What Humans Do

Kathe Koja’s books include The Cipher, Skin, Buddha Boy, Talk, Under the Poppy and its sequel, The Mercury Waltz. Visit her at http://underthepoppy.com and http://kathekoja.com.

Listen, if you’re planning to write about gay characters, all I can say is Don’t. OK? Because what you must know from the start is that there really are no such things.

What there are are humans, all kinds. And that’s how we write about them, our paper people that we try so hard to create, as we seek to render by careful and judicious and passionate word choice, word order, and punctuation the full and transcendent experience of what it is to be alive: doing the things that humans do, behaving well and badly, falling in and out of love, going out to get coffee, going out to save the world.  Their sexuality is a part of who they are, those characters, just like with real live people.  But there is no more a gay character than there is a straight character than there is an Asian character than there is a white character than there is an Earthling character. And when there is, it’s because the writer involved has either no ambition, or no talent.  One of these can be fixed.

All characters, even the smallest walk-on spear carrier dude whom we’re only going to meet for a minute – if your fiction means to recreate that transcendent life experience, that walk-on dude has to be alive.  No real people aren’t, even the dead ones. We can’t know everything about him, we may only see the briefest wink of detail, but it has to be real.  Otherwise, why is he there at all?

So your character who is gay, let’s say, he’s alive too, and one of the endless ways your story may choose to indicate this is by giving the reader a look into his heart, or his underwear drawer, or both. Maybe both at the same time! And his sexual orientation may even be the fulcrum around which the story turns.  But that’s not because he’s gay.  It’s because he’s human. If he, or that girl over there who likes girls, or the trans or bi character who drinks Darjeeling tea and has flashy taste in t-shirts and really can’t deal with waiting in line, if those characters are being celebrated or persecuted or transported physically off the planet, any planet, because of the whole gay thing, that’s not because of the whole gay thing either.  It’s because other humans, who themselves have underwear drawers and issues with lines, have hates and fears and sadnesses that they choose to address in that way, are addressing them in that way. And what your persecuted character does about it, all of that, altogether, is what humans do.

And PS, your qualification for writing those gay characters, those human characters, do not include your own sexuality; just like they do not include your own gender, native language or ancestry, current temporal situation, or ability to wait patiently in line. Your first qualification is that you’re a writer.  And your second is that you’re a human, too. Give yourself the gift, as a creator, of the full palette of humanity, then make your people as real as you can, story after novel after film after whatever it is you’re writing, make them gay if they’re gay and bi if they’re bi and straight if they’re straight, let them tell you who they are so you can tell us, you can allow us to enlarge our own experience of life by reading about theirs. Because humans can learn from other humans, if they listen with attention to a story told with that same attention, with the creative rigor that is love. It’s one of the best things that humans do.