I don’t know about you, but I’m a sucker for fantasy. I love it all, from the fictional worlds that are endless rip-offs of imagined medieval times, to the ones where magic exists in the world we know, to those where there are three suns in the sky and a dozen new type of animals. There is so much scope for difference, for originality, for exploring stories and ideas that won’t fit into the dull, predictable landscape of reality. Considering how much freedom and flexibility fantasy authors have, though, there’s something distinctly missing. The queers.
Of course, not all fantasy is guilty of this. There are in fact a lot of great fantasy stories that are jam-packed with representation. A quick google search will throw up dozens of books featuring protagonists who are gay, who are trans, who are living in futuristic worlds where social taboos around queerness are literally unheard of. These books are wonderful, but I’m talking about books that are not written for queer people, books which anyone can stumble upon without having to consult an online list.
There are two prevalent phenomena of queer representation in fantasy books. The first is the infamous queerbaiting, perfectly exemplified by beloved children’s writer and shameless transphobe J. K. Rowling. Her characters may be interpreted as queer, but are not canonically stated to be so unless Rowling thinks her revisionism of the Harry Potter characters will earn her brownie points for ‘progressiveness’. But writing queer characters isn’t just writing a character and slapping a label on them afterwards. Writing queer characters means giving them nuance and individuality, in the same way that writing a disabled character, or an Asian character, is distinctly different from writing an abled or white character. This is where the second excuse pops up – the vaguely described gay, whose sexuality is only ever nebulously alluded to. I’ve stumbled upon countless variations of the line “and the prince wasn’t concerned with who he bedded, man or woman,” that I can’t help but roll my eyes every time I see it. Minor characters who are loosely described as homosexual, bisexual, or perhaps pansexual, often in a throwaway line that is rarely further elaborated upon, is just plain lazy. It is nothing more than paying lip service to the idea of that queer people might exist in fantasy worlds, and lets authors get away with seeming queer-friendly without actually having to make an effort to write authentic queer characters.
What really irks me about the lack of queers in fantasy is all the lost potential. By confining yourself to a heteronormative, patriarchal world, you immediately cut off so many alternate storylines and experiences that you could have explored otherwise. Very broadly speaking, there are two different ways to go about writing queer characters into your fantasy. You can write gay utopias, where queer people are totally normal and acceptable, or you can write fantasy parallels of the real-world experience of queers. Obviously, there can be overlap – you might write a world where homosexuality is fine but transphobia remains an issue – but regardless, writing queer characters brings so much more variation, individuality, and depth to a story.
It’s been covered many times before that queer protagonists should have storylines that go beyond examining their sexuality, and nowhere is this more possible than within fantasy. You can explore wholly different worlds, where queerphobia, or even gender, are unheard of concepts, in which case a gay protagonist has no need to come to terms with their sexuality. Alternatively, you can write contemporary fantasy where characters might have magical powers but still get mocked publicly for their sexuality. Maybe their response to this is part of their character development, but it could also be a scene that explores their self-control, or their experimentation with their powers, or something else entirely. With fantasy, the options are genuinely endless, because you don’t have to be constrained by writing queer characters and stories that don’t stretch the suspension of disbelief.
Fantasy is the perfect genre for authors to branch out and explore queer characters. These characters don’t necessarily have to be the protagonist, or even central to the storyline, but the inclusion of queer characters allows authors to explore different narratives far beyond the typical coming-out stories that still dominate gay fiction today. These various, often unexplored narratives bring complexity to fantasy worlds that might otherwise seem indistinguishable from each other with their pseudo-feudal societies and tedious reliance on cis-heteronormativity.