The Societal Significance of Tropes, Stereotypes, and Representations in Literature

As a writer and a Sixth Former, I spend a disproportionately large amount of time on social media, procrastinating my life away, and doing everything I possibly can to avoid my responsibilities. The other week, during a leisurely scroll through my Facebook newsfeed, I came across an article headline which caught my eye for all the wrong reasons. Why? Because it revealed the death of a character in a TV show I watch, and it MENTIONED HER BY NAME in the headline. I like spoilers. I REALLY like spoilers. But I don’t like them being forced upon me. Reading that so-and-so dies in The So-and-so is not the same as purposefully Googling the ending of “Allegiant”, because in one situation knowledge is sought, and in the other it is forcefully revealed.

Nonetheless, I read the article. Now that I knew so-and-so was dead, I wanted to know the circumstances of her death, and why the article found such issue with it (other than the obvious fact that a beloved character was shockingly murdered). The article turned out to be about the negative representation of LGBTQ+ characters in the media, and the unfortunate trope of “Bury Your Gays”. The name is pretty self-explanatory: gay characters die. A large number of gay characters die.

I don’t know the statistics, but given the minute number of LGBTQ+ characters in comparison to heterosexual ones, I’d say that the trope implies a much larger percentage of LGBTQ+ characters die than their heterosexual counterparts.

It was one of those articles that I read, and thought about for a while, and filed away in my mind for later use. Then a similar article cropped up this morning, and it made me think. I’m currently rewriting the trilogy I wrote when I was fourteen (fun fact: this time around it might be more than a trilogy…ideas for book number four keep popping into my head), and one of my main areas of focus in the rewrite is representation: representation of gender, race, sexuality, age, trauma, etc. The representation of women has improved drastically (you wouldn’t think it would have been too bad, but there were SO many stereotypes!), and the representation of race is improving (as in, there was one non-white character in the entire trilogy, now there are nine, and counting), so now my area of focus is representation of sexuality, which poses some problems.

I have three LGBTQ+ characters in CONSEQUENCE, the first book in the series. There is a gay character, and a lesbian character, both of whom are in the closet when they enter the narrative, and come out later on. The third character is bisexual, which is not revealed until the second book, but is hinted at throughout the series. Of these characters, only one has a positive representation. (SPOILER ALERT, I’M MENTIONING CHARACTERS BY NAME FROM THIS POINT ONWARDS, HOWEVER, THE BOOK IS A WORK IN PROGRESS, SO STORYLINES MAY CHANGE DRASTICALLY THROUGHOUT THE COURSE OF THE EDITING PROCESS).

My lesbian character, Rosemary lives a full, happy life, is a rounded character with close friends, and ends up in a committed relationship. The only trauma she suffers is the death of Drew and Persephone (but practically every character suffers from their deaths, so she’s not a character singled out for this trauma). As far as I can tell, there is nothing particularly problematic in the representation of Rosemary. Then we come to Haden and Sol.

Haden is a closet bisexual. He likes men and women equally, but denies his attraction to men. He marries two women over the course of the first two books (and murders one of them, might I add). His second wife guesses his sexuality before they are married, but his first wife was unaware. Haden kills a boy to protect his secret. Haden is not a positive representation of LGBTQ+ characters.

Sol is the first LGBTQ+ character to enter the book, and he is the one I worry most about. I can’t decide whether Sol is too much of a stereotype or not. He is somewhat dark and brooding, which is a stereotype (think: Alec from “The Mortal Instruments”), but he has good reason, because he was brought up in a refugee slum, and had a pretty miserable upbringing. He also comes from a Catholic community, meaning he is ashamed of his sexuality. (Where does one draw the line between character back-story and stereotypical representations?). There is even an incident where Persephone makes a comment to Sol, saying “You’re my Gay Best Friend”, and addresses the stereotype that is successfully subverted (he is gay, and he is one of her best friends, but he does not fall into the Gay Best Friend stereotype).

The biggest trope Sol falls into, however, is the one that keeps coming back to haunt me: Bury Your Gays. Sol is the second character to die in the book, but the first character that dies without proper explanation. The reason for his death is not revealed until book three. Sol is killed by Haden to prevent him from telling Persephone that they (Haden and Sol) had been together the night before their (Haden’s and Persephone’s) wedding. If that’s not problematic, I don’t know what is. Sol is killed for his sexuality, and his death is a catalyst for many major events in the novel.

I keep thinking: what would happen if I didn’t kill Sol? If I didn’t kill Sol, there would be no reason for Haden to be in Tallinn, so he wouldn’t be there at the right time to kidnap Persephone, meaning she wouldn’t be impregnated, and there would be no Melinoë, therefore no revolution, and therefore no more storylines, no more books. Can the narrative significance of Sol’s death outweigh the societal significance? I don’t know.

The cliché advice given to new writers is: write what you know. At fourteen, I thought that advice was complete bullshit, and revelled in writing the unknown. I set my book in Russia and Estonia, three hundred years in the future, and gave my characters experiences I had never had, lives I would never have to live. It’s why I love being a writer, this ability to explore worlds I’ll never know. But that was when I was fourteen, when my books reached a tiny audience, and didn’t matter. Now I’m rewriting them, and I want to make them reach a greater audience. I want them to matter. This time around, I am writing the book I want to write, not the book I was capable of writing at fourteen. The past four years have changed me, changed my writing. My tiny world got minutely bigger. I go to school, I have a job. My world still hasn’t taken me beyond the smallest of small towns, but I’ve learnt a little more of human nature. In addition to this, I spend a ridiculous amount of time online, reading articles and blogs. In particular, Feminist articles and blogs. Combine that with doing English Lit, Media, and Philosophy A Levels, and my outlook on my novels has shifted significantly. I began to see the flaws, and the allegories within them. I saw the stereotypes, I saw the underlying messages. I also saw that my writing had vastly improved, and that these books were not the standard I wished them to be, hence the rewriting.

I’m rewriting these books to make them better, and a huge part of that is conscious creation: literature does not exist in a vacuum; it has meaning, it has influence, it matters on the world stage (not my literature, not yet. But one day, perhaps…). The more I thought about it, the more I questioned things, the more I saw the problems with my books. Fourteen-year-old Eliza had somewhat of a “glossing over” problem. My books are dark, they’re REALLY dark, and at fourteen I couldn’t do the subject matter justice. There are two examples of glossing over that always spring to mind: number one: death. Every time a character died, the narrative would skip a few months, so I didn’t have to write about the grieving process. I couldn’t do it; I couldn’t make it tragic enough. So I’d skip it all together. And let me tell you, it has been the first thing to go before CONSEQUENCE 2.0. When murders are happening left, right, and centre, I show the aftermath, I explore the aftermath; I paint the picture in all its tragedy. Number two: the rape of Persephone. Or at least, the supposed rape of Persephone. After Haden has murdered Sol, he hits Persephone over the back of the head, and she wakes up four months later: pregnant.

Persephone has no recollection of what happened to her; all she knows is the obvious: she is pregnant, she has not been conscious for four months. Hence, she comes to the logical conclusion that her husband drugged and raped her. She doesn’t find out until near the end of the book that their daughter was conceived through artificial means (hence, she was drugged but not raped). This storyline took place in both versions of the book, but it was completely glossed over in the first one. The word rape was never mentioned, and it was barely dealt with. The focus was on what happened after, on Persephone trying to gain custody of her daughter.

In retrospect, I would argue that the entire novel was glossed over. It was too fast paced; there wasn’t enough description of setting/character/etc, and I’ve changed that in this version. But of all the glossing, it was Persephone’s storylines which bothered me. It doesn’t matter that I, the author, know she was never raped. The readers believe she was, and, most importantly, she believes she was. And it impacts her hugely. There is this scene after Melinoë’s birth, where Persephone wakes up after being unconscious again for weeks on end, and she gets to meet her daughter for the first time. Haden tells her that this is the only time she will be allowed to see her daughter. It’s the moment which completely breaks her. It was, weirdly, one of my favourite scenes to write, because Persephone’s emotions were so raw. She’s holding her baby, sobbing, cowering in a corner to be as far away as possible from her evil husband, and she gives in. She tells him she’ll do anything for their daughter, that she’ll be is wife. She gives in, she is completely submissive to him, and it’s not enough. That scene wasn’t written like that in the original book. That scene was barely there at all.

When I think about it, it was Persephone’s submission that caused her to start the revolution, not the battle for custody of her daughter. Persephone is a badass, fiery character (in this version), and she chooses powerlessness, she chooses powerlessness to protect her daughter, and even her powerlessness is stolen from her. Her husband is the Tsar of Russia. He is the most powerful man in the country, and she feels like the most powerless woman. There is nothing she can do in that moment, he is physically stronger; he holds all the power. So she escapes, she tries to forget, to live a quiet life. And it lasts all of two days, before she decides to start a revolution. As I said, Persephone is badass.

Persephone can only be that badass if she owns her trauma, if she is allowed to feel the full pain of her experiences. If Persephone is glossed over, she cannot become the character she needs to be. Original Persephone was bland, and Rewrite Persephone is fabulous. Because I let her feel, because I let her be wounded.

My favourite character was always Phoenix, because she is my fictional kindred spirit, and the character I’m most proud of creating. She is smart, and she’s quirky, and she is perhaps the most deeply scarred character in the book. She’s also the most realistic, the most developed, the most emotionally resonant. She was tortured for ten years, and it defined her in so many ways. I find Phoenix fascinating to write, because she is a victim, and there is no getting around that fact. But why shouldn’t I write about victims? Why shouldn’t I write characters that are tortured? She’s not a stereotype, or a plot point; she’s real. Her pain is real, just like Persephone’s.

There’s this scene in CONSEQUENCE when Persephone finds out that her husband didn’t rape her, and she and Phoenix have this philosophical conversation about victimhood. Haden controlled Persephone’s mind, and her drugged her, and he impregnated her. She begins to wonder, in spite of those things, is he less evil because he didn’t rape her? And Phoenix tells her it doesn’t, because he has abused her in so many other ways. But all Persephone can think is that restraint implies morality. They don’t come to a conclusion, because they bring their own outlooks to it. Phoenix was tortured in a variety of unconventional ways, so her natural reaction is to preserve the sanctity of her own victimhood, by affirming Persephone’s. But all Persephone wants is to see the good in people, so she thinks “it could have been worse”, in order to see a tiny piece of goodness within her husband. It’s such an important scene within the novel, because it is the scene which truly transforms the trope of victimhood. Phoenix and Persephone are discussing their experiences; they are trying to figure out where they stand in the word, how their identities have been affected, how they move forward. It’s a conversation that matters, and a conversation they wouldn’t have been able to have if I’d shied away from difficult subject matter, or shied away from the victimhood trope.

This leads me back to the issue of Bury Your Gays. I’ve spent a good few hours this morning deliberating over whether Sol’s death is really necessary. And it is. It’s necessary for him to die, so I can go on to torture my other characters. If I don’t kill him, I’m not being true to the original narrative. In the rewrite, I’m changing details (some big, some small), but I’m not changing actual events. The same characters die, even if the reasons differ.

I need to justify Sol’s death, to make it more than a trope, because he is worth more than that. All characters are worth more than that. The fact that his death matters to the narrative is not enough to remove the trope factor. But perhaps the exploration of it is. If we go back to the Persephone example, and compare it to, say, “Game of Thrones”, there is a vast difference in the representation of victimhood. I don’t torture characters for the sake of torturing them; I do it to create debates within the novel. Does the same not apply to other tropes? Sol’s death won’t be properly explored until book three, but believe me, it will be properly explored, and the ideological/social issues arising from it will be explored in detail. Sol’s death is not meaningless, but it is a slow-burning fire, a fire that will not go out.

And what of his murderer? Does it lessen the trope, or worsen it, if an LGBTQ+ character is killed by another LGBTQ+ character? For all intents and purposes, Sol’s murder is a hate crime. Haden kills Sol for [Sol’s] sexuality, to hide his own sexuality. Haden is ashamed, he feels guilty…but that is not a statement about him, or Sol, or their sexuality, it is a statement about the society they live in. The book may be set three hundred years in the future, but Russia is still Russia. Russia is the country where Vladimir Putin said that gay athletes were welcome at the Sochi Olympics so long as they “kept away from children”. Russia is a hugely homophobic country, and I doubt that that will change in the next three hundred years. So it is a theme I have explored.

Haden is a product of his socialisation. He lives in a country which discriminates against LGBTQ+ sexual orientations, and he is the Tsar of that country. He’s terrified of public opinion. That’s why he marries Persephone, why he is so determined to have a child with her. He kills Sol to protect himself, and perhaps it falls into a trope, perhaps it’s a negative representation, but it is not glossed over. Haden’s treatment of Sol is explored, and the societal implications of it are explored.

Tropes are dangerous, stereotypes are dangerous, representations are dangerous, because they are all things which hold power. They become dangerous when they vilify or victimise those which they represent, but does that make them wrong in all circumstances? I don’t have the answers; all I have are the questions. I am going to kill Sol, not in spite of the trope, but in light of it. You can’t explore a problem until you delve deep into it, until you get your hands dirty. So I’m going to explore the trope: rather than merely “burying my gays”, I’m going to use my work to ask why it happens, to ask why society feels more comfortable perpetuating such a trope than preventing it. My goal as a writer is to make my readers uncomfortable, and to make them question things. Most of all, my goal as a writer is to make MYSELF uncomfortable, because how else can I learn?