “dark-skinned” when they don’t do the same for their white characters. Unfortunately, I think just as heterosexual becomes the default sexuality for our characters, the default skin for our characters–and others, if they aren’t described as otherwise–is white. And that’s not cool, but it’s the truth. We as authors should try to go out of our way to educate ourselves and learn about different cultures and religions and sexualities and everything there is to learn about being a human being in this world. Plus, who knows where and when inspiration will strike? 😉

    • nevillegirl says:

      Nah, a Game of Thrones dragon. They’re much scarier. 😀

      Thank you! Maybe I should write a post about LGBTQ+ MG books, because I can think of maybe… two? Three? And I’d love suggestions of others.

      Hm… we already are minor characters, though. In mainstream fiction, I mean. We’re usually MCs in books written by LGBTQ+ authors and/or for LGBTQ+ audiences. But in “mainstream” books we usually don’t make it above secondary characters so I’d really like to see more protagonists in those kinds of books. Secondary characters are nice too, though.

      Agreed. I tend to imagine a character as white unless described otherwise, and I shouldn’t, and that’s also a good reason to read lots of diverse books – because it gets you out of the habit of thinking everyone is [fill in the blank].

  9. I’ve been waiting for this post and you didn’t disappoint! Thank you so much for taking the time to share this and I plan on re-blogging and sharing on Facebook and Pinterest. i hope that is okay. The only thin i would add is that I think some people (like myself) are fearful of writing diverse characters (whether LGBTQ+ or ethnic or differently-abled or chronic illness, etc.) not because we can’t sympathize, but we are afraid of getting it “wrong” and offending someone. I can definitely empathize and relate to people of all walks of life because we all have something “different” about us, it’s just what has been more socially accepted differences than others. Thanks again for a lovely post.

  10. Reblogged this on Jennifer Austin – Author and commented:
    This is a great post on writing LGBTQ+ characters in books. If you are a writer, especially a YA writer, I recommend this read.

  11. Artgirl says:

    This post (and especially the links) is muchly appreciated. My current novel is about a superhero who is also a queer Muslim woman, and her best friend is of undetermined race/sexuality and uses a wheelchair. Neither of which I have much experience with (aside from the queer), so it’s helpful to see eloquent thoughts on writing characters who are different from yourself. I thank you.

    • nevillegirl says:

      Thank you so much! I worked super-hard on this, so I’m glad it is appreciated.

      I would love to read that story someday. 🙂 I don’t think I’ve read any stories with queer Muslim ladies… I know of one that exists (If You Could Be Mine) but more is always better. 😀

      Eeeep! *blush* Eloquent what not me I am not “eloquent.”

      • Artgirl says:

        It’s hard, because on the one hand, diversity is mega important in fiction, but on the other hand, as someone who white and not Muslim I don’t want to write offensively. But there is a severe lack of books about queer Muslim superhero ladies, and I want to write her. Also, I am quite stuck on whether to turn this into an Issue Book or not. Because while I love it when we can have diversity without calling attention to itself, I don’t think it would be right or realistic to not include anything about racism/sexism/homophobia.

        Oh, you’re quite eloquent. You have a breezy, witty writing style that gets your point across clearly in a fun and often humorous way.

    • nevillegirl says:

      I think issue books are OK, as long as issue books aren’t the only diverse stories out there. We need a good mix of types of books, that’s all. 🙂

      *blushes twice as much as before*

  12. Pingback: Quarterly Rewind, Spring 2014 – Much Ado About “Game Of Thrones,” College, And Being Queer | Musings From Neville's Navel

  13. Pingback: A Recap Of Pride 2014 | Musings From Neville's Navel

  14. Pingback: My Hero Monday: Malinda Lo | Musings From Neville's Navel

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