In summer 2010 I had the best idea. It was one of those times when it feels as if the universe has just lobbed a gift directly into your brain, and within minutes I was madly scribbling down notes. The notes, which can still be found on a page in one of my notebooks, look something like this:
Ancient warrior (soul? spirit?) trapped in blade for centuries.
Heroine accidentally releases? Sets magic/curse in train…
Blade belongs to… heroine? Heroine’s FAMILY.
Warrior heroine – sword-fighter, like a manga heroine. OMG JAPANESE!
British born Japanese heroine. Ancestral katana! Forbidden!
Kitsune, nekomata, yokai (OMG)
Contemp London setting!
Ensemble cast… heroine, hero, best friend, others…
Best friend – Goth, ass-kicker. Gay? Jack…
That last note was significant in a number of ways.
Firstly, because I’m one of those writers who mostly gets to know my POV characters through the actual writing of their story. I prefer writing in first person – but synopses and that sort of thing are in third person. The result of this is that my POV characters tend to feel pretty blank and featureless until I get to work on the first draft. When I’m planning and researching a story and outlining it, the characters I feel most attached to are the secondary main characters. The rest of the ensemble. The ones who are seeing the adventures and angst and excitement from the outside, the way that I am at that point. Those guys come into focus incredibly sharply, right from the beginning, and they get a special place in my heart.
So straight away, I had a fondness for the mysterious Jack, whose name just appeared in my head like magic. The name brought with it an image of bleached white hair with multicoloured streaks, and, for some reason, a tendency to make jokes about obscure eighties pop culture. Even though Jack was not destined to be the POV character of the book, I knew that Jack would be my voice of reason in this story, the one asking all the questions the reader wanted answered.
That note was significant in another way. When I began work on my Big Secret Project – later to be named The Name of the Blade Trilogy – I quickly realised it was going to be a huge undertaking for me, my very first trilogy, and also my very first novel with a contemporary setting. As such, I wanted it to display all the things that are most important to me as a writer. Reflecting the beautiful diversity of the real world (not a bland, straight, white, able-bodied, cis-gendered version) is really high on that list. My previous books had all been high fantasies, where I created an imaginary universe for my characters to inhabit. I was well aware that bringing diversity to a book with a real setting would be a different kind of challenge because readers would bring a different set of assumptions and stereotypes to a book that took place in their world. Maybe that’s why I knew straight away that Jack would be gay – more than that, Jack would be out and proud.
The thing is, even though I knew all this about Jack right from the start, the one thing I didn’t know was what sex or gender Jack would be.
That was a stumper.
Jack’s role in the story, snarky sense of humour, and complicated romantic subplot, would be unchanged regardless of hir gender. So how was I supposed to make up my mind?
My first instinct was to think that the sort-of-masculine-sounding name was giving me a hint, and to make Jack a guy. My last book, FrostFire, had featured a lesbian couple, so it seemed only fair to swap for this book and feature a guy instead. But some part of me resisted the ease of that decision. When it came to books with contemporary settings, I had an uneasy feeling that while all parts of the QUILTBAG community were horribly under-represented, the gay male experience was still probably more likely to make an appearance than any other. I thought about all the books I’d read recently with a contemporary setting (and which weren’t about the experience of coming out or coming to terms with sexual orientation) that had featured a gay character. Sure enough, the characters were all boys. When was the last time I’d read a book which had a gay girl in it who was just hanging out, being a friend, having adventures, falling in love? They seemed unfairly rare.
However, very aware that I hadn’t read All The Books, I realised I might be extrapolating based on wonky evidence here. So I decided to ask my readers what they thought. I posted this question on my blog and waited for the response:
Do you think my heroine’s best friend should be a gay GUY, or a gay GIRL? Either way they are extremely fierce, smart and protective, are a little bit Goth, and end up having an extremely complex love life throughout these books.
I wasn’t sure that anyone would care enough to answer my question, but it turned out I was completely wrong. The response was overwhelming – in fact, I don’t think I’d ever had that many responses on a post before (at least, not a post where I wasn’t giving away free stuff). And almost everyone wanted to see me write Jack as a girl. Most wanted this because they said they’d hardly ever or never read a YA book or an urban fantasy book with a lesbian character in it, and they thought it would be different and interesting. I also got some some comments – and some moving private emails – from young gay women who said they’d kill to see more fun, realistic lesbian characters – girls like them! – in works of urban fiction.
There were a few votes for a male Jack, which I was fine with – until I read the comments that went with them. Some of the voters said they felt a gay male best friend would be ‘more loyal’, ‘more helpful’, ‘stronger’ and ‘better as a straight girl’s bestie’. I’m still not sure where those commentors are coming from. Are girls not loyal, helpful and strong enough to be best friends with? Is a guy friend always better? Perhaps this attitude is a little revealing as to why the gay gay-friend has become such a trope.
Anyway, the response to my question made Jack’s identity solidify in my mind. As I got to work writing the first book of the trilogy – The Night Itself – I felt all the pieces click into place. I loved writing about a really strong and important friendship between two girls – Jack and my heroine, Mio. I loved writing a lesbian character who was modern and funny and real, and whose love life was a mess not because she gay but because she was too busy kicking ass and saving the world to notice she was falling in love. Basically, I just loved Jack, and wished I could make her my best friend in real life. I think that’s the way all the best characters make you feel, and that’s how you know you’ve done a good job as a writer.
Hopefully when the book comes out (on the 4th of July this year) all my readers, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, will feel the same way about Jack as I do.
Zoë Marriott is an award-winning British YA fantasy novelist who lives on the east coat of England with two rescued cats, a spaniel known as The Devil Hound, and a growing library of over 10,000 books which will inevitably bury her alive one day (totally worth it). You can follow her on Twitter at @ZMarriott, check out her blog at thezoe-trope.blogspot.co.uk , or peruse her website www.zoemarriott.com.