Everyone likes to see themselves represented in the media the consume. It’s why films like Black Panther did so well with audiences. It’s why TV shows like Pose are celebrated. But outside of specific examples, most mainstream content whether it be films, TV shows, theatre, games or books, is still overwhelming filled with straight white men. The landscape has gotten better over the past few decades. Something like Pose would not have been able to exist and prosper ten years ago, and it’s still bizarre that Marvel took 11 years to have their first female-led superhero film. Representation is important.
As a young white man who is not gay, bi, trans or non-binary, I’m generally afforded certain privileges in life that others are not. With that said, because I’m pretty camp and love things like musical theatre and Disney and I really don’t like sports, a lot of people assume I am gay. As a result, I was subjected to a lot of homophobic bullying when I was at school which I would say is largely responsible for my depression. So, while I don’t fit under the main LGBT+ umbrella, I still feel a strong kinship to it because I’ve had some of the same abuse they have. Key word there being some as I know there are many, many people who have had it a lot worse just by being who they are.
Because of that, whenever I write, I’m always trying to be as considerate as possible to how my characters come across. Representation is important to people. Good representation can make people feel validated in their identity and give them the confidence to be who they are meant to be. It can also inform those who don’t understand it and improve life for everyone. Bad representation makes people feel ashamed or angry or scared and can be really damaging to whole communities. And then there is ‘representation’, where writers attempt to include characters of different minorities but don’t really want to so you get tiny little moments like a lesbian couple kissing in the background of a ten second shot in a film or a wink-wink moment of two guys dancing together and maybe liking it. It’s implied representation rather than anything more concrete. There are reasons for doing this and generally it’s based on money and not wanting to have the product banned in certain countries. But this type of representation is also dangerous as it suggests that these people don’t deserve to have their stories told or that that part of their identity isn’t important.
When I was writing The Burning Ash, I was writing with video games and anime firmly in mind where race doesn’t really come into things, and you’ll notice that I never mention the colour of anybody’s skin because in the end, it’s not a story about race. It wasn’t really a story that was aiming to represent anything other than an idealised version of love and friendship and the different stages of that idealised love and friendship where skin colour, gender or sexuality don’t matter.
One of the things I wanted to do was to make sure that all of the characters treated each other as equals. King Lee was the king, but he still listened and cared about Queen Sakura’s opinions. Diana was captain of the Riders of the Light, but she never saw herself as being more powerful than any of her male colleagues, but equally they never saw themselves as more powerful than her. There were perhaps class structures in place, but it was a level playing field for all.
In a way, this led to Arthur. Where all of the other characters were these idealised archetypes, Arthur was a way of representing a type of character I never had growing up. A young man who was in touch with his feelings and had interests or parts of himself that were more typically feminine but which didn’t invalidate the man he was. I didn’t give him a love interest in part because he didn’t need one, but also because it shouldn’t matter who he ended up with if he ended up with anyone at all. As I wrote Arthur, he was initially the type of man I could have been, the try-hard who is desperately trying to prove his manliness to those around him despite it not being who he is. As he grew and came to see that the world he was in wasn’t going to judge him, he allowed himself to just be. That’s something that was very important to me. To have a character like me who wasn’t gay or who was automatically assumed to be such.
When it came to finding the characters of my second book, it was going to end up being very heteronormative once again but it didn’t feel quite right. At that point, I realised that part of what I love about writing is writing a world that I want to see: a world where issues of gender, sexuality or race don’t matter. To me, they don’t and they never will. Everyone should be afforded the same opportunities in life and no one should be harassed or abused because of who they are. When I realised that, I knew that I wanted to ensure that my stories did representation right.
How to do representation right is a strange one. I’m still white and I’m still male and I’m not LGBTQ and I don’t share the experiences of those outside of my little bubble of life. I don’t want to offend the people I’m trying to be an ally to, but also, I don’t want to shy away from representing them because as a writer, I should be able to imagine their perspectives.
My conclusion is one of including characters but not focusing on those specific issues. My next novel is not a story that is focusing on issues of representation, it is not an attempt to tell the stories of minorities I’m not part of. What it is, is a story with a main character who is part of a minority but who is there as a person first and foremost. Hope, the deuteragonist of my next book, is a trans woman. But that’s only a small part of who she is. Hope’s transness is not something I’m going to explore because I’m not the right person to do that. But I am the right person to be able to include her as a person and as part of the story and while her history affects how she acts and behaves, the focus is on the now of the narrative. Her trans identity is mentioned briefly because it is an important part of who she is and it’s important for that to be seen, but it’s not important to the plot and so doesn’t need exploring. I can write the world as I see it and as I would like it to be. I can write the world as somewhere where people can be themselves without shame (unless of course they’re an awful human being, but that’s a separate kettle of fish). I may not be part of those minorities, and it may be a tiny act when the problems they face are on a global scale. But until the time comes when everyone’s stories are seen as normal, I want to make sure that everyone can be seen as normal in my stories.