Op-Ed: What My Characters Taught Me

By Liz Borino

Originally published on Advocate.com May 25 2012 4:31 PM ET

An author writes a book with the hope that the story or characters will have an impact on readers’ lives, alter their perspectives, or at the very least provide an enjoyable escape. What authors — especially new authors — very rarely expect is the impact their books will have on their lives.

When you sit down to write a book, you usually begin with a set of characters who have a problem, generally caused by another character, idea, or natural event. For a book to take the reader out of the world in which they exist day to day and into the author-created one, these characters must live and grow inside their creator. They’re real. Authors love and hate them — sometimes simultaneously. And you know what? That’s good. 

What does all this have to do with becoming a straight ally? Well, the concept for my first published novel, Expectations, was simple: young adult identical twins fighting to win their overbearing father’s approval and sizable trust funds. The fight came in because neither liked the contingencies. Matt had to work at a job he hated, so he coped with women and alcohol. Chris was told to marry and have a son. Seemed simple enough, but even given a smart and beautiful woman, it didn’t work. Then again, it couldn’t. His heart belonged to his best friend, Aiden. I never intended to have two gay men for main characters. However, honoring their love was more important than my plans.

As a participant in drama club throughout high school and part of my undergraduate education, I knew plenty of people who were either “out” or struggling to define their orientation. Honestly, at the time, I was almost apathetic. Sure, on an intellectual level, I saw no reason for the LGBT community to not be awarded the same rights as everyone else. But it didn’t affect me directly. So, like many people meeting adulthood for the first time, I mostly ignored it. Aside from signing a petition or buying a rainbow cupcake, I walked past with a smile and a nod, encouraging them to fight the good fight. Besides, I’d argue to myself when my pesky conscience got too loud, you have other things to worry about. Women’s rights are under attack. They were — and still are — so for a while I accepted that. I worked with Planned Parenthood alongside the students in our feminist/gender equality group on campus. Yes, I now understand the irony of working toward gender equality without including all definitions of gender and sexual orientation. At the time I figured each interest group would look out for themselves, and their club had more members. They didn’t need my voice to advocate for them.

I lived my life this way until junior year in college, when I started writing Expectations. Now I had a problem: Two gay men took up residence in my head and heart. They yearned to be heard, acknowledged. and loved. My nonchalance was no longer an option. Chris and Aiden forced me to not just read the news of assaults, deaths, loss of families, friends, and jobs, but feel it. Allow it to hurt, while safe in the knowledge that I could never truly know. I’m not going to analyze the psychology of hate crimes by trying to postulate on the why of this terrible reality. Far more qualified people have done so.

These characters demanded to be treated like human beings and receive what was rightfully theirs, no more and no less. Rejection is a familiar concept for most of us, but when Chris’s father violently rejected him, for no other reason than loving another man … no news article could prepare me to write that level of emotion. Robert Frost is quoted as saying, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” By Mr. Frost’s rule, the day I wrote that scene, I earned my readers’ emotions. Chris and Aiden taught me what I claimed to already know, the universality of love, and something I got terribly wrong — every minority group needs the voices of every person with a heart. No longer able to be apathetic, I use any opportunity to counter, through my writing, everyday speech, and actions, inequality and discrimination. Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes does nothing to change perspectives compared to having characters who won’t accept anything less than the expression of their truth.

 

Liz Borino recently completed the first year of her graduate English degree. When she's not applying literary theory to the classics she's writing romance and erotica. Her books can be found on Amazon.com