Jo Hall looks at how to write non-heterosexual relationships in SFF, including pointers on what pitfalls to avoid, what things to consider and recommendations of books that have done it well.

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If We Can Imagine Dragons:

On Writing Non-Heterosexual Relationships in Fantasy

 

By Jo Hall

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Fantasyland. It’s a weird place. It’s full of dragons and unicorns and heffalumps and magic swords and people with cockroach heads and killer rabbits and…ooh, all sorts. All the wide word of fantasy, unrolled like a magic carpet before you, ready for you to sprawl out on and study the gauzy threads that make up a world. What could be more freeing than writing a world where pretty much anyone can do anything… And sometimes, when you can do pretty much anything, that can be a little overwhelming. This article is designed to provide a few pointers to help you write LGBT characters in a fantasy or SF setting, and I hope you find it helpful.

 

There are some people, a few, who don’t want you doing pretty much anything in your fantasy world. At the very least, they don’t want you doing anything that they would deem “inappropriate”. Yes, some people, who are happy to read about big flying gas-powered lizards and cockroach-headed people, have deemed it unrealistic that people living in a fantasy world might want to have relationships with people of the same sex.

 

These people are, of course, idiots. We will roll our eyes vigorously at them. But if you decide you are going to write about characters involved in a non-heterosexual relationship in your fantasy novel, it’s probably best to apply some thought before you dive right in and write it. There are a number of issues to consider that apply specifically to writing in a fantasy world that you should consider first.

 

For a start, you need to think about the kind of society your characters live in. If it’s an uptight, repressive, Victorian-style society, or a deeply religious one, it may be that gay and lesbian relationships are frowned on, or taboo, or even illegal. This will affect the way your characters approach their relationship. For a good example of a society shifting from one where homosexuality is embraced to one where it is repressed, I recommend Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor (The Traitor Baru Cormorant in the US).

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Write people who happen to be gay – the soldier who lives with her wife, the courtesan and his heroic lover. Give them a part in your story, don’t just use them as diversity wallpaper.

Secondly, never forget that your characters are, first and foremost, characters, not “gay” characters. If you’re going to write a series of lazy stereotypes, you might as well not bother, even if you’ve set out to write with the best of intentions. Don’t write characters who are only in the story as a token gay character. Instead write people who happen to be gay – the soldier who lives with her wife, the courtesan and his heroic lover. Give them a part in your story, don’t just use them as diversity wallpaper. And try not to fridge… well, anyone really!

(Fridging, for those unfamiliar with the term, is creating a character whose existence and inevitable subsequent death is only there to serve as motivation for another character. Often the person being stuffed into the metaphorical fridge is a woman, or a gay friend. These people are not characters; they are ciphers. Your gay characters need to be as fully realised as your straight characters).

 

One of the fun things about writing in a fantasy or SF universe is the freedom it gives a writer to play with biology. Characters, indeed whole species, don’t have to be one gender or another. They can be both, or neither, or switch between genders at will, or against their will. All things are possible, and this will have an effect on the kind of society that you are writing. Check out work by Mary Gentle and Alison Goodman, as well as Joanna Russ and Ursula Le Guin who were really the pioneers of this kind of writing, to see gender and sexuality -diverse world-building done superlatively well.

 

If you’re a little bit nervous about writing gay or trans characters, and you want to make sure you’re getting it right and not inadvertently causing offence (hey, it happens!), the best thing you can do is ask either a writer who is experienced in the field, or, better still, a gay or trans friend, to have a read through it for you. They will be able to spot clichés, stereotypes and the dreaded fridging more easily than you can, and may have some suggestions to improve your characterisation. But don’t avoid including gay characters out of fear of causing offence. If we stick to only writing what we know, people would only ever write autobiography. Being an SFF writer means, by implication, writing what we don’t know. We are craftspeople whose purpose is to imagine the most wondrous things. If we can imagine dragons, then we can imagine being someone different than who we are.

 

When written well, with understanding, LGBT characters in books can provide representation for readers who may otherwise sometimes feel marginalised or excluded from mainstream SFF. The worlds of science fiction and fantasy have helped us to imagine worlds in which gender and sexuality are not binary and hetero-normative, just as the ground-breaking work of the 50s and 60s explored, for example, racial identities and class structures. SFF allows us a window on the 'what if', at the same time as holding a mirror up to the 'what is'.

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