“When we say that someone is ‘writing from the margins’, what does that mean? […] They’re writing about race, or gender, or country of origin, or disabilities, or… the list goes on. But. Why are they still in the margins? Why is it still considered that?” (Morgan Hazelwood, Writing SFF From the Margins)
Krystle Matar and I decided to talk about this topic, and how we refuse to keep both ourselves and our characters on the margins of SFF literature.
Shifting the default: what does it mean to you and why do you want to do it?
Krystle When talking about how much of your characters to include in your books, I’ve seen the advice, “if it serves a purpose to the plot, absolutely talk about their sexuality/identity.” This advice always rubbed me the wrong way. When have we ever asked if a character being heterosexual and male “serves a purpose” in the plot? Why should our characters being full and complicated humans have to be anything more than aspects of who they are? Why should they have to justify their existence by a checklist?
Maybe it’s because I’m a character writer first and a plot writer second—every part of them serves a purpose, but no particular part of them is more important than the other. In my head, they live and breathe. Those of us that don’t fit the default shouldn’t have to “serve a purpose” to be allowed to express ourselves to the fullest breadth of our existence. We should be allowed to just be—and I wanted to give my characters the same multifaceted depth that I’ve seen in the real world.
Bjørn I saw a bit of a storm on social media recently. An author made her character lesbian and single, searching for a partner. “How is this relevant to the plot?!” Well, the automatic assumption is that everyone is white, cis, and straight. If the character never said anything, the same would apply. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman must be in need of a man.
The default is narrow and narrow-minded. It’s also boring, because there is so much of it. And still, it captures the most attention and regularly snatches prizes – for what? The Most Average Novel Of The Year?
I don’t want to shift it as much as destroy it. It’s not that I want people to magically know the character I mentioned isn’t straight without the character saying it explicitly. I want it to be a non-issue. When Magni, one of MCs, is gay and autistic, it’s not because of #ownvoices or diversity or representation or politics. That’s just who he is.
I don’t want to write from the margins. I am my own default. I am relevant to my life.
Krystle Legacy of the Brightwash became a very personal book. I’d like to say I set out to write it this way, that I was brave from the very beginning and I wanted to shift the default. But I can’t say that. I started out by trying to restrain Tashué to a box of what I thought the market wanted. Male he’s always been, but I tried to force him to be heterosexual and I tried to strip away some of the things that made me love writing about him. I was scared, because his identity is tied up with mine. Making him fully himself opened both him and me up to being misunderstood. Being judged for a little piece, when we both have a big picture to offer people.
I’m still scared. Early reviews have been positive and I’m so grateful—but people I know here in real life are talking about reading it. And I wonder, are they going to recognize the parts of myself that I’ve given to him—or the parts of him that exist in me? Will I lose friends? I tell myself it’s worth it, because it is. I shouldn’t have to cut pieces of myself away just to exist in this world.
I tell myself it’s worth it, because it is. Because once I was young and I was scared of how the world might see me, and a book hit my hands that talked about sexuality like it was no big deal. Characters were just human, and it didn’t matter who they loved. So it’s worth it, because someone somewhere is going to pick up my books and see themselves, and maybe it will be the first time that a piece of fiction tells them that it doesn’t matter who they love, they’re just human and they deserve to exist as fully and completely as they need to in order to be happy.
Bjørn My own brother thought that Gunnar, the black-bearded blacksmith in Storytellers, was me, and he congratulated me on my courage. He was impressed by how bravely I talked about my life-threatening alcoholism. It’s Children that is actually my autobiographical book, even though I have never built a wall around Ásgard, and my main superpower is misplacing my keys.
Magni, one of my two MCs, doesn’t understand non-verbal communication. He’s a very complex and sensitive person who often doesn’t have the right words to express himself. Some of the readers found him to be “dim-witted”. Unknowingly, they judged his ability to pass for a neurotypical person, since he never got diagnosed on the pages. It told me a lot about how people can see me – only I tend to find those right words. Mostly. Sometimes.
His neurodiversity or sexuality are neither superpowers nor tragedies – neither are mine. They aren’t plot devices either. I could have done without them. I almost have, because the default is a safe, comfortable place to hide in. Then Clayton Snyder, whose opinion I greatly value, asked me – do you want to write a safe book, or the book you want to write? I did the latter. And I wish this book existed thirty years ago, because the teenage me would feel so much less…weird.
Our main non-mainstream themes
Bjørn I was aware that two scenes in Children were very dark, so much that I added content warnings at the beginning. It turned out that people found more parts difficult to read. Some reviews pointed out that they didn’t expect this or that, but they now understood why the warnings were there. What I thought was a retelling of Norse myths from the point of view of the Gods’ children turned out to be a book about abuse, classism, addiction, neurodiversity, trauma and ways of dealing with it. (It’s also funny. I mean, except the abuse, classism, addiction…) I didn’t consciously decide “those are things I intend to write about”. I’ve spent lots of time trying to understand my characters. Not just what they’re like and what they do, but also why. And, somehow, both of my books ended up talking about the price that must be paid for refusing to be the default person others want you to be.
Both Gunnar in Storytellers and Magni in Children don’t understand why they are who (or how) they are. Gunnar believes himself to just be broken; Magni thinks of himself as stupid. Neither of them is like the others, and neither of them knows how to express it. There’s this weird idea that only privileged people can afford to have an anxiety disorder or be depressed. No – privileged people can talk about it and get professional help. What if you can’t, don’t even understand it, but this is your life anyway?
Krystle Legacy of the Brightwash is a dark book. There’s no way around it. What does it say about me that I didn’t realize it was dark until people started telling me? Bjørn, you told me it was a brave book—and that was before I even started talking about sexuality as an aspect of my characters. I was stunned. Brave? I’d flinched. I was still holding Tashué back.
The theme that I set out to write about was what things cost. The cost of convenience. The cost of conflict. The cost of humanity, it a world that makes it easier to be hard and cold and empty. The cost of choosing to stand. The cost of failing.
The theme I ended up writing about, as I layered in revisions, as I let Tashue’s identity expand, as I let him escape the box labeled “default”, was love. Tashué loves his son, and it makes him brave. Tashué loves Stella, and it begins to heal him. Tashué loves his best friend, and it gives him a centre from which he can change the world. Tashué loves Ishmael, and it makes him a better man, even if he can’t see how just yet. His capacity to love and to make people feel loved has made him the hero that the story needs, because without all the people that love him, he couldn’t have taken on the status quo.
Krystle The decision to include sex in detail was also very personal. I’ve talked before about my history as a writer, and how I started out writing fun, smutty fanfiction. But writing that wasn’t just fun—writing that was an exploration of myself and my own sexuality. I grew up surrounded the mindset that women come in two forms: virginal and pure, or sluts that aren’t to be trusted. Boys will be boys, but women who like sex are immoral and dirty. And yet, at the same, a woman’s value was weighed almost exclusively by her identity as a sexual object.
So, as I was revising, I kept turning up the intensity on the sex scenes. They used to be a few smooches and a scene break, but I got frustrated with them in that form. Why was I flinching away from sex? I talk about violence so easily. People are shot, people are dismembered. People are caught in horrible accidents. And I never once asked if those ugly pieces belonged in a fantasy book. It was easy to write about someone dislocating a man’s shoulders and I never once wondered what people would think about that scene. But when Tashué and Stella come together, I flinched and cut away from that scene, even though their coming together was meant to be beautiful and healing and passionate. What did that say about me and what I thought of myself? I was worrying about what people would think about Stella, and I was worrying about what people would think about me. But somewhere along the way I stopped… Well, I can’t say I stopped worrying, because I’m still worrying now. But I stopped measuring my value as a person and as a writer by what bad things people might say. No one book can please every reader—art is beautifully subjective. So if I can’t please everyone with my style, isn’t it better that I at least write the book that I want to write? The book that I want to read? (I have to read it a million times to polish it anyway, so I might as well enjoy the repetition.) It’s no secret now that I’m comfortable talking about sex. Why try to hide that part of myself from my readers, when the book is so personal in so many other ways?
Bjørn I am not a fan of writing sex scenes as embellishments, unless the book is meant to be romance or erotica. For me, sex in literature is interesting because of the power exchange, inequality, limits we put (or don’t) on ourselves. That includes me. Do I shy away from writing something, because I feel that m/m sex will make people uncomfortable, but if it was a straight couple, I wouldn’t blink?
There is a sex scene in Children that feels graphic (I know it does, because the readers told me), but isn’t. It’s not an erotic scene. It’s not even really about sex at all. It’s about what consent is and why it can’t be given until the person learns what it means.
I was afraid of two things when I was writing this scene. First, I wanted to make sure this sex scene is as unsexy as possible. I wanted the reader to feel uncomfortable. On the most basic level this scene can be reduced to “statutory rape” and that is not something I’d like to come out as “hot”. Second – my own editor suggested that it should be balanced with a “non-toxic relationship”. My reply was, “if you find any non-toxic relationship in this book, please point it out, so I can remove it”. The reason why she said it was that this particular scene doesn’t feature two cis straight white people. And here we go into the topic of representation…
Diversity and Representation
Bjørn Katie Mettner, a romance author, sent her work to a publisher asking for “under-represented authors” to submit their work. It turned out they didn’t want “under-represented stories”. She was asked whether she could make her disabled character “less disabled”. The publisher only wanted to advertise the “diverse author” as long as the stories remained comfortable to the general public.
Traditional publishing industry turned “diversity” into a marketing category. PoC, queer people, neurodiverse people – each checkbox on the list represents thousands of dollars… sorry, humans. Upsetting those checkboxes… sorry, people… might be bad for the bottom line. Authors were either forced to out themselves (“it’s the cost of entry,” one agent said to the baffled writer) or dropped, because their own voices were “not own enough”.
“Representation” limits the “diverse” books in a way that doesn’t apply to “default” ones. If I’m writing a “diverse character,” I have to make sure it doesn’t make anybody uncomfortable. Their journey must make them look good, otherwise it becomes “bad representation”. All that means is moving those characters from one sort of tropes to another limited set we’re building ourselves. And it’s one of the reasons why I chose to self publish, so that instead of “own voices” I can write in my own voice.
Children and the entire The Ten Worlds series is grimdark fantasy. It’s about flawed people who sometimes make bad choices. When a review enthused “talk about representation!” I got afraid, because my “diverse” characters don’t come out looking great. Nobody does. My MC doesn’t represent the queer community or the autistic community. If anything, he represents me, but really, Magni represents Magni.
Every time I get a review that says “I have never read anything like this” I know that no traditional publisher would touch my book with a long pole – and that I succeeded. Because the unusual part is that I write about people as they are. All of them. And allow them to make all choices, not just the predictable ones.
Krystle The word representation was one of the things that scared me. Tashué’s relationship with Ishmael is part of their history, and their future isn’t written yet. The romance plot with Stella takes centre stage (at least in regards to Tashué’s love life) and all I have for Tashué and Ishmael is talk about what they used to be and one kiss.
Did that one kiss make Tashué bisexual enough to be representation? Was I doing a disservice to people who wanted to see a bisexual character—only for him to settle down with a woman? But I’m getting stubborn about it now. That’s the thing about being bisexual. We can be with men, or women, or both, and that piece of our identity doesn’t go away if we settle down. I didn’t have to give up my queer identity when I chose to marry a cis het man. Tashué gets to be bisexual and love Stella with his whole heart. As for Ishmael, well… We’ll see what the future holds.