Thoughts on Queer characters in fantasy
I’d been wanting to write a post about Queer characters in fantasy for some time, but having recently finished Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872), I’ve decided to get around to actually doing it. Such characters becoming more common is definitely one of the more positive fantasy trends out there, though I think the genre still has some way to go; I will look at why this might be the case.
Why is a greater degree of inclusiveness important? Simple – if you are going to portray characters as realistic people, rather than as archetypes, sexuality is an important human universal. As writers we often try to deal with human universals, and in this case we have to acknowledge that we are dealing with something very complex (which is why I use the convenient umbrella term Queer, rather than ever-complicated and ever-expanding acronyms). People’s desires and orientations differ in real-life, so if you are going to portray sexuality in your work, I think such differences need to be explored on the page too. Note that in some situations, this is easier said than done (I’ll get to that…).
Fantasy, more so than science-fiction, has traditionally been rather slow off the mark here. I would suggest four causes: a genre fascination with archetypes, the domination of Medieval European settings, Tolkienian influence, and real-world social norms – authors are creatures of their own time, while publishers are acutely aware of target audiences.
In the case of the first, consider the root texts – there is no sex in Beowulf, largely because the story is not primarily concerned with Beowulf’s interior emotions and psychology. Rather, the poem deals with wider, epic themes, such as the enduring nature of man’s reputation and his struggle against a hostile world. If one is dealing with larger-than-life material – which is what the epic truly involves – there is comparatively little space for dealing with the more mundane and private aspects of human existence, and if sexuality takes a backseat, so does its variants.
In the case of the second point, the issue is less the actual attitudes of Medieval Europe, and more posthoc associations. Sexual orientation as we understand it today did not exist as a concept in the Middle Ages – their distinction rested much more on who was doing the penetrating than on the biological sex of the participants. Yet because it was the “past”, there remains a pervasive idea that it was much more conservative than today. Writing a Queer character in a medieval fantasy setting might draw misplaced accusations of anachronism (unless the character hides their inclinations), whereas far-future science-fiction would never run into that problem.
Then there is the all-consuming shadow of Tolkien. As some of you know, I’m a massive Tolkien fan/apologist, but in this case having him as the benchmark text of the genre is problematic. I won’t go into detail about Tolkien’s views of sexuality (that’s for another post, when I get to that part of McGarry and Ravipinto), and contrary to popular belief he really did write about it. It’s just that, like his source material, he was more interested in epic archetypes and cosmic themes than in fine portraits of characterisation. Also, those of his works that do feature a sexual element (The Silmarillion; Aldarion and Erendis) are more obscure than The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, where sexuality is almost completely absent. This in turn has likely “neutered” those subsequent works that take Rings as a model, and if fantasy authors shy away from portraying sexuality at all, that goes double for Queer characters.
The fourth and final contributing factor is, of course, the actual world in which we live. In my country, homosexuality was only legalised in 1986 (we now have gay marriage, which shows how far New Zealand has come in my lifetime). If something is illegal, authors and publishers must think twice before “going there” with literary portrayals.
It is quite unfortunate that the rise of the novel as a literary form in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries coincided with a much harsher social view of non-straight sexuality. Authors like Sheridan Le Fanu had to get creative and metaphorical with depicting it (Carmilla is the prototype lesbian vampire), while Oscar Wilde famously pushed the envelope a bit too far. Perhaps that is why, when Queer characters by necessity lurked in the literary shadows, they tended to find a home in the horror genre, where transgressions of social norms was the entire point of the exercise. It also goes without saying that homosexuality was illegal in Britain at the time Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings: the Frodo/Sam friendship (however it may be read with twenty-first century eyes) is as far as any author in Tolkien’s position could have acceptably gone.
So if fantasy is a bit slow on the uptake, what do we make of those Queer portrayals that do exist? There is Rowling’s famous example of Albus Dumbledore… but to be honest, I do not read Dumbledore as a Queer character, or even as a sexual character. This is not a case of me burying my head in the sand and refusing to accept the truth – it’s simply that Dumbledore as portrayed in the actual text of Harry Potter is not sexual. He’s a wise old mentor figure, with no more sex drive than Gandalf. If Rowling had wanted to make him gay, she should actually have put it in the books, not retrospectively outed him in a blatant violation of the Death of the Author. And, frankly, if the one and only case of homosexual attraction in Harry Potter is Dumbledore desiring Wizard Hitler, that is not exactly a healthy portrayal, especially in a series that prides itself on the power of love.
George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire does it better. In contrast to the TV adaptation, Renly Baratheon and Loras Tyrell don’t get physical on screen, but the nature of their relationship is quite clear to anyone paying attention. Alternatively, I do wonder if Cersei Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen playing around with sexy female underlings has an element of male-orientated fanservice attached. Both characters are also heterosexual in all other settings, so this bout of homosexual activity is likely more experimentation than full-blown bisexuality. And while Oberyn Martell is clearly intended to be an anything-goes pansexual, this is an informed attribute, since his only partner we see in the book is his female paramour, Ellaria Sand – his homosexual activities are simply the subject of rumours. Informed sexuality is one of the big pitfalls of actually trying to explore Queer characters, something I will get to shortly.
Then there are the more envelope-pushing portrayals – R. Scott Bakker and Richard Morgan give us Cnaiür (The Prince of Nothing) and Ringil (A Land Fit for Heroes) respectively. The former is a violent barbarian in clear denial about himself – he has multiple wives and children, but appears to prefer men. The latter is a violent aristocrat who blatantly rubs his sexuality in the face of both the reader and his deeply homophobic society. I think both characters are a strike at the archetype of the testosterone-dripping meat-headed warrior (“what if Conan were gay?”), but as I remarked a few months back, I think your work loses inclusiveness points if you have your gay character being arse-raped at regular intervals. Morgan in particular ramps things up as far as he can, in what I’ve previously described as “Adult Themes”.
Finally, there’s what might be termed the Yaoi Fangirl flavour of fantasy, where Queerness of characters seems to be an aesthetic choice on the part of the author. For all that Sarah Monette is an excellent prose-stylist, and very good at both characterisation and worldbuilding, having read her Doctrine of Labyrinths tetralogy, I can’t quite shake the idea that she is a bit too enthusiastic about portraying homosexual male rape – not for trolling (a la Morgan), but rather for female-orientated fanservice. A gender-flipped version of Martin’s lesbian scenes if you will, but with an unhealthy element of non-consent in the mix. The less said about other authors who seem to think that gay male characters must automatically be weepy, angsty, and campy, the better.
Running through these examples is the tendency of the fantasy genre to limit considerations of Queerness to “mainstream” homosexuality – even in Martin’s case, you’re dealing with informed pansexuality and debatable bisexuality, rather than anything thorough. At first sight, this might appear neglect, until you realise there are some things that exist in the real-world that are damn hard to put on the page, because the rules of narrative aren’t always the rules of real-life. Let’s take a couple of examples.
In the real-world, asexual people exist – people who may or may not desire romance and companionship, but who don’t have any particular desire to engage in sexual activity. All well and good, but if you want to write an asexual character, how do you do it? Unless you have a character identify themselves or someone else as asexual (which requires the concept to exist in-universe), you are left showing an absence. To do that, you must go out your way to show everyone else as having a sex drive – taking advantage of the literary concept of the foil, where an attribute is made more apparent by juxtaposition with its opposite. Which is do-able, but needs to be done carefully lest the reader think you’ve written a cast of sex maniacs (minus one). A lot of work, just to explore one character’s asexuality!
Another complicated example is bisexuality. In the real-world, bisexuals might only associate with one gender and never act on their desire for the other – but this isn’t really viable in fiction, since it looks like a cop-out. Informed attributes are generally a bad idea, since the reader is forced to accept the narrative’s word for it, rather than the more powerful option of seeing the attribute for themselves. This is another reason why Rowling’s Dumbledore is a failed depiction of a Queer character (Show Don’t Tell can be a cruel master).
In real-life, bisexuals might also only have a single relationship with a person of a particular gender – but if you present this otherwise perfectly normal situation in fiction, it can be seen as “experimentation” or “denial” rather than “true” bisexuality. If you then write a bisexual character having multiple encounters of either gender, you run the risk of portraying them as indiscriminately promiscuous, which only promotes a stereotype (in reality, just because bisexuals fancy both men and women doesn’t mean they all sleep with everyone). I’m sure you can see the tightrope here, and why it requires a good deal more work on the part of the author to present a bisexual character than a standard “straight” or “gay” character.
Having looked at why fantasy has traditionally neglected Queer characters, what the genre is currently serving up in terms of portrayals, and a couple of the pitfalls and complexities involved, I’d just like to finish off with a quick note on one excuse you occasionally see for people writing straight-only casts – the “write what you know” line. You know, the idea that straight people can only realistically write straight characters. I hate this particular piece of received wisdom, since to me it feels like an attack on the very basis of fiction. For goodness sake, our job as writers (fantasy authors no less) involves imagining things that don’t exist, and trying to get inside consciousnesses different to our own. If someone is capable of writing someone of a different gender to themselves, they are more than capable of writing someone of a different sexual orientation. And as for the mechanics, research is your friend. Thankfully, moving forward, the genre is seeing more authors taking the plunge.