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A perennial question amongst the writing community these days (particularly in post-Racefail SFF) is that of representation. It's heartening to see it as an active topic of discussion, but I think that something that gets lost sometimes is how important it is. I'm many things: pagan, polyamorous, (mostly) lesbian, mentally ill, on the Autism Spectrum, disabled, childfree, gender-questioning, among others. Let me tell you my story.

I grew up in a very Christian household, and a few years of my teen life were tarnished by my Dad getting into Christian Fundamentalism (of the "listening to rock music is signing an implicit contract with Satan for your soul" type, also "music in other languages is secretly witch spells being cast because you can't understand the language" -- let's just say my listening to Rammstein didn't go over well). I was pretty isolated as a child and teen because I was homeschooled and lucky to see another person my own age every six months. This background is important later.

As a young child, I was a precocious reader. I remember reading Little Women and Alice in Wonderland at about six. I didn't dare read my Mom's science fiction and fantasy, though, because I was already having panic attacks -- the earliest I remember being at two. I thought I would get in trouble, and that was enough to trigger a panic attack. So, I read the kid's literature of that time, which was almost entirely made up of books like the Baby-Sitter's Club, Sweet Valley High, and the younger versions of those same series. They were fucking depressing. I remember being suicidal at about eight because the world that existed in those books was nothing like my own life; at that age, the main thing was being in school, but as an adult, I can look back and tell that those books probably didn't accurately portray anyone's life. Eight year old me didn't know that.

I found SFF when I was eleven. I remember which book it was, too. Mom had a copy of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Hawkmistress! in the car. She dropped by work one day while we were out running errands to pick something up, and I had no other books. I picked it up, read the back, started reading. I was hooked, and later read through the rest of the series, in which I was introduced to gay, bisexual, lesbian, and polyamorous characters. I was introduced to feminism.

I read Mercedes Lackey, who also had characters of the same. When I was eleven or twelve and suicidally depressed, and unwilling to talk to either of my parents, my Mom gave me a copy of Piers Anthony's Virtual Mode, because the main character was a depressed, suicidal teen who continues to struggle with her depression despite her love interest and her adventures across many different worlds. Some might question the wisdom of this given that the books are also sexually explicit and Anthony certainly has plenty of dodgy elements, but I can't say she was wrong.

Being able to read about a character who struggled with the same things I did made me feel less alone. Being able to point at a character and say, "She's like me!", I cannot truly put into words the effect that had. I cried, and I kept reading, and though depression is something I still struggle with (as I have bipolar disorder), it helped me beyond words.

Mom also gave me Anthony's Incarnations of Immortality to read, to think about religion, which is honestly in part responsible for me becoming pagan. It isn't that I hold anything against the Christian God or Christ, but I don't feel called to that path. I couldn't not believe in the existence of all the Gods, especially reading those books, and even before formally changing my religion, I had strong connections with non-Christian deities such as Bast.

I didn't realize I was bisexual (and from then on, through experience, realize that I much prefer women, although not exclusively; my married partner is, after all, non-binary albeit more feminine than masculine) until I was 17. Part of my realization had to do with that I began to look at my experiences in a new light. The vast majority of my crushes were on women, either real or fictional; I did not find men as a general rule attractive (I could count on a hand the times I had felt that way and almost all were fictional non-human men in books or TV shows).

At that point, I had spent two or three years hearing my Dad go on and on about how gay people were going to Hell. Do you know why I did not feel that way, despite that being an ever-present thing I lived with?

It was because I could not look at the characters in the books I had come to love, in Lackey's books and MZB's and in so many others, and think that those people were damned. I refused to believe in a God that would damn people for simply being who they are.

Later, when the man who would become my fiance (now ex) came out to me as trans, I couldn't comprehend his fear that I would turn against him, knowing the truth, because I had read books with characters who were trans (or perhaps not quite trans as we know it but similar). I didn't see why it would be any big deal at all; I loved him, and that was that.

And again later, when I met polyamorous folks, and found out that even though I expected it of myself, I could not be monogamous (and I have always been honest about it), it was because of characters I had been introduced to in stories that I did not hate myself.

If I had not read the books I did, if I had not had those experiences, I would have been left with a father who thought everything I am was deserving of going to Hell. I would've hated myself, and I likely would not have even been able to come out to myself, or accept the truth. I don't know where I would be; I might be dead. I hate to admit to myself that is a saddeningly likely possibility.

And even recently, this still happens. A couple years ago, I decided to read through some of the Valdemar books again. In Oathbreakers, there is a character that I had missed on my first read-through, which had been as a teen. Kethry's love interest Jadrek has rheumatoid arthritis, or something much like it. The way that it is described made me burst into tears, because I had never before read a story with a character who has chronic pain. (Jacqueline Koyanagi's Ascension, published last year, is also excellent for this.)

Also worthy of note is the Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold, which is the first series I have ever read with a bipolar main character. Most people talk about his physical health issues, but since most of those are solved by far future tech (although not without a cost), his mental illness is far more interesting to me. I have never read a character with bipolar portrayed as just a normal person (... as normal as Miles can ever be, anyway), with people who recognize his mental illness and accept it as part of who he is and love him not in spite of it but for it -- yup, that made me cry. I made my partner read the books because "this is how my brain works."

Even now, as an adult, reading stories about characters like me, especially when we with pain disorders are considered unfit for adventure stories, can still bring me to tears... and give me hope.

This is why diversity is important, for so many things. This is why it is important to delve beyond the default. I won't say that the books I read were not problematic, especially by current views; hardly. But they were dearly important to a sheltered child who needed desperately to read about people like her, and people not like her. Some of what I thought was "not me" later turned out to be exactly me.

And to others I say: Keep writing. Think about your characters. Question the default: How would your character change if he were a she, or mentally ill, or disabled, or trans, or black, or Asian, or bisexual, or asexual, or so many things. Don't let fear of "getting it wrong" stop you; no single group is a monolith and some books that have spoken deeply to me have not reached others in the same way. It is impossible to write a character or story that speaks to everyone, but that isn't a bad thing. If anything, it shows why diversity is so important.
If you are concerned about your plot or character having problematic elements, consider your other characters and reach beyond the default. As an example, let's take the gay villain trope. If your only gay character happens to be the Bad Guy, this can send a message that you probably don't intend. The easiest solution to this is to think actively about your other characters.
You are not limited to one type of character per book; for instance, I have the first book of a series in progress where I decided the story worked better if the co-main character and love interest was a woman. By doing this, the majority of my cast became either gay/lesbian or bisexual. I feel (and so do my betas!) that this has made my story all the stronger. Ask yourself if there is another character (who is not a villain or antagonist) who could be gay or bisexual (or whatever is that you are concerned about). If so, problematic trope averted!
Above all: Keep the faith. It can be hard, when you fear getting it wrong and read advice that is in diametric opposition. But in my opinion, this is the most important thing about writing; reaching others, showing them they are not alone, and giving them hope. Someday, it might be your work that brings light to a suicidal child’s life.

This entry was originally posted at http://nonny.dreamwidth.org/514044.html. Please comment there using OpenID.


( 22 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 26th, 2014 05:37 pm (UTC)
This is so true! I am alive today because I grew up in science fiction. Dangerous Visions anthology had transgender characters getting better-than-real treatment in a future science world. Had gblt characters in stories, other sources had them. I remember Elric of Melnibone was an obsession for a while for me, the one swordsman hero I could really identify with so much more than Conan.

Because Elric of Melnibone had birth defects with his albinism that gave him Chronic Pain/Fatigue. Stormbringer was an effective treatment - with the sword he didn't have those symptoms, if he killed with the soul sucking sword he got amped up to Superman levels and could beat Conan. The moral issue of Stormbringer vs. much less effective "sorcerous" treatments that had to be taken daily was good and interesting - medical ethics there on an abstract level.

But he was a sympathetic character and a hero who was like me.

This is why I'm working on a fantasy series with a transman hero - he is loosely based on me but given better-than-real transition and larger than life hero problems. One of my goals with him was "a hero for boys like me, just as good as Batman or Conan or any of them."
Feb. 26th, 2014 10:53 pm (UTC)
I hadn't realized that about Elric -- I tried to pick up the first book but I didn't really get into it. It was too Old School fantasy for me, really; there was a lot more "tell" than "show" back then, and POV was definitely not deep. I'm a child of the 90s, what can I say. LOL.

Don't you have a trans girl character in your YA steampunk? ISTR you talking about her and she sounded pretty freaking awesome. :)
Feb. 27th, 2014 01:44 am (UTC)
I do have a trans woman in there, can't remember if she was a young girl or a grown woman but she's there in the first book. More will come up in later books, magic tends to pick outliers and so they'll be strong on gblt (Making for lots of cool plots of course!)
Mar. 4th, 2014 08:26 am (UTC)
I believe we talked about this and she was one of your Society of Women Engineers? I think you had said she was a teen, and had hoped to write her own romance at some point in the series. :)
Feb. 26th, 2014 05:50 pm (UTC)
Brilliantly written, and so very true.

I credit SFF with saving my life, too, as an abused child who desperately needed an escape valve -- and a reality check that not all families were like mine, and that I had hopes of growing up and GETTING OUT and building a life for myself away from my family of origin.

Anne McCaffrey and, later, Mercedes Lackey were really important to me -- in part because they showed abused girls/children who weren't irreparably broken by their experiences. Menolly and Talia, Kethry and Tarma and Vanyel, were all *important* to me.

They got out. And, eventually, so did I. And a lot of my attitudes on social issues were forged from my experiences with SFF -- Paganism, polyamory, queerness, non-binary people, race issues, marriage equality, social justice, reproductive rights -- so much of those attitudes, and my position of compassionate understanding toward people who were different from me... that can be laid at the feet of SFF, too, because I sure as hell didn't learn that stuff at home.


-- A <3
Feb. 26th, 2014 11:21 pm (UTC)
Yup, I did not go into the abuse factor as much in my post because I wanted to talk about how the representation issue affected me, but having an escape into so many stories and worlds definitely helped distract me from the abuse.

Tarma and Kethry really were incredibly important for me too, and probably my favorite of Lackey's. I always head-canoned Tarma and Kethry as an asexual romantic couple, with Kethry being polyamorous and loving Jadrek as well, also because she wants children (also, Jadrek is the character with rheumatoid arthritis). Honestly, I think there's a good argument for it being a poly triad, except that Tarma is asexual/vowed to celibacy. (I say asexual because even though it is a vow to her goddess, she seems to have no interest in sex whatsoever.) Edit - Actually, I went back and and read the end of Oathbreakers to find Jadrek's name and there is a scene where he confesses to Tarma that he loves her, and she tells him that she loves him back. He also recognizes her own oath and does not expect her to change her sexuality for him. So, maybe that's actually canon, not head-canon.

I did not talk about as much on race issues because more of my experiences with race came from YA books, which actually were some of the ones that did not depress me. Well, okay, Tamora Pierce's Tortall series does have characters who are not white, but I remember particularly going out of my way to find books about non-white characters... just, I didn't find as much of that in SFF, sadly. Oh! Octavia Butler. I LOVED her Parables set, but I read those as an older teen, and it's not as relevant to my personal experience. I have always tended to go out of my way to read about people "not like me" -- I do not understand the folks who don't, especially when said people read tons of books about aliens and fantasy non-humans.

Although I'll always have a soft spot for Lackey's Native American-esque characters, even though I know they're problematic -- as a kid with Native heritage, who had our history and my great-grandfather's spiritual teachings passed down, finding any sort of even fantasy Native Americans was pretty major, too. I just didn't talk about that as much in the main post since it was already long enough, LOL.

Yes, so many of my attitudes were formed by SFF, and I particularly tended to go out of my way to read books by women authors (or with women or girl main characters; you know those idiots who keep saying things like "We need to focus on books for boys, because girls will read about boys but boys won't read about girls"? Yeah, I'm the girl who doesn't exist, apparently; it's VERY unusual for me to read a book about a male MC and generally even then I will ONLY read it if there is a strong supporting female cast. This also has the side effect of weeding out a lot of the grimdark fantasy full of rape...).

I read a lot of Marion Zimmer Bradley and her contemporaries and other authors in her particular group, considering she was a mentor to many. While she certainly wasn't perfect, she introduced me to a lot of feminist thought, and honestly was my first introduction, and she definitely had issues of reproductive rights in her stories. I mean, that is at least one thing my family was staunch about -- they are solidly pro-choice. I have never seen my parents so angry as when we were harassed on the street by an anti-choice group that shoved signs in our faces, yelled at us, tried to prevent us from getting in our car. Seriously, it was not something that was talked about overmuch, but the ranting was ... enlightening.

But yes, as far as abuse -- the way you put it, "They got out. And, eventually, so did I" is dead on. That is the same for me. Watching characters I grew to care about get out of abusive situations really made a huge difference for me. It gave me hope that one day, I too, would get out. (Except I wouldn't get a white horse... You know how kids who grew up with Harry Potter wanted their invitation to Hogwarts? I wanted my Companion. Or I would have settled for Waarl. :D)

Edited at 2014-02-27 01:52 am (UTC)
Mar. 4th, 2014 04:03 am (UTC)
Tarma's asexuality is indeed canon; it's not just part of her oath, but an actual gift from the Star-Eyed, because Her representatives cannot afford the distractions sexuality would cause. In one of the later stories, it's also made clear that "asexual" is not the same thing as "without love" -- Tarma has to recognize and acknowledge her love for Kethry in order to save Kethry's life.
Mar. 4th, 2014 08:21 am (UTC)
Thanks for the clarification! It's been awhile since I read the books, and I read them in a binge, and because of memory issues caused by medication (thanks, Lyrica), I don't always have a great memory for specifics a few years later. I had forgotten about that short story -- so, yay, it's not just my headcanon but actual canon. :D
Feb. 26th, 2014 06:14 pm (UTC)
Elizabeth Moon! First.female characters I can remember who were warriors, and had adventures.of their own. .Worlds where I could imagine habi adventures, too.
Mar. 4th, 2014 12:51 pm (UTC)
I haven't read much of Moon's SF, but I LOVED Deed of Paksenarrion. First book I ever read where the fantasy military was realistic, and the character a very well done paladin.
Feb. 27th, 2014 12:42 am (UTC)
This. So many levels of this. For totally different reasons, but this is exactly why I am going to focus on finding books with all kinds of representation in whatever I end up doing in publishing. I'm already deliberately pulling ones from the slush when they manage to show any diversity in my internship. It might not do anything ultimately, but... It's something.
Feb. 27th, 2014 01:41 am (UTC)
Getting diverse books in front of the agent is HUGE. I've heard horror stories about first readers who have actually turned books away because of diverse characters, because they thought "they wouldn't sell". Granted, there are some agents too who still think that. I think that diversity is being discussed enough now that agents and editors are taking notice, but I know more than one person who has gone to self-publishing because several agents/editors responded telling them how much they loved the story, but that because of "x" reason involving a diverse character, they did not think they could sell it.

Which is one of many reasons I love self-publishing. Not that I am anti-traditional publishing, hardly. But now people actually have the option to publish those books that were deemed "too risky." Some of them are making a great living off them, too!
Feb. 28th, 2014 09:16 am (UTC)
I've read the Vorkosigan saga about 15 times and it has seriously changed the way I view the world. Like in the back of my head, I sort of expect uterine replicators to be a real thing.
Feb. 28th, 2014 08:02 pm (UTC)
Ahhhh, yes. I read a lot of books with settings I love but would not want to live with... the Vorkosigan books, however? Dammit, I want to live on Beta Colony. XD

Also, I just read the series for the first time in 2012. I am SERIOUSLY thinking about going back and re-reading the entire series. (And possibly picking up the non-CD e-copies, since it looks like Bujold has gotten the rights reverted for e-copies and is putting them out through her agency. Crappy covers, but that's sorta a tradition with the series anyway. They've made enough of an impact that even at $7 a copy for each individual book and whatever the cost is for the novellas/short stories, that I'd be willing to do it, especially with the author getting the lion's share in that scenario.)

Edited at 2014-02-28 08:05 pm (UTC)
Mar. 1st, 2014 06:29 am (UTC)
I'm making my wedding bouquet out of Cordelia's Honor because of how much I love the series. Cordelia is the kind of lady I want to be (though she has one throw-away line that really rubs me the wrong way in Shards of Honor).

READ IT AGAIN, IT'S SO WORTH IT. The newest book is pretty amazing and I'm really sad that it's probably gonna be the last one.
Mar. 1st, 2014 09:33 am (UTC)
That is an AWESOME idea for a bouquet! (Also, the line I remember that pissed me off was in Barrayar -- the one where she says Aral is monogamous not bisexual. I try to cut a little slack given when it was written, and Barrayar, but Cordelia being Betan should know better, and I wish there had been a thought or something to indicate that she was saying that as a decoy. Which is my head-canon and I'm sticking to it, cuz it's just so out of character for Cordelia.)

Yesss, I think I very well may. I had a long gap between the early books and when I read the mid-range to later books, so I don't actually have a whole lot of memory of The Warrior's Apprentice, The Vor Game, and one other. I also didn't have Falling Free, and I skimmed some of the short stories/novellas, so I'd like to go back and pay them proper attention now that I'm very much hooked. :)
Mar. 3rd, 2014 05:52 am (UTC)

The earlier books are probably my favorite, besides A Civil Campaign and Captain Vorpatril's Alliance.
Mar. 3rd, 2014 09:59 pm (UTC)
Re: That Line
I never took that particular line as being dismissive of Aral's bisexuality; rather, Cordelia was saying both that she accepted Aral as he was, and that his preferences didn't impact his fidelity. (Of which she had no doubt.) Vordarian, of course, was trying to make a big thing about Aral's preferences, in order to torpedo A&C's marriage. But, at least the way I read it, the only person Cordelia was dismissing was Vordarian.
Mar. 4th, 2014 04:10 am (UTC)
Re: That Line
That's pretty much my take on it as well. As if she were thinking that if Aral had an earring, it would read "bisexual but in a monogamous relationship". Apparently my brain interpreted both Vordarian's comment and Cordelia's response as referring to active bisexuality rather than background identity.
Mar. 4th, 2014 08:23 am (UTC)
Re: That Line
I personally have identified as bisexual at various times (mostly lesbian now, because, I've had so many bad experiences with cis men, I can't even), and even when I was monogamous, I still considered myself bisexual... so that's where I'm coming from there. I do understand the intent probably was a "fuck you, Vordarian", but I do wish that there had been a thought or something from Cordelia to acknowledge Aral's bisexuality even though he is in a monogamous relationship to a woman.

(correcting mispelling, frozen fingers, they like to leave out letters...)

Edited at 2014-03-04 08:25 am (UTC)
Mar. 4th, 2014 08:24 am (UTC)
Re: That Line
Copying my response to starcat_jewel below, for comment notification purposes :)

I personally have identified as bisexual at various times (mostly lesbian now, because, I've had so many bad experiences with cis men, I can't even), and even when I was monogamous, I still considered myself bisexual... so that's where I'm coming from there. I do understand the intent probably was a "fuck you, Vordarian", but I do wish that there had been a thought or something from Cordelia to acknowledge Aral's bisexuality even though he is in a monogamous relationship to a woman.

(correcting mispelling, frozen fingers apparently like to skip letters...)

Edited at 2014-03-04 08:25 am (UTC)
Kayla Van Dusen
Jan. 26th, 2019 08:46 pm (UTC)
Kethry and Jadrek
I grew up questioning a good number of things thinking I was expected to be perfect. I started reading Mercedes Lackey as a young teen because I fell in love with her characters and how accepting and diverse they are. It helped me throw various stages in my life reading her works, be they about Valdemar, the Hawkbrothers or Tarma and Kethry. Her characters know they're imperfect and strive to better themselves.
I identify most recently with Kethry and Jadrek with how as a couple they make each other want to be better than they were before meeting one another. Kethry and Jadrek have an unusual strength that even most romance stories miss. It's that they stengthen each other by being able to talk about their passions, their work, being bluntly honest with each other and laughing about it later.
It was they kind of thing I sought in my relationship because I watched so many hide what they are from fear of society or backlash of some sort. That fearlessness Kethry has with Jadrek I envied for the longest time until I realized that it wasn't just the two of them as a whole. It was the acceptence of themselves before they became a whole. Understanding what they wanted in a life partner.
( 22 comments — Leave a comment )