I created an excellent antagonist. I gave him a predatory name, dirty fingernails, and performative altruism. In his first scene, I had him monster my protagonist and then…. mince across the room.
Yes I did. I bought into the queer villain trope that has been deployed from Bond to Scar.
Queer-coding is a form of stereotyping: the representation of a character based on an over-generalised belief about a group of people. When we queer-code, we allocate stereotypical traits (like an effeminate gait) to imply a person’s membership of a group. We can do this on the basis of age, gender, sexuality, race, religion, occupation, culture and disability. Mostly we do it without thinking, perpetuating ingrained beliefs that can be inaccurate and harmful. Because, let’s face it, not all fifty-year-old women are hormonally unstable and not all writers are unsociable introverts.
I’ve seen it put that queer-coding villains can be a good thing, that the characters can be empowered and subversive as part of their implied identity. But my mincing wasn’t done with a Frank-N-Furter wink and swagger. I put it straight onto the page without one drop of irony. What the hell?
In March, the Book Length Project Group interrogated the way we represent our own characters. We did it with the help of the Bechdel-Wallace Test (created in 1985 by the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel) and the Bliss Test (created by Jackson Bliss, a mixed raced/hapa author based in Los Angeles). It didn’t take us long to create a list of traits that would stereotype our characters and render them superficial, predictable, and possibly offensive. How do you avoid coding and stereotyping your own characters? Try:
- writing whole characters that are more than their membership of a group
- giving your characters agency in their own right, instead of merely supporting another character’s story
- checking that a trait isn’t something that people from that group have already asked not be used to represent their group
- checking in with the large amount of work done by people who know more about this than we do.
On those last two points, the Bechdel Test, the Bliss Test, and the Vito Russo Test for the representation of LGBTQ characters can be found here:
Image credit: The Lion King, Walt Disney Pictures, 1994.
The Book Length Project Group meets on the third Sunday of every month at Mattie Furphy House in Swanbourne. All FAWWA members and friends are welcome. If you would like to join us, please go to The Fellowship of Australian Writers WA (fawwa.org) for more information.
Please note that the Book Length Project Group will meet on 24 April and not the 17th (which is Easter Sunday).
One thought on “I queer-coded my villain: confessions from the Book Length Project Group”
Great post Karen, also first I’ve seen Re BLPG.
Looking forward to next get together 24 April.