There has been a study done, recently, which discovered that people greatly overestimated the number of minorities among them. The article I read mostly referred to gay people, but there were equally interesting studies/slip ups with various races, religions and handicapped people.
At least part of the reason for this is that these minorities tend to be prominently featured in book and movie and tv. Part of it is, as Dave Freer talks about today (second half of his post at Mad Genius Club) that trolls can be very vocal; that some minorities back the trolls and that writers are socially inept and don’t generally want to fight … Or couldn’t, while they were working through the politically-correct houses and distributors. Now some of us are discovering we have untold reservoirs of rage ready to explode at a moment’s notice (yes, I’m keeping it under control. Mostly. The words Sarah Smash strike fear in the heart of sensible men, though. sensible women too, and possibly even sensible dragons). The other part of it, of course, was that a way to be seen to be “good” by a big house — where they probably could no longer evaluate your writing, much less care if the readers liked what you wrote — was to be seen to back an important “cause” and to get the backing from the – often vocal – supporters of this cause.
I have to say, from personal experience, as far as that goes, having (even sympathetic) gay characters is a bust. It might actually get you in trouble with the pc police if you’re writing a different gender and you’re straight, because you’re “stealing victimhood” and also, say, a gay man is completely opaque to me and I can’t tell how he thinks. (Bless one of my gay friends who, when informed of this, said “I should hope I’m opaque to you. Would you really want to see me digest the hamburger I had for lunch?”)
If you were a woman, a good way to be seen as “good” and be promoted to the skies and beyond was to be “feminist” which of course earned you the buying power of the largest group, because, oddly, women manage to be a minority while being the majority of the population. It’s all very bewildering. Oh, and if you were a minority say, because of a Latin last name, you HAD to write minority victim stories.
Of course, I was born contrary, so even though I knew perfectly well how to get the attention and the approval of the big wigs, I wanted to earn my way up with good stories. Yeah, you know how well that worked. Never mind.
I do however have gay characters and I was thinking over the weekend as to WHY. Oh, I have gay friends, but that’s not it. I don’t base my characters on my friends. (Unless one or more of you shifts into a dragon.)
So why do I have gay characters? (If you count them in my case it averages to around 10% which the study said was still way too high. I’m not sure. I think this is very hard to survey. From my real life experience I’d think 10% was about right.) In my case, honestly, because I like to make life difficult for my characters. It’s not the “gay character” thing it’s the “character has a secret thing.” Or “character has to work around a more difficult labyrinth than other people do.” This is why I’m MORE likely to have a gay character where it’s forbidden or difficult to be gay. It gives me another bewildering plot point to confuse matters and… well, another way to torture the character. Where it would be a non-even – the shifter series! – and wouldn’t make the characters’ life more difficult at all, I don’t have any gay characters. (The refinishing mysteries? Think about it. I’m making life more difficult for DYCE. She’s a woman raised by crazy parents, who is at odds with reality in general. Her best friend couldn’t be a woman, unless I made that woman even crazier… So… her best friend is a gay male, a position that puts him also slightly askew to reality and makes them both spin sideways at a tilt… thereby solving mysteries that would escape normal minds. That Ben is the voice of reason in those books – except about his own love life – is a clue at how difficult I’m making Dyce’s life.)
Okay, Sarah, you say. BUT you’re an author, and a weird one. I know these days there is almost no book I can open or show I can watch without either the “wise gay character” or the “victim gay character” – sometimes both being the same.
Yeah. I can’t explain it, as such, but I can tell you HOW that came about.
It starts with the Taboo. How many of you read Nemesis by Agatha Christie in the seventies? And how many felt a frisson or horror and shock when the motive at the end is revealed to be lesbianism? (And for that matter cross age and creepy, but never mind.)
Back when homosexuality was the love that dare not speak its name (or as we call it around this house, given two of my cats and their proclivities, the love that dare not meow its name) no one anticipated it as a motive. It was a total surprise, a great way to throw out red herrings, and the shock of it was big enough to make the book memorable and to hide any clumsy thumb marks leading up to the conclusion.
We writers are magpies. We can’t look at anything that works that well and not go “ooh, shiny.” So… throughout the seventies there was a gallop of gay… mostly villains. Mostly villains until either someone thought “hey, that’s not fair” or “OMG, what if I turn it around? What he’s hiding is that he loves so and so and that makes him seem like the murderer, but he’s really a good guy.” Enter a cavalcade of hidden virtuous gay people. (And eventually — shocking — open, virtuous gay people.)
Of course, meanwhile gay rights were advancing, people were exiting the closet in droves, and at some point someone thought, “I know, I’ll get double author points. I’ll make gay people victims, because humans always root for the underdog.”
Enter a cavalcade of mysteries where the solution was always “He was killed because he was gay and so and so hated it.” These books routinely go against the wall, as do the books that say things like “It was all a mob plot” or “he just went crazy.” They go against the wall because they’re boring and predictable, and instead of reflecting the human condition hold up a kid’s crayon drawing and tell you it’s a true picture.
The thing is, this too is passing away. We’re now getting the “he’s gay, he’s the murderer and he was driven to it because people hated him.” Um… We’re coming back, you see, through a circuitous route to the “gay murderers” – and those are shocking, of course, because for so many years we weren’t allowed to do it. (And I’ll add a great part of the search for the shocking is that PC has made it impossible to REALLY DISCUSS the stuff the writers worry about, like [well, I’m a writer] what is honor, or what you owe other humans, or what is the ultimate fate of humanity, or is a flea really a rat and a boy when it comes to suffering? Robbed of the ability to make readers think, a lot of us have decided to resort to “Ah! Shocking.”)
This too shall pass. The reason the gay whatever was once powerful was that it was taboo. Writers got used to coasting on that frisson. Now they’re not taboo, the frisson is not there, and while many of us will continue to use gay characters (look, Bub, I don’t even fully control who my characters are. They even insist on certain names. I often don’t find out why till the book is almost done. Sometimes I NEVER find out) because it’s a useful way to torture the critters and also because they allow for someone slightly outside and askew (more so for historical characters.) we will have to write a book that works without the “oh, shocking, gay.”
Personally, since I realized that was the “easy way out” about fifteen years ago, I’ve been trying to do just that. So while I have gay characters, that will not be the thing that carries the book. Even when it’s the main character or one of the triggers of the plot, there will be other reasons and other tasks to accomplish. And the book will not be ABOUT being gay. (Though at least one of them is about being odd. No, it’s not out yet.) Since my characters don’t have sex on screen — really — I don’t see why anyone can care that much, anyway.
Other writers… To no one’s surprise at least half of them aren’t getting the message and will continue to purchase “victimhood” points and “relevancy” points and induce “Ah! Gay!” shock. This will probably last as long as publishers have ANY power to push a book. I’m not going to make bets for after.
More interesting is how tv writers (okay, guys, let’s not be mean, they have to accomplish a load of work in very short space) have now strayed from “Ah! Gay!” to “Ah! Weird!” This is how I stopped watching mystery shows. I’m willing to believe – at least in my circles – that there are about 10% gay people around. I am however not willing to believe there are even 0.1% autoerotic autophage cannibals, or transsexual incest fetishists or pedophilic bestiaphiles who prefer to have sex in free fall. Okay, okay, I made up that one – but not the other two, which tells you how far the writers are going for “Ah! Shock! You never saw it coming!” (And I will not apologize. In this subject there are no – groans – safe words.)
What that is becoming is ultimately “the villain is insane and has this compulsion” which in the end of course means that there is no rational reason and it’s an unsatisfying mystery. (At least for me. Tons of people like it.) The same for every other form of writing, btw – to some extent all writing is mystery because there’s usually some knowledge the reader must discover or some secret the characters don’t know.
I’m betting that as more people go indie, and as indie writers become more experienced, we’ll see the fictional universe reflect the “real universe.” I’ll continue having about 10% gay characters, including possibly some main ones (which was forbidden in traditional publishing. Don’t even ask.) And they’ll be good/bad/indifferent. I might have fewer black characters than I “should” by strict head count simply because of where I live. Yes, I know that sounds weird, but the west has a lower black population (no, I’m NOT going to call them African Americans. First, because Mike Kabongo will hurt me. Second because most of my characters are NOT American or, now I think about it, African) than most of the rest of the country, and this seems to seep in through my consciousness. I noted my percentage of black characters dropped since I moved here. Which doesn’t/shouldn’t matter except for giving future whiners the chance to call me racist. (Rolls eyes. I think the only people I beat on by default are blond women, and yeah, I’d mind if my sister married one. Actually it’s an old all-girl school in a Latin country injury. The blond chicks tended to be unbelievably stuck up.)
OTOH at least in the Earth Revolution books I have one planned that’s set mostly in Africa and its dependencies, so… that should set that balance straight. And the fact that I’m even worrying about this, shows you the things we’ve had to take in account in our writing that should never have crossed the mind of any novelist.
Hopefully going indie will allow us to stop counting heads and wondering what the editors will think of us, or what group will picket the publishers’ door, and write what we feel needs to be written.
And the taboo? There will always be taboos. They will always be a frisson of shock that hides a multitude of sins. If you discover one that no one else has had the guts to use (and that isn’t so completely bizarre that readers roll their eyes) go for it. Just remember, after the first time it loses most of its potency. (I TOLD you there were no safe words.)
And if you find yourself relying on it, it’s become a crutch. Find what parts of the book you need to shore up and throw away the taboo. It will save you coming up with a villain – or a hero – who gets his jollies by watching Venusians mate while suspended upside down in cherry jello.