Queer Characterization–Prelude

Posted by on Mar 17, 2015 in Catharsis Blog on Media, Writing, and Art

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This is not a simple task, to go over the aspects of creating LGBTQ+ characters. Consider this the prelude to the next several lessons coming that are specific to characterization. Just FYI, I have this ahead:

Gay Men

Bisexual Persons

Lesbians

Transgender Persons

Gender Non-Conforming Persons

Asexual Persons

Intersex Persons

Allies

The first thing I’ll note is that I’m not explaining how to be gay/bi/lesbian/Trans/GQ/Intersex/Asexual or an Ally. There is no such thing as learning how to ‘be’ LGBTQ+. This is more discussing strong characterization, and the idea of empowering yourself through your writing.

That’s the first thing. The second thing is why I’m writing about this. Why is a societal issue and goes to empowerment. Society makes being LGBTQ+ an issue, and so then an LGBTQ+ person takes into account that identity consciously much more so than a straight cis person.  I’m writing about LGBTQ+ characters to help you write against societal marginalization, Too often, any good Queer characters out there are always swimming against a tide of lousy stereotypes (what I’ll refer to as LS) and romanticized magic unicorn characters (RMUs).

Part of my work here is a form of mentorship. You’ve seen the mentor trope in movies–for some reason boxing seems to turn up a lot. Most recently in the movie Run All Night, in which one of the main characters teaches boxing to underprivileged kids, and also tries to install a sense of ethics and doing the right thing. I’m hoping something like the same thing can happen here, as paying back and mentoring is important to me. Empowerment is created through exploring identity in writing, exploring and discovering your creativity and talent in writing, and finding yourself. Taken seriously, it is also an exploration of ethics.

An undercurrent for the posts here is the concept of dignity. Dignity is something that every human should have as a birthright, and yet many humans do not. Dignity is something to start with when you consider LGBTQ+ characters–how do you define it, how do you portray it, and when do you take it away?

My college students brought up the topics of dignity and also writing as empowerment, as shown in the movie Freedom Writers, based on the work of an actual high school teacher, who urged students to write in journals–about things that happened to them, and also, just write about who they were. (Ironically, that book has been banned in other schools. Strong ideas are too much for some school boards).

Remember the purpose of this writing project in the first place. The more presence you have, the more your ideas become part of the norm, the mainstream. The more heroes that can be created, the more dignity allowed for the human race overall, as civil/human rights are dignity.

So with all that heady stuff in mind, let’s consider the basics of creating your character.

Your Practice Drill for this Lesson

To start with, no matter what he/she/they is or are, take the sexuality and gender out of the equation. Start with being human. There’s a story that the character of Ripley in Alien is so well done because it was originally written for a man (thereby excluding the stereotypes usually given to female characters in horror/thrillers). That’s not exactly true, but it kind of is. There’s an overarching truth here. Write the human first, then consider the other aspects.

Some writing guides suggest that you do not need to have bios of your characters. Here, I say you do. For one thing, it’s more practice for you in writing overall. For another, it helps in continuity. Use Google Docs to set up your bios if you don’t have regular access to a computer, and you can always add to the bio and adjust it as you need.

Start brainstorming your character, as many traits and details as possible before gender and orientation. When it gets to the point you need to add gender and orientation, then start organizing the dossier. The following is a list to help you along.

Name

Age

Location

General description (hair, eyes, race, ethnicity)

Personality (shy, outgoing)

Religion? Why or why not? What kind?

Athletic? What kind?

Favorite hobbies? Food? Books? Music?

Occupation?

Talents?

Ever been in the military? In jail? Have kids?

How many past relationships?

Family? Pets?

Outlook on life?

Current situation (why this person is your character)

What relation does this person have to the plot (is the main character, love interest, antagonist, and so on).

Get out your notebook and start thinking and writing. If you aren’t sure of any of these aspects, note what you do know, and come back to complete the others later.

If you aren’t sure where to start, take a character out of a book and compile a dossier on him/her/them for practice. Use one of mine. Compare the differences in characters.

Here is an example using Gabriel, the main character of my stories.

Name: Gabriel Ryan Ross

Age: 36 (In the first novel)

Location: New York City. Lives in the East Village, in Alphabet City, across from Tompkins Square Park.

General description: (hair, eyes, race, ethnicity) White, 5’9, 16o lbs, dark brown hair, brown eyes. Ethnic background is Irish, specifically Black Irish descent.

Personality: Gabriel is courteous, intelligent, even-tempered unless he’s protecting someone. He’s not particularly social, except with close friends. He has a good sense of humor, and often makes obscure jokes and references.

Religion? Why or why not? What kind? Gabriel is Buddhist, and is deeply read on Buddhism as a religion and philosophy, and has studied several schools. He’s drawn to Nichiren and Tibetan Buddhism. He also knows Taoism, and has a mentor in that spirituality. He visits a Buddhist temple in his neighborhood.

Athletic? What kind? Gabriel is skilled in the martial art of Baguazhang. He knows some of other martial arts. His Taoism mentor, Zihou Chiang, taught him most of the Baguazhang he knows. Gabriel also knows boxing, having been taught by his late uncle, a former Golden Gloves. Gabriel can also shoot guns and rifles extremely well. He plays baseball, basketball, and pool. His pitching got him noticed as a young student, all the way through high school. He plays on a softball team in New Jersey with his friend Bob.

Favorite hobbies? Food? Books? Music? Gabriel knows tarot and I Ching, and takes them seriously. He reads voraciously and is an autodidact, someone who teaches himself things. Gabriel is something of a conspiracy theorist, particularly regarding JFK. He likes movies immensely and will go as often as he can. He also loves museums and bookstores, and studying semiotics. He can play keyboards and sing, and has a sometime gig with a friend who has a bar band (Jason Evans). He’s simple in food, but can cook pretty well. Hates fish and organ meats. Likes good wine and beer, sometimes whiskey–but will not drink more than two drinks. Occasionally smokes weed. Gabriel is a huge David Gray and Queen fan (and Eddie Izzard).

Occupation? Private investigator. He started out interning for attorneys in Rochester and New York City. He then worked for an agency with a man who was his mentor, Manuel Smith. After Manuel died, Gabriel went out on his own, helped by insurance money left by his mom and uncle. Gabriel writes blog-type articles on NYC events, ethics, LGBT issues and Buddhism for an online magazine, NYCultcha. At the current time, he’s working with a former Nazi hunter on a memoir (Bertrand Herrmann).

Talents? Aside from what’s listed above, Gabriel is a certified locksmith. He taught himself carpentry and can build secret compartments and refinish furniture. In his work, Gabriel is good at detecting financial fraud and finding missing people.

Ever been in the military? In jail? Have kids? Gabriel has never been in the military, but his father is a Lt. Colonel in the Army (unspecified military intelligence/Special ops work). No children or spouses. Gabriel has been arrested four times–as a teenager in a mistaken case of drug sales, in summer 2010 for assaulting a notorious homophobic preacher who was protesting the funeral of a friend of Gabriel’s (the case was dismissed–called Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal–by plea), in winter 2011 on a material witness warrant (which was vacated), and for second-degree homicide (of his boyfriend’s father). In the last instance, Gabriel was held in jail for several days in Paterson and Wayne, NJ (he was severely beaten by a correction officer in Paterson).

How many past relationships? A few hook-ups in his teens, including briefly with his best friend Danny. He had a tendency to go for older men who had an aura of danger around them (a marijuana dealer, a car thief). After that he had a few serious boyfriends. An early one was emotionally abusive. The only one he was friendly with after was Henri, a French Canadian businessman. Joel was his most serious relationship, and the only one he went back to. Alex, of course, was between the first time with Joel, and the next time with Joel.

Family? Pets? Gabriel’s mom Kate passed away from breast cancer in 2003. Gabriel’s uncle Dominic died from a bizarre accident on the CUNY Midtown campus in 2004. They were the primary influences on his life. Kate for a sense of compassion and integrity, and Dominic, who was also gay, for a sense of pride and toughness. Gabriel’s father Jeffrey is still around. For most of Gabriel’s life, he and Jeffrey did not get along unless Gabriel was on a ‘training’ expedition with him. Jeffrey disapproved of a good deal of Gabriel’s life, particularly him being gay. However, Jeffrey has made inroads to reconciliation that Gabriel accepts. Gabriel has a half-sister, Jeffrey’s daughter from a relationship prior to his marriage to Kate. Gabriel and his sister do not speak. She resents him for the fact Jeffrey did not marry her mother and thinks he favors Gabriel, although she is in the Army and Gabriel refused the idea of military service.

Gabriel’s most precious possession is his cat, Archie. Archie is 7 years old, a ‘tuxedo’ style black and white cat who is an excellent mouser. Gabriel has always been a cat person, as has his mom.

Outlook on life? Gabriel is optimistic even while being somewhat cynical. He works hard to live up to Buddhist ideals of compassion, and tends to feel he’s meant to be a protector. He has integrity, but no problem breaking certain laws in the interest of a greater purpose. He tends to be a bit on a soapbox at times. He believes in mentoring, and in being intrasectionality with LGBT and allied persons. He is utterly enraged by bigotry. Having grown up poor and often defending himself on the schoolyard and neighborhood, he has some anger and a temper to control–and something of a chip on his shoulder about wealthy people and pretension.

Current situation/What relation does this person have to the plot  (why this person is your character) Gabriel is the main character of the series (named after him) meant to be a strong character, a hero, who is gay.

Do you go through this for all your characters? No, you do not have to. Certainly your main ones will benefit. Minor characters can have more of a summary. But the more detail, the better. It’s comparable to method acting. The more you know about your characters the more real and meaningful they will be for you. The more fleshed out their personalities, the more you can get in their heads, and make decisions about them that make sense, and are true to the character.

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