Writing Excuses 13.15: What Writers Get Wrong, with Mike Stop Continues
Key points: Gay people just want to read about people who happen to be gay, not about gay topics. Gay people often lean into stereotypes. Gay people create their own culture. There is a whole spectrum of ways that you enact being gay. Even passers support flamboyant gay people. The media does seem to have more flamboyant gay characters than subdued gay characters. Pay attention to the order of reveals. Happily married, loves sushi, and gay OR gay, happily married, loves sushi? Look at characters as a mystery, reveal clues, and then the big reveal. Be aware of you and your readers’ defaults. Do your research, get gay readers from within the gay community, and talk to people on the Internet to write better gay characters. “What’s his secret?” Mostly, just make characters who happen to be gay.
[Mary] Season 13, Episode 15.
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, What Do Writers Get Wrong, with Mike Stop Continues.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Aliette] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Aliette] I’m Aliette.
[Howard] And I’m Howard.
[Dan] Joining us today, we have special guest, Mike Stop Continues. Mike, that is an awesome name. Please tell us about yourself.
[Mike] Thanks. So, I’m the author of the King Cage superhero series, which takes place almost entirely beneath New York City, and Underworld, a young adult coming-of-age story that takes place in rural Pennsylvania.
[Dan] Well, awesome. Okay. So, this is part of our series of what do writers get wrong. Mary, tell us about what that series is about.
[Mary] So, with this series, what we’re doing is, we’re talking to different people who… About their life experience and using that… Using them, yes, we are using them…
[Mary] To help you as writers better represent people in your books. So, Mike, for instance, has multiple facets that we could talk about. What are some of those facets?
[Mike] So, in addition to being an author, I love sushi, I’ve got no sense of smell, and I’m a gay man who’s happily married.
[Mary] What are we going to be focusing on today?
[Mike] Me being a gay man.
[Mary] So, what writers get wrong about being a gay man. Awesome.
[Dan] I am excited to talk about this. So the first question is given away in the title. What is something that you see often, portrayed in television and movies and in books, about being a gay man that writers get wrong?
[Mike] The biggest thing is that most gay people, most gay men, just want to read about people who happen to be gay, not about AIDS or coming out or about homophobia or about any of that stuff. They just want to see characters who happen to be gay.
[Mary] I think that is the case with a lot of the topics that we’re going to covering, which is one of the things that I just want you readers to remember that, that people can exist in your story without having a reason to be the way that they are.
[Mary] Unless you are justifying why they are.
[Dan] I want to push this question even a little further. I think that’s a great answer, but I want something juicier than that. What do you absolutely hate when you see gay men, gay people, portrayed in media, and you’re like, “That again! Grrr.”
[Mary] Like, the clichés that are actively offensive.
[Mike] Well, that’s the funny thing about… There are obviously some characters that are taken way too far. But, in general, I think that the thing that’s different about gay characters is that a lot… You meet a lot of people who lean into stereotypes in the gay community. Like, the fun part about that is that since all the gay people come from all different parts of the planet, we have to create our own culture. So, to do that, we sort of play with it more than other people do. So you’ll end up with people who lean into stereotypes, who enjoy them. So that’s something that I think that sometimes… Sometimes it’s just wrongly done, but most of the time, we relate with those characters because we know those people. It’s… There’s a whole spectrum of kinds of… I guess the way that… the way that you enact being gay, right? So…
[Mary] Can you talk a little bit more about what it means to lean into a stereotype? Because I think that a lot of people aren’t familiar with that, necessarily, as a term.
[Mike] Okay. So, for instance, you’ve all seen the… Like, the flamboyant gay character. Right? Someone who’s… You know, like you could say that they’re flaming or you could say lots of things that are negative about them. But, in general, they’re… They’re actively… They’re proud, and they’re loud, about being gay. Right? Now that’s something that… That… That we learned to do because most of our lives are spent being… Feeling ashamed, right? And being closeted. Not being willing to show anyone that we were gay. So once you come out of the closet, you sort of want to have the exact opposite experience. So really, they’re… And we all do it to different levels, like… You know, in small ways… I guess those of us who end up being classified as passers, right? In small ways, we all find ways to let the people around us know that we’re gay. But some people… Some people like to do it more. No matter what gay person you encounter, no matter what their… No matter what their tells are, we all support that. So, you know what I mean? Like, that I think is the big thing that gets mistaken a lot. So, like when someone like me goes out into the world and somebody discovers I’m gay, they typically will say something like, “Oh, I never could have… I never would have told. I never…” “Oh, excuse me. I never would have known.” Then they’ll… Occasionally, say something that’s less nice about people that they did know were gay from how they behaved. That’s… I mean, sometimes… Like if… No gay person will ever be okay with you saying that. You know what I mean? So, like… We like that they do that, because… Because they’re as proud as we are, it’s just that some… We just all express it in different ways.
[Mary] You use the word that I wasn’t sure that I recognized. You said labeled as…
[Mike] Oh, passers.
[Mike] That’s obviously…
[Mary] I just didn’t hear it clearly. But again, we should probably define that for our listeners.
[Mike] Right. So that’s… That’s a term borrowed from African-Americans, right? African-Americans who could pass as being white. It’s the same thing in the gay community. We have gay people who can pass as being straight. So… There is where that word comes from.
[Aliette] Well, I mean, one of the things I see a lot with like Asians for instance is like you tend to always have the same representation over and over again. I wonder how much of that is happening with like gay people on screen. Do they always seem like they’re the same kind of person? Because you mentioned, there’s a whole spectrum, and different people have lots of different experiences. I wonder, when people say, “So-and-so was gay,” and “I guess that they were gay,” and they say these rudely offensive things, basically, I wonder, like you get that from media, right? So how much of that do you think [inaudible change]…
[Mike] Right. So, in media, we definitely do see flamboyant gay men more than… More than, I guess, let’s say passing gay men, right?
[Aliette] Subdued? Maybe subdued or quieter?
[Mike] Subdued. Yeah. And that’s okay. But I can say from personal experience that I was like in my late 20s when I first saw Capt. Jack on Doctor Who, and I cried, because that was… I wish I had that character in my life when I was younger. So, like, it’s important that there are lots of different kinds of gay characters out there, and that’s why the best and most important way to do that is just make a character who happens to be gay.
[Howard] Yeah. In my consumption of media, some of my favorite… Some of my favorite characters are the gay characters who didn’t have a tell until something came up where it was important, and I’m allowed to realize that… Just like you, I am married and I love sushi. We are very, very similar…
[Howard] On a couple of key counts. And I’m allowed to identify with characters who, in one aspect, yes, they’re unlike me. But I can still identify with them. Part of what… I think part of what we struggle against is that culturally, a great many of us will be pushed away by the flamboyance, by the initial representation, because for fear or for any number of other reasons, we don’t want to identify. My feeling is, no, I want to identify because that’s how everybody gets to be a human in my head.
[Aliette] But, I mean, isn’t there a risk if you do, like, that reveal really late, that the reader’s going to feel like it’s a little bait-and-switch? Of like, oh, I didn’t think they were gay, and then… Because I’ve had people say, “I didn’t realize that the character was gay,” or queer or [Persian?] until fairly late in the book, and then, you’re pushing back against their own preconceptions. They build this sort of mental image, and you’re like basically coming in and crashing their party and saying, “No no no no no, I’m the author and I’m right.” So I feel like… Do you think it would work if you had a… Like a normal… Like a person who was… Sorry. Who was married, loving sushi, and was out… Who you said was gay from the start?
[Mary] So, it looks like Mike had something to say.
[Mike] So, I mean, recently we have lots of gay characters in media… Or, not enough, but more than we’ve had before.
[Mike] But… But… But if you look at, for instance, like a… Like gay film criticism, we look at movies that don’t overtly have gay characters in it, and we spend a lot of our time, and historically have spent a lot of our time, dissecting characters that seemed to suggest that they were gay. So we get used to… We get used to looking at gay characters… Okay, looking at characters as a mystery. So I’ve heard from many author that exact criticism, Aliette. But I think the way that you can do it, maybe better… Not you. I think the way that writers can do it…
[Aliette] Aaaa… I’m really interested.
[Mike] Is to frame it like a mystery. Have a few clues that once you get to the point where you… Where it’s… Where the character becomes obvious, then you can say, “Oh, I should have known,” based on these few little things that came up beforehand.
[Mary] I just want to flag…
[Dan] We… We… We… Go ahead.
[Mary] Need to stop for…
[Dan] We need to stop for a book of the week. Like three minutes ago. But. You finish your flags.
[Mary] So, the thing that I wanted to… I just want to flag that one of the things that we’re talking around here is that we have a default, and the default is straight. This is the same way in fiction that the default in America in 2017 and for quite a while after that and probably quite a while in the future, the default is white. Like, when you guys are listening to this podcast, you guys cannot see us. But we were talking the other day, and the core podcasters, Dan, Howard, Brandon, that other guy, and me…
[Mary] We’re… This podcast is 100% white. This podcast is also 100% straight. We’re only 75% women. Er… We’re only 75% men. Excuse me, 25% women.
[Dan] I was excited for a minute.
[Mary] But the thing is… The thing is that the fact that this podcast is all white and all straight is not surprising to you. Because you have a default set in your head. So one of the things to be aware of when you’re doing this is that… If you feel like I need to mark my character as gay, you should also perhaps be considering that one of the ways you can address that default is by also marking your straight characters. And marking your characters who are ace or bi or… Or… Pansexual as Capt. Jack is. So be aware of your own tendency to default to an unmarked state, and this is a good time to examine that.
[Mary] Now we have a book of the week.
[Dan] We do. Thank you for handing it to me. I’m going to hand it to Mike. Mike, what’s our book of the week?
[Mike] So, the book of the week is my first novel, Underworld. It’s about two brothers growing up in rural Pennsylvania who are chasing… Who are chasing the same girl. One because he loves her, and the other because he doesn’t want to be gay. So, I think it’s clear what the… Why that’s the… Why I said… Why I picked that as the book of the week.
[Dan] That sounds awesome. Tell us the title again.
[Dan] Underworld. Awesome. I actually first heard that as two boys growing up in rural Transylvania, but I’m…
[Dan] [garbled switching] it to Pennsylvania.
[Aliette] I also heard Transylvania, but…
[Aliette] As a default.
[Dan] Two young vampires growing up in rural T… Okay. Underworld.
[Mary] No. Two young men who people assume are vampires…
[Mike] Well, now they do.
[Dan] Now we’re getting…
[Dan] We don’t have much time left, and I would really love to focus, if we can, on some constructive advice. I’m going to start with the question, what have you seen… Can you give us a quick example of something you’ve seen in media that made you think, “Wow. That writer really did his or her research. They know what they’re talking about.”
[Mike] Actually, yes. This book has a tremendous trigger warning. It’s by Hanya Yanagihara. She wrote… She. It’s a woman. This is what is so special about this book. Wrote this book called A Little Life. It’s one of the best gay love stories I have ever read. It’s beautiful. On every level, this book is beautiful. The thing that showed that she understood the subject matter was that her characters’ discovery of their love for one another is so organic and so real that there was… That even though… That there was no question in my mind that this woman had spoken to many gay men about how the… What their experience of romance and what their experience of sex was. It was beautiful. Brilliant.
[Dan] Cool. So what are some things then that writers can do… And I’m going to make this question difficult, because you’re not allowed to say do your research and you’re not allowed to say have gay readers from within the gay community. What can writers do, other than those things, to help write better gay characters?
[Mike] Okay. So. Oh, gosh, I don’t know if I’m going to be breaking your rules here, but…
[Mike] One thing that I do when I need to learn about people who are not myself is I go on the Internet and I find those people. So, for instance, if you go on Reddit or you make an account on OkCupid or like anywhere that people meet other people, it’s really easy to meet other people and to start talking to them about whatever it is about them that you’re interested in. That doesn’t mean… like I just mentioned OKCupid because it’s great for talking to people about… especially intimate issues. They’re more willing to talk, I think, there. But don’t catfish people. Don’t pretend to be a gay man to talk to gay men. You know what I mean? Like, be yourself, and just say, “Hey, listen. I see your profile. You’re very much like a character that I’m interested in writing. Can I ask you some questions about your experience?”
[Mary] That’s a really great idea that I’m totally stealing.
[Howard] The takeaway, I think, Mike, from your answer to Dan’s questions with its completely unfair precondition…
[Howard] Is this is a difficult thing for which there are no shortcuts. There is no easy button. You can’t just make sure you include this word or this sentence. It doesn’t work that way. You have to do some homework, you have to meet some people, you have to talk, you have to learn how people… How people be.
[Mary] So one of the things that we often talk about is the whole write what you know, which I think is better expressed as extrapolate from what you know. When you were talking about how you would search for representations of yourself in media, what are the tells? What are the things that make you feel like you are present in that?
[Mike] In non-gay characters?
[Mary] In characters that are not demarcated.
[Mike] Okay. Right.
[Mike] So, actually anyone who seems… For me, as a gay man, anyone who seems uncomfortable with women or any man who seems uncomfortable with women. Any male character who has… Who seems to be portrayed as having a secret. You think, “What’s his secret?” Especially… I can think of two Hitchcock movies that are brilliant with this. I think they both unquestionably have gay subtext. One is Strangers on a Train and the other is Rope. The main character in both of those movies is a gay man. The movies, there’s no suggestion that… Or there’s no overt suggestion that the movies are about being gay. But both of them definitely are. So I highly recommend those as a way to see that thing. Because I’m having a little bit of a hard time articulating it.
[Mary] It is difficult, I think… And this is also one of the things for you, readers and listeners, is that… Remember that your experience is normal. So when you’re going to someone from within a community, you’re asking them to describe their own normal, which is like asking a fish to describe water. It’s often very difficult to pinpoint the parts of your life that other people don’t experience. Which is why I thought, well, if we can talk about the things that you see, that these are potentially things that other people can extrapolate from. Like I extrapolate from what it’s like to have a secret, even if it isn’t that secret.
[Mike] Actually, one more [thought?] that I had similar to that is that… Like I said earlier, since gay people come from every walk of life and they come together, they are… There is very different subcultures within the gay community. So if you’re interested in writing gay characters, the one easy way to do it is just to make a character who happens to be gay. But if you’re interested in going deeper into the community, learn the different subcultures that exist there, because just like in the world that you live in, there are lots of different smaller groups that you might find interesting enough to write about.
[Dan] That is super interesting. I wish we had time to go into some of those subcultures, but we’re unfortunately out of time. Thank you very much for being here.
[Mike] Thank you.
[Dan] This was a really interesting discussion. So, do you have some writing homework you can give us?
[Mike] Yes. So take your work in progress. Take any… Start with a scene. Take any character in that scene, and make that character… Change their sexual identity. So it could be to gay, to lesbian, bisexual, asexual, pansexual. Whatever it is. Rewrite the scene. But see just how little you have to change to make that character a different… Have a different sexual identity. You’ll be surprised. It might be zero words. You might have to change literally nothing.
[Dan] Awesome. I think that sounds fantastic. Well, thank you again. This has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.