On Writing “Incidentally Gay” Books and Characters

When it comes to LGBT issues, especially LGBT teen issues, things have changed SO MUCH in the last ten years. Naturally, the genre of LGBT teen lit has changed a lot too.

When I look at my own work, Geography Club (2003) was very much about the experience of a gay kid in high school and the process of coming out. The sequel, The Order of the Poison Oak (2005), was about what comes next: what exactly does it mean to be out? How does being gay relate to the greater world and others who are “different”? The next sequel, Double Feature (2007), was, in part, about the different ways of dealing with ones parents, who may or may not be supportive (Min’s were supportive, Russel’s were not).

In short, the first three books in the Russel Middlebrook Series weren’t only about LGBT teen issues, but those issues factored in pretty heavily.

With the latest book in the series, The Elephant of Surprise (2013), I wanted to do something totally different: make it not about LGBT issues in any way.

Yes, most of the characters in the book are still gay and bi, and there’s a fair bit of same-sex romance. But the main story is about something that doesn’t have anything to do with LGBT issues. It’s about environmentalism, consumerism, and love, but it’s not about any specific gay “issue.”

As I was writing it, I thought this was kinda sorta revolutionary: a gay teen book that isn’t about being gay, and that includes absolutely no gay angst whatsoever.

It’s an “incidentally gay” story: the characters just happen to be gay. Which is, you know, kinda like how it’s getting to be in life these days: someone is gay, that’s important, but it’s often only a very small part of who they are. The gay issue needed to be resolved, but once it is, it’s pretty much over and done with.

Of course I’m not the first LGBT writer to do this, not even the first writer of LGBT teen fiction; it’s long been vogue in LGBT genre fiction, in fantasy or sci-fi, where it’s easy to imagine a whole world where being gay is a non-issue.

Incidentally gay storytelling is also sort of inevitable when you’re writing a book series (or working on a teen TV series like Glee). You cover the important “coming out” issues, but then you’re forced to ask yourself: “What comes next?”

Even so, I do think the incidentally gay story or character is still somewhat unusual in realistic teen fiction. There are marketing considerations, after all.

Which, frankly, is why I was honestly surprised when only a single critic picked up on what I was doing (that I know of — I don’t read all reviews).

But the readers? As usual, a lot of them got it. Many people saw right away what I was going for and really seemed to appreciate it.

I’m not one of those writers who likes to “explain” what they were going for (which is why the book came out in February, and I’m only writing this blog post now!).

Then again, hey, this is my blog, and I figured there might be some folks who were interested in my thinking.

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4 Responses to “On Writing “Incidentally Gay” Books and Characters”

  1. Christine 4 September 2013 at 8:36 pm #

    LOVE LOVE LOVE the Russel Middlebrook series!!!! However, I think the most intriguing and revolutionary character is Otto!!! He absolutely needs his own spin- off series!!!!! He is coping with both being gay and being a burn victim and yet manages to have such an upbeat and optimistic outlook!!!! When Russel fell for him in Order of the Poison Oak- so did I!!!!! I would love to get to know a little more about him from his point of view! You have really hit on something amazing with that character- if I were you- I would Run Run Run with it!!!!! I look forward to more of your work!! :)

    • Brent Hartinger 4 September 2013 at 8:47 pm #

      Appreciate that! And I've totally considered it. :-)

  2. Flavio 5 September 2013 at 11:17 am #

    I totally agree with Christine's comment- Otto is the most intriguing, charming and sweet character in the whole Middlebrook serie! I really hope we will read more of him in the forthcoming book (is there one? Please tell me it's so ;P) Also, the Elephant of Surprise left me with the feeling that Otto still has some part to play, I'm curious about who's the guy he told Russell about :) Great,great work anyway!!! :)

  3. Gwen 11 September 2013 at 11:48 pm #

    Joining the chorus of requests for an Otto spin-off. That character just about broke my heart.

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