When I started writing, I didn’t think about how people would react to my characters for simply existing as themselves. This is partially because I was eleven and partially because I wrote characters no-one in my social circle would really object to (except maybe in the case of their gender).
To be blunt, I wrote straight, cis, able-bodied white characters who were, by default, Christian. And if they weren’t Christian, it was either because they’d never heard of Christianity or because they were a lone agnostic or atheist that I was determined to convince to convert along the way. Readers were also meant to assume they were neurotypical, and I put a lot of work over the years into making sure they acted like “normal” people, that neurotypical people would read them and relax, thinking “ah, yes, one of us.”
Over the years, I got a little better- asking myself more thoughtfully about whether the default image in my head really needed to be there, and running with ideas I hadn’t originally considered when I’d first come up with the story. Dagný (the main character of The Illuminated Heart) is dyslexic because partway through writing, I was like “oh. She’s dyslexic. Okay cool” and ran with it. In the White Changeling series, you’ll see both men and women both doing all kinds of things, because I wanted gender parity even in the background and I keep working at how I can continue to do that, and do better in the areas that I haven’t quite achieved what I wanted.
Really, I’ve done very little so far (though I’m proud of the little I’ve done), and I can see so many areas for improvement. One example being my BIPOC characters, who people keep assuming are white. Clearly, I need to be louder in the books about the fact that, for example, Adren’s appearance is so unusual not because she’s more white than a white person. It’s because she’s not brown and everyone else around her is.
(Okay but seriously, in Like Mist Over the Eyes, did no one notice about how when the characters commented on how one person’s back looked like cedar bark, it was the texture that was unusual and not the colour? Too subtle? *sighs* yes, too subtle. Welp)
It’s a journey, learning how to write more than just the default person in your head. And, until now, I made what were, for me, fairly emotionally safe choices, things I’d seen done in other, beloved books, movies, and TV shows. Madeleine L’Engle, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Jean Little wrote all kinds of characters, often purposefully bucking the trend of what they saw around them. If anyone challenged me, I could say, look, this is a thing that other authors have done and do. I’m going to keep writing in that tradition.
It felt very noble.
It wasn’t noble.
It was the easy way out.
If you’d told me even just two years ago (but definitely four years ago) about even just a couple of the things I’ve worked on this year, I would have been, very viscerally, gripped by total body fear. Seriously, I would have simply shut down.
Two years ago, I didn’t know yet that I’m gay, nonbinary, and autistic. Four years ago, I was only taking my first tentative steps into figuring out who I was. At both points, I was in huge denial about the mental health issues I face.
So to write characters like that? Characters I had never read in books, or only seen a handful of times and felt weird about? To actually step entirely out of my comfort zone and what I knew was possible, and get out on that extremely precarious limb of “these characters are like me. Actually like me”?
And the terror only mounts when you consider that I grew up in an ableist, transphobic, and homophobic environment. I had to work through a mountain of shame to get to where I am now, and I know I’m not done yet.
Never mind just engaging of the interesting intellectual exercise working out how to write a non-Christian character without trying to convert them. If I write a gay character, a nonbinary character, a neurodiverse character, a mentally ill character, there’s no comfortable distance for me. There’s no traditions I learned growing up that I can pull from or engage with. There’s just a big huge nothing where I’m learning I have and am something. And my conscience won’t allow me to write like I used to, now that I have this awareness.
Plus, I wouldn’t want to. This part of my life has me, as a friend observed recently, like a kid in a candy store. Imagine, finally accepting and seeing the beauty in all these parts of yourself, finally getting to express them fully, properly, without all that shame for the first time in your life. It’s exciting, looking at my previously written or planned work, and going “okay, where are my disabled queer folk at?” and finding that they were already there, waiting for me to figure it out.
It’s wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.
But this heady feeling only lasts so long as I forget that the rest of the world exists. Because the moment I remember it does, I remember. I remember all too well.
My dad when the first season of Star Trek: Discovery came out, complaining that they were pandering to their fans by having a gay couple in the show.
All the talks, the sermons, about how being queer is contrary to God’s will and how he made marriage to be between one man and woman and that’s it. Anything else is sin.
The sermons about how if someone had mental illness, they needed to believe in God’s healing more, they needed to think more about other people, they needed to stop letting demons influence them.
Not to mention the whole-ass teen camp I went to and loved for so many reasons, but which also just kept hammering in the idea that disability was a sign that something was broken and needed to be healed. And if you couldn’t heal someone, you weren’t believing that you could. Or they weren’t. Or both.
All a queer or disabled character has to do is exist on the page or on the screen and people complain about an agenda being shoved down their throat. Meanwhile, I am both queer and disabled and… I exist, too. If people are going to complain that vehemently about fiction, if they’re going to use death threats, doxxing, and hate speech to drive actors off of social media for not being white, cis, able-bodied straight men… if they’re going to pile on one-star reviews on books on Goodreads before they’ve even been released because the author dared to be a minority or have minorities in their previous books… what would they do to someone just existing near them, someone who they don’t view as having power, fame, or wealth… what would they do to me?
This is nothing like the Christian persecution complex I grew up with. Maybe one person in my life treated me a little oddly after I said I was religious, but that’s really it. I was taught, though, that the culture around me was against me and what I believed, that by writing books “from a Christian perspective,” I was committing an act of righteous rebellion. By being a Christian, overtly, where people could see it, I was being counter-cultural.
But I have never experienced persecution for my faith.
Even the fear of that is different than what I feel now- I thought people might not want to talk with me, that they might be weird to me or mean. Being queer, though? Out where people can’t pretend I’m straight? Putting it into my books?
Suddenly, I am making a political statement. I have to think about the implications of everything I do. Because even if all I have is two women kissing in one scene in one book, that is suddenly me “preaching.” That is me declaring my alliance with all those godless leftist radical feminist socialists trying to destroy the country (it doesn’t matter which country; they’re conspiring to destroy all the countries, dontcha know).
I am now aligned by those who view me with the “world,” the grand, vast antithesis to Christianity. I am now incompatible to the religion I grew up with. I no longer fit there, not because I’ve said I’m not a Christian or espoused fundamentally heretical beliefs about Jesus, but because there’s a paragraph in one of my books with two women kissing while the protagonist passes by.
I am now trying to shove liberalism down people’s throats because of this paragraph, apparently. I am now allied with Satan’s teachings and the One World Government or the New World Order or whatever conservative conspiracy theory is reigning that day. Because I dared to put fictional gay people where people could see it.
I haven’t even experienced any of this yet but I’m already tired just seeing it happen to other people, just thinking about the fact that it happens. People got mad at you because you decided not to serve gay customers? Dude, people get mad at gay people for just existing. These two things are not the same.
The privilege I have for not having to experience my existence being made political by society at large until adulthood cannot be overstated, either: BIPOC and people who are born noticeably disabled get the immeasurably delightful experience (sarcasm here) of being fully aware that their existence being politicized and moralized from childhood. They also can’t ever disengage from it, because the “normal” people around them can always point them out, and thus will never relent.
As someone who didn’t grow up with this awareness (aside from the utter joy of growing up female in this society 🙄), and for whom it is just hitting now?
I fucking hate it. I wish I could go back to when people didn’t decide my sexuality meant something political. I wish I didn’t need to wish that. I wish everyone could just exist without their existence being attached a moral, political, and/or religious meaning by default. I wish I could be who I am and write what I write without being considered an outsider by the very community I grew up in and still consider myself a part of.
Really, at the heart of it all, I wish I could be fearless, so that even when I remember the rest of the world exists, I could go back to writing all my wonderful characters living their stories without even a hiccup in my enjoyment of doing it. I wouldn’t be thinking about how my faith community would react to it. I wouldn’t have to worry that people who enthusiastically bought my other books for their kids would now ban my books and tell their kids that I wasn’t a “real” Christian. I wouldn’t have to worry that some readers would take it upon themselves to try to destroy my reputation and mental health for my audacity to write people like me.
And on the other side of things, I wouldn’t have to worry about my work being nitpicked to death. I wouldn’t have to worry about being piled on for the representation in my books not matching some readers’ expectations. I wouldn’t have to worry about some readers complaining my characters aren’t all things to all people.
A friend has described me a few times as “so full of feelings you practically squish” and once advised me that a big problem I face is that I tend to listen to my fears.
With that so plainly put into words, I can see how that problem is entirely at odds with who I want to be, how I want to show up in this weird, beautiful world of ours.
I don’t want to have to constantly consider the political implications of my characters. I don’t even want that to be a factor. I just want them to be able to exist, as they are, taken as they are.
But that’s not the world I live in.
And in this world where all these things I fear are only too real, what do I listen to instead?
Once upon a time, I decided to describe what I do as coming alongside people as we stare pain straight in the face and choose joy instead. I still believe that to be my calling. And gosh darn it, I’m messy and imperfect and will never finish learning all the things I want and need to learn- and I will continue to honour that calling as best I can.
My fears may be real.
But joy is my strength.