I sold a Royal Academy story that I’d been shopping around for a while. It was one I hadn’t planned to write, but the leading character got hold of me and more or less demanded to be written about.
I don’t write any characters I can’t identify with, but every now and then I create a character I respect. It’s never planned, and it rarely happens with the characters I am trying to make worthy of respect. I worked really hard, for instance, to make Warren Oldham a good and worthy person, righteous in most of his ways, but I don’t respect him as much as I do his wife Lilian, who I just threw together out of chicken bones. And I don’t respect either of them as much as I do the bitter, drunken Bill Navanax.
Of all the characters I’ve written about, though, the one I respect the most is Winston Chiliming from Beginner’s Luck. And this is odd, because Winston does nothing worthy of respect in that story. I brought Winston in to explain the nature of gods to the story’s protagonist, but it was immediately obvious that Winston had a lot more going on than anybody else in the story because of one thing, which I had introduced as a throwaway; Winston couldn’t be defined as male or female. That androgyny thing. Since Beginner’s Luck was in a stodgy botanist’s POV, Winston usually got referred to by female pronouns, but it was obvious throughout that the protagonist couldn’t tell what sex Winston was and the story ended with the question unresolved.
I don’t know myself what Winston’s sex is, even after writing another Winston story with several potential romances in it. I can’t predict Winston’s gender from one page to the next. Winston refuses to be defined. The reasons are complicated, having to do with a family curse — but the result is not. Winston prefers to go through life without labels. Winston insists on going through life without labels. That warm, fuzzy moment when you realize you belong, you’re understood, there are others like you? “How very nice for you,” says Winston.
I could say I wrote about Winston because I wanted to explore a world in which gender really didn’t matter. But honestly, I don’t care to waste my fantasy life on that sort of thing. Writing with an agenda isn’t as interesting as exploratory writing. I want to discover something new when I write, not convey something old. And I discover something new when I have a strong response to a character, and in what I find myself writing about that character. In Winston Chiliming I discover not only that I am sick to death of the boxes people put themselves into, but that I think we can do without them. What’s more, I think we are more interesting without them.
Sure, whoever finally gets into bed with Winston Chiliming will find out — something. Its significance will be another question. And I bet that person will keep the secret, because ‘Winston’ is the only noun that matters.