Representation in art is vital. Art can introduce people to other cultures and present images, characters, and stories for others to find someone like themselves. For marginalized persons, finding someone like one’s self on-screen or in stories is important to help develop a sense of self. The documentary The Celluloid Closet featured commentators explaining that LGBTQIA+ movie audiences of the early 20th Century sought any signifier of queerness to identify with, even if that character came to a bad end.
I’ve been working with a set of queer characters since 2012, in my Gabriel’s World Mystery/Thriller series. The protagonist private eye Gabriel Ross is gay, his boyfriend Joel McFadden is a bi artist, Gabriel’s best friend Veronica Gianni is a bi/genderqueer private investigator. In the second book, I introduced a trans woman character (Geneva Lennon) who became part of the series and part of the investigation team. I’m now beginning a new fiction project (Gravfika) combining Mystery and Neo-Noir Gothic Fantasy. I’m focusing on Veronica and Geneva to lead the series.
My main motivation for the new project is my identity as a genderqueer/bisexual person. When I was young, finding positive, strong, queer fiction characters to identify with was difficult. It’s amazing how things changed over time–now queer characters are in movies, TV, and comics. More actors and artists are out and prominent as nonbinary (Asia Kate Dillon!!! Ruby Rose!!! Sam Smith!!!) and trans (Laverne Cox!!!). [By the way, I strongly recommend the documentary Disclosure, which is much like The Celluloid Closet, for trans and nonbinary characters].
I am committed to integrating advocacy into my work. While queer writers, artists, actors, etc. don’t have to do so, we end up being hyperaware of our identities because society can’t let people just be. Others feel the need to impose value judgments on our existence, limitations on our right to take part in life, scorn for how we refer to ourselves, punch down at us in comedy routines, or attempt to negate our identity altogether. Even those within the alphabet may pontificate on how to be or not be queer. Trans and nonbinary seem to mark an outer limit of progression. Take for example the ignorant, scornful backlash to something as simple as asking to be called by preferred pronouns. Some people get angry when others cannot fit in a preconceived box. These people don’t understand diverse gender identities and sexual orientations existed for thousands of years. As college faculty, I’ve taught about them in the history of Indigenous, Hindu, Buddhist and Daoist culture.
A need still exists for good characters, visibility and representation, particularly for the young generations. I’ve thought about that need ever since I gave a talk at a college seminar on queer issues, and a young bi/genderqueer student approached me with thanks for giving info on topics that her family refused to discuss (and targeted her for her identity).
In my new project Veronica and Geneva will be front and center. this gives me a chance to draw their characters fuller, richer, and more complex. I considered what factors are important here for that goal while keeping them recognizable for the Gabriel’s World crossover fans. These factors include using their identity as a strength, considering what trans/nonbinary persons want to see or read, what allies should see or read. After this, what remains is the fun part of the description.
While identity is a strength, I don’t want a ‘magical’ element. That reduces a character to just one trait (much like bad screenwriting). I understand the urge to make a character perfect and good. Because I’m open as a nonbinary person, I often take on a role like an ‘ambassador’ to cis persons. Yet we can’t expect real people to be perfect. So a perfect character will be boring, very boring. The key is what nuances an author adds complexity. An author should create a dossier on their characters and their backgrounds to intuit the personality nuances.
How might identity be a strength? One way is perspective. A person who has struggled with coming to terms with one’s identity might be more open-minded to appreciating a true self. This person might take care to not assume based upon appearances and understand things may not be as they seem. This person might pick up on little nuances of behavior from years of dealing with microaggressions and slights. (They might also deal with some anger and irritation from the same). This person might be more observant and better at critical thinking because of a need to size up a situation for danger and be quick-minded with comebacks prepared for haters. This person might have a core of strength to continue to live and live by their principles, regardless of knowing swaths of persons hate them and find them repulsive or crazy. The person might show speaking skills and patience from responding to inquiries, rude or otherwise, or from jokes.
Here’s what I and many other trans and non-binary persons don’t want in a character and so I’ve concluded is a good representation for allies. My readers include many cis/het persons who gave feedback about the stories. Representation also applies to them. Sometimes a person only knows a group by a fictional work. Being human (particularly in a fantasy genre, where non or bi-gender persons are portrayed as alien). Trans men characters. Plots that don’t revolve around being trans or nonbinary. Characters who don’t live in angst or despair. Characters who aren’t tragic or must face constant difficulties due to being trans and nonbinary, i.e. the usual discrimination/attack scene. In other words, being people. Skilled, very competent, and ethical, empathetic people with individual flaws.
As a reader, what I like are characters I imagine I know, and would want to meet and hang with regularly. As an author, I hope for my characters to be the same.