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’.