We writers often feel a tension between our art and the business of entertainment. I think some fiction writers embrace themeselves more than others as entertainment-industry workers. (Bear with me, I’m going somewhere, not trying to be snooty.)
For those of us like me who write novels more as art than as entertainment, sometimes the urge to write about flawed, tragic characters is strong, because it’s inside those characters that we can explore universal human themes, probe the darker sides of human nature, and try to make a contribution to literature and discourse.
So when I sometimes write about gay men who do terrible things or suffer terrible fates, I’m probably not thinking about how people are going to complain that I’m not representing gay men accurately. I’m writing a novel with themes and symbolism and ideas I want to explore through fiction.
This can make my agent pull her hair out, because of course she IS an entertainment-industry worker and she has to remind me that she represents me because I’m supposed to be one too. Publishing is a business, not a non-profit art museum. (That’s a quote of hers.)
So for me, at least, writing positive, authentic queer protagonists demands thoughtful balance. How can I do that and stay true to the kind of dramatic tension I like to use to probe uncomfortable subjects and issues?
I guess the balance can be found in writing mixes of LGBT characters with various human flaws, some tragic, most not.
In David and the Lion’s Den, a novel set during the height of the AIDS era in New York City, one of my gay characters is a monster who traffics immigrants and sexually abuses them. Another is a force of optimism, love, and charity. But my protagonist is neither. He has a good heart, but he’s often blind to others, unintentionally self absorbed, imperceptive, and thoughtless. Like a real person.
Like in any classic tragedy, David and his friends pay a steep price for his flaws, though by the end of the novel, he has grown toward becoming a more self and other-aware person.
I wouldn’t say I’ve written a positive character, exactly, but I’ve written a character people can like and identity with despite (or maybe because of) his flaws.
Yet I’ve been criticized for not being “representative.” Well, perhaps not, but I think I was being real. I think that drawing my protagonists as uniform forces of goodness and light wouldn’t be very interesting. I get the pressure to provide positive role models and to advance the presence of ordinary queer characters in fiction, and I do that with some characters.
But in the end, the most interesting literary characters are complex mixes of good, bad, and ugly.
And we writers all have our own takes on how to explore humanity. We owe representation, without any question, but we also owe truth in our art.
What’s really hard is working out how to both at the same time!