Pride: ‘Why do so many books have to focus on the gays?’

The title of this blog post is (as well as clickbait) a quote from an actual review of my fourth novel, The Wake. It is one of the most ridiculous reviews I’ve ever received, but what the reviewer doesn’t know is that, at some point while I was writing this book, I paused and thought, do I have too many gay characters?

There’s Skye (The Daughter) and her partner Fleur; James (The Celebrant) and flashbacks to his late partner Tom; plus another ‘closet gay’ character and Toby who is non-binary. Two out of the five point of view characters are gay, along with a few other secondary characters, and for some reason that made me wonder, just for a second, if there were too many. This is a problem.

Last year, I wrote an article for The Mighty about the importance of including diverse characters in fiction, with a specific focus on those living with a disability or chronic illness. I’ve never stopped to wonder if I had too many straight characters in a novel, or too many able-bodied characters, or too many white characters, and I’m not sure many writers would. The norm is still very much straight, cis, and white. As a queer woman myself, I’m still unused to seeing people like me being fully and honestly represented in fiction, and as an author, I should be doing something to change that.

I haven’t always been the best ally, and I recognise past mistakes and vow to do better. Bullying and internalised homophobia meant it took a long time for me to accept my own identity, and I still like to keep certain aspects of my life out of the public eye in order to protect the privacy of my loved ones. But this year I am properly embracing Pride Month for the first time, as I finally feel like I have a place at the table. I feel more confident in speaking up and being ‘out’, publicly and proudly, and that is partly down to being free to write diverse characters and explore themes of sexuality through them. Through Lauren and Kate’s relationship in my debut novel, The Diary, I could write about my own journey to understanding my sexuality. Emily’s dad’s jibes about her being bisexual in Girl, Lost were reminiscent of comments made by members of my own family in the past. And the way Izzy experiences bullying and isolation in my latest novel, In the Dark, is very much based on my own experiences as a teenager. As ever, writing is a way of me working through things, which can be emotional and therapeutic in equal measure, and it also enables me to reach readers who have been through similar experiences.

Many straight authors include LGBTQ+ characters in their fiction, and some do it incredibly well (including those on this list from The Psychological Suspense Authors’ Association). I think the best authors write them as characters who just happen to be LGBTQ+ (unless their sexuality or gender identity is central to the story, of course, like in In the Dark). We do not always have to be the cautionary tale; we do not always have to suffer for our happiness. We can be the main character in a story which does not focus on our queerness. We can be happy and sad. We can be conflicted and flawed, and even downright cruel. Being queer doesn’t automatically make one a victim or a villain, and our sexuality or gender identity is not always an elephant in the room. Just write us as we are: human.

So, authors, next time you’re creating your cast of characters, ask yourself whether they are diverse enough, and whether you could include a character who is LGBTQ+ (or BAME, or living with a disability or chronic illness) without resorting to tropes. I will absolutely continue to write straight and cis characters as well as LGBTQ+, but I will never again wonder if a novel has too many gay characters, because there can never, ever be enough gayness.

P.S. If you loved Lauren & Kate from The Diary, keep your eyes peeled for some exciting news coming soon!

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