Back in September, I wrote about LGBT+ representation in fiction, and how to write diverse characters. This interview with J. M. Frey – author of The Forgotten Tale – is a follow up to that post. For more about Frey’s new book, or to pre-order your copy today, keep reading!
How often do you think of representation in media? Either of yourself, or other groups?
Much more than I used to. Growing up in a majority-white, majority-Presbyterian small town in southern Ontario, I had the privilege to see myself on TV and in films constantly. Even the way I speak was represented: my accent matches the standard Canadian broadcast accent (more or less, I’ve since been trained to say certain words differently now that I actually work in broadcasting). And I grew up assuming that I matched the “factory default setting” of humanity – cisgendered, heterosexual, upper-middle class, white. The only thing missing was that I wasn’t a boy, but I grew up in the age of Girl Power, so I still had the privilege to see myself in Sailor Moon, and The Powerpuff Girls, and the Spice Girls, and you, know, that one token female characters shown on all-boy teams like the pink Power Ranger.
It wasn’t until I moved out of my small home town that I realized that reality wasn’t actually like television portrayed it. Everyone was not white, or Presbyterian, or cisgendered, or heterosexual. It shocked me to be the only white person on the bus going up to the university. Actually stunned me! That had never happened to me before.
When I realized this, I started seeing the lack of balance in representation in media texts too. It took a conscious effort to realign my expectations – and a lot of time talking with people who were not “factory default humans” i.e. everyone else in the world – but now I see it constantly. The first thing I said when the photos of the phase one Marvel Cinematic Universe panel at ComiCon were released was: “Wow. That’s a lot of white guys standing in a row. I can’t tell them apart.”
Do you find yourself thinking about representation more as a writer or a reader?
A bit of both. I make a conscious effort in my books to create a world around my heroes that resembles the one we actually live in. Author and actor Adrienne Kress once pointed out to me how difficult it is to be a woman in film because all of the minor speaking parts are given to men. Going back to that “factory default human” thing that has become the hegemonic norm in storytelling, writers of scripts (and novels) seem to always fall back on making the bit parts – ticket counter agents, bus drivers, teachers, cab drivers – white men.
So I consciously try to make it clear that my heroes are surrounded by the real norm. I give as many of the bit parts to women or non-binary / genderfluid characters as possible, choose names for the bit parts to make it clear that the bit-part character is not white, have them offhandedly mention their same-sex partner.
I get a little zing of excitement when I see people who share my sexuality on the page or screen, and I think everyone deserves that zing.[bctt tweet=”‘It’s up to readers to buy, read, borrow, and review diverse books'” username=”oawoodward”]
Do you find many characters that are representative of you and your sexuality?
Not really, not in mainstream media texts. And if I do, then they’re “confused” or “doing it for the attention”.
If you don’t mind sharing, what do you wish was out there? Could any of it have made an impact on your life in the past, or do you believe seeing it still could?
Honestly, I found a ton of representation for bisexual and demisexual characters in fan fiction, which is what I read most. Though not necessarily a lot of women, but only because mainstream media texts are overwhelmingly focused on male characters and thus fanfiction is skewed toward a majority of male character protagonists too.
And finding those characters, reading those stories and realizing that there was a word for what I was, that other people experienced things the way I did, and not only that, but that the representation was handled appropriately and respectfully? That meant a lot to me as a kid, and as a baby author.
There’s a lot more talk about writing and reading diversely, but what are the differences from a writer’s perspective versus a reader’s point of view?
Well, I suppose the big difference as a writer is that sometimes you have to pick your battles. Unfortunately, there are times when someone is going to push back on your decision to make a character non-factory-default. It’s up to us as writers to fight that, to try to include representation wherever we’re able. And it’s up to readers to buy #ownvoices and #diversityreads books, to read them, to borrow them from libraries and review them online.
What, to you, counts as ‘good representation’?
Anything that is honest about the representation. If it’s shallow, stereotypical, or fetishistic, it’s not doing good via the representation. It might even be doing harm. It doesn’t matter how ‘proud’ the story is, or if bad things happen to the queers (I mean, all narrative requires conflict) even if it’s because the characters are queer, or how in-depth or passing the mention is. As long as it’s there and it’s not derivative, cheap, or regurgitating harmful or incorrect facts.
[bctt tweet=”‘Anything that is honest is good LGBT representation'” username=”oawoodward”]
What would you suggest to other writers who are trying to balance stories about LGBT+ characters and stories with LGBT+ characters?
If you’re writing a story ABOUT being LGBTQA+, then make sure there’s a good reason for it. Make sure the plot is respectful of the actual struggles actual LGBTQA+ folks face, and not an insultingly trite or stereotyped version.
If you’re writing a story that isn’t about being LGBTQA+, consider having some of the characters be queer anyway. I mean, we’re everywhere. We’re sprinkled into every crowd. Make the friends and support characters around your mains reflect the world we actually live in. Even representation in passing is better than no representation at all.
Also, “historical accuracy” is no excuse for lack of representation or dealing with period-typical prejudices (and if you’re going to use period-typical prejudices, research what they were. Don’t just assume you know, look it up. What different cultures thought about queerness vary wildly.) To paraphrase Psych, queers weren’t invented in the 20th century.
What are some things, big and small, that writers can do to write truly diverse characters?
Just write them. Make your main character someone who isn’t “factory default”; and surround them with people who aren’t either. Even better, make them intersectional. People who are PoC and queer do exist. Characters can be more than one thing.
And when they do write people who are not like the mainstream, do so respectfully. Talk to people from that community, and listen to their experiences. Ask someone from the community to beta-read the novel, to ensure that everything is coming out the way it’s supposed to.
And avoid harmful clichés and tropes. Unbury your gays. Don’t make trans people the butt of horrible jokes. Don’t fall back on using “sexual perversion” as a lazy stand-in for poor morals.
Do you believe when it comes to wiritng LGBT+ characters that they are the same as cis or straight characters, but with a different identity?
This might sound like a cop-out, but each character is a whole person in and of themselves. I might not get the whole character onto the page, though I will do my best to do so, so I don’t see them as just stock cut outs with different accessories of identity attached. Who and how we love, and how free we are to love those people openly, inform a huge part of the rest of a character’s identity. Just as much as their cultural upbringing, their choice whether or not to engage in a religion, and their education is. You can’t strip the sexuality out of a character. A character is a character, whole and entire unto themselves, just like a person is a person.[bctt tweet=”How to write LGBT characters: An author’s perspective” username=”oawoodward”]
About The Forgotten Tale:
Forsyth Turn has finally become a hero—however reluctantly. But now that Lucy Piper has married him
and they’ve started a family in her world, his adventuring days are behind him. Yet not all is as it should be. Beloved novels are disappearing at an alarming rate, not just from the minds of readers like Pip, but
from bookshelves as well. Almost as if they had never been. Almost like magic.
In this clever follow-up to The Untold Tale, The Forgotten Tale questions what it means to create a legacy, and what we owe to those who come after us.
About Author J.M. Frey:
Toronto-based J.M Frey (pronounced “fry”) is a science fiction and fantasy author, as well as a fanthropologist and pop culture scholar who appears in podcasts, documentaries, and on television to discuss all things geeky through the lens of academia. Her debut novel TRIPTYCH has been nominated for two Lambda Literary Awards, won the San Francisco Book Festival award for SF/F, was nominated for a 2011 CBC Bookie, was named one of The Advocate’s Best Overlooked Books of 2011, and garnered both a starred review and a place among the Best Books of 2011 from Publishers Weekly.
Please note, I was not paid for this post, but I was given free e-copies of both of J. M. Frey’s books.