Writing an LGBT protagonist

I have something that I guess is an announcement, but I don’t really think of it like that. It’s just something I’ve not mentioned online before. Ever.

My second book, the sequel to The Next Together, which doesn’t have a firm title yet, has an LGBT protagonist. The main character is a lesbian.

I’m not really sure why I’ve not spoken about this before. I think I was just a bit nervous, because I didn’t know what the reaction might be, in general and from people I know. But there has been a lot of talk recently about diversity in fiction – if you’re in any way involved in the YA world you can’t fail to have seen the We Need Diverse Books campaign – so I know that there’s going to a positive reaction from the YA community, at least.

This month my agent read the first draft of my Untitled Mysterious Sequel, and she liked it, and my mum has read it, and was so proud of me that she cried. So I guess I’m ready to talk about it now.

I’ve always had a problem with J K Rowling. I love Harry Potter. I started reading the books when I was 6, was the first person in my class to have read any of them when the first film came out, and I queued up at midnight every release day to get my copies.

I’m a huge fan.

But after the last book was released, J K Rowling announced that Dumbledore was gay. I was 15 at the time, and this was a Huge Deal, both to me and to the rest of the world. I couldn’t think of any other characters in my favourite books who were gay. The only LGBT character I could think of at the time was the bisexual (omnisexual?) Captain Jack Harkness from Doctor Who.

So, it was great. But the more I thought about it, the more disappointed in J K Rowling I became. Why didn’t she mention it in the books? Why not just have a simple line where Dumbledore referred to Grindelwald as his ex-boyfriend? I couldn’t understand it.

If Dumbledore was gay, and I’d known that when the character first entered my life, at the age of 6 or 11 or even 15, that would have made a huge difference. Everyone in my class at school was reading Harry Potter from the ages of 11- 15. A boy in my class, thinking that he might be gay, would have found the ultimate idol in Dumbledore. He’s a gay man who isn’t defined by his sexuality. As a character it’s one of the least important things about him. (Unlike Captain Jack Harkness, where it’s the most important thing.)

To not only have a story with a gay main character, but one who is involved in complex storylines outside of his sexuality would have been groundbreaking, at least for me, as a teenager growing up in a Harry Potter obsessed secondary school. Can you imagine a boy looking up from his copy of Harry Potter and the Half Bad Prince, and calling another boy gay as an insult, then turning back to read about Dumbledore’s adventures? I can’t.

So I couldn’t understand why J K Rowling didn’t put this in Harry Potter, when she had everyone in the world reading her books. I’ve grown more and more sad about this over the last 7 years.

When I started writing, it was immediately clear to me that I needed to do things with my writing beyond telling a story. The right book can shape a childhood, and if I was going to have even the smallest chance (and honour) of writing that book, I needed to make sure I lived up to the responsibility I was being given.

My first book, The Next Together, started because I used to get furiously angry at tv and films which displayed scientists as geniuses, with bad social skills and enormous intelligences. I’m a scientist (I graduated in 2014 with a Masters degree in Chemistry and Physics) and I am not a genius. Nowhere near. I hated that films made it seem that scientists knew everything, about every subject, and had memorised every textbook in the world. Scientists, in my life, were just ordinary people who might be pretty good at maths or biology, but that was it. They weren’t geniuses.

I was angry about this because I thought the ‘genius scientist’ trope would put off teenagers from studying science, because they didn’t think they were clever enough. I got so furiously angry that when I was 18 I wrote a book with approachable, normal characters who were idiots in a lot of ways, but were also research scientists.

That book evolved a lot, but it eventually turned into The Next Together.

When I began writing The Sequel Without A Name, I knew I wanted to tackle another issue, something that brought out just as much emotion in me (emotion fuels the best writing, I find). I remembered Dumbledore.

I decided to write a character who was gay, and have it be mentioned from the very beginning. I wanted this character to have a sexuality, but I wanted the story to have nothing to do with that. I wanted her to have other character traits, adventures,  and a happy ending with a nice girl.

I wanted to write a role model for the teenage girls who would hopefully read that book one day, for all of them, not just those who had already accepted that they might be a member of the LGBT community.

I made a very intentional decision to write this book as a sequel to a mainstream heterosexual romance, rather than a standalone, because when I started researching other LGBT YA books, I was surprised by how many there were, but how few of them I had seen in bookshops. So I wanted to write a book that would hopefully have more of a chance of getting to it’s audience of teenagers, especially those who were too afraid or confused to search out LGBT books for themselves.

If there’s ever the smallest chance that The Next Together gets read, I want the sequel to make it’s way into libraries and schools and children’s hands too. Fingers crossed it does.

I don’t think I’m writing a groundbreaking book, because we’re lucky enough that there are now enough LGBT books to keep a teenager well read for life. (If you’re looking for somewhere to start, The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson is an excellent beginning.)  But I hadn’t mentioned it before, so this is me mentioning it now.

My second novel has an LGBT protagonist, and I’m incredibly proud of that fact. If at least one LGBT teenager reads it and finds themselves the role model that Dumbledore failed to be for people my age (sorry, Dumbles), then I’ll feel like I’ve done something good with my writing. YA writers have the ears of a whole generation, and the huge responsibility that comes along with that. I don’t want anyone to be furiously angry with me in ten years, because I failed to mention in my books that the protagonist of Untitled Book Two has been gay all along.

Authors have a responsibility beyond entertainment, because children read books to learn how the world works, and we have to make sure that the world they read about is as varied and diverse and representative as the real world.

I can’t end this post without saying a huge thank you from the bottom of my heart to my agent, Claire Wilson, and my editor, Annalie Grainger, and the whole of Walker Books. When I told everyone that I wanted to write a book with an LGBT protagonist, nobody missed a beat before saying that was a great idea. After some of the stories you hear about publishing, I feel like the luckiest author in the entire world, and I’m so proud to be part of such a wonderful industry. You’re all my heroes.

THE NEXT TOGETHER, a reincarnation romance, comes out in September. You can add it on goodreads, preorder on amazon, or you can subscribe to my mailing list for updates nearer the time here. The sequel is on goodreads here.

A rebloggable version of this post can be found here.

Published by Lauren James

Lauren James is the twice Carnegie-nominated British author of many Young Adult novels, including Green Rising, The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker and The Loneliest Girl in the Universe. She is a RLF Royal Fellow, freelance editor and screenwriter. Lauren is the founder of the Climate Fiction Writers League, and on the board of the Authors & Illustrators Sustainability Working Group through the Society of Authors. Her books have sold over a hundred thousand copies worldwide and been translated into six languages. The Quiet at the End of the World was shortlisted for the YA Book Prize and STEAM Children’s Book Award. Her other novels include The Next Together series, the dyslexia-friendly novella series The Watchmaker and the Duke and serialised online novel An Unauthorised Fan Treatise. She was born in 1992, and has a Masters degree from the University of Nottingham, where she studied Chemistry and Physics. Lauren is a passionate advocate of STEM further education, and many of her books feature female scientists in prominent roles. She sold the rights to her first novel when she was 21, whilst she was still at university. Her writing has been described as ‘gripping romantic sci-fi’ by the Wall Street Journal and ‘a strange, witty, compulsively unpredictable read which blows most of its new YA-suspense brethren out of the water’ by Entertainment Weekly. Lauren lives in the West Midlands and is an Arts Council grant recipient. She has written articles for numerous publications, including the Guardian, Buzzfeed, Den of Geek, The Toast, and the Children’s Writers and Artist’s Yearbook 2022. She has taught creative writing for Coventry University, WriteMentor, and Writing West Midlands.

13 thoughts on “Writing an LGBT protagonist

  1. I love how you did Chemistry and Physics! I did a Maths degree at Uni and I want to be a writer too. I’m still learning and think I’m a few books off getting one finished that’s close to being publishable but I’m getting closer. My latest one has a protagonist who loves coding and encryption and an LGBT character for pretty much the same reasons you mentioned above.

    I love that you’re passionate about making a difference through writing and I wish you the best.


  2. This is so true! I’m about to start a science degree (it’s Ecology and a minor in computer science–also currently in denial about my brain having to, like, not be on holiday (gap year problems)) but I’ve never really thought about how inaccurate most scientists portrayed in the media are.
    While I will always love Harry Potter for its world building, I totally agree that saying Dumbeldore is gay after publishing the books is ridiculous. It certainly doesn’t qualify as diversity.
    (PS The Loneliest Girl was so amazing! Me, My sister and my 2 friends each read it in a day because it was so addictive and all;sljkdf THE PLOT TWISTS. I have The Last Beginning from the library right now and really can’t wait to read it!!)


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