I’m about to wrap up a book that is over twenty years in the making. It’s the third book in the Dark Rebirth Trilogy that started with The Tale of the Vampire Bride, a Regency Era vampire novel. Probably every author has that one book (or series) that was conceived when they were too inexperienced to do it service, and it gets rewritten over and over again until finally its trunked, or perfected. The Tale of the Vampire Bride was that book for me. I rewrote it so many times, starting and stopping, that it was a little ridiculous. I’d write other books, come back to it, and stall out again.
It took me TEN YEARS to write it.
Finally, in the mid-2000′s I finally finished the novel. Then I tried to sub it to agents and publishers for several years. When I had a lot of success self-publishing my As The World Dies zombie trilogy (that was later picked up by Tor), I decided to self-publish The Tale of the Vampire Bride. It took a little while to catch on, then started doing well enough to attract a small publisher. For a few years it was with the small press, making a small royalty every month. When I got the rights back, I decided to self-publish it again, and finally write the sequel.
I had intended to write the third book right after the publication of the 2nd book, but contractual obligations to publishers (I am a hybrid author) got in the way. And then, the book sales picked up and I started to hear from a vocal minority that they wanted my lead character, Lady Glynis, with the villain. As a survivor of abuse, I was so upset by these emails I shut down writing the book for years. (You can read about that here.)
It took some time, but I finally realized that I can’t force readers to not love the villain. Seeing the fervent love by some people for Kilgrave in Jessica Jones and Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens really opened my eyes to that reality.
So…where I fucked up…almost…kinda…
This story has been germinating in my mind for well over two decades. I always knew that certain events were going to happen and how they would impact my lead character, Lady Glynis. One of those events was the death of a character that she loves quite a lot (as a daughter/sister). I had all the details worked out in my mind, how it would happen, how it would affect Glynis, the immense tragedy of it all, etc. I made sure to build up this character, her friendship with Glynis, and address the difficulties surrounding her being a young lesbian woman in an era where she’s expected to marry and have children.
That’s right. The lesbian character was going on the chopping block to further the lead character’s arc. In my mind, this character’s death was the linchpin of the finale. All of Glynis’s actions after this horrible moment would be spurred on by her grief.
Again, this has been the imagined arc for the last ten years or more in my head. I was really confident in how it would work. I was certain it would hit the readers right in the gut. When I told a friend of my mine the plan, she was really upset. She declared her love for the character, and begged me to save her. (In retrospect, this friend is bisexual, so she probably ready to smack me, but was nice about it). I shrugged the idea off. Why would I ditch a storytelling point? It was perfect!
I’ve been working on the third book for the last few months and was chugging along toward that vital plot point without a worry.
And then Lexa died on The 100. Followed by Denise on The Walking Dead. (These are the 2 shows I watch. I know the death toll overall is much higher this year.)
As the protests hit hard and furious on social media, I joined my voice to the others that were upset. I shared my frustration with other people. I complained bitterly to my husband. I was really upset!
And then it hit me.
I was about to write a “kill your gays” scenario, too.
-In love with another woman – check
-Just finding happiness -check
-Dies to forward the lead protagonist’s angst – check
When I realized this, I sat at my desk, and said, “Shit.”
Now, some writers would just stick with the plan. I’ve had so many conversations with writers who believe in retaining their original vision no matter what. They see themselves outside of what is happening in the real world. They’re writing fiction. Readers need to understand that.
And for a long time I thought like that, too.
But I have also learned that my readers are dealing with real world issues. I’ve had LGBT youth tell me that Katie in As The World Dies helped them come out. I’ve had women send me messages that Glynis’s strength in the face of abuse made them feel stronger in their situation. I’ve had people tell me how important it was to see characters of their race/ethnicity in my books. In the ten plus years I’ve been doing this, I have seen how what I write can have real impact on my readers.
So I couldn’t sit back and say, “Oh, this plot idea has been in my head for ten years.” I had to acknowledge that the Kill Your Gays trope is so pervasive, it infects everything from films to comics. It had infected my book. Did I really want to reinforce this awful trope yet again?
The answer was a firm NO!
So I tossed out that old plot line and challenged myself to come up with a better idea. It took a week or so of slicing away the old dead idea to get down to the heart of the matter and recognize that there was a better, smarter way to push my lead character forward. The lesbian character didn’t have to die at all. In fact, the big change gives her more agency over her own life while also forcing Glynis to confront her own issues (since she is the lead character). By getting rid of the Kill Your Gays trope, I made my book better.
I do understand that all characters in the genre I write in (speculative fiction) are always going to be at risk for a big death. That’s the nature of storytelling. But if there is a smarter, better way to get the same result in the storyline by taking a route that steers away from negative tropes, I need to take it.
My readers deserve better.