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Monday, August 04, 2008


Writing against your orientation

This is something I've been reflecting on quite a lot lately: the issue of writing a character whose sexual orientation is different from yours. It's surprising what it shows up.

The issue is simple, at root: it's much easier to write a character who shares your sexual preferences. I was reflecting on this while flipping through a book by an author who shall remain nameless out of good manners, as I believe s/he is married - but reading the book, I felt rather sorry for their spouse. Their ability to picture opposite-sex attraction was pretty weak, but the emotions between characters of the same sex, nominally friends, were vivid, yearning, fraught with physical details, romantic. This is purely speculation on my part, but one thing was unquestionable: the author was finding it much easier to identify with same-sex longings than with opposite-sex ones. There are a number of possible explanations, but Occam's Razor suggests that the author is gay but in the closet, perhaps even to themself. People in that kind of situation are the reason we need greater societal tolerance as fast as possible, because someone who feels that way being married to an opposite-sex spouse is probably finding and giving less satisfaction than everybody deserves.

But on literary terms, it got me thinking. The narrator of my current novel is bisexual tending towards gay. She got that way by an organic rather than a planned process: the book had been chugging along, not particularly considering her sexuality one way or the other, then a female character turned up, and the way my heroine described her made me think, 'Hm, that sounds like she's attracted to her.' This gave me two options: rewrite, or go with it. Her orientation had become an issue, and I had to make a decision. So I thought about it, and decided, in effect, 'Why not make her gay? Lots of people are.' Hence, I rewrote the scene again, drawing the attraction out, and a few weeks down the line, was writing my first ever lesbian sex scene.

And it's an intriguing process. I'm realising several things.

First, while my heroine, Rose by name, is not defined in my mind as A Big Girl-Fancying Lesbian - that is, her sexuality is not her primary trait, it's a detail rather than the key to her character - I swing back and forth on wondering how important it'll seem to readers. To me, as I said, it's one among many character notes; of all the gay women I know, the fact that they prefer skirt to trouser is seldom the most interesting thing about them or their main topic of conversation, so writing Rose's love life, my aim was to express the ordinariness of homosexuality rather than to let it overwhelm her presentation. She has a girlfriend rather than a boyfriend; big deal. But there are days when I wonder, should the book sell (fingers crossed), whether at least some people will be distracted from the actual plot into seeing it as A Book About Lesbians. I hope not, but time will have to tell on that score.

But all these speculations are bringing home to me how heteronormative a culture we still inhabit. If I'd introduced a boyfriend rather than a girlfriend, I doubt anybody would have blinked - even though I would have chosen the character's sexual orientation every bit as much as I chose it when I made her gay.

Second, it can require some considerable contortions to get yourself into that mindset. Nameless Author is a case in point: write attractions you feel, and you flow easily, instinctively; write attractions you don't, and the instincts aren't there. I was running some scenes past a friend of mine over the weekend (scenes that involve sexual thoughts or activity, this friend being an actual lesbian and thus more likely to spot clangers than me), and the conversation threw up some interesting things. She commented, to my gratification, that the scenes reminded her of some book she couldn't remember the title of, but as it was by a lesbian author, published for a lesbian audience by a lesbian press, and about, you've guessed it, lesbians, I assumed that meant the writing was reasonably convincing. But I'd had to do quite a lot of work to get there. And to do that work, I'd had to invent a new techinque: basically, I'd had to use an invisible man.

It went like this. Being fairly chronically heterosexual, I find the idea of being attracted to a woman a pretty abstract one. I can get my head around the fact that some people do, I can recognise that some women are pretty, but that's all in my head; if I ask myself 'Would I like to nibble that pretty woman?', the answer is a resounding No.

But attraction is physical: abstraction doesn't cut it. To write something well, you have to be able to empathise, and the easiest way to empathise is to reflect on how you'd feel in that circumstance. But the circumstances, ie in bed with another woman, hold no appeal for me, no matter how much they appeal to my heroine. She and I are simply at odds there, and it's a problem to solve. There are two options: basically, you can picture it as A Gay Attraction, which will run into problems if that's something you've never felt, or, more effectively, you can picture it as being attracted to someone. Being attracted to someone, I can picture pretty easily. It's just that there's always a man in there somewhere.

So what I had to do was translate. As E.M. Forster says in Maurice, describing his gay character trying to understand things, 'So much in current speech and ideas needed translation before he could understand it.' There were two techniques I could use, either of them effective in their way. One, when Rose crushed on her girlfriend, I could picture looking at a man, consider what that feels like, and then translate 'Mm, wide shoulders ... deep voice ... muscular forearms...' into 'Mm, narrow waist ... soft skin ... dainty wrists...' - that is, to picture crushing on features that I find attractive, ie masculine ones, then consider what features are particularly feminine and apply the emotions of 'crush' to those. I used an invisible man, in fact, to play the observed, and then shrank him down, smoothed off his skin, added some breasts and then, at the last minute, whipped him out of the picture and substituted Rose's girlfriend. (He was a little confused for a while, but he's recovering nicely in the back clinic of my imagination, thanks for asking.) The second option was to put the man in the position of observer, and ask myself, 'If I really fancied a man, how would I want him to look at me? What would I want him to feel when he saw me?'

Interestingly, my fiance was in the room as we discussed this and listening to the passages; he remarked that my invisble man sounded fairly feminine to him. The descriptions of Rose's girlfriend, he reckoned, might be plausible coming from a man who's looking at a woman he deeply loves or has a major infatuation with, but ordinary male attraction isn't quite that caught up in the fine details, like the colour of hair on someone's arms, or exactly how they turn their ankles. This was convenient enough - my heroine is a woman, after all, so having her look at a woman with feminine desire was exactly what I was aiming for - but I wasn't entirely surprised. I'd spent a bit of time in the previous book describing a man being attracted to a woman, and the writing had been more stark, more straightforward. That hadn't been too hard to write either; there was a man in there somewhere. It's just when there's no men there at all that my imagination starts to cast around.

I think it's this that contributes to heteronormative assumptions, actually: when you imagine desire, it always looks like your own, and if other people's desires aren't very visible, it's easy to forget they exist.

Has anyone else had this experience? Do you have other methods for dealing with it?

Lesbian m/m slashers must know the secrets!
I'm bi, so I don't have your specific problem. But the same kind of thing comes up if you're writing a coupling you are personally not convinced of, like in fanfic where you're following canon or doing someone a favor. And it also comes up in writing characters who are attracted to people you would never be attracted to. In general when I write relationships and sex, I'm attracted to the relationship, but not necessarily to any of the characters, which is just as well, I think.
I've found you by way of Slacktivist, and am working my way through your blog archives and am about halfway through "Benighted" (I'm in the US), and am desperately trying to contain my fangirl gushing.

*deep breath*

I'm not a writer, but am a bi woman, so that might affect my perspective. Your approach of "envisioning attraction/apply to female-object-of-desire" seems perfectly reasonable and effective. After all, Rose is a woman, so she would think like a woman when looking at a potential partner.

I'm more of a cerebral-attraction than a physical-attraction person, but I'll give an explanation a go. There are personality traits that have been common among all the people I have dated - regardless of gender (kindness towards family/children/animals, sarcastic sense of humor, moderate level of extroversion to balance my introversion, etc).

There are also physical characteristics that have been pretty consistent, regardless of gender - they just moderate slightly. For example, I prefer a medium build that looks "natural". In women, that means someone who isn't overly thin/constantly dieting and therefore has some yummy curves. In men, that means someone who has some muscles but looks like they came from "Doing Things" rather than hanging out at the gym, and maybe carries a little extra weight here and there. A nicely defined upper back/shoulder blades will get me going, regardless of the owner's gender.

Then there are some traits that depend on whether it's a man or woman. I love men with deep/bass voices, but couldn't care less about a woman's voice (assuming it's not particularly outside the realms of "normal"). Women with freckles make me think dirty thoughts, while men's complexions don't really register one way or another. Etc.

All this TMI (heh) by way of saying: figure out what characteristics Rose is attracted to, and go with it. If Rose is a physically adventuring, daredevil risk taker, she'll probably want a girlfriend that can keep up with her. Is Rose a tough personality that would need someone "softer" to balance her out? That might manifest in someone who is a little more nurturing and feminine. (Or vice versa)
Totally off topic and possibly inappropriate but, is Bareback available in Canada? I've only been able to find Benighted and I'd really rather read the UK version. My reasons are many and varied and largely irrational so I won't try to explain them. So, um, is it available?
all I can think of is a conversation I had with my (straight) cousin when I first came out to him and he was curious about who I found attractive and why. I told him it wasn't the way a woman looked to me, but the way she looked at me that I responded to.
I cant write. Well, I can, just technical stuff like scientific papers and so forth.. but I have a question.. have you ever written of m/m couplings? How did you find that? My imaginings would be that it would be easier to write a gay relationship where the partners were the same gender as the writer, than if they were the other gender. Especially when it comes to the sex scenes..
Hmm. I've heard a couple of lesbian writers saying that they have difficulty writing sex scenes with women in because it feels a bit too close to home. But if it's a man-on-man scene, they can let their imaginations run wild without feeling overly exposed. It may well be that the author in question just felt more uninhibited writing about same sex attractions as he feels that he's less likely to have people assuming that he really secretly fancies short feisty blonde women, for instance. (Or whatever physical type his missus isn't).

So I guess for some people, it can be *easier* to write about attractions you don't feel yourself.
This is fascinating! I'm listening, here, rather than commenting, mostly. But as (another! your blog must attract us) bi woman, I'm definitely looking forward to how this comes out.

Two questions: is this the same book as the one with the merfolk? and is Rose bi in the book (but currently with a girlfriend) or gay in the book? I ask because it would be awesome to have a character who was, in fact, bisexual, and written with the care you seem to give your characters (including the idea that orientation isn't her entire life).

Also agreeing with Anon #1, about certain characteristics being attractive. For example, I seem to really groove on dark-haired, somewhat slim people, for both genders. Voices seem to matter more for women. Anyway, it's all fascinating, and I'm off to read the comments on Writing Against Orientation post #2. :-)
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Take your time and try to focus as much as possible on your subject. When you are starting to write, anything but your works matters. Either you have 20 minutes or 2 days, focusing on your writing must be the most important part of your day, during which put on-hold any other time-consuming activities - as, for example, permanently checking your e-mail or social media accounts.   Author's Unite


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