Saturday, March 2, 2013

QUILTBAG Characters

QUILTBAG. What does that mean? Here's the definition according to the Queer Dictionary:

QUILTBAG is an acronym. It stands for Queer/Questioning, Undecided, Intersex, Lesbian, Transgender/Transsexual, Bisexual, Allied/Asexual, Gay/Genderqueer. It is meant to be a more inclusive term than GLBT/LGBT and to be more pronounceable (and memorable) than some of the other variations or extensions on the GLBT/LGBT abbreviation.

When I first came across this acronym, I thought, what the hell does QUILTBAG mean? It can't mean a bag made out of a quilt, because, you know, silly me, that's the first thing that popped into my mind. So I looked it up and it all made sense to me. The acronym itself is befitting, like a quilt it represents patches of the different aspects of queer life, all wrapped up into one acronym like a bag.

The representation of queer folks in entertainment has grown in the last several years as the world becomes more accepting: from books to TV and movies to music, QUILTBAG characters are finding their place in different genres. I remember when queer characters were starting to make their way onto the small screen they were portrayed as cutesie, even silly yet adorable people. Will & Grace springs to mind, which is okay because I liked that show, and maybe it's my craptastic memory, but the gay male characters were never shown having relationships in the show (kissing, embracing, holding hands, that sort of thing), they were always talked about through the dialog. I don't watch much TV nowadays, but I've noticed the trend of showing queer characters in relationships like their straight counterparts, kissing and hugging and laying together in bed and such. Which is a step in the right direction, I think. People are still squeamish when they see two chicks or two dudes kissing and having a relationship; loving, lustful, or otherwise, and the more it is portrayed in a positive light not only on TV, but in other entertainment media, including books, perhaps, just perhaps, people will become more tolerant and accepting. It may be asking a lot for the human race since we still cannot get over our issues with different skin colors, let alone same sex couples and other queer people loving one another.

Different cultures during different eras of history were accepting of queer people and same sex relationships were not anything to garner attention, they were just as normal as hetero relationships. The ancient Greeks come to mind. But other cultures frowned upon it, and still even to this day, resulting in the death of a person who was found gay, whether they partook in sodomy or not. Uganda comes to mind. Other places throughout history have been a mix of different levels of acceptance, but the act of sodomy has been an issue in many a culture and time period resulting in different levels of punishment. Writer Oscar Wilde did two years hard labor in prison for his relations with young men.

When it comes to writing QUILTBAG characters, the most important thing to remember when writing them is to write them as people. That's it. I've seen on writing forums people asking how to write a queer character, and the most given answer is to write them as people: give them flaws, give them likes, dislikes, fears, a goal—just like any other character. When it comes to showing relationships, show them like one would with a hetero couple having the same nervous first kiss, the same butterflies in the stomach, uncertainties that a love interest likes them in return, show them having spats and quarrels. Show them being human. Of course, there are the prejudices, the fear of others showing malice toward them for being who they are, so on and so forth. It's going to come up, unless you happen to be writing your story in a fantasy world or during one of those periods in history where being queer didn't much matter. For all those uncertainties in writing queer folks, one can always join forums and discuss the issues one has questions about, and people will be gracious in helping you, as long as you're not being a dumbass.

In my work in progress, Draculești, I have a few QUILTBAG characters of my own. The main character, Vlad, being one. When I first wrote him I had no intention of him being bisexual, he just sort of sprung it on me one day. Yeah, it happens. Even he didn't know he was bisexual until he was gifted a carved wood statue of his beloved Frisian horse by his soon-to-be male love interest, Miklós (who I didn't know was Bi when I first created him either), which sparked a strange and curious feeling in Vlad, one that he could not ignore. Once he learned the feeling was mutual between them, Vlad explains to Miklós that the desire to want to be with a man must have always been there, he just never knew it until the day he gave him the gift, and soon afterward they have their first kiss.

The two end up having a secret love affair of which only Vlad's servant boy, Izsák, knows about and keeps secret. At the time Vlad is married to a powerful Hungarian family and he and the in-laws were not on very friendly terms, and if his affair were to be known, either or both of them would be punished for their crime. In Vlad's days, men caught partaking in sodomy often times had their privates cut off and/or were burned alive. Or any other various tortures, often leading to death. Now, I'm not certain how gay people were perceived 100 percent during the time my book is written in Hungary, but I've portrayed it that Vlad doesn't trust the Báthory's (his in-laws) with his and Miklós's affair and so that element of danger is there, and despite it, the two fall deep in love and sneak around to seek the others' company.

Over the course of the story, through hints I wrote here and there, I show that Vlad's servant boy, Izsák, is gay. When I created him I didn't know he would be gay but a little further into the story he begins crushing on Vlad, but it would not be Izsák whom Vlad has his first man crush. Izsák is only twelve when they first meet, Vlad seventeen, and at the time he has no interest in his obnoxious servant, but he comes to love the boy as a friend.

And then we meet Anna. Anna is a healer (don't dare call her a witch) who serves Vlad's wife's aunt with her healing abilities to keep her well with her chronic illness. With Anna, as was the case with the other QUILTBAG characters in my story, I didn't know she would end up being asexual, not until near the end of the story. Anna is sweet and nurturing to many of the other characters, except toward Vlad and Miklós. It isn't that she hates them, rather she treats them with mild aggression in order to distance them from her as a coping mechanism to keep them from making any kind of an advance on her. And it works. Anna has no interest in forming any kind of relationship, sexual or otherwise, and she makes herself unavailable because of it. Interesting, I wrote her with this aggression toward Vlad and Miklós without really knowing why, not until toward the end when a light bulb flickered on and I realized the reason.

Instincts, my friends.

And that's what one needs to do when writing QUILTBAG characters. Trust your instincts, that voice in your noggin. When I write my QUILTBAG characters I don't force them to be something they aren't. The same goes for my straight characters. I let them develop naturally through the story and if they are gay, fine. Straight, fine. With the exception of my historical characters that have a known orientation (except for Vlad, little is known of him other than being Vlad the Impaler's second son and having a son himself, so he has become, in a sense, my own creation), I often don't know if they are straight or queer when I first create them, they develop as I write them. Which I think is the best way to write any character. Unless you're writing a story about queer people, one shouldn't force a character to be gay just because one wants one in there to even out the playing field. Same could be said for any type of character. Write them as real people, and everything will come out naturally in the end.

That's my opinion, anyway.

And now I end this post with a drawing I made of a scene with Vlad and Miklós at the budding of their relationship. Vlad senses Miklós is nervous around him, with good reason. Vlad, the son of the Impaler, a noble also married into one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in Hungary, is trying to make a move on a mere stable hand. So he tries to quell Miklós's nerves with conversation and getting him drunk on wine.

   Vlad rose from his seat and stepped behind Miklós. He leaned over him and, with the cup of wine in his hand, wrapped his arms about Miklós's shoulders. His body tensed in his arms. Vlad realized his being so close made him uneasy. He pressed his cheek to Miklós's ear and in a low voice said, “Tell me. Does my being this close make you nervous? Do you not wish me to be?”


Diane Carlisle said...

I am currently working with a protagonist who is straight, but her mother will end up questioning her sexuality just because she hasn't found the right man in her life. The story really does address this issue of stereotyping, which I love to do.

I think it's important to convey characters who struggle with ideology and hypocritical people. I think we do show tolerance of our society when we write about it. How else will that voice be heard? Definitely not through the news media! They only report the negative of them vs. us and I hate that.

Great post!

K.E. Skedgell said...

Thank you. I like to see others' opinions on the subject and how they handle it in their own work.

Shayla Mist said...

I love your post! As someone who writes M/M romance, the topic is very close to my heart. I'm so happy that people are getting more tolerant. It makes me hope that, even though there's a lot of prejudice regarding gay people, one day the human race will overcome this and realize that love is beautiful no matter what form it takes.
Congrats for emphasizing that, both though your blog and your writing. Let me know when you'll publish your book. I can't wait to read it. Hugs!

K.E. Skedgell said...

Thank you Shayla, I'm glad you liked my post. Yes, people are getting better at being tolerant at the differences in all of us, but we have a long way to go.