You might know the familiar lamentation that there’s never any books about the people you more readily identify with. There’s an obvious answer to people who say it: if you want to see books with your kinds of characters, you’d best start writing them yourself.
When I was a kid, I loved to read, but I often felt frustrated by how unrealistic the kids were. They didn’t feel like people to me, just caricatures of how adults thought kids should behave. Madeleine L’Engle changed my opinion with Meg Murray, and with her brother Charles. Here was a story where I at last felt that someone was “real” even if they were characters in a sci-fi/fantasy story. Along the way, there were other stories that also felt real to me, (Like from Ray Bradbury, who writes GREAT child characters) but the vast majority of the books I read left me wanting.
And yet, no one was touching the topics that I had to deal with in my private life. To be fair, the topics I dealt with were white elephants of massive proportions, and I felt it would take a writer with huge balls to tackle them.
I read Stephen King’s IT at the age of twelve, making me close in age and experience to the young protagonists of the book. Being sexually active, I really got into the final sex scene between the kids, and not because I thought it was hot. I did find it hot, but I was twelve, and that was the first book to acknowledge that someone my age could be sexual. Everyone else just brushed it off and made the characters “too good for that sort of thing.”
Well, begging the writers’ pardons, but I wasn’t too good for that sort of thing, and it frustrated me how not one writer I’d read until then was willing to admit it. But here at last was a story where the kids weren’t so good, like me. That story led me to become a lifelong fan of King, and it also inspired me to think about writing stories of my own, stories that didn’t ignore the white elephants. Oddly enough, though, for many years I couldn’t write about sex without feeling embarrassed and erasing it.
Now I can write about people with “alternate sexualities” without feeling shame. The point of my stories isn’t to celebrate the characters or their sex lives, or to make them into “tragic heroes.” It was to depict people more honestly than I’d seen from many talented writers. Sometimes, yes, kids do have sex with other kids. Or sometimes it happens with adults for all the worst reasons, and sometime it leads to long term relationships anyway. And nobody shows up to kill them in righteous fury. (Or if they do, they shoot the wrong person and end up going to jail.)
Some people may believe that those kinds of stories aren’t worth telling, or selling. Why print or read the stories of the least of us? Because if we do not, we lose sight of the fact that they are still human beings. I don’t believe that every story we read should be about people we agree with. We should sometimes be challenged, or even made to stare uncomfortably at the white elephants until we can see that they really can be normal people in most other aspects of their lives.
I am one of the white elephants, and I believe our stories are worth telling, even if they aren’t great mainstream fiction about morally unambiguous people. Ultimately, the full body of my work may make me seem defensive of the least of us. I’ve wrestled with fears of rejection, and with fears of ridicule. I’ve listened to a silent editor for years who said, “If you publish those kinds of stories, people will think you’re a sick pervert.”
But I’ve slowly overcome my fears, and a little at a time, I’ve released stories that came closer and closer to the truth. This year, I’ve gone all the way over to the dark side, and while the stories I’ve written are more controversial, I also feel like I’m finally writing about the people I wanted to depict in the first place.
In between, I’m still writing about other people too. Not every story I write has to “go there.” But I don’t feel quite as apprehensive about writing the stories that do. For me, this is major progress. Even a few months ago, I was tearing myself up over the stories the muse was proposing. Now I just shrug and go with whatever she’s got. It’s easier this way, and it moves me along to the next project without a huge fight going on inside my head. (Sure, laugh because you think I’m joking. But other writers know what it’s like to be cranky because the muse will not shut up about the story I rejected.)
While I’m was talking to hubby about my latest WIP the other night, I realized why these kinds of characters are so important to me. Because someday, there might be somebody who reads one of my stories and finds themselves in the characters. Maybe that will give them the strength to speak out, and to find help, no matter what their issues are. Or maybe it will inspire them and give them the courage to write stories of their own. I do it because these stories matter to me, and maybe someday they might matter to someone else too.
I dunno, maybe I’ll never have commercial success because I keep “doing it wrong.” And I’m not saying all the stories out there are bad. The mainstream writers have lots of fans and lots of success. I’m happy for them, and I hope they keep finding success. I’m not suggesting that they need to “knock it off!”
I’m just quietly proposing that there still ought to be an alternative to all the pretty, perfect people depicted in mainstream fiction. There ought to be a true alternative writing genre, and it should be about real alternative views, not just a twisted reflection of mainstream values.
Reading back over this, I can’t be sure if I’m being perverse or pretentious. I guess it depends on the reader. In any case, I felt it was worth noting that my writing this year has taken a dive farther away from mainstream values, and yet, I’m actually happier with the results. I may still be frustrated that none of it sells to publishers when I submit it later next year, but what the hell? I’m happy now, and you gotta snatch happiness in little chunks where you can find it. And what I’m saying is, writing more honestly has been paying back in huge chunks of happy. That’s why I write weird shit, and it’s why I’m no longer ashamed to admit it.