A reader asked me this question on Tumblr:
I always think about the impact of how my choices for a character will be received and understood by my readers—particularly characters from groups who have been poorly or unfairly represented in media before. Whether it’s Kyle’s parentage or the depiction of an older gay male supervillain hitting on a younger, more vulnerable gay superhero (in a back alley, no less!), The Young Protectors contains some provocative stuff. While some of that is clearly playing with yaoi and genre tropes, I was prepared for a number of different reactions to the material, including “negative” reactions.
My personal belief, as a writer and a consumer, is that so long as you are creating three-dimensional characters, that political/PR considerations shouldn’t stop you from showing a member of any group from behaving badly. Even from a political perspective, I think you gain more ground by showing someone as a three-dimensional human being, warts and all, than by making a false distinction between them and members of more privileged groups. It can take a while to understand why putting women “up on a pedestal” or depicting native peoples as “noble savages” (with secret knowledge of the universe that white folks don’t get) is actually harmful—after all, you’re just saying nice things, right? But to make that distinction, to see members of a group as an “other”, even a “so-much-better-than-me” other, is by it’s very nature objectifying and, ultimately, I think misses the most liberating understanding: Yes, culture is important to respect and understand, but deep down people are people with basic human desires and needs and, if given a level playing field, we all have an equal potential for good and bad choices. There is nothing innate to the color of our skin, our gender, who we fall in love with (or if we lack any sexual desire at all), etc. that makes any of us any more likely to be a good or a bad person, more whole or more damaged.
Now, there are some big caveats that go with that, and one of those caveats is that you can’t ignore the history of how groups of people have been depicted in mainstream media in the past. If you choose to depict a black man as a violent criminal in a story for U.S. audiences, that’s going to carry a lot more weight than if the same character were white. Not only does that writing choice risk fueling dangerous stereotypes among the impressionable (a political factor), but that depiction done carelessly can also cause real emotional pain and suffering to those who watch it (a moral factor). For the reason I said above, if it’s right for the story (such as in The Wire—that is, it isn’t done carelessly), that shouldn’t in itself stop you. But there are some things I think you must keep in mind.
One big thing is context. As a gay man, if I see yet another depiction of a self-loathing gay man who commits suicide or kills his lover in the next 1000 years of visual media, it’ll be too soon. Seeing that portrayal time and time again as a gay kid in movies and on T.V. felt annihilating to me and filled me with despair. But if it’s part of a story that consistently shows other three-dimensional gay male characters who do find happiness, love and success and, ideally, are major characters, not window dressing and the choice also feels necessary and organic to the story (and not just gratuitous, cheap drama), then I have a very different experience of it.
Other three-dimensional gay characters in a story assures me that the writer sees gay characters as real people and not mere props to play into an audience’s disgust or pity. And if the character making the bad choice is three-dimensional themselves, then I can experience their choice as a choice made by them as people, not as the inevitable consequence of their deviant sexuality (or, almost as bad, a flaw stemming from irreversible damage of being born gay in our unfortunately straight world. “Poor homosexuals. So glad I was born straight…”)
Speaking for myself, what an individual character does or what an individual plot point might imply matters less than the context of the work I am creating as a whole (and my body of work as a whole). There are scenes in The Young Protectors that could be misinterpreted as implying that gay sex sends you to Hell or that gay men are sexual predators. But anyone who is familiar with my work as a whole (or even is current with The Young Protectors) knows that’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m writing stories that depict gay men as real heroes. Where gay men are not just the comic relief or sympathetic victims of a genre work, but rather where they get to be the stars of the show. And, in making gay men stars in a super-hero story, that means that sometimes I will also depict some gay men as real villains. My guiding light for bad behavior is “Would I hesitate to show a straight, white man doing this?” If the answer is no, then while I might hesitate long enough to make sure I have balance elsewhere, it won’t stop me from making the best choice for the story. What matters for me is the impact of the story as a whole and what the story as a whole says about people (including gay people).
Taking risks, including making provocative choices, won’t guarantee that your writing will be great. But I’m fairly convinced that avoiding those risks, avoiding the scary places, will guarantee that your writing won’t even have the chance to be great. The scariest choices I’ve made—the ones that I was sure would lose me half my audience—have turned out to be the ones that have earned me the most praise and success. That’s a powerful lesson.
But here’s the thing: as writers, while I do think we should definitely go to the scary places, which sometimes includes making provocative choices— if you’re going to go there, you have to be willing to own it. As they say: don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time. Write something provocative, people will be provoked. If you are not willing to respond to feedback to your choice with empathy and compassion, including to “negative backlash”, or if you aren’t willing to explain the reasoning behind your choice to people who question it, then you probably shouldn’t have made that choice in the first place. (And if you, yourself, don’t actually have a good reason you made that choice, then chances are it wasn’t really necessary to the story, now was it?)
Writing done well should be a springboard for great discussion. While you cannot be responsible for any one person’s individual reaction, as a writer, you should give real thought to how reasonable people will react to what you write and you should be prepared to participate in that discussion. Ideally, discussion of your work will enrich the lives of your audience in ways that are important to you. (For me, that involves a deeper understanding of how we all aren’t so different after all and how all of us have the potential to be heroes.) If that’s the result, great—that’s a sign you did your job well. If not, then that’s good information for you as a writer. But either way, by my lights, if you started the fire, you need to stick around and take responsibility for the consequences.
So, to answer your question, did I worry about backlash? No. But I was prepared for it. And I was prepared to explain my choices if people wanted to hear that and, just as important, listen to those who were affected by my choices.
I’m someone who hopes his stories will not only entertain, but will also make a real difference. My goal is for them to enrich reader’s lives. But to believe that my stories could have that kind of impact means that I also can’t wash my hands of other reasonable reactions people have.
To put your work out there is to engage in conversation with your audience. And that means sticking around to hear how they respond to what you just said.