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.

How Not to Pursue Sense of Wonder

Tracie Welser is a Clarion West grad, a teacher and a writer. Her first professional sale, “A Body Without Fur,” appears in May/June issue of Interzone.

Excellent fiction is an art we’re all working to capture on the page. Blogs and how-to books are full of advice on how to achieve excellence through structure, prose, plot, setting, character and dialogue. But when it works, why does it, really? Is excellence a convergence of these factors, these skills, like a formula of some kind? If we’re honest, the possibility is a little thrilling to contemplate. A magic formula! I’ve seen how-to-write texts which promise this very idea.

We could speculate on tastes of various readers and writers and the styles that appeal to them (the sentimental, the romantic, the horrific, the scientific and so on). As Michael Chabon points out in his artful collection Maps and Legends, we read and write “for entertainment, and its suave henchman, pleasure.” And entertainment comes in different flavors. But I want to know how and why story works, why the rhythm and syntax of a sentence gives it power, how the structure of a narrative draws in or discomfits the reader, and to what ultimate effect. I’m going to assert that the real deal, the aspect of fiction that keeps people reading is Sense of Wonder. This is true whether the genre is horror, epic fantasy, mystery, “hard” sci-fi, or cowboy stories. Or even that other genre that doesn’t recognize itself as such, literary fiction. Or the weird. Especially the weird.

How is wonder accomplished, if that’s what we’re chasing? I mean, really, deep down, cognitively? What kinds of narrative make this experience possible for the reader?

Surprising or shocking the reader with the unexpected creates cognitive dissonance that the reader feels as wonder. Just enough of the expected, subverted, does this in a sublime manner. A visual metaphor helps here: I once saw prints by an artist whose photos blend nature into urban landscapes such as train stations. The size, scope and juxtaposition of flowing water and growing things against the urban and mechanical are beautiful and startling, initially. Once you’ve seen it, the spectacle isn’t as compelling, but that first glance creates a “wow” moment.

The much-touted startling story hook, or violence embedded in narrative as spectacle, or sensual pleasures presented as extraordinary and enticing, all play on the cognitive dissonance and wonder of the reader. Something unexpected is happening! For simplicity’s sake, I’m talking about sex and violence, but there are plenty of other ways to accomplish the translation of the visual into text.

But there’s a how-not-to. We have to tread carefully in order to bring readers moments of wonder without relying on tropes or harmful stereotypes or easy fixes that insult their intelligence or worse.

How not to: othering characters based on gender or race or exoticizing the foreign or relying on stereotypes for horrific/bizarre effect. Pulpy fiction like Lovecraft’s is infamous for this. Witness the perils of darkest Africa! Behold the evil Eskimo, the uncivilized swamp cultist! Included in this category are the inbred hillbilly, the small-town sheriff, the psychotic man with dwarfism, the mentally unbalanced and/or tragic queer, the one-dimensional woman. I’m guilty of this in my own way. My fascination with Le Guin’s anthropological style led to me create a recently published story that teeters on the edge of the noble savage trope. I have to ask myself hard questions about that choice. Did I find that compelling? Why? Did I do enough to transcend the stereotype while pursuing a sense of wonder?

Violence is compelling, and it can be used to awe the reader. I’m not saying that violence is “wonderful” in a delightful sense, but it is a spectacle for the senses, psychologically interesting. It’s the effect to which violence is used that makes the difference.

I know I am not immune to this impulse, either. I have a graduate degree in the study of gender theory, but both of my recently published works begin with a story hook in which violence is directed at a female character. What does that say about me, about my own demons or narrative aesthetic? Am I perpetuating a harmful trope when I compel the reader to see the startling beauty of blood splattered on snow, a sense of wonder inspired by the visual I saw in my mind’s eye?

What hooks you into narrative as a reader? How do you create “wow” moments in your writing, and what, if anything, can be problematic?