Outside the Norm

The other day a friend of mine, one of my Alphas for my second WIP asked me, “Why is <insert name of character> gay?”

My answer was, “Because he is.”

An answer that I then repeated in the comment section of  of a post on on another writer’s blog about LGBT characters. It was an honest and simple answer. As often happens with discovery writing, one stumbles across characters and watches them develop along side the story. In fact, I remember asking myself, “Is this character gay?” and I knew the answer the moment I asked it. But it got me thinking about the question behind the questions.

That is, ” “Why does he have to be gay?”

The question implies a choice, which is true for all writers, even discovery writers. We chose what we write about, what we like and dislike. We also have to chose between being true to our characters or take them out completely and come up with someone else.  In fact, writing a story, any story is about making choices. So I decided to go with the character “as is” and explore the possibilities that came with it.

Still left me with the question of where my friend was coming from, exactly. What did he mean by the question. Then I remembered a word/term I read recently in a webcomic (yes, you can learn new and interesting stuff in webcomics!)

Yes, kids, the word is “heteronormative” or as Wikiepdia defines it:

Heteronormativity is a term for a set of lifestyle norms that hold that people fall into distinct and complementary genders (male and female) with natural roles in life. It also holds that heterosexuality is the normal sexual orientation, and states that sexual and marital relations are most (or only) fitting between a man and a woman. Consequently, a “heteronormative” view is one that promotes alignment of biological sex, gender identity, and gender roles.[1]

Okay, sorry for the goofiness, there, but the girl with the pink cat ears has a point. We make certain assumptions when we read or create stories unless otherwise stated.  So much so, that we don’t even question those choices or the assumptions in which they are based. Of course, the moment you do start asking questions, the ground beneath said assumptions starts to shake and what appears to be “normal” or “normative” no longer is, well, normal.

Of course we don’t want to read about boring, normal, homogeneous lives. We look for the odd, the intriguing, the fascinating. We like to see the ordinary turned upside down and inside out. Yet, we still cling to certain assumptions about a character’s sexuality, race religion, social status or ethnicity.

When was the last time you wondered if the character on the page deviated in anyway from your expectations?

OK then, what if I want to create or find myself with a character outside of “normal” (whatever that may be)?

You could:

  • The PC route: Drop a token character of your minority choice, bonus points if you can pile up as many minorities in a single character, such as a Asian/African-American/Lesbian/Atheist/Female. A nice way to deflect any accusation of racism or bigotry, the literary equivalent of “I have a X friend” were the X stands for whatever non-normative part of the population you are referring too, although not very effective, for obvious reasons.  As of late, this seems to be the BBC approach in shows like Merlin.
  • The Character Study Approach: It is all about the character. He is waving a flag screaming, “LOOK AT ME!”. Whether it is the story about a runaway slave from a Southern plantation, a young teenager confronting her parents about her sexual orientation, or an immigrant struggling to survive in a foreign country, the story centers around the character and their norm breaking ways.  Great way to go unless you don’t deliver a solid character and instead end up with a caricature of the same unless you’re aiming to bust stereotypes by making fun of them.
  • The Embrace the Stereotypes Option: Not all Mexican immigrants are drug dealing head choppers, but head shopping Mexican drug dealers do exists, as do Neo-Nazi Germans, English Soccer Hooligans, Angry Lesbians, Flaming Gay Men, etc. Beware of implying that all members of a given group are like that, after all neither were all Germans Nazis or all Nazis Germans.  Even if the writer comes from a give ethnic/social  background that does not isolate them from criticism.
  • The Arbitrary Style:  Or the “Because I said so” style. It may simply be a way of deflecting the critics or a genuine attempt to be true to the character(s). If the character is gay, then he is gay, same thing with ethnicity,race, national origin, social strata or any non-normative consideration.

So how do you handle characters that stray from the norm?


Groove Armada asks- If Everybody Looked the Same?


5 comments on “Outside the Norm

  1. Great post! (And thanks for the link-back!)
    QC is a great comic, though I only recently started reading it.

    I tend to be a “because I said so” sort of writer. The “PC” and “Embracing Stereotypes” routes are much too prone to simply being offensive.



  2. I second the, “great post”!

    As for me, I approach such characters the same way that I approach any other character: hopefully create a three-dimensional *person*.


  3. I -really- like this post, Ralfast. Seriously, a really important one. And I love your answer to your friend…


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