Characters: Gay by nature or choice?
The following is my response to an email from a woman who kindly beta-read the novel I have recently completed– the middle grade “Summer and July.” Her feedback was thoughtful, intelligent and complimentary. To my surprise she said she enjoyed it in spite of her being ethically opposed to the nature of the love presented in the story, and her worry that my story would contribute to the “normalization” of such love. Below is my response to her. I omit my opening remarks.
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Notes on your notes: The “men in gray suits” is actually one of the several colorful terms in surfer lingo for sharks. Another good one is “landlord,” which is their term for great white sharks. Those don’t appear on the beaches of Santa Monica, or they would have been a good inclusion. But since that didn’t come through to you as a reader, perhaps I need to expand on that exchange. “Noah” is another term for sharks, from the Aussie cockney rhyming scheme of “Noah’s Ark” rhyming with “shark.” Similarly Aussie surfers call Americans “seppos” because “Septic tank” rhymes with “yank.” It’s kinda bizarre.
I, too, was happy with Summer’s method of giving herself permission to feel something other than happy, enthusiastic and optimistic– putting on Juillet’s clothing and makeup. I didn’t plan it– I don’t plan anything in writing, really. I don’t think I am capable of doing something as artful or lovely as that, but as a servant of the muse, I think I do a pretty good job of staying out of her way. I don’t feel like I’m the creator of a story so much as I am the first person to experience it.
I feel the same way about characters. I don’t expect that I’ll change your mind about seeing same-sex love as being somehow wrong, but I’ll make my argument anyway. I have never designed a character, and if I did I think they’d be wooden or cliched. I feel like they are introduced to me by the universe, and I disagree with writers who think that I as an author need to know my characters completely. In fact I feel like I only know them as much as they are willing to reveal themselves to me. An interviewer once asked if I ever found myself disappointed when I finished writing a novel and realized that my characters weren’t real, and my reply was “I don’t think I agree that they aren’t real.”
But I didn’t set out to write a same-sex love story. I think that every story is a love story– the only question is what kinds of love. Summer and July was born from the sense of place of a seaside town with an ice cream shop and boogie boarding, then the characters walked into the scene. But I don’t feel like I determined their sexual orientation any more than I designed the bluebird metaphor. Which I did not design. I’m just witness to it. My understanding of Juillet and Summer, watching them act, is that they are not necessarily drawn exclusively to their own gender. It seems like their affection is specific to the individual case– for Juillet, Summer, and for Summer, Juillet. They’re probably both surprised that their first kiss was with another girl. They’re both young and figuring themselves out.
I don’t choose the sexual orientation of my characters, but if I did, I wouldn’t apologize for representing same sex loves as being as legitimate and potentially beautiful as heterosexual loves. And I would suggest that maybe instead of worrying about texts that “normalize” same sex loves, perhaps you should worry about texts that vilify or demonize love between two men or two women, which has always existed. It’s hard for me to even imagine what motivation lies behind such persecution other than some antique need for maximum regeneration of the species to swell the ranks of armies and churches. It is interesting that you use Plato to support your argument about our need to use care in what we teach our young, when Plato said that the only true type of love was that which existed between two men. Of course I disagree with Plato in this respect, as I think that the love between a man and a woman can be pretty profound, too.
I’m sure that– while gay people have appeared in previous novels of mine– Summer and July will open me to a new level of potential criticism and rejection for elements other than my ability to tell a story. I didn’t wish for this, and it doesn’t represent any kind of bravery on my part– that distinction is reserved for those who wrote about the love between members of the same sex in decades past. I’ve got a left-handed female character named Lefty in my work-in-progress, but likewise people in centuries past have fought the stigma of people who find themselves preferring using their left hands, so there is no heroism for me there, either.
Happily, though thinking ill of same sex love still exists in the world I live in, having a contract with a Big Five publisher I have learned that, generally, in the world of children’s books, publishers have moved beyond the argument. Though opposition to same sex love still exists, my editorial group does not wish to dignify such opposition with space on the page. Nobody in a middle grade book written by me and published by my publisher is going to look askance at two girls or two boys falling for each other.
For me It was easy to make the “normal” heterosexual choice. Girls and women have always been attractive and fascinating to me. Though I didn’t set out to write a story featuring a same-sex love, the idea that maybe some kid will fail to kill him or herself because I didn’t resist presenting a story in which affection and romantic love between two members of the same sex is pretty much the most adorable love story ever– I’ve got to say I like the idea of being on that side of the equation, and of history. And all I have to do is let the characters be who they are. Take them as they are, and love them as they came to me. I hope you’ll consider this position.