This is no. 88 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
It did not occur to me, while drafting the stories in my debut collection, I Know You Know Who I Am (Penguin Books, 2020), that they might ever become a book. I had not considered anyone would ever read or judge or enjoy or review my writing, beyond some appearances in literary magazines. After a few years of writing stale straight characters, I had finally begun to write queer stories featuring queer people, who to my great relief felt alive on the page. Late at night on my bed, a dim bulb flickering in the kitchen, screen light white on my face, I conjured it all up, and let my heart lead. In my fiction, I tried to articulate the truth.
But the “truth” felt slippery, uneasy. My queer characters, as I found them, were often a mess of wiring: self-sabotage, deception, jealousy, rage—crackling in ways that risked flame. In various ways, in different stories, I can still recall the experience of channeling these things as I wrote. Underneath the elation of finishing a story, I wondered: Why am I writing this? I sometimes feared my rendering of queer characters who behaved badly would be confused as an endorsement of that bad behavior, but nonetheless the work consumed me.
While revising I returned to the question of why my queer characters were behaving badly. I held my ear to each scene to see if I could hear a human sound inside. I didn’t want to presuppose that these characters were liars, but many shared a painful compulsion for self-betrayal. It did make me wonder: Does a writer make decisions on the goodness or badness of their characters, and why? How?
One reflex I noticed in drafting was to complicate a one-dimensional character by working away from either direction. This character is “bad” and so should have “good” characteristics. This character is “good” and so we must find a flaw. But I found this approach yielded rote shattered vases, reminiscent of my two-dimensional straight characters, and tended to render in a kind of permanent sketch. A more holistic, embodied approach—without judgment—transported me into their lives, which rang with a conditional joy I found exquisitely rich. I had to let them breathe.
Many of the stories in my book feature a protagonist or narrator whose deceptions serve a great self-betrayal. They must be masculine enough, or successful enough, or have friends because they don’t, or even merely have histories that suggest these things, in order to be or feel deserving of the love they chase. Often the lies become the stuff of these characters’ undoing. They mean the best but fail in their pursuit.
It is sometimes suggested that we write to free ourselves, but this has never interested me. The great freedom of the page was that I did not have to run from what I felt, or once had. Acknowledgment of complexity felt like a kiss. Fiction, stories, had been where I went to be honest, through queer characters who had begun to habituate, at times compulsively, their desires to betray themselves. Imposing a sense of goodness on a character flattened them, suffocating a tenderness and kindness that I found my characters do often possess too. In the middle of Indiana, in the middle of the night, I trained my gaze on only what felt true. From that feeling, eventually, the book emerged.
Peter Kispert is the author of the debut story collection I Know You Know Who I Am (Penguin Books, 2020), which was selected as a Best Book of the Year by Elle and a Best LGBTQ Book of the Year by O, the Oprah Magazine. His stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in GQ, Esquire, them, Playboy, and other publications. He is finishing work on his first novel.Thumbnail: Evie S.