As a reader, picking up a book and falling in love with the characters, what do you see? Chances are, the author and the reader see entirely different things.
I am both, an avid reader and a writer. As a novelist, I obviously have a definite idea of what my characters are like. I’ve nurtured these people, molded them, shaped them and given them personality traits, likes and dislikes, foibles, sexuality and dress sense. Some of these things are immovable, otherwise the story would not exist, but others, such as their looks, are really in the hands of the reader. They can transfer their own desires onto each character and make them who they want to be, to a certain extent.
In The Cloud Seeker, Cat is in her forties, curvy, with long, unruly hair and dirty feet. That way, I have let the reader decide whether she looks like your sister, your mother, or the woman you see in the mirror each morning. She is every one of us, a flawed, strong, warm and capable woman, attractive to some and not to others, but most important of all, is learning to live with her past mistakes and be comfortable in her own skin.
In Closer Than Blood, the setting is corporate Manhattan. A woman with unruly hair and dirty feet would definitely have a story to tell, but that wasn’t the story I had in mind. Pagan Freemantle is very different to Cat but again is every one of us, a normal woman, this time with the responsibility for her child, and trying to keep her marriage together in the face of persistent attention from a man she shouldn’t love. Okay, so not everyone wants to be pursued by a man whose idea of a Valentine’s present is a Glock 17. Politically incorrect? Undoubtedly, but this is fiction. The reader takes what they want to take.
They have full control, even down to how they see the main characters. For example, this is how I wrote Frank Mancini in Closer Than Blood.
He was tall. Most men were to her but he seemed to fill the apartment in a way that left no room for light. He had dark hair and cheekbones that looked as if they had been carved from marble. And his eyes! Man, those eyes chilled her blood. They were as hollow and cold as ancient caves, and the pale blue of an Alaskan sky. As she looked into those icy depths, the fine lines around them spoke of too many late nights, too much alcohol, and far too much violence.
I had King Of New York’s Christopher Walken in mind when I wrote that, but someone else might read it and immediately think of Liam Neeson, Justin Trudeau or Tom Cruise (or maybe not…) Ryan Gosling and Dominic Cooper are also up there, apparently. I don’t see it, but hey, if it works for them, why not?
This is something I’ve learned through my growth as a storyteller. One doesn’t have to conform to heteronormative ideals all the time. Over the years, Frank Mancini’s (Closer Than Blood) character has evolved. I started the book in 1994, but didn’t actually publish it until 2015, after a five year hiatus and a few more years of fiddling around, modernising it, and making Frank’s character pansexual. He always was, but I hadn’t recognised it as such until a couple of years back. Until then, I didn’t even know his brand of sexuality had a name. I always assumed he was bisexual, but that seemed too small a box to fit him in. And at the time, it didn’t fit the story. After all, he was in love with a woman, so that made him straight, didn’t it?
I’ve found that accepting these fluid ideas of gender and sexuality lead to far more interesting and challenging characters to write. Having written straight M/F erotic romance for years, and enjoying every moment of it, it was exciting to have a whole new world of potential characters opened up in front of me.
There are pitfalls though, and it is easy to fall into the trap of creating dress-up dollies if one isn’t careful – just trawl through some of the MM Romance genre and you’ll see what I mean. As writers we have a responsibility not to reenforce stereotypes. That’s a whole massive topic and one I’m not going to go on about on this post, but I wanted to address it. Have fun with your characters, whether they be LGBT or people of colour or any race other than your own, but remember they are a real community of people whose issues are different to yours and they need to be acknowledged. This isn’t a lecture, but it’s an important point to consider.
I didn’t set out to make Vardam (Euphoria – out in August 2018) nonbinary, but as an extraterrestrial, they didn’t conform to heteronormative standards either. Having never attempted sci-fi before, I was keen to at least get the basics right, before disappearing off into la-la land with the plot. One thing was a given, they had to have tentacles.
People like tentacles. I don’t know why, but they do. So fine, I’ve given Vardam tentacles, which they use for hunting and gathering, illustrating their feelings and at times, controlling recalcitrant humans. Some people also like the “built like a brick shithouse – but blue” thing when it comes to aliens, but that’s where I draw the line. Nope. Vardam looks like an alien, thinks like an alien, moves like an alien and talks like an alien. In order to facilitate communication, I’ve had them be with humans for six months before the story begins. Yes, they are attractive to look at, or at least they are to my main character, which is most important. Whether they are attractive to people reading the book, is up to them. I’m not asking people to fall in love with Vardam, but emphathise with them, and believe that they and Professor Kurt Lomax may possibly find some kind of emotional connection.
In Euphoria, there are straight relationships, gay relationships, questioning and nonbinary conundrums. It isn’t rammed home, but it’s there. It’s normal. These are normal people getting on with life until an extraterrestrial arrives and shakes them all up. And I love that.
I hope you do too.