The Treatment of Sexuality in A Pattern of Shadow & Light « Official Author Website of Melissa McPhail

The Treatment of Sexuality in A Pattern of Shadow & Light

water nymphs

Some of you have written in asking me about the presentation and treatment of homosexuality in my novels. You pointed out that the majority of incidents involving homosexual characters portray those characters as being evil. You indicated to me that in presenting those characters as evil, it sends a negative message about homosexuality, and you asked if that was my intent.

And if it is not my intention to veil homosexuality in a negative light, how is it that with three books now out in the series, I still haven’t corrected this situation?

Please let me begin by admitting my own frustration in not realizing from the outset that I had failed to present a balanced view of sexual preference. Looking back on Cephrael’s Hand and The Dagger of Adendigaeth, if I had realized while writing them that I was creating a negative association regarding homosexuality, I would have tried to find more viewpoints to present to my readers. It wasn’t until after the publication of Dagger that a reader pointed this out to me, and it saddened me to realize that I’d missed this.

I try to explore as many viewpoints as possible when working through a draft, but it is difficult to adopt every potential viewpoint and predict every possible reaction that my readers may experience. I make this statement in earnest, because I really do ask myself how a scene will be viewed by different people. My entire job involves framing a readers' view to specific perspectives. If I can't look at a scene from multiple viewpoints to begin with, I can't do a very good job of reframing those viewpoints towards what I want my readers to see. So this is actually quite important to me.

When I began writing A Pattern of Shadow & Light, I had no idea that so many thousands of people would connect with it. I wasn't thinking of my readers as falling beneath different social labels. I wasn't breaking them into demographics. I was just writing a story to entertain myself and hoping that others would be entertained as well.

But as the story has grown, its impact has become visible to me. It can and very definitely does create emotional responses, and it often impacts readers' viewpoints—for some, even their lives.

Now, I could hide behind my title as a fiction author and say, “This is just fantasy, people. Don't take it so seriously.” I could say this story is simply escapist, but in truth, it's a philosophical treatise disguised as fantasy. That the characters happen to be engaging and the story rather entertaining doesn’t change the fact that my work also delves deeply into moral and ethical conflicts. Five years into the series, I see my responsibility in this regard.

So what’s my explanation as to the initial question? Why haven’t I yet presented a balanced view of homosexuality?

While it might seem like an easy fix, I can't just suddenly start throwing bisexual or gay characters into the story to create a balanced view of peoples of differing sexual choice.

Well…I suppose I factually could do this, but while that might serve the purposes of my LGBT readers who are asking me to present that balanced view, it unfortunately wouldn't serve my purposes at all.

I invite you to take a walk with me in my viewpoint for a moment:

In our current society, the innate human right to love as we choose is being dictated by individuals who claim the power to limit others' freedoms because of their personal religious beliefs. Yet prior to the advent of the Abrahamic religions, homosexuality was so common that the Greeks didn't even have a name for it. The Roman patricians were expected to take younger male lovers. The ancient Persians had complicated structures for courtship in same-sex relationships. Many ancient civilizations looked upon such relationships as a viable means of population control. This is our human history.

While I believe we all have inalienable human rights, I'm not writing this series to advance anyone's socio-political agendas—not even my own. Moreover, though it would’ve appeased my LGBT readers, I'm not interested in merely presenting a balanced view of sexuality.

No, I want to present an idea that I feel is infinitely more important. It derives from the question, are we spiritual beings, or are we merely meaty bodies evolved from primordial mud? And if we are spiritual beings, then the gender involved in the expression of sexuality is absolutely inconsequential; the only thing which matters would be the intimacy shared between two immortal souls.

Now, bringing readers to an understanding of these ideas, whether or not they even agree with them…this requires a lot of words, a host of related experiences, a multitude of characters whose story threads illustrate the concepts from many different perspectives. To bring readers who are not already sensitive to these ideas up to a point where they may become sensitive or receptive to them means creating characters they can first identify with. That also requires a significant investment of story time.

I admit it would've been more socially responsible of me to have introduced a balanced view from the outset. But having failed to establish any particular sexual ambivalence early in the story, to simply throw some in there now in order to “try to balance it” feels very out of context.

For example, while writing Dagger, I considered presenting the backstory of Raine D’Lacourte's love affair with Cristien Tagliaferro (another truthreader we met in T’khendar, and a member of Björn’s Council of Nine). I thought of introducing their past as lovers, or even more explicitly implying it, but I worried that to suddenly introduce Raine as bisexual without any context by which to frame that information would violate the reality of too many of my readers. I feared people would ask, “why is she introducing this here? For shock value? To appease someone's protest? What purpose does it serve?”

Moreover, Raine had become too tenuous a character in people's estimation. He wasn't someone they looked up to at that point; he didn't lead the reader's opinion. It wasn't the right time to also introduce him as bisexual. AND there was really no way to introduce his history with Cristien without introducing an entirely new theme into the story, one which would've taken too long to develop properly.

Understanding is the greatest power in this universe. It is the greatest force for change. But I can't bring people to understanding with a few isolated references of sexual ambivalence.

When I introduced the scenes with Isabel and Pelas in Paths of Alir, it was with the express purpose of being able to open the door into this larger exploration in book four of the question: are we immortal beings, or are we just the bodies we inhabit?

The theme will be explored via Ean and Isabel’s thread, as well as on Tanis's storyline in a way that is different from Ean's exploration. Pelas's story thread will touch upon it. Hints of it will be seen in other threads also, and Trell will be dealing with it directly in mediating a relationship between two of his captains.

The Prophet and Kjieran will reunite in book 4 (yes, I really said that), and their intimate relationship has a major impact on Darshan's growth and development.

Through these explorations, I very much hope to present some different viewpoints on sexuality for my readers to think about in more detail, or not, as they desire.

I understand that A Pattern of Shadow & Light as it's currently written has made the first three books difficult in places for my LGBT readers to experience. I'm truly sorry for that. If you’re one of those readers, I encourage you to think of the (eventually) five books of the series as installments in one continuous story, rather than as individual books. There are many themes and ideas that I've presented which require multiple books to finally reach an understanding upon. Some of these concepts will not be presented in their fullness until the conflict itself is finally resolved (we hope) and the story concluded with the last book of the series.

I hope you will stick with me unto that end.

20 Responses to “The Treatment of Sexuality in A Pattern of Shadow & Light”

  1. T.J.Garrett says:

    Oh dear, my villain in The Dragon Oracles is a lesbian! Am I in trouble? Having gone to a performing arts university, I’m so used to LGBT personality that I don’t give it much thought (Sorry for the ‘performer’ stereotype, but I swear, half the students were LGBT, it was just life at the time, no big deal).

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      I think there’s a lot of sensitivity around these issues generally, T.J., but more so if you’re living that lifestyle and suffering the ostracism that typically accompanies it. Hopefully your villain will be well hated and for the right reasons.

  2. Richard Parker says:

    You know, Melissa, I find it odd how people seemed to think that you cast homosexuality in a negative light; particularly by making some “evil” characters as homosexual. In fact, I always perceived that the Prophet’s REDEEMING quality was his attraction to Kjieran. Not because of the homosexual nature itself, but because that singular person stood as a kind of Light that the Prophet would extinguish if he is successful in his Unmaking of the world(s). The fact that it is a homosexual relationship should not have mattered as much as it was a relationship at all.

    To me, I feel that some people are going to find offense in anything you do. Being a veritable “hot button” focus, the characters that may identify as GLBT will have some reading their every action to see if you are criticizing one group or another.

    This is similar to the Isabel and Pelas thread. People became so engrossed and hurt with the thought of what Isabel was “forced” to do, just because the act itself seemed so atrocious. They didn’t seem to see a person who put her own perceived virtue behind her sense of duty and spirituality. Yet because it was a FEMALE character making that sacrifice, many readers seemed to cry foul. You may not have wrote about it, but I did not see an outcry at Trell’s MULTIPLE instances of being raped. Was this because he was a male? And that, because he wasn’t flaccid (again, against his will) that it was more acceptable than Isabel’s choice to GIVE herself to Pleas? Was it because he was a soldier? A soldier that knew the dangers and thus could have expected this treatment?

    I can’t tell you why that dichotomy was not commented on, often, but I feel this issue of certain sexualities being cast one way or another is similar to those situations and that, as a whole, people are focusing on bringing our “real-world” to a fictional world because of the depth of the philosophies you bring to the table. Regardless, you are doing an amazing job of character and world building that people will somehow find offense in because people are people.

    Thank you for all you do, Melissa. I look forward to continuing this series.

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      It heartens me to hear your words, Richard. I agree with you quite closely in philosophy and logic. I think it’s especially true what you say about the Prophet. The viewpoint you express is very much my viewpoint on his and Kjieran’s relationship. It was vital to Darshan in book 2, and it will prove even more so in book 4. And I think you may be right, of course, that people can always find things to criticize if that’s their mindset.

      I appreciate your support, and your kind words about my story. Thank you.

      I also appreciate the views some of my LGBT readers have expressed to me, which for me, shows that there is another way these characters and their actions could be interpreted. I find this valuable input, because as the writer, it’s my job to guide your viewpoint, to inform your perspective, and ultimately bring you to the understanding I hope you will see. Usually this means trying to get a 360 view of a subject in order to head off all possible reader questions and disagreements. I never saw it coming on this topic, so I took no steps to inform or color any reader viewpoint one way or another. Overall this has been a valuable learning experience for me.

  3. Rob Cauldwell says:

    I did not find these to be significant issues, especially as a reader who is very LGBT. I think a story about patterns and being human is in its purest form spiritual or no, is a place where truth matters more than perception. I expect great things to come, and much as in life, the real world in which we live, I am sure things will make more sense as the full story unfolds. It seems we just over half way to go and we have a long way to travel on our path. Thank you for presenting LGBT characters in a truly human way, which is all anyone can ask. Good and bad, this is the duality that we all deal with.

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      Thank you so much for your vote of confidence, Rob. I do have big things in store, and I hope that (as you noted) as the story unfolds, some choices will begin to make better sense.

  4. John says:

    I have to admit, I’ve never even made this conclusion. A few points I think are the reasons why I didn’t. First, are the Malorin’athgul really evil? It’s hard to say when they’re immortal and are doing what they were created to do. Is the creator evil for creating them? Secondly, since they are essentially gods, they have no gender. Because they take on the form of men, doesn’t make them equivalent to mortal men. I’ve gotten the impression several times that Darshan was experiencing his feelings for the first time and was merely curiosity and an experience he was having rather than a sexual preference. He’s an immortal subjected to things he never was. Those are my 2 cents. 🙂

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      John, it’s so heartening to read this, as your view very much mirrors my own. Darshan to me is immortal and genderless – at least in terms of his sexual attitudes. And you’re quite right – he was experiencing new and unsettling emotions that he’d never had to deal with before. But I have big plans for him, and we haven’t seen the last of Kjieran either.

  5. Darrell says:

    Melisa are you able to reveal yet if Kjieran coming back as himself or “returned”?

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      Kjieran is in Kingdom Blades, Darrell, but he’s not Returned. Nor is he fully himself. His role is pivotal and always has been.

  6. Erica says:

    I noticed it briefly but quickly realized you made it clear the Prophet was evil because he was evil and not because he was gay. Then Kjieran steps in, a beacon of hope – to try to save everyone. I thought it was clear that you weren’t trying to insinuate anything negative against the community. As a life long activist I appreciate the seamlessness of your portrayal. Our inclusion needs to be natural and you’re quite talented so I have no fears that the complete story will leave anything lacking.

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      That’s reassuring to hear, Erica. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and impressions. I’ve always had big plans for Kjieran. It’s really exciting to me to have finally gotten to the point in the story when Kjieran’s impact will be felt by all the world. I’m SO looking forwarding to getting Kingdom Blades out to everyone!

  7. Andre Parks says:

    I’m surprised to be even reading something like this about the books. This series is so rich in character development and plot that one can’t help but be swept away by it all. So when the presentations of homosexuality came up it was very fitting for the personalities of the characters involved. It didn’t even occur to me to think it was being regarded as something bad. Truly, I felt each instance directly tied into the natures of those involved.

    At times I felt that subtle pull of “hmm… Something going on between these two” to “oh, wow, I hope this connection between Darshan and Kjieran will develop into some kind of redemption.”

    I know some people can be sticklers for this Social Justice Warrior (SJW) movement. But honestly I think too many people are suffering from this PC penchant of trying to write all past wrongs, regardless of context by persecuting any mention of social themes that aren’t completely fair and accepting of everyone.

    I truly hope with all being sad and done, the story continues to be as amazing as it has without being compromised to the desires of fans. I trust there are just as many people out there that were routing for these relationships to become some redemption story.

    Look forward to reading more.

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      You make many good points, Andre, and so poignantly stated. Thank you. I appreciate so much hearing your viewpoint in support of my work. I’m glad to know you received the scenes as I believe I intended them to be received.

      I always had a clear intention for Darshan and Kjieran, and that hasn’t changed. It just took all of book three to get Darshan to a point where that relationship can now be explored newly. I don’t feel that I’ve been unduly influenced by anyone’s opinions, but I can certainly say that my viewpoints have broadened through gaining new and different perspectives from reader interaction and feedback. This is valuable to me. If controversy results in more tolerance and understanding instead of less, then I’m willing to sit in the middle of it as much as is needed.

      Having this topic raised to my attention also inspired me to explore different facets of the storyline I had long planned for Kingdom Blades. In a sense, it has expanded the breadth of the character development. So this (hopefully) is a good thing as well.

      I really appreciate the validation and support I’ve gotten from readers who found nothing at all troublesome in those scenes, even as I appreciate knowing that some readers did. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Most of all, thank you for reading!

  8. Tony Barreto-Neto says:

    I’ve just finished your 1st in the series “Cephrael’s Hand,” and ordered your 2nd on Audible. My comment will therefore be referenced by that limitation.
    I read the post that led me here from your blog page and scanned the comments here where it appears to be addressed. Having said that I can confidently make my comment regardless of limitation as I hope it will be more reflective of the issue(s) well intentioned GLB & T communities raise.
    On the one hand, for myself, I would not presume to tell an author how to handle any issue, especially one I have just “read” and enjoyed! On the other hand (doesn’t there always seem to be one, err helps the balance non?), as a long time activist for said community and also a trans man (if explanation is needed please advise), I believe the problem if it can be called a problem, that those who perceived one is akin to what we see far too abundant around us today. Literature, like music and most all arts, has a way, unfortunate as it may be, of perpetuating stereotypes and all too often the negative feelings they incur. As with race in today’s America and the many problems still faced by people of color, at times the sensitivities go past the barriers of good sense into the realm of absurdity. However I can appreciate the path that spurs it on, I also try to walk it with an open mind if in tattered shoes. As you might, ok, can surely tell, I’m having a bit of difficulty reaching and explaining my point. [Too long an activist I reckon]. So I’ll just jump in and hope jagged rocks aren’t hidden beneath the deeper water.
    Preface; Please forgive spelling, was unable to find list of character names.
    When I first read about the Duchess Alyneri being ‘accosted’ by the other healer whose name I won’t even try, I wasn’t surprised at references to homosexuality in this genre and my favorite one as well, as I’ve read/heard “similar” in several books, but it was the first encounter to me that may have drawn the attention of the LGBT community.
    I remember feeling a hiccup in my limbic system that soon segued into the amygdaloid, then completely disappeared. In the nano second of travel I thought, “Hmm, interesting,” then “Hmm, no please not another evil lesbian seductress,” then “Hmm, so what, it’s a book and….it is the authors not mine, and even so it happens in life, we aren’t all so uh humph….pure minded!” Emphasis of course to make the point that we shouldn’t always take life as difficult, fraught with danger and ignorance though it may be, so seriously. Relax, get off the soap box and read on this most enjoyable book..

    Sorry for the length of this post. The issue is an important one and I don’t want to just dismiss it here or anywhere it comes up. The implications history have shown to result in serious harm to the plight of the disenfranchised doesn’t allow me to ignore the real sufferings and deaths of people who have been the victims of insidious prejudice in the past and all too frequent present; Brandon Teena, Debbie Forte to name only 2 of the thousands of recent murders I had the displeasure to fall to me in my work as an activist…
    I also wanted to try and shed a little light on why some may be more reactive to the encounter than I was, and to also spread that light to some of those who commented here as well, that even though this issue was brought to your attention and that I believe you have admirably addressed, I think you were insightful to do so. Not to allay the LGBT community, but because we all have a responsibility to lessen hatred for hatred sake, especially when we are public figures who others give credence rather warranted or not. For that, I thank you.
    Finally, I also wanted to agree with other comments here. Sometimes, just sometimes, we can and should let life take us on a journey into fantasy land and leave all preconceived notions on the other side of the node!

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      I think all of this is beautifully communicated, Tony. Thank you. I appreciate your calm rationality. On the one hand, we all have responsibility; on the other, it’s a fantasy book meant for entertainment.

      One of the reasons this point sticks for me personally is because I have (to the best of my knowledge) no preconceptions about people based on sexual orientation. To me, Sandrine was not a lesbian seductress, just a woman attracted to Alyneri. Kjieran and the Prophet were not homosexual but exploring a complex relationship interwoven with desire. Yet for those who live every day in a world where they’re ostracized, stereotyped and labeled based on their relationships and desires, I can see why they would be sensitive to such portrayals. I didn’t have this viewpoint before, but I certainly have it now.

      The interaction and dialogue about these characters has opened my eyes to an awareness of new aspects of life in our world, and for that I am truly grateful. I’m looking forward to Kingdom Blades, in part because you will finally see where I was heading with the Kjieran/Darshan storyline, and in part because one of the underlying themes of that book is “Are we beings, or are we the bodies we carry around?”

      Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts, experience and wisdom, Tony. And thank you for reading!

  9. Tony says:

    Let me lay out the problem as I understand it, since I happen to be one of your readers who pointed it out.
    As of book 3, (i haven’t decided if I’ll read book 4 yet) the only characters who make the choice to engage in homosexual activities are pretty much unequivocally evil. Kjieran doesn’t count, his “choice” is made under extreme duress.
    Are there evil straight characters? Yes.
    Are there good gay characters? No, or at least not readily apparent ones.
    That’s the problem, pure and simple. And it’s not just a problem because you did it (however unintentionally), it’s a problem because Sci-fi and fantasy do this sort of thing all the time. And not just Sci-fi and fantasy, but all sorts of literature and media do this. Characters who display non-straight tendencies or who’s actions, voices, appearances, etc, are generally considered consistent with non-straight people are presented as evil.

    But hey, I get it, you can’t please everyone. You also can’t write from a perspective that you don’t understand. That’s why people pointed out what seemed like a bias in your character development. How can you know if no one tells you?
    But hey, it’s your book. It’s fiction. It’s already four fifths complete and you can’t do a lot about it at this point. Maybe the next series you write, you can make up for it.

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      Thank you for sharing your perspective, Tony. I’ve been immensely helped by those LGBTQ readers who took the time to share their viewpoints with me. I do hope you’ll read Kingdom Blades. It shines a whole new light on Kjieran and Darshan’s relationship, one that was my intention all along, and explores the concept of “are we spiritual/immortal beings or are we bodies?” This is question I think everyone should pay more attention to.

    • ola says:

      This was perfectly stated. It seems like the gay villain is forcing his/her self on the victim and they are disgusted by it. There (so far) have not been any non rape LGBTQ scenes.

      • Melissa McPhail says:

        As I mentioned in another reply, Ola, the soonest I could address these points organically within the story is in Kingdom Blades. I would be interested in your thoughts after reading that installment of the story.

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