Identity, Sexuality, and Authenticity

Why gender and sexual identity still needs to be more than background to a character

This week Jonathan Van Ness from Queer Eye revealed he is living with HIV in a candid profile that included sharing stories of his struggles with addiction and experience as a sexual abuse survivor. The interview with the New York Times was part of the promotion for his new memoir, Over the Top, which also came out this week.

Responses within the LGBTQ community to Van Ness’ revelation that he is positive were also positive. Most of the people in my circle expressed how impressed we were with his courage and how helpful it would be for other people with HIV to have such a public figure sharing his experiences. (That this was our initial reaction, rather than sadness and terror, speaks volumes about how far HIV treatments have come since those dread-filled days of the 1980s, but I want to note that many people who contract the virus still suffer and die, and support for AIDS research, treatment, and prevention is still really important.)

On Twitter this week, a writer asked how other writers create and give voice to characters whose identities they do not share. This writer was a man, and he was especially interested in how male authors write women because he felt he had no idea how our brains work. Someone else responded with the brilliantly simplistic, “Women are people.” He elaborated that writers often create characters who are not like themselves (e.g. a romance novelist is not a firefighter; a novelist who is 27 is not 35 like their character). The response got many likes and retweets, and I’m kicking myself for not taking a screenshot to include here. (I tried searching my Twitter feed and can’t find it now to show you.)

These two events are, on the surface, unconnected, but that they happened in the same week has got me thinking a lot about identity and authenticity. In the publishing world, there is currently great pressure for #ownvoices authors – that is, authors from historically marginalized groups writing characters from those same groups. This is valued as giving voice to those who have historically been rendered voiceless or, worse, been voiced only by those outside those lived experiences. To make my own politics clear, I absolutely support this move. I want everyone to encounter stories about people of color, queer people, immigrants, women, ethnic and religious minorities. And I want those stories to be told by people from those communities who understand their complexities.

This gets me back to the guy on Twitter who sharply noted that women are people. We are, that is true, and can a cis straight man skillfully write from the point of view of a woman because he, like her, is a person? Maybe. Sometimes. Sure. It depends. Being a woman is often more than just being “people,” since so many of our experiences, attitudes, appearances and behaviors, and fears are shaped from the second of our birth by societies that still treat women as less than men. After the #MeToo movement began, I wrote out my thoughts as I moved through a typical day. One of my gay male feminist friends was stunned to see how much of my day is shaped by rape culture, even though I have – thankfully – never been raped. My daily experiences aren’t any different than most women’s in the United States, though perhaps more consciously interrogated.

Reading over requests from literary agents, editors, and even mentors to contests like Pitch Wars, I’ve noticed a pattern in which LGBTQ characters and stories are sought – with the caveat in romance that sexuality should be secondary to the story. Now, I contain in my head a font of knowledge about the history of lesbian romance publishing and the origins of m/m romance. I understand that some of this has to do with decades in which coming out narratives comprised the bulk of gay and lesbian romance. I get that the fanfic origins of m/m romance led to some serious questions over how a character understands their sexual identity, to some flat characters who can’t talk or think about anything other than whether or not they’re gay, and that spawned some intense psychoanalytic research on what it means to write and consume those stories. I’m also not naive to the reality that publishers need to ensure books sell, and a lot of their “wishlists” are driven by the market.

But here in 2019, is sexual identity merely a background characteristic of queer people? Do we live in a world where people fall in love, regardless of gender, and are fine with however things shake out? Do we live in a world where onlookers do not judge couples by their gender presentation, and the law equally protects all? Until the answers to all those questions are yes, there is still value in allowing queer characters to be wholly queer. Sandy Lowe, senior editor for Bold Strokes Books, wrote a blog post about why she doesn’t think we should write for a post-gay world back in 2016, and I think she’s still right in 2019.

Just as my daily experiences are shaped by being a woman, they are also shaped by being queer. Although I am a lesbian-identified cis person, I am married to someone whose pronouns vary and who describes their own identity alternatively as nonbinary, queer, and trans. Our daily lives, and the daily life of LGBTIQA people more generally, are shaped by whether or not we live in a community with people who look and act like us or who stare at us aghast, by looking for gender-neutral restrooms, by the language people use to describe love and romance and significant others, by the acceptance or rejection we experience from our families, by how well our health care providers understand our bodies and sex lives, by whether our health insurance even covers the kind of medical procedures and prescriptions we need, by suicide statistics, by homophobic churches, by not seeing ourselves on television, and on and on. Some of these issues are more pertinent to trans, nonbinary, and intersex people, sure, and I don’t mean to conflate us all. Some are also not unique to the queer community. I merely mean to point out that when folks in the literary world say, “I’d really like it if being LGBT wasn’t central to the character,” what I hear is a fundamental misunderstanding of how being LGBTIQA already is central to real people and often leaves its mark on every fiber of a person’s body, mind, and soul.

Until the world is full of Jonathan Van Nesses and all our social issues resolved, I’m content to continue writing characters with a range of sexualities and gender identities, whose experiences range from easy acceptance of themselves to struggling with society and self-love. I’m content to continue writing about the personal and social issues my loved ones and I have experienced, but to make sure that in my books, as so often doesn’t happen in real life, we always get a happy ending that reaffirms the beauty in who we are.

When Romance Doesn’t Work

The fundamental building block for all romance (novels, movies, comics) is fantasy. Characters must be flawed but sexy, imperfectly desirable. From their meet-cute to the tensions that keep this obviously destined couple apart to their final declaration of love, we go along with the fantasy of believing that romance exists, that some people just belong together, and that love will always find a way.

Surely they can make this work!

Romance hinges upon fantasy, it’s true. But good romance also feels plausible. It’s fantasy but not fantastic. The reader (or viewer) has to believe the characters are real and that, as wild as the circumstances may be, they will overcome their obstacles to be together. (Let’s put aside our cynicism about what may happen with their relationship two months down the road. Not thinking about what comes after “happily ever after” is also part of the fantasy.)

What happens when characters seem out of this world? What happens when the circumstances that keep them apart seem so big that overcoming them seems impossible? Or what about when the circumstances are too minor? Let’s break down each of these questions to see how good romance is plotted.

Unbelievable Characters

A character with a flaw is always more intriguing, but this may be a line too far…

I’ve blogged about this phenomenon before. It’s an easy trap for a writer – especially a romance writer – to fall into. But when a writer is too in love with their own character, it’s hard to write them in a way that makes them imperfectly desirable. Perfection is not sexy. “Flawless” is a desirable trait for a photo shoot with Beyonce, but not for a romance story.

In my current novel, which I’ve also blogged about, things are progressing slowly because I’m struggling to find the balance between lovably awful and awfully lovable. The character is a wealthy narcissist, but if they only flaunted their wealth, it would be gross to the other 99% of us in the real world. If they are too self-absorbed, they’ll never see the beautiful person that their love interest is. Striking a balance is important.

But this can also tip too far in the other direction. I’ve read many romance novels in which male love interests are written to be petulant, emotionally stunted, aggressive, just plain awful, and unfortunately the writer never shows another side. We’re just expected to believe that the women who fall for these men are fine with this. I could digress here and say a lot about the way society conditions girls to participate in cis hetero relationships, but I’ll save the sociology lecture. Suffice it to say, good romance writing can’t make a hero or heroine too perfect or too awful.

Insurmountable Obstacles

A similar difficulty in romance writing is making the obstacles that keep the characters apart balanced. It should be tough for them to get together. That’s part of the pleasurable agony of romance. But we should also recognize from page one (or scene one) that they are going to get together in the end. Good romance doesn’t leave readers or viewers to wonder if the couple will get together.

Remember You’ve Got Mail or its precursor The Shop Around the Corner? In the 1990s version, a local bookshop owner loses her livelihood and entire life to a chain bookstore (which, hopefully, faced its karma ten years later when it was put out of business by Amazon). With her store and life ruined, Kathleen (Meg Ryan) is now free to write children’s books, which it turns out is what she always wanted to do. She is also free to love her business rival Joe (Tom Hanks).

Let’s break this down for a second. He drives her shop out of business. The shop her mother started. The shop that keeps all the neighborhood children entertained. The shop that she has devoted her life to. And she says, “Oh, well, at least I’ve got you?”

Yeah, the only reason this got a pass was Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks.

Putting someone out of business is a common theme in Hallmark movies. In novels, I’ve seen dark romances in which a hero actually commits a crime against their love interest, kills someone close to their love interest, or worse. There is an entire body of romance scholarship on narratives in which the hero abducts and/or rapes the heroine. This material is tricky, and I couldn’t adequately talk about in this short essay. So I’ll just say this: a good romance narrative shouldn’t ask the reader or viewer to believe one character is sacrificing their emotional, mental, financial well-being for the relationship. The circumstances that stand between the love interests should be challenging but not so life-changing as to never be fully surmounted.

Barriers That Aren’t Barriers

In lesser quality romance, writers and screenwriters seem to struggle creating barriers between the characters. This can be as frustrating as barriers that are too significant. We know from the first page or scene that the characters are going to end up together. That’s the pact producers, writers, editors, directors, audiences, and readers make with each other in romance. But at least give us two hours of wondering how.

One of my favorite romance tropes is royal romance. In these stories, one of the love interests is royalty, usually from a made-up European country, while the other is a commoner, usually a middle- or working-class American. Talk about barriers! Not only do we have an economic disparity, but there’s also giant cultural and political differences, fundamentally different ways of viewing the world. Does success and wealth come from hard work (the American value) or from pedigree (the monarchical value)?* Is marriage a coming together of two people in love (American) or two people whose families are politically and economically aligned (monarchical)?*

*Of course, these values aren’t solely American, nor are they the reality of American society — or a lot more of us would be rich for all the hustling we do.

Most of the time these stories resolve this tension this way: the kings, queens, and prime ministers who insist the royal character must marry royalty eventually realize true love is more important than bloodline. Does this make sense for a real life monarchy? Kind of, kind of not. (This is why Duchess Meghan has captivated the American media.)

But does this make sense for romance? Oh yell yes! Different citizenship, political systems, and economic classes are tough barriers to overcome. How enjoyable to see them surmounted through a radical change in political philosophy.

Imagine if Lizzy Bennet were wealthy, and the only thing standing between her and Mr. Darcy was their unwillingness to admit their love for each other. A good writer could perhaps make this compelling, but more than likely, we’d think it was a boring story because it would seem as if the characters were just being silly or emotionally unaware. This is why romance sequels are usually less than satisfying. Once the couple has gotten together and the barriers have been overcome, it’s hard to wedge the couple back apart without convincing us that this new wedge is a dumb contrivance or that the couple never should have gotten together in the first place.

Recap: Three Essential Qualities of Good Romance

  1. Believable characters who are not perfect but still very likeable
  2. Obstacles that don’t leave us wondering if the couple will ever get together
  3. Obstacles that do leave us wondering how the couple will get together

What are your biggest pet peeves about romance narratives, and how do you think writers could fix them?

If I don’t love the character, neither will the reader

Since finishing a novel I absolutely love, with two characters I adore who are perfect for each other (though they don’t know it at first, naturally), I’ve started on the next project, a royal romance with a royal who is petulant and trapped. And I’ve written myself into a miserable corner with this one.

My nonbinary hero, Remy, is trying to figure out how to manage their identity with the duties of the monarchy. But instead of this struggle coming off as painful, Remy is leaping off the page as a total brat. I don’t like them. And that’s a big problem. If I don’t like them, neither will readers.

As a romance novelist, my job is to sell readers on the fantasy world I create. My characters should be desirable – flawed, yes, but in ways that heighten the reader’s attraction and empathy. I’ve seen bratty characters in other romance and erotic stories, and presumably the writers found them adorably terrible. I really didn’t. I couldn’t buy in.

I think you can tell as a reader when a writer is in love with the idea of a character and not the character as a whole person. When I was in a playwriting class in college, one of our assignments was to create a character. I made this perfect, handsome, smart, sensitive, wonderful guy who wore black turtlenecks (chic at the time, okay) and whose family had embraced his coming out wholeheartedly. My professor scoffed. “There’s nowhere for this to go,” she told me. “It’s not interesting if he’s perfect.” I was in love with the idea of who that character, whom I had appropriately named Adam, was. He wasn’t a real person. He was an archetype of Gay Man. No one else would ever care about him, but he wasn’t beautifully flawed the way real humans are.

My professor was right, and of course, the inverse can be true, too. It’s not interesting if the character’s “charming” flaw becomes their entire personality. I once read a m/m romance novel in which one of the protagonists was constantly described as “blushing,” “giggly,” and “little.” His entire personality became bound up in his demureness. I could tell the writer was enamored with this highly nonthreatening man she’d created. I hated him. In Remy’s case, their frustration and outspokenness have killed any charm or vulnerability they should and could have. Instead of creating a character I’m so in love with, I’ve gone too far in other direction, and no one will ever care about them. They aren’t beautifully vulnerable and sometimes weak the way real people are. Real people don’t have a sassy response to every single thing. Real people still get excited about things. Real people – especially romance characters – still fall in love. Remy’s become such an enfant terrible that I can’t imagine them ever giving into their emotions to fall in love. And that is a huge problem for a romance novel.

For now, Remy is going to take a much-needed timeout while I figure out how to retool them into a smart-mouthed but charming royal, someone you simultaneously envy and desire. Someone you want to be and want to be with. Stay tuned.