About Damn Time for Once Upon A Time, and Why I Write "So Many" Queer Characters

“Why do you write so many queer characters?”

I’ve always considered this a pretty stupid question, not least because I don't think I write all that many- or even enough- of them, but it’s one I get asked fairly often, and it’s one that seems especially relevant after last night’s “Once Upon a Time.” So, I’m gonna answer it here, and next time somebody asks me, I can at least get an extra blog view out of it.

Before I do, though, let’s cover a couple quick tangential points. Tangential point #1:

For those who don’t know, last night’s Once Upon a Time introduced the show’s first LGBT romance. That’s good! On the other hand, several years ago, back when I still watched the show, there was what I thought was a pretty clear queer relationship brewing between two supporting characters, but the writers chickened out and never pulled the trigger on it. That’s bad.

Now, look, there are a million good reasons to keep two characters from having a relationship, regardless of orientation, chemistry, or subtext, and on a show with better writing I might be willing to give them the benefit of the doubt… but the reason I stopped watching OUAT was its hack writing, and that budding relationship was one of the few things on the show that was really working at the time, so fuck them right in their least preferred orifice. Good on them for doing the (absolute bare minimum version of) the right thing last night, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have done it years ago. Full disclosure, I’m harder on OUAT for this than I might be on most other shows, because:

1) OUAT is a major network show with huge viewership, and more than that a major Disney production with huge viewership. Disney has not been historically great about queer representation, but they have historically been the primary purveyor of children’s entertainment, and that’s a pretty shitty combo that’s worth an entire article by somebody smarter on the subject than I am.

2) The show actively teased the relationship from a few years ago, then did nothing with the tension it generated. You wanna back out from two characters with chemistry, that’s fine, but get some damn story out of it. Don’t just ignore the big gay elephant in the room.

Moving on. Tangential point #2:

I covered Carmilla in pretty thorough detail last week, but in the context of an article about LGBT representation, that show deserves a shout-out. It’s the only show I can think of offhand that’s got a primarily queer cast without being pointedly about queerness; believe it or not, it’s possible to tell compelling stories about queer people that aren’t just explicitly about how queer they are. Shocking, I know. Anyways, if you want a great queer show, that’s a good place to start. Check it out here.

Tangential point #3:

I’m not an authority. There are way better people to cover this than me, but they don’t post on this blog, so for their thoughts you’ll have to go elsewhere (and by all means, please recommend those elsewheres in the comments!). However, since I’m not an authority, there’s a very real chance I’m gonna screw up a term or leave something out. By way of a for instance, I’ve been saying “LGBT” or “LGBTQ” instead of “LGBTQA.” Now, I admit part of that is just me attempting some cheap exploitive SEO with the more common terms, but part of it is also that since I haven’t written an openly asexual character yet, I don’t get to brag about writing one. I can, should, and eventually will be better about that, but so far I haven’t been.

Final tangential point:

I really don't want to make this about my own personal sexuality, but for the sake of convenience/context let’s say for the purposes of this article I’m straight; it’s close enough to accurate for what we’re talking about, and explaining it further would be 1) a whole bunch more words in an article that still hasn’t really started yet, and 2) none of your damn business, internet stranger. 

Alright, after all that preamble, let’s get into it. In no special order, here are some of the reasons I write “so many” LGBTQ characters.

* Because I don’t read enough of them.

* Because I also don’t write enough of them.

* Because as much as a writer’s supposed to be able to inhabit any character, it’s easier to inhabit characters you have things in common with, and I’m lazy. There are a lot of reasons Mina Davis is queer, but one of them is because I write her books in the first person and therefore have to spend a lot of time in her bitter little head, and that’s just a little bit easier to do if sometimes she likes girls.

* Because I tend to write characters who remind me of people I know/like; I like a lot of gay, bi, and non-binary people. I haven’t written a non-binary character yet, but I will once I feel well-versed enough in it to not make a mess of things. Like I said above: I can be better, and I should be. Eventually I will be. 

* Because I also tend to write characters who remind me of people I don’t know but still like. I like queer writers, I like queer actors, I like queer musicians, queer athletes (all, like, two of them), etc. ad nauseum. There’s a character in Love & Other Lies Worth Telling who is bi because the celebrity they’re partially based off of came out to a friend of mine. There’s a character in the next Mina book who went from straight to bi because I decided to base her look off a queer celebrity who was a better fit than the straight one that originally inspired her. 

* Because sometimes it’s not up to me. Characters occasionally take on a life of their own, and sometimes that life involves fucking people who have the same parts they have. Or, in the case of a certain Asshole Yakuza Boyfriend character, it might involve living past the scene I wanted to kill them in and fucking up my plans for the rest of the series… which has nothing to do with what we’re talking about, I’m just still pissed off about it.

* Because writing queer heroes means getting to write homophobic villains every once in a while, and not much feels better than watching a homophobic villain choke down their comeuppance.

* Because at some level art should at least kinda reflect the world we live in, and the world we live in is pretty damn queer. Most of the queer folks I know are pretty cool. Some of them are shitty. I get a little gunshy sometimes about writing the shitty ones- too many other writers only write those ones- but ultimately I think it’s almost as bad as not writing them at all to pretend they can’t be evil assholes, too. Just make sure you’ve got enough other ones that aren’t.

* Because a bisexual character gives you objectively more story options than a straight one or a gay one; Mina has a lot more potential love interests (or in one case, unwanted crushes) because she’s got a more diverse sexual appetite than, say, Phillip Marlowe or Veronica Mars.

* Because it’s hot. Even if it’s not specifically hot to me, it’s hot to somebody, and I want that somebody to like my damn books; if some lady-on-lady or man-on-man is gonna make them like my story even a little more, why the fuck not?

* Because sometimes I want to, and my story won’t let me. Rose Scott was originally supposed to be a lesbian; that didn’t work for the story I ended up telling, so then she was bi. That didn’t really work either and put weird subtext on relationships that don’t need it. Now she’s bi-curious (probably about a 1.3 on the Kinsey scale), because I’m stubborn and refused to walk her back all the way to “straight.” And, honestly, if you’re head-canon is that she’s bi, I’m never gonna put anything in the actual stories to contradict that, I’m just also not going to lock it in. Still, straight-washing Rose as much as I did because it worked for the story left a sour taste in my mouth, and led to me creating two other queer characters to make up for it.

* Because I’m still pissed at Marvel for arbitrarily straightening Hercules. This is another one probably worth a whole article, but quickly for the cheap seats: fuck that noise. My other petty little form of protest: whenever I read Herc fighting a dude now, I mutter the immortal words of Ronnie the Xtacle, “Ancient Greeks be doing this naked.”

 Ronnie had a lot of immortal words. 

Ronnie had a lot of immortal words. 

* Because, actual data be damned, I’m convinced that at least half this country (and maybe world) is a little queer. Even if it’s not, I think a world where it is would be more interesting, and I get to decide how interesting the world I write is… so it ends up a pretty damn queer world.

* Because I’m a crime writer, and most crime writers for the last few hundred years have been really shitty about this, including the good ones. Raymond Chandler- easily my biggest influence- was really bad about it (although arguably not nearly as bad as most of the writers in his era). If you want a more modern example, I think I’ve read over a dozen Elmore Leonard novels but I can’t think of a single non-straight character of his off the top of my head. I can’t think of anyone I’ve read off-hand that’s especially great about it.

* Because, on a more macro level, fiction has generally done a piss poor job of reflecting the queer population. America’s somewhere between five and fifty percent queer depending on who you ask, but fiction’s probably under one percent, and about ninety percent of that one percent is stereotyped homophobic, or camp.

* Because, back on the crime thing, Mina’s initial origins as a character- whether she’s outgrown them somewhat or not- relied heavily on gender-flipping the traditional noir private eye, and traditional noir private eyes have to be able to flirt with the sexy lounge singer or the dangerous mobster’s daughter and so on. Now, sure, I could just make the flip universal instead of selective, and render lounge singer and the daughter male instead… but I don’t wanna.

* Because I need to be better about it. I mentioned above that I haven’t written an asexual or non-binary character yet; I also haven’t found space to canonize several characters’ sexualities (Matamoros, for example, is definitely bi but good luck getting that from the only published story he’s in so far), I keep pushing a prominent gay male character back book by book because the plot’s not ready for his introductory story yet (leaving Mina’s world perhaps a bit overly labia-leaning), and I haven’t even planned for a trans character yet.  Now, purely as a writer I can defend all those choices- the one character I was going to make asexual was a torturous serial killer and I didn’t want readers wrongly assuming that the two were connected, I haven’t written a non-binary character because I don’t yet feel like I can do it without fucking it up, I haven’t introduced Whit yet because he doesn’t make sense for the first three Mina books, and I just haven’t come up with an awesome trans character yet- but if I’m being honest? All of those are fixable issues- write a different asexual character, do some damn research/talk to more non-binary people, come up with something for Whit to do or introduce a different gay guy, sit down and come up with a trans character you lazy asshole- and ultimately I will. But I also don’t want to cross the line from writing LGBTQA characters because they make sense for the story into flagrant tokenism; I won’t put them in just to say I put them in, but I will put them in because it makes sense for the story. Oh, and by the way…

* Because sometimes it makes sense for the story. Linda was already gay and Mina was already queer when I wrote Asshole Yakuza Boyfriend, but if they weren’t I probably would have made them be; the story works better with that extra tension between them. I couldn’t have quite the same dynamic with straight characters, because there’s gender role/expectation stuff I have no control over. The relationship I wanted to write about worked better as a gay relationship.

* Because not enough other people are doing it.

* Because sometimes it starts a dialogue. If a conversation started by one of my stories makes one close-minded asshole slightly less of a close-minded asshole, that’s a pretty cool thing.

* Because, at the most basic level, stories should have different people in them. People love Star Wars, but damn would it have been boring- once the novelty wore off- if the entire cast were all C-3PO. Sexuality is a pretty big part of who a character is sometimes, and if everybody in a story wants to fuck the same kinda people, that’s one less way in which they’re distinctive.

* Because, from a feminist perspective, there are a lot of stale tropes that get freshened up with LGBT characters. I ‘m pretty tired of the damsel in distress trope (which is not to say I’ve never used it; I’m a massive hypocrite) but change it up a bit so the damsel’s being rescued by another woman instead and all of a sudden it’s not about gender and how the big strong man has to save the tiny woman, it’s about character and story… which is what I like my books to be about, anyway. 

* Because, if I’m being honest, I really don’t lean into it enough. Most of the cast of Mina’s books are queer in one way or another, but so far it’s only really come up much for Linda, and a little bit for Mina. That’s gonna get a little better with the next one, which has a pretty prominent female attraction for Mina in it… but still. The corollary to this, though, is that I lose nothing by writing LGBT characters; the fact that Matamoros is bi doesn’t do anything to hurt my story, but somewhere down the line it might do something to help it, and at the very least it makes him a little bit more interesting to me. Similarly, most readers might not pick up that Matsunaga is a lesbian, but I get a kick out of her pushing around all those old-school yakuza assholes.

* Because it pisses off the people who most deserve to be pissed off.

So, there’s a bunch of reasons. Pick your favorite. That’s also not the whole list; I spend time writing that up, that third Mina book is never coming, and you folks’ll never get to see her finally… but that would be telling.   

If you wanna brush up on your Mina before that third book comes out, you can find her first two adventures here and here, as well as her origin story here. If you’re more curious about the celebrity knockoff in Love and Other Lies Worth Telling, you can get that one here