I’d like to welcome back Christian Baines to my website. When asked to join the team of authors sharing their thoughts on writing, Christian took a unique approach, and I’m glad he did. Today he offers perspective as he calls for certain characters in gay fiction to be fleshed out more honestly.
Plus he’d like to offer one reader of today’s guest blog any one of his novels, but you can read about how to enter at the end of this post. For now, he’d like writers to consider women.
All About My Mother
(and my sister, and my aunt, and my best friend, and my daughter, and my high school beard…)
Thanks Kevin, for having me back on the blog! As I write this, we’re barely more than a month into 2017, and already two events this year that have inspired me. One took place when millions of women (and men, and others) who hit the streets across the world to stand up for women’s rights in what was the perfect response to a man who waves his misogyny and hatred in our faces like the world’s most graceless matador.
(Don’t worry, this post isn’t about politics!)
My other flash of early 2017 inspiration came through Pedro Almodovar’s newest movie, Julieta, based on the stories of Canadian writer Alice Munro. Cult figure Almodovar has been Spain’s most popular filmmaker since his breakthrough hit Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. He’s one of my favourites, and a huge inspiration when it comes to storytelling.
Weird as it may seem to link something as important as the Women’s March to a simple movie, both reminded me (as Almodovar’s films often do) of how much we, particularly as gay men, owe to women, and how we sometimes sell them short in our stories. For the uninitiated, Almodovar is an openly gay screenwriter and director who not only brings a gay sensibility to his films, but also tends to focus on female characters. You can see it right from his first movie, Pepi, Luci, Bom. In fact, a straight male is almost never the protagonist in an Almodovar film, and Julieta is no exception, being all about the relationship between a mother and her daughter. Sometimes, he plays them for comedy or eccentricity, tottering around the screen in Gaultier couture and high heels. But in his less comedic films, Almodovar’s women have become increasingly powerful and complex, nowhere more so than in Volver, a personal Almodovar favourite in which the male characters seem almost incidental.
Even though it’s tough to find a single healthy gay romance amid the broken embraces of these movies, there is one important question for gay fiction and romance writers to address.
How do you effectively bring women into your gay labyrinth of passion?
While bringing our classic pairing of two male MCs out in the live flesh, it can be easy to forget our female characters. They might slot awkwardly into overused tropes, or even come off as nasty obstacles to budding love. I’ve read women in gay romance played as bitchy homophobic relatives, or as bitter ex-wives or girlfriends…which is not entirely off limits. There’s definitely room for these characters and all of their dark habits. But as authors, we need to be careful not to reduce them to stereotypes. If they’re not properly developed, with real motivations for their nastiness, characters of any gender come off as cartoons. A male author writing such female characters looks misogynistic, and a female author writing them looks insecure, or at best, appears to be making some weird attempt to ‘protect’ her gay babies. While that formula might appeal to certain readers, it’s kind of condescending. It also doesn’t reflect the important roles women often play in our lives as gay men, and I’m pretty sure most readers can tell.
My experience is obviously going to be different to yours, but we each know who the important women are in our lives, and why. Maybe it was a mother or sister, who gave us the freedom to explore our interests and gender identity free of traditionally ‘male’ expectations. Maybe it was an aunt who inspired us with her eccentricity, or came down hard on us to build up the strength we now use to deal with prejudice. Maybe it was an understanding or inspiring teacher, coach, boss, colleague, or counsellor. Or maybe just that really good friend who played prom/formal beard, or took us to our first gay bar because we were too scared everyone was going to hit on the fresh meat, or who pushed us to go say hi to that cute guy who was so far ‘out of our league.’ Or maybe it was an acquiring editor who said ‘Yeah, this is good. Can you send me the full manuscript?’
Or, just the one who read something we wrote and told anyone that would talk to her about books to check it out.
It’s kind of impossible at this point to count the women who’ve played a role in my growth as a gay man and writer, or who’ve helped me in some way to feel comfortable in the skin I live in. But there are lots, and I’m pretty sure many other gay and bi men can say the same. There’s no strange law of desire, even in gay romance that says female characters should be any less developed in our stories. Sometimes they might even be a part of the romance (but oh, don’t get me started on the response I’ve had to doing that!). Sometimes they’re authority figures like Patricia Bakker, or lifelong friends like Isobel, who know the protagonist almost better than the protagonist knows himself. Sometimes they’re…whatever Mary is in Puppet Boy. All need just as much effort and development as your male protagonists.
One of my pet peeves in fiction (of any kind) is the strong woman. It’s a well-meaning cliché, but seriously? Men get to be smart, conflicted, snarky, insightful, reserved, assertive, etc etc etc… You will never hear a book promoted as having a ‘Strong male lead.’ Yet women are supposed to be satisfied or grateful if their representation is ‘strong’ and…that’s that? Really? We owe it to our female characters, readers, and the real women in our lives to go beyond this. ‘Strong’ should be the starting point of the character’s development, not the end. And if she’s not strong…does it really matter? Is there really no room in our fiction for characters who aren’t ‘strong’ (whatever that means)? In a character development pool of hundreds of potential traits, is ‘strength’ really the only way to make a character stand out in an interesting way?
Of course, good gay stories don’t need female characters in major roles order to be effective. Worse than an absence of women is a token character that’s been shoe-horned in there just to ‘represent.’ But it shouldn’t exclusively be an all-boys’ club either, because our lives aren’t. I’m so excited when I read complex, well realised female characters in a gay novel. Where it’s clear the author has thought about how important women can be to us, or is giving us an insight into a real woman who had a positive effect on their lives, or whatever. To me, it’s a sign gay novels have truly achieved mainstream acceptance, where gay love and sex is neither taboo nor fetishized, but is just another part of life, like the wonderful women we know.
Though I’ll probably never write a tell-all book all about my mother (insert ‘Christina’ gag here).
One thing I love about Christian Baines is that like me, he’s a film buff. So he has a question for readers who’d like to win any novel-length title from his backlist. Those who answer correctly will go into the random draw. The question is:
How many Pedro Almodovar movie titles are referenced in this blog post?
To be in the draw, please contact with your answer by using the email form at https://kevinklehr.com/contact/
This giveaway closes on Friday April 7.
Thanks to Christian for being a guest blogger for the second time, and sharing his thoughts once again. His last post asked if there really is a happy ever after. You can read his thoughts on that topic here.
Thanks again, Christian.