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[personal profile] elialshadowpine
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.
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Nonny Blackthorne

January 2017

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