I’ve focused this post around the challenge of strong lesbian and gay characterisation because, when writing The Breathing Ghosts (TBG,) that’s how I saw such characterisation- as a challenge. Because, instead of shunting gay and lesbian characters to the background, to exist as sidekicks, comic relief, bad girl/geek types or other periphery characters, I wanted to bring them into the foreground. I wanted each gay/lesbian character to be more than a just a name and a sexuality. I wanted them to have idiosyncrasies of their own, quirks, foibles, flaws, strengths and vices. I wanted them to be a foil to the arguably dry, cookie-cutter high-school age characters you see in a lot of YA fiction. In short, I wanted them to breathe.
In my opinion, [and this really is just my opinion, so please don’t sue me, I’m just a poor struggling writer,] YA fiction seems to be nowadays peppered with love triangles, (see The Hunger Games,) needless prom-night drama and ‘love-you-forever-can’t-live-without-you-die-for-you’ couplings that seem to flare up in the space of a week. (I could give examples, but I really don’t want to be sued.) Plus, every love interest to be named Damien or Lucian. (Why can’t one, just for once, be named Keith or Barry?)
Now, you might argue that love triangles and drama are all part of moving through adolescence, and that may be true in many cases, but it isn’t true for everyone.
I wanted to write a novel that would speak to the emo kid in eyeliner reading Anne Rice novels on the bus to school, the misfit kid, the kid last to be picked in P.E lessons, the kid being bullied because of his sexuality, the kid who feels confused and alone and scared to admit how they feel. I wanted to write a novel for those kids.
A novel where homosexuality is not just one part of a character, but also an asset and a strength. Mainstream YA novels rarely have an openly gay character as the main protagonist, and that’s another crucial issue I wanted to confront. Gay teens are bombarded with heteronormative images of couples on TV, in films, in music lyrics and on the covers of books- but what about the gays? Where are our relationships? Where are our stories? More often than not any attempts to put gay characters on the map are classed as erotica or put in a special ‘Gay and Lesbian’ section on their own. No wonder so many LGBT teens and young people feel so alone and cut off- it seems to me sometimes as if the needs and wants of gay people are often ignored in favour of hopelessly anaemic hetero romance. In my opinion, we need stories and characters that we can relate to, with traits we can recognize and with issues we understand.
But it was definitely still a challenge to write in an original, thought-provoking way for a specifically LGBT audience. For one thing, I didn’t want to write about ‘the scene’, i.e. the gay scene- pubs and clubs and bars. In my opinion, the scene can be a strong and inclusive community, but it can also be superficial, and intimidating if you’re young or insecure. Besides, not all young gay people want to live it up in clubs. (I don’t. The ones I’ve been to are loud, noisy, sweaty and not at all like anything out of The L Word.)
Secondly, I didn’t want to pander to stereotypes, either of vampires or of LGBT people. The vampire stereotype of the brooding, cloaked stranger or mysterious seductress has no bite (pun intended,) and arguably no originality, whilst LGBT people deserve better than stereotypes and caricatures. I wanted to write something that was rooted in fantasy, whilst still being gritty and dark enough to be convincing. Something that was moving and poignant without being maudlin and self-aggrandizing. Finally, I wanted to write a YA novel, wilfully spurning as many sugary YA clichés as possible.
So, with those ideas in mind, what did I write about?
Answer: I wrote about what is closest to my heart- the plight of the misfit. I open with a prologue that (hopefully) transports my readers into a different world- a darker, harsher, crueller world, one in which difference is deliberately and systematically snuffed out. The prologue takes place in a small village during the notorious Salem Witch Trials of 1692. I intended for the witch-hunt hysteria to be a metaphor for the homophobia and bullying many LGBT people have to suffer. From June to September 1692, nineteen men and women were hanged for the crime of witchcraft, whilst hundreds were accused, and many were thrown in jail, with some even dying there. Witch-hunts were present even in Europe, and accused ‘witches’-often midwives and herbal healers-were tortured, starved and deprived of sleep until they hallucinated.
Into this bloody mess I introduce the character of Angelica, a young girl found guilty of witchcraft. Spirited and knowledgeable of herbal lore, Angelica no longer fits within the narrow confines of her village community, and she is imprisoned as an outsider, awaiting execution after an unfair trial. Abandoned in her prison cell, she’s filthy, exhausted, hallucinating, and on the brink of madness, and yet she still retains a wilful streak of defiance. A defiance centred around strange desires for women, desires that she cannot properly articulate but will not apologise for. She thinks her ordeal will end with her death, but someone else has other ideas…
…Then there is my main protagonist, the lifelong outsider, Rowan Oakwood, who lives very much in the modern day. A solitary, quick-witted eighteen-year old lesbian who never went to her prom because she was out fulfilling her duty as a vampire hunter. A vampire hunter who kills vampires with magical light, rather than with stakes or crucifixes. (Because both are worrying phallic in my opinion.) She is, throughout the novel, unashamedly and proudly different, even down to her name and her appearance. She was the one last to be picked for P.E, the one laughed at, the one bullied, teased and scorned, and yet she has survived. She has come through it stronger, smarter and tougher. Rather than drown her in a sea of confusion and despair, I made her openly gay and sure in her sexuality. Yet even that does not protect her from people’s prejudice and insults. As the novel progresses she learns, despite many obstacles, to stay true to herself and to articulate her desires, but is still surprised at where they lead her.
This is far from the complete total of misfits, eccentrics and drifters I portray in TBG, but hopefully what these examples show is that I am keen to give a voice to the other, rather than the average. These characters may be different in terms of the magic they possess, but it is hopefully their personalities and their individual histories that set them apart. As the novel progresses, even the most supernatural characters reveal their humanity. It was my aim to subvert the reader’s preconceptions of the ‘evil vampire’/‘innocent mortal’ stereotype, so that little by little the boundaries are blurred and the reader is left wondering whom to trust and whom to believe in.
The deviant vampire
In some ways, my (main) lesbian vampire character, Violet, is stereotypical: unusually beautiful, pale skinned, dark haired, blood-drinking and fanged. (No glittery vampires here, please.) But I also wanted to move away from any hints of Le Fanu’s Carmilla, and make Violet more of a victim than a predator. Trapped within the dusty confines of a Gothic manor and left to waste away in the shadows by her vampire brothers, Violet harbours a streak of spirit like a tiny flame in the darkness. As her brothers seek to break her will and control her, she becomes less of a recluse and
more and more desperate to escape their clutches and reassert her autonomy and sexuality on her own terms. In TBG, her journey leads her to the woman who can give her exactly that- but not without a terrible sacrifice first.
I contrasted Violet’s initial reclusiveness with the dark defiance and cruelty of her older, more powerful counterpart: Nerissa. Nerissa is the lesbian vampire Violet strives to imitate: wilful, in control, confident, self-aware, and beguiling. Yet she is also everything she fears and loathes about herself: cruel to the point of sociopathy, brittle, cold, and aloof. But Violet doesn’t know the terrible tragedy behind Nerissa’s coldness, or the vulnerability in her heart. What is her story? And what is she hiding?
Yes, it’s a vampire novel, yes, it has a werewolf character, yes it has magic. But the characters are also (hopefully) relatable: when trying to escape they trip up. When under pressure they sweat. When scared they throw up and when exhausted beyond all measure they even faint. They cry and curse, eat heartily (even the vampires!) scream, shout and laugh. They have periods. I wanted readers to think, ‘Oh, I do that too!’
In short, they’re not cheerleaders and they’re not afraid to get their hands dirty and their hair tangled.
Relationships, not happy endings
In Twilight, vampires go two-by-two into the ark of relationships: Edward/Bella, Rosalie/Emmett, Esme/Carlisle, Jasper/Alice…and on and on and on… Covens are formed, marriages are made, babies are born and couples thrive over individual autonomy. Everyone walks off happily into the sunset, hand-in-hand.
But while this is all very lovely and neat and satisfying, for me it doesn’t reflect real life, and it certainly doesn’t reflect the real life of most young gay people, when the right for gay people to marry is still in dispute in certain US states. When studies suggest that LGBT people show higher levels of anxiety, depression and suicidal feelings than heterosexual people. Many gay people face hostility, bullying, persecution, physical attacks, stigma and prejudice, sometimes on an everyday basis. Many have trouble accepting their sexuality, which can lead to drug and alcohol abuse. Some are victims of domestic violence. Far from tripping happily into a sunset, some LGBT people spiral into darkness, feeling lost and alone. I wanted my novel to let them know that they are not alone, and that not everything has to be neat and perfect and sprinkled in fairy dust. They don’t have to subscribe to a heterosexual template.
I would rather write about real relationships- relationships that that are quirky, relationships that come later in life, or even relationships that don’t always work out, rather than ones that sail on smoothly, without even a ripple in the water to garner our attention. I truly believe that relationships should be about love, mutual respect and intimacy, not about slavish almost masochistic devotion to your vampire-fallen angel-reincarnated-rock star boyfriend throughout centuries and centuries. I am tired of seeing this trope resurrected and used again and again in supernatural romance. For instance, in the film for The Twilight Saga: New Moon, when Edward breaks up with Bella, she lies down in a forest and falls into a coma-like state, wallowing in her own misery. Don’t get me wrong, when the Twilight series first came out I devoured them all one after the other, but even when reading such scenes I felt unnerved. Such extreme dependence on one- very flawed-individual rattled my feminist instincts, and such belaboured passivity left me cold. Where is Bella’s personality? Where is her will to survive, her self-belief, her independence? When any relationship ends, we need time to grieve, but Bella goes beyond the grieving stage and into ‘doormat’ territory. Just when you feel as if she is pulling herself together, she jumps off a cliff so that she can hear Edward’s voice. What she should really do is listen to the voice within herself.
I didn’t want such passive characters for TBG. Even waif-like will-o’-the-wisp Violet comes into her own eventually, and learns to fight for what she believes in, and to fight for others. But the Edward-Bella relationship is so all-consuming they fail to see anyone else around them. If Nerissa were in Twilight, she’d pick Bella up from the forest floor and march her back to her no-doubt-frantic-with-worry father, whom she seems to have conveniently forgotten at that point. And that is just one example. I wanted to make sure that TBG has strong, independent characters that are perfectly happy single. Characters who don’t want to settle for less when it comes to finding love and happiness.
In conclusion, I filled my novel to the brim with as many LGBT characters I could get away with, in varying shapes, sizes and guises: a lesbian vampire with a brutal, bloody secret, a bisexual vampire with a broken heart, a lesbian werewolf lost in her own grief, a gay vampire hunter desperate to be recognized, a gay vampire desperate for revenge. They laugh, swear, cry, faint, sweat, kill, fight, lust, love and lose.
Most of all they are present, powerful and very much in the foreground.