My husband Leslie and I were talking with a friend about gender and sexuality. Like me, my friend is cis-gender and straight. We grew up with scant knowledge, understanding or experience of anything else, and while I have learned fast since meeting Leslie, she wasn’t familiar with much of the vocabulary. Leslie explained LGBTQIA, and my friend and I agreed that we were glad to be Allies. Then Leslie added that technically, as a straight but rather intermediate cross-dressing man, he doesn’t belong on that spectrum in a tick-box sense, even though ‘trans’ is how he feels and who he is. To which my friend looked at the initials he’d listed for her with explanations and said, “Then I think there should be another letter on the end: L for Leslie.”
I love that. I love him and his honesty and complexity, courage and vulnerability. I love her for saying it. And I love the truth behind it: that we are all of us different and individual, whatever group or category we choose to embrace and however others define or label us. My Leslie, like everyone else on the LGBTQIA(L) spectrum and outside it, is a unique human being.
As an author I’m looking to connect readers with people on the page who are unlike anyone they’ve met in or outside a book and yet recognisable, familiar and absolutely convincing. But I’m not talking here about those mysterious, eccentric supporting acts portrayed by observation, however memorable they may be. They’re much easier to pull off with aplomb, perhaps because the distance involved is the same kind that exists between us in life; by eccentric and mysterious we really mean different from us as well as unknown. I am thinking of characters that are equally distinctive but created with insight.
As a reader I can name a few, from Gwendolen Harleth to Raskolnikov and Lady Deadlock to Pierre Bezuhov. Contemporary writers have given me Amy and Isabelle (Elizabeth Strout), Grace (Margaret Atwood) Corrag (Susan Fletcher) and Shell (Siobhan Dowd), all of them as real to me as I turned the page as my family. That’s a gift from the gifted, because in knowing these characters I stepped outside my own narrative and perspective and understood what it is to be someone else. The fact that they are imaginary in no way lessens their emotional impact on me. I would argue that only in fiction do we ever understand anyone else so fully, as deeply and as intimately. That’s its educative power. That’s why it matters.
If anyone, in a school or adult workshop, were to ask me how I try to find an original character, I’d take a moment! By avoiding labels, as I do with Wayne in JUST FOR ONE DAY. By getting to know them imaginatively before I begin and planning only as a starting point, not a specification, leaving room for them to grow as I encounter them in the process. By loving them. And yes, I do see and hear them, as I write them, just as I see and hear Corrag, and Maggie (Anne Tyler, Breathing Lessons) and Tom (Carol Shields, The Republic of Love) – hoping they seem equally real out there on a page held by other hands. I don’t suppose I see these creations of other writers or hear them quite as their creators did, and my readers will connect with their own variations on my Marilyn (RAVELLED), Kim (THINNER THAN WATER) and Kane (TRACES). But if the characters have wholeness at their core, a living truth underpinning their humanity, then the variation will be small – like a change of outfit or hairstyle, like a shift with age or illness that never takes us far from our essential self.
But are all my characters merely variations on me? I don’t think so. I sometimes set them in contexts I have never known and take them through worlds and experiences that are alien to me, knowing as the story develops what they – not I – would do, say, think and feel. That’s imagination, but most adults draw on it and trust it much less than children – a loss sadder than innocence. Of course I’ve created a few women around sixty whose histories may overlap with mine at times, but they are distinct from me, as ‘other’ as my friends, yet read more fluently from the inside. They often make choices I’d never make. Sometimes I despair of them, and sometimes I cheer them because they’re braver or stronger than me. But I never stop loving them, which means respecting their difference – as nations and social tribes of all kinds must learn to do. In an adult novel which I hope to see published, perhaps next year, I have created a character, like Leslie, in need of an extension to LGBTQIA – an extra G for Georgie. In a book called ALIENS AND ANGELS I’ve already given young readers a boy called Robbie, without identifying any position on any spectrum but humanity. Labels help when we’re marginalised and need the support a group offers, but fiction can take us deep into a lighter, warmer place of understanding. In novels they’re N/A.
“Sue Hampton is a sharp observer of the entire human experience, treating her creations with a remarkable tenderness and reverence even while she peels them to the bone… Her fiction is a mirror held up to the human heart, and here we may all recognise ourselves.” From a review of WOKEN by author Rick Cross.