Written in Narrative - Does a Protagonist's Queer Identity Matter?

Written in Narrative — Does A Protagonist’s Queer Identity Matter?

Excited to bring you my 1st post on the Asylum, and giving an honorable mention to this eventful month of Pride, this post will dive into the memorable worlds of SFF as well as giving voice to more personal thoughts regarding queer identity, literature, and its intersections. Sit back, agree, disagree, and try to ignore the screeching damned-souls in the background. They’re excellent residents but not entirely quiet.

Some time ago I remember reading a tweet asking readers if the mention of a character’s sexuality or queer identity influenced their interest in reading a story (I have the short term memory of a fish, so if you were the one asking this, feel free to comment below). As all discussions are bound to, this question prompted both yeses and noes, diverging greatly from reader to reader.  

I thought about this question a lot after seeing that tweet. Does seeing a synopsis that reads “A multiverse traveler tries to solve her own murder” differ to me in appeal as another reading “A multiverse traveler tries to solve her own murder while shamelessly flirting with her girlfriend”? Oddly enough, my answer was both yes and no.

I’ll ultimately admit that, when it came to Micaiah Johnson‘s book, it was the multiverse travel that called out to me, but with some self-evaluation, I will also admit it was that specific part of the main character’s (Cara) that steeled my urge to read it. The number of times we don’t get to see a sapphic character in the spotlight in SFF justified this detail sparking my interest in reading a book where that actually happens.

As someone who mainly ventures the genres of science-fiction and fantasy (SFF), I can count on my fingers the number of queer protagonists I’ve found in SFF books during my reading journey. The count gets higher if you consider side characters, but hardly will a book mention a supporting character’s sexuality in its synopsis, and if said character does make an appearance it’s often a brief one. 

It’s a rarity to read a protagonist who is both a Jedi Knight and spontaneously queer. Rarer to read a protagonist that just is, without their queerness affecting the fact they can neurally connect to a spaceship and make it fly.

An outsider who can travel between worlds discovers a secret that threatens her new home and her fragile place in it, in a stunning sci-fi debut that’s both a cross-dimensional adventure and a powerful examination of identity, privilege, and belonging.

Multiverse travel is finally possible, but there’s just one catch: No one can visit a world where their counterpart is still alive. Enter Cara, whose parallel selves happen to be exceptionally good at dying—from disease, turf wars, or vendettas they couldn’t outrun. Cara’s life has been cut short on 372 worlds in total.

On this Earth, however, Cara has survived. Identified as an outlier and therefore a perfect candidate for multiverse travel, Cara is plucked from the dirt of the wastelands. Now she has a nice apartment on the lower levels of the wealthy and walled-off Wiley City. She works—and shamelessly flirts—with her enticing yet aloof handler, Dell, as the two women collect off-world data for the Eldridge Institute. She even occasionally leaves the city to visit her family in the wastes, though she struggles to feel at home in either place. So long as she can keep her head down and avoid trouble, Cara is on a sure path to citizenship and security.

But trouble finds Cara when one of her eight remaining doppelgängers dies under mysterious circumstances, plunging her into a new world with an old secret. What she discovers will connect her past and her future in ways she could have never imagined—and reveal her own role in a plot that endangers not just her world, but the entire multiverse.

I’ve grown used to expecting my SFF heroes, anti-heroes and every shade in between (and I leave villains out of the equation because these are more often allowed their queerness, which is a point in itself) to not share this shade of a spectrum (with some amazing exceptions, like Deadpool) that is essentially human interaction with their environment, both social and intrinsic. It’s something every queer person, especially every queer SFF reader, will find themselves reminded of, and I personally have very diverging thoughts regarding it.

For one, I believe the best heroes are often unlike us. Those that make us see reality in a whole different way and share nothing of our own personality. Those we maybe wish to be like, but cannot. Those that show us the spectrum of reality. Yet at the same time, sometimes unconsciously, I find myself wondering 1) how dangerous is it to build a monolithic perception of a hero, and 2) how a simple thing like a character’s identity (be it sexuality, gender, ethnicity) can completely transform a story, a plot, a book, a journey (all in different degrees, it can be argued). Or even that just that simple detail can prove to be such an unexpected addition that I find myself drawn to the story.

F.e., I’m obsessed with the Dragon Age saga (casual players, where you at?). Often when I play the game I construct a character that has little in common with myself, because, like every reader, I love to explore universes as another person. Yet every once in a while, I enjoy it greatly to play as a character that shares my characteristics, my doubts, my consternation regarding specific shards of my identity, and how those affect my interactions and viewpoints. 

What I find usually happens is, when I get this urge when it comes to a book, I am forced to stray from the genres I love, and am more often than not directed towards specific genres like contemporary (which I would argue is one of my least favorites, though it has its appeal and purpose). So far, I have found it hard to read SFF that deals with the essence of SFF, but still has these specific elements of real-life without blowing them out of proportion. Few are the works that mention queer identity effortlessly, unscrutinized. 

If you asked me to name my favorite SFF mage (in the lax sense of “magic-user”) protagonists in books, I would promptly recite a list: Ged, Gandalf, Doctor Strange, Sakura Kinomoto (I will take no questions atm),… But if you then asked me to name my favorite queer SFF mage protagonists in books, I would have to think a little harder on which ones I’ve actually read (and that were well-drawn, non-caricatures of a notion).

This will probably be a moot point for non-queer readers, but I’m of the opinion that the fact I am queer does affect my reality, my interactions, even my understandings of the world around me, to a point. SFF, in particular, have always been genres where I considered the essence to be humanity’s interaction with reality, past, present, and future, and the assessment of those interactions, their consequences, their risks, their power. To me, these are genres that are impossible to be taken out of the context of reality, whatever it may be. And to me, these are the best genres to allow ample exploration of all spectrums. 

Even the best genres to explore these characters in a naturally flowing, “it just is” way. Seeing books where the protagonist is unceremoniously queer always manages to catch my attention. In this, I can admit reading a synopsis that makes it clear a character is queer (in sharing or not my own identities) does factor in my decisions. Something like Yoon Ha Lee‘s upcoming book, Phoenix Extravagant, will be a must-read for me.

Dragons. Art. Revolution.

Gyen Jebi isn’t a fighter or a subversive. They just want to paint.

One day they’re jobless and desperate; the next, Jebi finds themself recruited by the Ministry of Armor to paint the mystical sigils that animate the occupying government’s automaton soldiers.

But when Jebi discovers the depths of the Razanei government’s horrifying crimes—and the awful source of the magical pigments they use—they find they can no longer stay out of politics.

What they can do is steal Arazi, the ministry’s mighty dragon automaton, and find a way to fight…

I often think about how differently a non-binary (Nby) person would react to genderless/non-binary-gendered species (humanoid, human, or non-human species), how distinct would the interactions between said Nby person and those species be as opposed to a non-Nby person’s. This is a very simplistic situation where something as “trivial” as queerness can affect a story for me and make it more compelling.

Because like any SFF story, in a market oversaturated with tropes, it’s about the little changes, the smallest of details when writing said tropes that make a story unique. To me, this is what my identity can bring to the table, and it is a broad table that fits everyone. 

If I were to read a synopsis making it clear it is a non-Nby character’s journey interacting with such species, and then read another synopsis stating the protagonist is Nby, I really would be more inclined to pick up the second book. Because there are certain experiences and understandings that can alter a narrative, maybe imperceptively and so slightly for many, but for others (those who live and truly understand that narrative, those that are just treading its waters, and those that know absolutely nothing of it), that small shift changes everything; it adds a tint never before explored and it can broaden the very genre it sits upon.

Living another’s life, but still someone similar to us, can be as restorative as living a stranger’s. As, I believe, being in another’s skin helps us understand their narrative and their world. So in this particular example, reading queer characters is a widespread experience, especially in a market that completely desaturates our stories and outsources them to someone else.

I can see how claiming a character’s identity in a synopsis has become partly a marketing strategy, in that queer stories have become a genre in themselves, a separate shelf on Goodreads with their own categorization (as is true, and often worse, for many marginalized identities).

It can prove to be a good indication that clamor for these stories has been ringing loudly, but that, even so, the industry makes an effort to not blend the separate genre of LGBTQ+ seamlessly into other widely-read genres like SFF. If I want to read a space opera with a queer protagonist, I will have to google “queer space operas”, whereas, if I’m in the mood for fantasy with morally-gray protagonists (a characteristic that likewise alters the identity of a character and their interaction with the world), I will most likely find myself browsing in genres like grimdark or dark fantasy. But for queer stories, I have the restrictive LGBTQ+ tab. 

From the author of the New York Times bestseller Wilder Girls comes a new twisty thriller about a girl whose past has always been a mystery—until she decides to return to her mother’s hometown . . . where history has a tendency to repeat itself.

Ever since Margot was born, it’s been just her and her mother. No answers to Margot’s questions about what came before. No history to hold on to. No relative to speak of. Just the two of them, stuck in their run-down apartment, struggling to get along.

But that’s not enough for Margot. She wants family. She wants a past. And she just found the key she needs to get it: A photograph, pointing her to a town called Phalene. Pointing her home. Only, when Margot gets there, it’s not what she bargained for.

Margot’s mother left for a reason. But was it to hide her past? Or was it to protect Margot from what’s still there?

The only thing Margot knows for sure is there’s poison in their family tree, and their roots are dug so deeply into Phalene that now that she’s there, she might never escape.

Queerness doesn’t just flow naturally in SFF, it needs to be stated, and that is why I still do find myself more intrigued by a synopsis that mentions this, and will more happily pick up a book where I can read naturally-flowing queer captains blasting asteroids during an epic space battle.

This doesn’t mean I will automatically pick any book with a queer protagonist.

My least read genre is contemporary, because I know it’s a genre I am not particularly fond of, and a character’s queer identity may not be enough to make me pick it up if the synopsis doesn’t interest me. But if you give me two identical synopses with the character’s identity as a distinction, I am undoubtedly more likely to choose that option. 

Oftentimes the reluctance to do so may come from a certain assumption that queer stories are automatically linked with a sense of romance. Why is it that when reading “a gay mage” and “a mage”, we expect the first one to have a strong bearing of romantic intent and not the second?

I remember seeing Rory Power expressing frustration over this issue regarding her latest book, Burn Our Bodies Down. Rory experienced what many queer people do: that our stories, to be really queer, obligatorily taste of romance, or at least openly express sexual or romantic desire in some prevalent way, and thus, many will see these as detractors from the core thematics of SFF. But there is more to being queer than being in love, or even attracted to, and even the very notion of love is a spectrum. Rory’s story is still a queer one, even if devoid of romance. 

These expectations should bear even less weight in SFF, where personal interactions are a quintessential part of a journey, but it is the characters’ connections to the world and themselves that take center-stage.

Being someone whose reading choices are heavily influenced by worldbuilding and plot, I can claim these two will mostly take precedence. At the same time, I believe the kaleidoscopic spectrum of queerness can only prove itself the cradle for an expansion of the awe-inspiring possibilities of both Science-fiction and Fantasy. 

So if you asked me, “does a protagonist’s queer identity matter when choosing a book?”, I would tell you at least buy me a glass of wine before we delve into deep, philosophic, soul-searching discussions, as most of my answers go: yes, for a great part, but no for another.

But mostly I’d say that if you have any recommendations about SFF books that give us compelling queer protagonists, I’d love to hear them all!


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