Coming Out in Fantasy, Sci Fi, and Historical Fiction
Welcome to another installment of Queering the Narrative! This week we’re continuing our series on coming out with a discussion of how to writing a coming out scene in fantasy, sci fi, and historical fiction.
One of the most frustrating things about queer representation (besides, you know, all the buried gays) is when people aren’t explicit about a character’s queerness. If you’ve read come of my previous posts about introducing queer characters , you’ll know that I’m a firm believer in the idea that if you don’t SAY your character is queer (IN THE NARRATIVE), then it doesn’t count as good representation.
My general advice for this situation is to make sure that you use the labels that your character fits into. Queer people don’t just deserve vague, hand-wavey representation . We deserve explicit representation!
All that being said… sometimes, you just can’t use our language. When you’re writing such genres as Fantasy or Historical Fiction, then it’s possible that the words we use simply don’t exist in your setting. In this (very specific) situation, you don’t have to use the modern-day words for your characters’ identities in your narrative. HOWEVER, you should still work to make sure that their identity is clear.
Why does it matter?
Why does it have to be a big deal, in a world that YOU made up, that someone is queer? Maybe people just accept that, and don’t really question it. This is a bit unrealistic in Historical Fiction, as you’re playing within the rules of an actual time period, but when you’re making everything up anyway, why not make the world a little nicer to LGBTQ+ folks? Gay≠Wrong, and there’s no reason that you cannot simply say, “No one gives a shit here!”
Still, you need to make it clear. In a setting like this, a character “coming out” might just look like them acting on their gender identity/sexuality. A woman might pursue another woman romantically, or someone will try to pursue a magical means of changing their gender. Even if no one else in your story bats an eye at these things, they’re a clear signal that, in the context of our world, your character is queer.
If you want your character to”come out” through actions instead of words, you can find some information about how to do this in my “Art of Introductions” series. (Just be sure to use the good examples!)
Throughout history, people have used euphemisms to indicate queerness, and you can use this to your advantage. If you want your character to come out but don’t think them saying “I’m gay” or “I’m trans” fits with your setting, you can invent or find historical euphemisms! (Just be careful that you don’t trip and fall into a historic slur.)
For a historical example, earnest was once a euphemism for a gay man — as in, “Is he earnest?”, such as in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. History is full of such things, but be careful when probing the history books for a word that fits your setting. Not everything people called queer folks back in the day were meant to be kind! (You can, of course, try and reclaim such things, but really only if you yourself are queer).
For a fictional example, in one of the fantasy books I wrote there was a religious order wherein holy folk could only marry people they shared a gender with. Thus, in that region, calling someone who wasn’t tied to the church a priest or priestess signaled that they were homosexual.
It’s possible that, even in your wonderful and accepting world, there are certain identities that are poorly understood. This doesn’t mean that people will care about such identities, just that there may not be language or euphemisms to readily identify them. In these situations — just like in real life — this means the queer character will have to explain their identity.
As an example, that same fantasy novel I mentioned above also has a bisexual character, an asexual character, and a genderfluid character, but none of those identities have euphemisms in the same way homosexuality does. Because of this, the characters must explain their identities in the context of the world they lived in.
I’ve talked about “The Explanation” before, and the same rules apply. The difference here is that, in genres like Historical Fiction or High Fantasy, an explanation may actually be required to make your character’s identity explicit. What can be a difficult or upsetting conversation in modern standards can be casual or liberating in your story. Just make sure you do your research, understand what you’re explaining, and treat your character and their identity with respect.
A lot of the rules for handling a character’s queerness go out the window when modern language doesn’t apply to them. Implications and euphemisms are far more acceptable when modern terms like ace or trans make no sense in the setting. Still, be as respectful and explicit as you can be, and remember that coming out is still going to be a big moment for your character, even if the words to explain their identity aren’t available (in fact, that probably makes it more emotional!)
Also, while you’re at it, make your fantasy worlds nice to queer people. SFF is an escapist genre, and it’d be nice to be able to escape into a world where our sexuality and gender are universally accepted and largely understood!
That’s it for this week’s Queering the Narrative! We’ll be back next week, probably to talk more about coming out, but also maybe to talk about something else queer related. We’ll see! Until then, stay safe, stay healthy, and keep writing!