Self Doubt and Writing the Other
In interest of full disclosure, I am a straight, white female with a lower-middle class background. By the time I hit my teens, that background went from lower-middle to middle class – meaning my parents made more money and I stopped wearing hand-me-downs.
I was a very straight-laced kid. Probably my biggest bout of rebellion was being so incredibly straight-laced it was annoying. For a long time I only really had friends that were in my religion or who had formerly been in my religion or who were in some way religious – even if it was a different religion. Basically, they were all really straight-laced kids.
Then, one day, my doctor’s daughter (who was about three years older than me) committed suicide. Then another girl who I admired stopped volunteering at church and started hanging out with “bad kids.” Then I found out a family member (who was younger than me) had a drug problem. Then…then…then.
People started showing their flaws. They started showing that they were human beings. I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I wrote things down and I read books and I hoped to find answers.
Fast forward to now. I am still writing, still reading, and still hoping to find answers. Writing through my teens and early twenties was always a process of self-discovery. That may sound weird since I write Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror. But these are the themes and backdrops I have used to work through my love life, failing to accomplish my dreams, getting through the daily grind, and more. I needed these stories to explain life to me and to record the lessons I’ve learned over time. I can’t imagine when I won’t need them.
The most recent evolution of this process has been purposefully moving out of my own little bubble into the big bright world of character. Here’s what I mean:
1. My main character is a straight, white, upper-middle class girl – it’s true. But she also wears her flaws on her sleeve. She is addicted to cocaine and has an eating disorder.
Now, I felt this character would be a huge “OTHER” for me because of her drug and body image issues. While I’ve never had either issue, I have had friends with eating disorders and who abused drugs. I’ve had friends go to rehab and come out. Additionally, having moved from my home town (Los Angeles) to another city (Portland), I find these problems are universal.
2. I have two male characters who identify as gay. This is a big departure for me as I am neither male nor gay. In fact, most of the people I know who identify as gay are women. Honestly, this is where the self doubt creeps in.
First of all, who am I to represent an entire, underrepresented community? I mean, sexual identification is not the thrust of my book and I could have chosen to give my main character two more female friends or a male best friend or something like that. But I didn’t. I chose to cast two gay characters because sexual identification isn’t the thrust of the book and I, honestly, would like to show that sexual identification doesn’t define your life. I think that’s a message teens and adults need. We’re so obsessed with this “boy meets girl, they fall in love and live happily ever after” Disney-esque narrative that when it’s more like “boy meets boy and they fall in love” we feel we have to use that one little aspect of their lives to define a whole person.
Second, as I submit the book, I feel SUPER self conscious bringing up the sexual identification of these two characters. I am submitting the book all over the place right now and I see a TON of places that want works that have to do with LGBTQ. But the entire point of my making these two young men gay (which sounds weird, I know, they were birthed from my mind that way, okay?)… but the whole point was to make their sexual identification no big deal. That’s NOT what defines them. Heck, one is sucked into something he can’t overcome and the other slowly turns into… ah!… I can’t say without major spoilers. ANYWAY, the point is that they aren’t defined by that one aspect of themselves. They are defined by what they do and how they are a whole human
So, I’m feel really weird about saying “and these two guys are gay! Just so you know… so buy my book!” because I feel like I am selling these characters short. I feel like I’m not able to show the depth and breadth of their character by throwing that in there just to get a sale.
That’s why, as it stands, I don’t mention their sexual identification in my query letter. But I do want to sell my book. So, it’s a conundrum.
3. The character that is most like me is the one that gets the least screen time. And, I think I like it that way. Writing about myself in different iterations has been what I did in previous works, but it’s been interesting to take me out of the equation. Yes, there are bits of me in the main character and probably in other characters too. But it has been kind of fascinating to write about people who are not me for a change. Not only have I learned a lot about other people, I think I’ve begun to look outward instead of inward for character ideas, quirks in other people, and more. I have always been a people watcher, but I think this has helped me be more willing to talk with others, find out about their lives, and collect stories.
And isn’t that what writing is all about?