An interesting thing happened to me last week. I’d finished the first draft of a novella I’d been working on in a new series I’m developing and, as I often do with my finished stories, read it to my wife to see what she thought.
She’s not a big reader, but I love seeing her reactions when I read the stories out loud to her. If I can make her laugh and cry and react in all the right places, I know I’ve done my job.
So, there I was, reading my story out loud, and she was crying and laughing out loud and reacting fantastically – even in places I didn’t realise were emotional. It was great. I also found a LOT of things I need to change in the story (which is why all great writing advice blogs say you should read our stories out loud).
Afterwards though, when we were discussing the story, my wife said to me, “I was waiting for the main character or someone else to die.” I asked why and she said because that’s “what always seems to happen in stories with lesbian characters”.
Now, I’ve read those types of stories so I know that for a long time, those stories were in fact the norm. And we accepted them, because hey, they had main characters we lesbians could relate to. I’ve also read some more recently published stories (not nearly enough, but that’s another blog), where the characters do end up with a happy ending.
But it made me really think about our expectations when we start reading a story, and that maybe my stories can go a little of the way to changing those perceptions and expectations.
Apart from the “lesbians don’t end up happy” stereotype, the other thing she said was that she loved how the main character’s sexual orientation didn’t matter at all to those who know her.
And that’s the thing. To those of us other than heterosexual, we don’t think about our sexuality every day. I can only speak for myself, but my sexuality only comes up whenever anyone else has a problem with it, or is curious about it. It’s one part of who I am that doesn’t (and shouldn’t) affect my day-to-day life.
Which is exactly how I want to portray the characters in my stories. I write the characters as they see themselves, not as others see them. It’s important to me that the characters in this series have bigger problems than their sexuality. I want readers to know that reading about a character they can identify with (with regards to their sexuality) doesn’t mean they have to read an angsty, coming of age story, where the main character is bullied for their sexuality, or bad things happen to them because of their sexuality.
Yes, those things happen in real life, and yes that’s a tragedy.
But reading a book with a lesbian main character and expecting an unhappy ending – that’s also a tragedy.
I’ll go into the series in greater detail in a future post, but the one major thing I want to achieve with the stories in this series is for teen readers to have a light, enjoyable read, where the main character gets the girl in the end. Yes, they’ll have to work for it, but no, it’s not going to be a tragic ending.
The other thing my wife said to me, and the comment that affected me most I think, was that if she’d read a story like mine when she was in high school when she was struggling immensely with her sexuality, it may have gone some way to helping her realise that girls like her can have happy endings.
That one comment was a light bulb moment for me, because one of the other most often-quoted pieces of writing advice is to pick a person, real or imagined, who is your ideal reader, and write for them. Up until this point, I had a vague notion of who I was writing my stories for.
Now I know exactly who I’m writing for – my wife’s 16 year old self. And I would love to think that if that 16 year old redheaded teenager got to read stories like the ones I want to write, then I may have turned her into a reader. But what I hope the most is that 16 year old teenage version of my wife who reads my sweet contemporary romance novellas feels even just a little more comfortable in her own skin.