What I Learned about Writing from Seanan McGuire’s October Daye Series: Ethical Representation

It’s a well-known and much bandied about truism that writers are like magpies: we find inspiration everywhere and borrow tricks and tropes and things from one another ALL OF THE TIME. A Google search for “writers like magpies” pulls up 1,010,000 results.

Sometimes, the shiny bits we steal aren’t ideas so much as best practices. And that’s what I’m going to focus on in my new, monthly “What I Learned about Writing from” series of posts. I’m kicking the series off with Seanan McGuire’s lovely October Daye series, which I discovered just as I was starting my PhD program and have been reading loyally ever since, because the series taught me something that’s been heavy on my mind, of late.

(Speaking of magpies and Seanan McGuire, the other day I ran across this post on her Tumblr and it is amazing.)

Anyway, to return to the topic at hand. Writing. Learning about writing.

shuffles through notes

Oh, yeah. THERE ARE SPOILERS AHEAD. If you haven’t yet read A Red-Rose Chain (Sept. 2015), you may want to stop reading here. And you may want to reconsider your life choices. Hie thee to a library or bookstore and read it (and the rest of the series, and everything else she’s ever written) ASAP.

In A Red-Rose Chain, the 9th book of McGuire’s best-selling October Daye series, one of the newer secondary characters reveals something important about himself: he’s a transgender man. Or transgender fae, rather.

The lack of and need for diversity in much mainstream SF/F has been a huge topic of discussion of late–and rightfully so. From authors who fail to diversify their cast of characters at all, to authors who cop out on actual representation but retroactively claim characters are diverse cough J.K. Rowling cough, to authors who are actively combatting defaults and working toward ethical representation of all manner of identities and experiences, the genres are rife with examples of different ways to approach the issue.

As someone who reads widely in the Urban Fantasy genre specifically, I was struck with how well–and how ethically–McGuire handled her characterization in this instance (something she does well across the board, I think). If fact, it alerted me to something I hadn’t realized was at issue in representation at all:

I suddenly realized that as a writer, it is possible to “out” one’s characters. That it isn’t enough just to include a representative swatch of society as you cast your book–you need to think about how narrative techniques are set up to ethically represent those diverse characters once they’re in the novel. That, often, authors end up outing their characters in the name of representation. That responsible storytelling represents diverse characters without pulling out a figurative label maker and going to work slapping tacky white stickers on character’s foreheads.

Some of this, I knew. There’s a huge and obvious difference between skillful representation and token characters who speak for their whole culture, or fill a stereotypical role. But even in skillful representation, it’s possible to unintentionally disempower. And sometimes, the line between the two is so subtle we don’t realize we’ve crossed it.

I realized this because McGuire did not out her character. That is, he wasn’t revealed to be transgender via narrative description, or another character’s commentary, or even backstory. He came out of his own accord. And it was such an unusual way to let readers in on a character’s gender identity that it’s stuck with me for over a year, changing the way I think about characterization on all levels.

And maybe this is something that’s been obvious to other people for some time. Maybe it took me so long to realize because characters like me–cisgender, heterosexual females–don’t get outed. They’re one of the defaults. But it took me seeing a character self-identify to realize that usually, even in fantasy and science fiction, characters aren’t given that opportunity. And I suspect that this is something that many mainstream authors are still not seeing. Because of the examples mentioned above. Because as someone who reads voraciously in this genre I was–and still am–surprised, impressed, and moved by this character’s coming out.

So, in sum, Seanan McGuire taught me to think carefully about the ethics inherent in the way representation is approached in a novel. Now, I ask myself the following questions: Am I, as an author, replicating oppressive social conditions in the way I introduce, describe, or otherwise represent my characters? How can I avoid doing that? How can I give characters agency over their own identities and stories, even as I write the words that make them spring to life? I know that this isn’t all I can or need to do. I’m still learning. But it’s a start.


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