Taking Responsibility for Writing Problematic Stories

NOTE: Contains a fairly major spoiler for GOD’S WAR.

I spent a lot of time this weekend on panels at WorldCon talking about the responsibilities of being a writer, and how what we put on the page can mean something very personal to people. I spend a stupid amount of time buried in research books and googling shit on the Internet and digging up first person accounts of things and evaluating my own biases, and you know, that shit can get exhausting sometimes. Sometimes you lose focus. Sometimes you forget what you’re doing it all for.

And sometimes, just like everybody else, I screw up.

After one of my panels at WorldCon, I had a reader come up to me and say that she had chosen God’s War as one of her book club’s selections. It turns out, she said, her book club had a number of gay men in it, and several of them were pretty pissed off when one of my major characters (and the book’s only gay male character) dies about three quarters of the way through the book.

Because, of course, the gay guy always dies.

I was aware of this particular problematic trope going in. Once I realized what I’d done, I picked up and rearranged all of my characters to try and re-write it. I’d already finished the first draft by that point that I couldn’t find a way to write myself out of it without completely re-tooling another character or adding in somebody else. I knew it was a cliché that the gay guy friend always dies. So I did my best to write around it. I even put in a scene between him and his boyfriend, so at least he wasn’t the only gay male character mentioned in the entire book (and of course there are plenty of lesbians in the book, but the trope still stands). I tried to find other mentions of male homosexuality in the world. Because I’d gotten rid of so many guy characters by sending them off to war, I felt like if I tried to shoehorn in anybody else it would feel forced.

And though I stood there talking to the reader about all the things I’d tried to do both here and in later books to mitigate that problematic death the gay guy still dies. I still played into the stereotype. (I don’t want to give away too much of RAPTURE, but I did compose that book from outline to “The End” with an eye toward avoiding this trope, because I’d fallen so easily into it in the first book. Of course, now that I’m looking back at it, there’s a death can could be problematic there. FUCK. GAH.)

And you know, that stereotype hurts people.

I would love to be one of those writers who just says, “Hey, it’s a brutal world! Everyone is mangled and killed equally!” but that isn’t really true. It’s like somebody saying that the reason all the female characters in their fantasy book are passive, raped damsels who exist to be saved by the hero because it’s “realistic.”

Like, what? Realistic in what world? And did you forget you were writing fantasy?

Sometimes book stuff happens because that’s why the book happens. Sometimes it so happens the character who has to die is a gay guy. The problem is when he’s the only gay guy in the book. The problem is when you read a lot of books and the only gay guy in the book is the one who dies in every other book.

Because I understand that my work –and every other writer’s work – isn’t read in a vacuum. We have to interrogate what we’re doing and understand how it’ll be read in the wider context of things.

And as much of a gut punch as it was for me to be reminded that seeing yet another gay male character thrown under the bus in service to someone else’s story hurt people, it doesn’t hurt me as much as the person who actually read it for the third, fourth, fifth time and threw it across the room because, goddammit, why the fuck does the gay guy always die?

When I challenge both myself and other writers to interrogate stereotypes, and work hard to understand how their work might be read in the context of other things – this is the reason.   Because what we do has the ability to inspire and delight – or hurt and frustrate. Sometimes in equal measure.

I fail a lot at this, as this example shows. I get caught up in the bullshit just like anybody else. There’s no excuse for it, and all I can do is endeavor to do better next time, and ensure that any time I do employ a trope, I’m acutely conscious that I’m doing it for a really fucking good reason that I don’t yet have the skill or ability to write my way out of.

Because though our stories may be fiction, the people who read them are not.

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