by Karen Sandler
As a cis white author who’s inching ever closer to old lady status, I experienced a couple fortunate circumstances in my youth that shaped me as a writer. First, when I transferred to a new high school in 1970, the circle of friends who drew me in were largely gay, lesbian, and transgender. Second, when I started writing more seriously in my early 20s, several of the members of my critique group—which included luminaries Katherine Forrest and Montserrat Fontes—were gay or lesbian.
I don’t mention this to brag that I’m “all that and more” or to burnish my ally credentials. I point it out and describe it as fortunate because my high school friends and critique group members diversified the tapestry of my experience and gave me a wider palette to draw on as an author. Not to mention they were great friends who enriched my life, accepting me when I felt like such an outcast.
My process as a writer is very left brain when I’m first getting started. I’m a plotter, not a pantser during the initial planning stages. I write out detailed outlines for my characters, including not just physical qualities, but also intricate backstories that have made them the person that they are at the start of the story.
I have yet to write a “gay character” during that initial process. Why not? Because I don’t know them that well. Most people don’t walk up to total strangers and blurt out, “So, are you gay, or straight?” I have to get to know my characters as I write my book just as I become acquainted with an actual person in real life.
When I wrote Tankborn, the first book of the young adult Tankborn Trilogy, I mentioned Risa Mandoza for the first time in the epilogue. At that point, all I knew about Risa was that she was an older woman and a member of the underground Kinship movement. Also, my main character, Kayla, would be working with her in the future.
It wasn’t until Awakening, the second book of the trilogy, that Risa became a more prominent character and I got a chance to get to know her. I didn’t start the book thinking, Well, I need someone LGBT in this book, so I’ll make Risa a lesbian. It was really that I got to know her. Her character became more real and fully formed. Somewhere along the way, I realized she was married to Kiyomi, another woman. It was as key an aspect of Risa’s character as her rough edges and long, salt-and-pepper hair. (Side note—Risa’s and Kiyomi’s relationship also got me uninvited from a scheduled school visit back in 2013.)
In the same way, I knew next to nothing about Junjie, the best friend of my main character, Devak, when I first introduced him in Tankborn. Junjie never appeared “on scene” in that first book. He was only mentioned in the narrative and once or twice in dialogue when I was in Devak’s point-of-view. I knew that Junjie was a life-long friend of Devak’s, but he didn’t have a part to play in Tankborn.
Even in Awakening, I didn’t start out knowing much more about Junjie than I had in Tankborn. He was far more important in book 2, not only “on scene” in much of it, but also a POV character who had a key role in moving the story forward.
Also featured in Awakening is a mysterious boy who is Junjie’s connection to the rather violent FHE movement. At first that shadowy boy was meant to be sort of a throw-away bit character. Then maybe half-way through the writing of the book, it popped into my mind, Oh. Junjie has a little crush on this boy.
That was as far as it went in Awakening. I remember mentioning something to my editor that Junjie might be gay, and she was surprised because I’d been so ambiguous about his character’s sexuality. But the natural progression was leading me there.
Then came Rebellion, the third book. Again, Junjie is an important secondary character, still true-blue friend to Devak. They are searching for Kayla, not knowing if she is alive or dead. One way or another, Devak wants to bring her home. And one person might know where she is—the mysterious boy from Awakening.
Eventually Devak and Junjie find the boy, Usi. And Junjie’s tiny crush that I’d barely hinted at in Awakening blossoms into real love between him and Usi. They’re inseparable from the time they meet and both become crucial to the story.
I could have ignored those writer’s instincts that clued me in to Risa’s and Junjie’s sexual orientation and never woven those aspects into the Tankborn Trilogy. But once that intuition kicks in, we have to listen. Those characters are who they are, just as much as a real-life person is. We might have created them and set them in motion, but just like a child we’ve raised, they will become who they are meant to be, all on their own.