Do We Let Queer Characters Be Messy? // Pride Month Discussion

Do We Let Queer Characters Be Messy?

Hello everyone! What better way to celebrate Pride Month than by wading into a discussion people seem to love having! I’m going to be chatting about messy characters, and specifically queer messy characters. You’ll hear what I think a messy character is, why they’re important, and how a dislike of messy characters has been weaponised as a critique, especially when it comes to marginalised authors.

What is a messy character?

I think that if we were into a book, we’d be considered messy characters. Real people are messy; we make illogical decisions, we’ll have stupid arguments, we’ll react in ways that aren’t good for us, and make mistakes. When you read a book, you view a character’s decisions from the outside, and you can make judgements a lot easier. Characters aren’t real, authors are the people behind the scenes, and authors often want to represent the messiness of reality.

There are degrees of messiness, from a character who happens to make a few mistakes to one that’s driven by self-sabotage. So, where do you draw the line? Is every character a little bit messy? At what point do people start complaining about it?

What I believe separates a messy character from a non-messy character is less to do with their actions, and more to do if we understand their actions. If you relate to someone and you understand their thought processes; they’re not necessarily messy, they’re like you.

Why are messy queer characters important?

Messy queer characters allow messy queer people to see themselves, but it’s also an important trope in a world that only supports ‘acceptable’ queer people.

Messy characters are common in young adult books, and that’s amazing because teenagers are notoriously messy. I look back on when I was a teenager and facepalm at how I behaved. Queer representation in young adult books is a lot more common now than when I was a teenager, and they tackle the fundamental messiness of trying to figure out your identity. This translates to adult books too. Queer adults often go through incredibly messy phases to do with their identity or the friendships and queer spaces accessible to them. Life is messy, and it’s essential to see that in books, especially in books that aim to give representation.

Another reason queer messy characters are so important is that queer experiences shouldn’t be sanitized. In media, queer people are often only allowed to exist if they match up to the understandings of a cishet audience. Queer characters are slowly becoming more mainstream, and it’s great to see more representation. That doesn’t mean that queer characters are always allowed to represent the diverse, messy experiences of queer people. 

Queer characters often have to be ‘good’ queers, not messy ones, and if we’re allowed to be messy it’s only if we experience things that make cishet people feel sad. It’s rare to find a book about angry queers, nasty queers, queers that are filled with spite and hatred; these aren’t necessarily the characters everyone wants, but they should be allowed to exist. Queer people don’t exist to be inspiration or tragedy; we should be allowed to make people uncomfortable and unsettled. Regardless of if you enjoy messy characters, you should be aware of how you critique them with this in mind: good, important representation doesn’t always equate to good, sympathetic characters.

How has a critique of messy characters been weaponised against marginalised authors?

It’s well known that books by marginalised authors tend to get harsher reviews than ones that aren’t. This is linked to the idea that ‘people can’t relate’ to marginalised characters. There’s a lot you can say about that. Marginalised people have read books all their lives with characters that aren’t like us, and we still enjoy them. Perhaps not being able to relate to or understand or enjoy stories with marginalised characters means you need to unpack your personal biases. If you can read books with fantasy creatures and enjoy them, you can read a book with people who don’t share your identity.

How does this link to messy characters? As we said earlier, the critique of a character being ‘too messy’ is strongly linked to a reader not understanding them. It makes sense then that messy marginalised characters are treated more harshly. This is especially true when the character challenges the reader’s mindset as someone straight, cisgender, white, able-bodied, etc. Books that have angry, messy characters will often have piles of negative reviews stating the book is bad because the character is. Authors who write messy characters do that purposefully; it isn’t a failure of the book. These comments are especially weaponized against marginalised authors because readers are already predisposed to not understand what the author is trying to represent.

Another issue is that people have notions of what they believe good representation is, and messy characters don’t always fit into that. People will even tell marginalised authors that their depiction of their own experiences is harmful to other people in their community. Not everything is black and white when it comes to representation. Sometimes people are so caught up in avoiding actions they deem ‘bad’ that they forget that people do bad, messy things. That’s not necessarily bad representation. I want to point out that I’m not talking about unchallenged bigotry in books; please do feel free to call that out.

What if you just don’t like messy characters?

You are absolutely allowed to not like messy characters! Some people love books where characters generally make good decisions; it’s some great escapism from our messy lives! It’s a trope just like every other, and we all have our preferences. At the same time, people should do their best to interact with media they dislike while being aware of the potential harm or microaggressions they may be upholding.

It’s especially important to try and analyse what the book is trying to do rather than whether or not you personally resonated with that. ‘I didn’t enjoy this book because I don’t like messy characters’ is very different from ‘this is a terrible book because the characters are messy’.

Do you enjoy messy characters? Were you aware about how they intersect with LGBT+ identities?

29 thoughts on “Do We Let Queer Characters Be Messy? // Pride Month Discussion

    1. Thank you! I feel like some people get too caught up on good representation and not on realistic representation sometimes? It’s okay to want escapism but like messy characters aren’t bad just not everyone’s cup of tea

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  1. I agree with the definition of messy, even if they make the absolute worst decision possible, its still understandable how it happens (if they’re well written) and that makes the book far more interesting. Expecting characters to be completely rational and think things through all the time is unrealistic (at least to me, I never really think many things through shjshds) and a bit boring. I love embracing the messiness and chaoticness of characters wherever I can haha
    I like that the books I’ve been reading and seeing around twitter have messy (realistic) queer characters but when it comes to the big mainstream media, sometimes its really clear that shows or movies featuring diverse queer characters are mostly made to please the white cishet crowd and its not really for the actual people it should be made for, I try my best to steer clear of things like those haha I really liked this post!

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    1. I’m glad you liked the post! I completely agree I love messy and chaotic characters they are always so much fun to read about. You can definitely tell when there’s personal representation and when it’s just made for a white cishet lense!

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  2. πŸ‘πŸ‘so true! I hate how messy characters are ostracised if they’re queer and I wish we could have more queer people who are not held to unrealistic standards

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  3. This was such a good and important post!! You’re so right that marginalised authors tend to get harsher reviews if their characters mess up in their stories. Fictional queer characters are held to such a high standard when they should be allowed to have flaws and mess up like all characters and people do.

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  4. This is a great discussion! I really liked when you mentioned people telling marginalised authors that their depictions are harmful to the community, as if queerness is a generalised experience, when in reality that’s far from the truth. I feel like we’re just starting to allow queer characters to be something other than “good” and instead letting them be real, and sometimes that means messy too.

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  5. i love this post! i completely agree with your point where marginalised authors are given harsher reviews, and hopefully, that stops happening soon! i love messy characters, because no one can be perfect, and i think it’s so important to portray genuine, authentic queer characters, that are messy, and happy, and get things wrong, because that’s what we relate to! πŸ’•πŸ’•

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  6. Awesome post and I totally agree with this! I feel like another problem in books with queer characters (sorry, I’m branching off here a little) is that sometimes people don’t like the queer characters going through their own experiences like becoming comfortable with their identity, and while on one side I do see those peoples points (well the points of the other queer people who don’t like that) because some of the things, like self hate or whatever can be harmful to others of that identity, I feel like that’s also something that we need to see in books because not everyone just finds out they’re queer and just skips along with their day, people need to process it and sometimes learn to love themselves since they found out this new info. As long as the character does learn to love themselves by the end of the book, I think it’s okay for those characters to have those thoughts because that’s real life, too, and I suppose it’s sort of a subset of messy. And also, readers need to know that they’re not really alone in having these thoughts also, like I think that reading books where the characters go through the same struggles, sort of, with their identity that the book character does that it can feel validating and when at the end the character DOES learn to love themself, etc it can help the reader with that as well.
    Sorry for this long comment on something only slightly relating, I just wanted to get that out there to see if other people agree with me!

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    1. I completely agree with you I think there needs to be space for queer pain and struggles as much as there is for queer joy and happiness. It’s difficult when for example historically cishet writers did the ‘poor sad dying gays’ thing and people have reacted by going completely in the other direction and villainised people who show that it’s not all sunshine and happiness. There’s a lot of difficulties in being queer and that needs representation, I mean like we face oppression and violence every day and that shouldn’t be erased. I completely understand people who love happy queer stories especially for a bit of escapism, they’re super important, but sadly that’s not representative of a lot of people’s experience. I especially worry when I see people saying an author writing about their own experiences is somehow harmful? Like we need to act in the right ways and feel pain and suffering in easily digestible ways to be valid? I dunno I have lots of thoughts! I’d even go a step further and say maybe a happy ending isn’t always necessary, some people struggle to ever find acceptance and although that’s upsetting and we want to change that maybe those complicated, bittersweet feelings need to be validated to able to heal

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      1. Yes, exactly! I mean, I think that happy queer stories should definitely exist too because we also need to see that, but we also need more stories about EVERY part of questioning, the sad parts the utterly confused parts, etc etc. We need to be able to see characters feel the same way that real people feel because that’s just how life is.
        It is really annoying and terrible when people say things like an author writing about their own experiences is harmful because….they’re real people. However, I feel like if someone is queer, if they have gone through a lot of this stuff and have finally accepted their identity, seeing a character saying things like they aren’t good enough etc etc CAN be harmful to them, and I understand where those people are coming from. I do still think that it’s very important for there to be books where the characters DO act like that and in the end come out with more understanding and loving for themself, though. Because that’s just how life is. You’re allowed to put down a book if it’s too triggering for you, obviously, but those books should still be there for other people who they can actually HELP.
        I just brought this up because I’d read a review where a person didn’t like the portrayal of a character who was aroace spec and was saying some things about herself like she wasn’t ‘normal’ and stuff. (for the record, the reviewer is also aroace spec) But these things were said at like 12 percent through the book, when the person DNFed it and I actually finished reading it and later in the book the character does come to see that they should love themself for who they are. But reading this review made me think that I had to make the characters in this book that I’m writing be perfectly happy, cheery about their sexuality, even though they’re questioning for most of the book. And a few days ago, I was writing and I just realized–this isn’t how it should be. This isn’t like actual experiences, I’m writing this character who basically only has positive reactions about her sexuality. Sure, there may be some people like that out there but there are probably more who struggle to accept this, and I need to portray THAT.
        I very much apologize for this extremely long comment–this could practically be a discussion post in itself haha.

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