Queer Eye for the Straight Writer: How to Better Write LGBT+ Characters, By Connor Byrne

Queer Eye for the Straight Writer: How to Better Write LGBT+ Characters, By Connor Byrne

“Write what you know.”

An old adage for writers going back to who knows when that basically means writing stuff you’re familiar with is easier. Which is bullshit.

If that’s the case, nobody should ever write a character different from them.

In pursuit of writing diverse characters, I’ve noticed that I’ve been less than impressed with a number of portrayals of queer people, people in the LGBTQIA+ community.

I’m here, I’m queer, and I want to talk about how straight cisgender writers can better write queer characters.

  1. Being queer shouldn’t be the only aspect of the character’s identity. (I emphasize this because it’s possibly the single most important – and off-putting – mistake I’ve seen people make).

Don’t treat being queer as a fashion statement or something “exotic”. If there is nothing else you take from what I’ve written, it’s that queer people have personalities outside being queer. If you’re listing off a character’s personality and attributes and the first thing that comes to mind is “queer” you should take a look at their characterization and work on it more. Queer people have all kinds of personalities – just like straight and cisgender people. Just as  different subcultures exist in cisgender and heterosexual communities, and equal number exist in the queer community as well.

  1. Presenting queerness as something “other”.

Queer characters are sometimes included in a piece as some kind of statement or a driving force of characterization or narrative – making the focus on the queerness itself – as opposed to it being integrated organically as one aspect of a multifaceted character. When straight people are in a piece it’s not about them being straight, when queer people are in a piece, this tends to be used as a kind of “selling point” as to why it’s worth reading, a main focus of the plot.

Thanks for trying to compress my identity into a blurb on the back of a movie box.

Sarcasm aside, a similar question to the one I mentioned above should be asked: Is this character queer as a natural part of their identity or is it being inserted artificially for some other reason?

  1. Forcing gay relationships on otherwise straight characters.

This happens a lot in fanfiction – characters who are established by the actual work as being straight suddenly having a revelation and realizing how horrible the opposite sex is and becoming gay – or even taking a character’s gender expression and running amok with it, deciding that they’re “really” trans.

It’s demeaning, it’s infantilizing, it’s (again!) making it all about them being queer. I don’t mind it if it’s a natural progression of a close relationship, but having two characters suddenly become “gay for each” other without a reason beyond shipping brings about a mental groan whenever I see it.

  1. Oversexualizing the situation.

This is a trend I’ve noticed when reading when it comes to straight people writing queer characters: Men writing lesbians, and women writing gay men, tend to oversexualize the relationships for the straight audience. Both straight men and straight women tend to focus on the sexual act aspect of same-sex relationships and unwittingly turn it into a fetish show for fellow straight people.

The most obvious example that comes to mind is yaoi. While I do appreciate representation, it’s painfully obvious that it’s written by straight women for straight women and that gay relationships are being turned into fetish fuel without any regard to the individual characters themselves. Yuri is also an offender – the women aren’t gay because of any organic aspect of their sexuality, it’s all about the male gaze and sexualizing them for straight men.

I realize that all this might be begging the question “So if there’s all this stuff that I could do wrong, should I just avoid writing queer characters altogether?”

I don’t think so. I think, if you look back over what I’ve spoken of, lots of it focuses on queer characters being treated as tools or commodities rather than actual characters or people with their own stuff going on, unique personalities and life goals, talents and ambitions. My best advice? Write queer people as, well, people, and you’ll be fine.

Meet the blogger:
CONNOR BYRNE is constantly lost in the world of words, words, words and not enough in the physical, but in this field that’s probably a good thing. He wants to be a fiction writer but generally gravitates towards poetry. Weird how that works.

Tips for Succeeding As a Writer After College, By Courtney Yokes

Tips for Succeeding As a Writer After College, By Courtney Yokes

Life after college is daunting, especially for those of us who are graduating soon. Currently I’m a senior and will be graduating with a BFA in creative writing. I’m nervous about life after college, and I know I’m not the only student who worries about becoming successful. So I spent a fair amount of time researching tips, suggestions, even guidelines for life after college and created a list of my own. Here it goes:

  1. Create your own writers’ group.

After college you won’t have assignments or the classroom environment as a way to get others to read your work and provide feedback. Having a writer’s group is a great way to maintain friendships, provide networking opportunities, and support each other as well as other local writers.

But who do you ask? Well, I’ve asked several of my classmates to create a writers’ group with me. Some of them are good friends of mine, others I want to become better friends with. I’ve gotten to know these people throughout most of my classes and I know we all have different writing styles, tastes, voices etc. which is great because having diversity will best serve everyone. I don’t want a writer’s group where everyone is the same.

I want people I can trust to give me feedback about my work in a professional manner. And I know my classmates can do that, because they have all year. So my suggestion is ask your classmates. You know how they work and how they handle critiquing. Plus, they probably just want someone that can rely on too.

  1. Further your skills.

We’ve all experienced analyzing manuscripts and assigned readings, commutating both written and verbal, and having to be detail oriented. The list goes on. We’ve got great skills to highlight in our resumes from having attended a liberal arts college. However, just because we earned that fancy degree doesn’t mean learning has to stop. If you want to further your education then go ahead, there are some great graduate programs offered in the twin cities. But grad school isn’t the only option.

After graduation I plan to further my writing skills, however I thought the only option was grad school. Though, I don’t want to be in school again full time. I needed something I could do while working towards that dream career of mine. So, I found out there are classes offered at the Loft Literary Center, which were really helpful and beneficial. It’s also a great way to network and become part of the local writing community. My point is, the possibilities are endless, and they don’t stop after graduation.

  1. Take time for things beyond work.

Yes, getting a job after college is the main goal, but not the only one. I think all of us graduates are horrified at the thought of working at McDonalds or Target with a four year degree, I know I am. But having a successful job isn’t my only goal in life.

I want to actually have time to read again, for fun. No more assigned readings. I also want to write for fun, let my creative juices flow. Not because I have some huge project due soon. I want to travel somewhere outside of my college campus, even if on a budget. Plus, traveling is great inspiration and research for writing.

However, I think many of us are preoccupied with getting that dream job to even consider these things. Yet, they’re just as important. You don’t want to get burnt out on work. You should also remember to dedicate time to events, places, hobbies, or even people that make you happy.

During this time in our college careers it’s easy to compare, especially when your classmates already have a job lined up, or some great internship, or a publishing contract. Though, don’t compare yourself to other graduates and writers. Everyone needs to find their own path at their own time. It’s important not to get caught up in comparison. I try to remind myself that it’s about when the timing is best for me and not others. Remember, you can always work towards improving your situation.

 

Graduation is scary, nerve-racking, but it’s an important stepping stone in life and there are many more to come. But be proud of your degree and the dedication it represents. Good luck all future graduates!

Meet the blogger:
COURTNEY YOKES is a recent Hamline University graduate who primarily writes fiction and poetry. Her work as been seen in The Fulcrum and The Rapids Review. Like any writer she works hard to build her publishing credentials, connections, and most importantly her skills as a writer. The world is overwhelming and she’s just looking to make her mark on it.

RABBIT CAKE, By Annie Hartnett, Reviewed by Alex Werner

Rabbit Cake

Annie Hartnett

Tin House 

March 2017

ISBN 9781941040560

377 pages

Reviewed by ALEX WERNER

Rabbit Cake is Annie Hartnett’s debut novel about a young girl named Elvis and the details of her life following her mother’s death. The novel has received praise from Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus, and has even been People magazine’s Book of the Week. No doubt Rabbit Cake is a captivating read that focuses on themes of youth, grief, and family that deserves the attention it is receiving.

Rabbit Cake is narrated by a young girl named Elvis Babbitt, who is ten at the story’s beginning but is twelve as she narrates. Right away she tells us that her mother drowned while sleepwalking and that she liked to bake rabbit-shaped cakes for many occasions. Elvis has a sister, Lizzie, who is also a sleep-walker and whose episodes can become almost violent in nature. Elvis fears that her sister may be sent away to St. Cloud’s mental institution and takes it upon herself to ensure that her sister remains safe. However, things look grim for Lizzie after she breaks into a chicken coop one night and almost crawls into an oven on another. As for their father Frank, he has his own ways of displaying his grief, including wearing his wife’s bathrobe around the house and adopting a parrot who can impersonate his dead spouse perfectly. With this somewhat strange cast of characters, the plot is easily able to incorporate many twists and turns as the Babbitt family navigates life with one less member.

Undoubtedly, the strongest theme at the center of Rabbit Cake is the concept of family. The Babbitts have moments where they can be empathetic or bizarre, and either way their story remains captivating. There is often tension between the three Babbitts, with Lizzie’s aggression, Elvis’ loyalty to her, and Frank’s unsuccessful attempts to keep everything under control. Other characters complicate the relationships between the three, including a prospective sister figure, a fleeting crush, and a new girlfriend; yet there is always hope that the Babbitts will come together in the end. Even if each of them may sometimes look outside of their home for comfort, they maintain a special connection with each other inside of it too.  

One of the novel’s strongest assets is its narrator. Choosing to write a story from the perspective of someone so young in order to tackle such a complicated topic definitely lends itself to making the novel seem fresh and innovative. From the very first sentence on the very first page, we can start to get a sense of the type of story we are about to read: “On my tenth birthday, six months before she sleepwalked into the river, Mom burned the rabbit cake. ‘Ten might not be a great year for you,’ she said, squeezing my shoulder. I couldn’t tell if she was kidding.” We are tuned in to the event that sets everything in motion, the mother’s death, as well as a mention of the novel’s title and an example of how Elvis chooses to narrate. She remembers events in short episodes, and will weave memories of her mother into just about any scenario. It takes a considerable amount of time for Elvis’ grief to become tangible, that is, shedding tears and displaying frustration, but the novel does an excellent job with subtlety to prove that she has been processing her feelings since the start. Even if she chooses to sound factual, she is not without sentiment: from how often she recalls memories of her mother, to how devoted she is to finishing her mother’s book, to how much time she spends piecing together the circumstances surrounding her mother’s death, Elvis has been coping without realizing it.

It is also noteworthy how the novel is divided: each chapter is numbered, with every few marked by a crossed off month and the following month written out next to it. The sense of time progressing is never lost thanks to this device, and it perfectly parallels Elvis’ “grieving chart” prescribed by her guidance counselor. Elvis’ chart had 20 months on it and she chooses to tell her story across them all. This style of organization lends itself well to further developing Elvis’ factual and grounded character. In addition, every few months/every handful of chapters will be grouped into parts, four in total, and each part seems to come along once Elvis’ sister has made a significant change to the plot. While it remains evident throughout the novel that Lizzie has a very influential role in Elvis’ life, noting this way that time is divided adds even more significance to the story’s climax and reminds readers that this story does not only belong to Elvis. It is the story of all of the Babbitts, while just being told through one of them.

Annie Hartnett has written a novel that is clever and memorable. Rabbit Cake carries the voice of an experienced writer, despite only being Hartnett’s debut. She plays around with subtlety that will keep readers looking between the lines for deeper meaning, yet on the surface she invites empathy through every endeavor the Babbitts face. Elvis remains an interesting choice for a narrator, given her youth, tone, and the way that she is able to connect everything in her life together. Although the novel focuses heavily on grief, the importance of family shines through, and as we leave the Babbitts behind we gain a sense of hope that even the toughest of times can pass. 

Meet the blogger:
ALEX WERNER just completed her junior studying Creative Writing at Hamline University. Her focus is fiction and she enjoys the fantasy sub-genre the best. She likes to draw in what free time she has and hopes to be able to provide illustrations for her writing in the future. Her dream is to eventually publish her own novel.

The Benefits of Talking Animals, By Taylor Elgarten

The Benefits of Talking Animals, By Taylor Elgarten

When I was younger, I didn’t think twice about the fact that Peter Rabbit wore a jacket, or that Simba talked and sang. It was entertainment. It was just how the stories were told. Through animals.

As a writer, I began wondering the benefits of such a ploy. What did talking animals do for the story that made them so enticing? Why was this the chosen medium for telling children about life? Is it just an entertainment thing? Talking animals make up so much of the media consumed by children, and I wanted to know why.

When I began my research, it became clear that anthropomorphism was not a new practice. It was a concept used to teach children since ancient time. The most readily accessible example is Aesop’s Fables, all the teachings Aesop wrote used animals to relay moral messages. As I looked back on the fables, and remembered reading them as a kid, I found minimal humans in the stories. If it went back this far, I thought, there had to be an explanation.

I think I found it in the article Animals and Anthropomorphism by Sonia Vogl. It basically breaks down children’s literature into three types of anthropomorphism:

  1. Those in which animals behave like humans
  2. Animals behave like animals, but talk and wear clothing.
  3. Animals that behave like animals.

Each type referred to the chronological order of child development. The first category was used for smaller kids, as they get older animals become animals. This long-term end goal basically summed up the why factor of talking animals. Anthropomorphism is a way to ease a child into the realities of the world without shocking them early on.

Comparing each category to Aesop’s Fables, I found a truth in what Vogl was saying. There seemed to be a Fable that aligned with each category and fit into the developmental descriptions within the article.

The more I read, the easier it was to find answers to my other questions. The following is a list of the main benefits authors use anthropomorphism:

  • It uses humor as a teaching mechanism
  • The use of animals adheres to a child’s imagination, who at this point in their developmental stage would identify more with a talking animal than a human
  • Children connect easily with animals, by making them wear clothing it humanises them in such a way that the children are able to identify with the character more.
  • Teach children about the world around them with characters and give them a respect for people that are different to them.
  • Allows space for reflection and a distance that gives children the ability to put the story into their reality.

When analyzing the stories I read as a child, all these points made sense. I had easily related to Winnie the Pooh, sympathized with Peter Rabbit, and wanted to be like the Aristocats. The lessons all stuck, because of the anthropomorphism.

One research done out of the University of Toronto that argued against anthropomorphism, that compared a story about sharing told with animals and told with humans. The results basically told me the opposite of what I had been reading and concluded that stories with humans are more beneficial.

This got me confused, because up until that point I was on board with anthropomorphism because it made sense when I compared it to my own childhood. Even stories that centered around humans, had bits of anthropomorphism that made the story better. Mowgli couldn’t have survived Sher Khan without Baloo and Bagheera.

Many articles saw humanizing animals as a cause of displacement in the child’s mind as they will become unable to differentiate between a talking animal in a story and one in real life. Which, I found to be an odd sentiment, given that I grew up with such stories and am able to tell the difference between Simba and a real lion.

The research ignored the three long-term stages of anthropomorphism Vogl outlined, and merely focused on the immediacy of the results. Chris Haughton, author of Shh! We Have a Plan, has stated that using humans is good for a short term effectiveness, but in the long-term the anthropomorphism provides a more memorable, complex way of imparting teachings and morals.

Having science and research back-up what looks like just entertainment, and to know both sides rounded out my own feelings about talking animals. Knowing the reasons behind anthropomorphism gave me a better understanding of the psychological values anthropomorphism has, as well as a better understanding of my own childhood development.

Meet the blogger:
TAYLOR ELGARTEN recently graduated from at Hamline University with a BFA in Creative Writing. She owns three cats, and will one day open a book and coffee “food” truck.

Teach Them Young, By Maya Wesman

Teach Them Young, By Maya Wesman

Without any considerable effort, most of us could probably name plenty of books from our childhood that had a great impact on us. Whether we liked the characters, the pictures, or simply the association of something with the book, we all have those books we read over and over. A few of my favorites were The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry Bear, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. The thing I love about these kinds of books even today is that they are some of the most memorable pieces of literature I have ever read, and yes, I did call them literature.

Children’s’ books aren’t meant to be deep and thought provoking in the same way as something like Lord of the Flies, but they are still the kinds of books that I think I learned some of my most valuable lessons from. I learned about the concept of lying, responsibility, and honesty from these kinds of books at a very young age. These books teach children lessons through stories and characters they can relate to and sympathize with, allowing them to truly internalize the messages of the stories.

Why is it then that children’s books don’t often seem to touch on topics that they may really need to learn about, such as death in the family, divorce, or discrimination? These are all very real things that can affect families so why hide them from our children. Perhaps it is the idea that children need not worry themselves with those things, or more likely that they wouldn’t really understand it, but that doesn’t keep us from teaching children things like religion. We shouldn’t censor things and hide them from our children if the act of teaching them will only help prepare them for something before it might happen.

Take discrimination for an example. We all have some sort of relationship to discrimination. Whether it is due to our race, religion, traditions, sexuality, or any number of other characteristics, we all see it happen. A child is going to grow up in a world where discrimination is a fact of life. We know it isn’t right, and we are working to address it where we can, but we need to be realistic when it comes to teaching our children about it. The first step is to teach them when they are young, and a great way to do that is to have books about difficult topics written specifically for teaching a young audience.

Many of the books I read as a kid were great fun to read, but in all honesty didn’t really touch on difficult topics at all. If they were to do so I would have been exposed to certain things at a younger age, giving me more time to understand something before I actually encountered it in my life. Such things as losing a pet, having another child in the family, being adopted, and divorcing parents are all things that children can deal with, and many do. Why should we wait to talk to them after something happens? In some cases, reactive education may not be enough to help them cope with such a change in a healthy way. This is where we can use proactive education to its fullest potential.

With this being said, we have so many different communities in our society today that a few books from the same few people can’t begin to address all the problems faced by even one community. If we were to have a wide range of authors writing about an even wider range of topics and people I think we could really make an impact on the coming generations.

What are your favorite books for the very young that cover these issues? Share these titles with us. 

Meet the blogger:
MAYA WESMAN a senior at Hamline University majoring in Creative Writing with a focus in fiction. She loves writing fantasy and science fiction, and one day hopes to author children’s books. She believes that through stories we can explore what it really means to be humans in a complex world.

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