Alrighty, shall we continue on rambling? Might as well, since I’m an insomniac and I have nothing better to do as of this very instant. So, last time I spoke about characters. What I didn’t speak about, which in hindsight makes up such a very huge part of characters, is sexuality. So this is, in part, an addendum to the previous blogs. If I have time, I’ll speak about some other stuff too.
I had a discussion some months ago with Karsten about gay fantasy and I wanted to immediately clarify my views following that, but failed to, because I’m a lazy man – the king of laziness, in fact. So, we spoke about Richard Morgan’s ‘The Steel Remains’ which I didn’t care for and which Karsten loved. She said it was brave because it depicted gay sex and had a main gay character, etc. I thought otherwise –
I’ve read a number of fantasy books with homosexual characters over the years, I think the first was when I was 13 or 14 and came via Mercedes Lackey whose novel – one of the Valdemar books, I think, Arrows of the Fall perhaps? I may have made that up but I can’t be bothered looking it up right now – featured a protagonist who was homosexual as well as an incredibly powerful mage.
I don’t remember too much about this novel, to be honest, fragments of that series come back to me – mostly, I remember one, shocking scene – when the character in question is overwhelmed by some raiders (he was exhausted and there was a snowstorm, I think) who took him up to their fort and basically gang-raped him. So, imagine little old me sitting at school reading this scene where a young man gets bent over a riding saddle and repeatedly raped. The only good thing about that was he was momentarily taking the place of an even younger boy who was usually their toy. I’m fairly sure he escaped and dealt some epic payment out. At least I hope he did. But back to Mercedes Lackey – now there is a brave woman, who as far back as the 80’s and even earlier I think, proudly and casually wrote gay characters into fantasy fiction.
It’s not common, I could never say that but it pops up fairly regularly in fantasy. In any fiction, I would imagine. I’ve read The Nightrunners series by Lynn Flewelling, featuring two main homosexual characters – she dabbles in that realm with her next, much better series, The Tamir Triad. In Trudi Canavan’s Black Magician trilogy; in Brent Weeks The Night Angel series; in Anne Bishops Ephemera series; in Steven Erikson’s A Tale of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series; in the Inheritance Trilogy by N.K.Jemisin; and Ricard Pinto’s Stone Dance of the Chameleon series among others, gay characters abound. I’ve no problem with any of that, but I did have a problem with it in The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan. The reason for that is I felt it to be contrived – I felt a lot of that book was contrived, in all honesty.
Every second line was fuck this and fuck that, or if it wasn’t about that, it was cocksucker this and faggot that and…It got old very quickly. In that sense, it’s very one-dimensional. I enjoyed the bare plot of the book, I enjoyed the ideas behind it – especially that it was about not a hero as such, but a legend, a man who had already gone through the “Great Struggle” of his time, which is generally what we have to read about. No, this was the aftermath and I very much liked that concept. But the swearing and the look-at-me-I’m-gay-and-mocked-for-it was so overdone, so overblown that it literally interfered with the reading experience – it pulled you out of the story. Any book that does this, as often as this one does, is doing something very wrong.
I personally felt like the author was jumping on the bandwagon with it – I’ve spoken already about the lack of morals, the rise of violence and flawed characters, along with a deliberately twisted black humour that is more and more prevalent in fantasy (as part of the “New Wave”)– here it doesn’t feel organic. I just found myself getting more and more irritated. I mean, we get it – he’s gay and people swear, get the fuck over it. Remove the swearing, and the homosexuality, and you have barely any sense of character whatsoever. This is something that irritates me greatly in fiction and reality. I’m going to spell it out nice and clearly:
People are more than their sexualities.
Please, please, please don’t make a character gay for the sake of it. If all you can say about your character is “uh, well, he’s gay…” or “uh, well, she likes guys…and stuff” there’s a serious problem. That problem is you do not have a person, you have a character trait, you have one element of their personality and nothing more. Karsten thought it was great that the character was so brazen and the homosexuality was so ridiculously overemphasised – said it needed to be done more in fiction. Perhaps. I don’t agree.
One of the main reasons I felt it was contrived to begin with is to do with the above – he wasn’t a character, he was a sexuality personified and I don’t think it serves the LGBT community well at all to have these caricatures around that STICK OUT AND SAY LOOK HOW DIFFERENT AND UNUSUAL I AM – it makes a deliberate point about otherness (in an antagonistic fashion) that I fundamentally reject. I reject the notion that gay people have to be made to stand out, I reject the notion that in all the realms of fantasy and imagination this one had to have modern Christian/Religious moral beliefs about homosexuality to oh-so conveniently dump upon the protagonist, I reject the idea that being gay makes you fundamentally different – people are people are people.
Create people. Create whole characters. Do not create values/quirks/sexualities – whether it be hatred/disgust of homosexuality (as in 95% of the characters in The Steel Remains) or bravery personified, or whatever. If all you can say is “he’s brave” or “he’s gay” or “she’s homophobic” you need to seriously think hard about your characters. Even aside from that, it wasn’t very good – the character had depraved sex with an alien being and a criminal underlord and lots of daddy issues – how original, you say!
No new ground is covered there, everything about him that was gay, was boring. Crazed/random sex and father issues are such a stereotype of homosexuality; he didn’t try to make homosexuality human in any way, there was no fulfilling man-on-man relationship, no, it’s a dysfunction that is the subject of scorn for most of the book. It was so very poorly done.
I am not in any way suggesting homosexuality need be hidden, or shouldn’t be in fantasy. It just shouldn’t be used as a gimmick, and you shouldn’t needlessly emphasise one character being gay. In all those other series I mentioned, it’s done so much better – in the Nightrunners it’s nice to see relationship between master and apprentice develop and flower into something more, in Brent Weeks Night Angel trilogy a score of boys in a children’s gang are terrorised, and the protagonist’s friend is raped by the gangs leader a number of times as punishment; he later grows into a strong, homosexual man and comes to run the entire criminal organization but what I love about it here is that it’s not a point of scorn, not an issue at all, he just is and that’s a part of his personality – a part, but not all.
Even though he’s a prostitute, it’s not as crass and poorly handled as in Morgan’s book. In the Ephemera series the protagonists are incubi – supernatural male lovers that need sex to feed off the emotions of others that live in the Den of Iniquity and even here, it is handled fine; sex is just a manner of functioning for them, but it is not who they are. And despite the name of the place, they’re good people mostly.
In those last two examples especially, I love that the role of homosexuality is organic to the world, the people therein have developed socially in a different way to the way we have and so it’s perfectly fine. That’s another point. Don’t dump the absurd religious and moral stances so prevalent in our society into foreign worlds and cultures. Remember that before the advent of Christianity, in the ancient world of the Greeks and Romans, homosexuality was widely practiced and celebrated. And in certain liberated areas of the world now, the same can be said 🙂
In N.K.Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, which has just begun with the release of ‘A Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’, something unique is done whereby it takes a very literal approach to the notions of gods. In the beginning, from chaos, was born the First god and he was alone for millenia until the Second god was born. The first was of Darkness, the second of Light and they fought. During their fight, the universe in all its variety, was born, kind of like fitful sparks of two blades, but much more epic. These two male gods fought for an age, that is until they realised sex was much more fun. And then they basically fucked for aeons. Two male gods having at it! Pretty gravy stuff. She deals with a lot of interesting concepts about gender/identity (the gods are male, but can change and essentially be anything they want) I think, though the book isn’t that great – its a bit too melodramatic and soapy. Just thought I’d mention that here too, something interesting and different is done with the concept of homosexuality in fantasy.
My favourite gay pairing thus far would have to be Blend and Picker in Erikson’s epic Tale of the Book of Malazan Fallen – elite warriors part of the now disbanded Bridgeburners, these two lesbians literally kick-ass. I absolutely adore it because the word gay isn’t mentioned once. In fact, I’m fairly certain it’s not mentioned in the other two examples above either. They have sex and they even randomly get blind drunk and get it on with another woman at some stage haha. (Actually, that was pretty much an orgy, there were two guys involved and they all sincerely regretted it the next day haha).
Now, Erikson doesn’t really have graphic sex scenes (except when he’s using it as a weapon as in certain horrifying torture scenes) so he subscribes to a fairly traditional authorial stance there, but he has fully fleshed lesbian characters who are hilarious and awesome and whose relationship is entirely unique to themselves but he doesn’t call attention to it and it’s not a point over which to harangue endlessly.
It’s strange, really, Fantasy has such an odd relationship with sexuality in general. Most of the old stuff, the traditional works are fairly tame and stick away from graphic sex scenes (barring notable examples like Mercedes Lackey) and most of the modern are all balls-and-all exposed. Of course, there are subtle variations and mixes and generally speaking, the sexual nature of the stories will develop in such a way as is organic to the voice being used. I think Erikson does it best but then, he does everything best – his work is a stunning achievement but more on that later.
The main reason it didn’t come up quite so much beforehand had to do with the relative youth of the main characters – generally young men on adventures to save the world, or young women out to prove themselves but in recent years the average age of the hero has shifted dramatically and is much older. So, of course, there are many factors involved but I’m trying to be as basic as possible.
The Underdog, The Down-and-Outer, King David
I read something earlier about the David and Goliath struggle. The classic underdog. And how you should be careful not to make your character too powerful as it will be hard to relate to him/her. Well, I think that’s crap. I mean, to a certain extent, maybe but I for one am sick, sick, sick and tired of the same fucking story. And I don’t necessarily want to read about your weak ass douche of a character and his or her ridiculously slow route to seeming invincibility/power.
I like powerful characters. I enjoy reading about kick ass/bad ass bitches going nuts. And if you don’t follow the oh-so tired underdog structure, GOOD. Power to ya. But take for instance, Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards series. Locke Lamora, the protagonist, from the very outset, is that little bit smarter, clever, and more ambitious than the rest. He’s a great thief even as a kid. As he is described in the first two pages: “If he was being seen to by a physikker for a bloody gash in his throat, Locke Lamora would steal the needle and thread and die laughing. “ It flits between his beginning as a child and his present day dealings as the most successful thief in the world, as the Thorn of Cammorr.
But you love him anyway, even though he’s better, smarter, crazier than the rest and the tension comes from not knowing whether his latest bid will succeed, if/when he’ll put a foot wrong and just how bad it’ll be. Also, it’s not a bad thing if you’re character is powerful, so long as everyone else isn’t near useless or pathetic or anything; it’s all relative. Steven Erikson’s work has the most extensive list of bad ass characters I’ve ever come across, each stronger and more terrifying than the last – and I never stopped caring.
I was so engaged the whole way through because it’s not so much about “oh this guy is so powerful, who can stop him?” it’s just their various stories and the way they all entwine. Occasionally they will randomly meet in a collision of forces but it is by no means set in stone, it’s not set up that they must meet or fight and to an extent, that’s what I really don’t like about the underdog story.
It starts with a poor/unskilled figure and sets up a powerful figure for that person to clash with later – after which it’s all about gaining the skills and powers with which to defeat said figure. It’s so contrived and one-dimensional in that sense, I’m really more interested in the world at large and the stories of all the characters – the more the merrier and the way they interact and I love that fantasy is drifting more and more in that direction. Anyway, these are just my preliminary insomniac-driven thoughts. That’s all, for now.