What We Should Tell of the Back Story

— originally published 10/22/2007 @ LiveJournal

I’m sure many of you have heard the news that Harry Potter’s mentor Dumbledore was declared to be gay by Rowling in a Q&A session with fans. I’ve seen some rather interesting discussions going on about whether or not this was information that Rowling unfairly sprung on folks after the fact and that nothing in the books’ text support this assertion. It was a little startling for me when I first heard it, because I’d never even considered Dumbledore’s orientation and it didn’t strike me as odd at all that no love interest, past or present, was ever mentioned for him. Nor did the relationship between him and Grindelwald strike me as anything other than them being just “really good friends.” It does make sense now that I know though, but others seem greatly appalled by Rowling dumping this information on us after the fact and that she should have given it to us in the books. I don’t necessarily think this information was pertinent to the overall storyline, but it does beg the question of just how much of a character’s back story are we obligated to give to the reader, and would there have been as much fuss about the withholding of information had the information been something like “Dumbledore was a Don Juan with the ladies when he was a young man”? I think the answer is no.

I’ve given this quite a bit of thought, the idea of “outing” characters, and part of me is of the opinion that there was no good reason to out Dumbledore in the books. But another part wants to argue that sexual orientation is more than an aside, that it greatly informs how we interact with other people and how we view the world. It’s sort of akin to the character whose race is never identified in a story who is then later revealed to be black or Hispanic and readers are taken aback because that wasn’t how they read that character. Having this information about Dumbledore could have made the parts with Grindelwald read completely differently but was it necessary, or would it just have been a huge distraction to readers who would try to read a lot more into the text then was intended? How much of our characters’ backstory do we owe to the reader, and is sexual orientation one of those defining characteristics that readers should be made aware of?

One of my favorite characters of my own works is bi-sexual (that would be Cuauhtemoc of my One World stories), and I’ve struggled quite a bit with whether to just come and out say it the text or to leave it up to readers to come to the conclusion. Heck, for the longest time I didn’t even know he was bi, until I started writing “What Makes Us Strong” (which is forthcoming in Atomjack), and then it was glaringly obvious to me once he began interacting with a new character I’d created. I ended up deciding that C would never come right out and say he and Ixtlil were lovers in the story, but I do hope their closeness comes across in the text. Having learned this new element about C, I thought about whether it would have changed anything at all about the other stories I’d written involving him but found that it didn’t, at least not in my mind. I assume this is so because I was always aware of this about him on a subconscious level, just hadn’t written anything until then to bring it to my attention. I will admit to some hesitation about divulging this information about him, at least in stories, perhaps out of fear of being accused of making him bi just to have a “token” gay character (something some folks are accusing Rowling of doing) or losing readers because the issue of homosexuality is a volatile one in the current political and social climate, and one of the One World stories first appeared in a Christian magazine (though C doesn’t actually appear in the story, but rather is only mentioned at the end.). In the end though, Cuauhtemoc is who he is and if I feel it’s necessary to the story for me to tell more than I do, then I will. In the meantime, I hope I’ve done a sufficient job of conveying the information so no one is surprised when someone tells them about it later.

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