Fieldnotes #1: how society and law affects characterization

I tried to think of where to begin this series, and as with all things, I suppose the best beginning place is at the beginning. In this case, the story begins with Diago, who is the protagonist of my Los Nefilim series. Diago is a bisexual man in Spain, married to his husband Miquel, who is gay.

Several years ago, when I first imagined Diago, he came across as a very stereotypical gay male and was meant to be a walk-on character, not the protagonist. At the time I wrote the first draft, there was a great deal of discussion in the SFF community about representation, and as I listened, or read as the case was, I realized I needed to write with better awareness. I got some feedback from friends, and one thing led to another until Diago became a whole person, rather than a caricature. At that point, his role shifted from walk-on to central character.

The shift allowed me to make my story more inclusive, which made me very happy. At the same time, I didn't feel confident portraying a gay man due to my own ignorance about gay culture in Spain. To further complicate the issue, I had to place Diago within the cultural framework of the late nineteenth or early twentieth century Spain. This is where I had to do the footwork necessary to flesh out both the historical aspects of the novel and the characterization.

In order to have a good understanding of Spanish cultural attitudes toward LGBT culture, I needed to go backward, at the very least a hundred years, preferably more. Beliefs and prejudices are not created in a vacuum or overnight. To give me an idea of how we got from there to here, and also how LGBT culture fit into the broader spectrum of Spanish literature and jurisprudence, Queer Iberia: sexualities, cultures, and crossing from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance [edited by Josiah Blackmore and Gregory S. Hutcheson] was invaluable.

Meanwhile, my own research of Germany in the early twentieth century gave me a basic understanding of Berlin in the 1920s. With magazines such as Der Eigene and Die Freundin, LGBT culture was making inroads to move into the mainstream during this period. However, that was Germany, and Germany isn't Spain, so I had to dig deeper.

Finding resources in English became a daunting prospect until I located a book entitled 'Los Invisibles': a history of male homosexuality in Spain, 1850-1940 by Richard Cleminson and Francisco Vazquez Garcia. Here I found that gay subcultures were prevalent in the larger cities during the late nineteenth century. This was by no means a cohesive sub-culture. Social class, which was still deeply entrenched in Spanish society during the late nineteenth century, is one factor that defined social discourse. Other issues such as "effeminacy, the level of open acknowledgement of homosexuality or its hidden nature" also dictated the composition  of these groups and how they functioned and interacted.

I was surprised to find that in Barcelona and Madrid homosexual balls and dances took place relatively openly. The authors cite the following:

"In 1879, for example, in the dance hall 'El Ramillete', in Alameda Street in Madrid, on the last day of Carnival, 'más de cien sodomitas con elegantes trajes y ricas joyas' [more than one hundred sodomites in elegant dress and sumptuous jewels] could be counted."

Unfortunately in both Madrid and Barcelona, this dance culture seems to have declined by the early twentieth century:

"'Yo no he podido encontrar en el homosexualismo barcelonés las apariencias que tenía muchos años atrás; las fiestas en que se celebraban los bautizos de un homosexual; los bailes escandalosísimos; las fiestas sardanapalicas, vergüenza de una ciudad' [I have not been able to find amongst Barcelona homosexuals the aspects that were found years ago--the parties in which the baptism of a homosexual was celebrated, the scandalous dances, the fiestas characteristic of Sardanapalus ...] This was possibly ... as a result of the public scandal laws, whose effect had been the withdrawal of homosexuals from the streets and the reliance on small groups of friends for socializing."

That last sentence is the primary example of how legislators in all countries marginalize specific groups by prohibiting their activities and/or gatherings under the law. The difference between Spain's Articles 69 and 616 and Germany's infamous Paragraph 175 is that while Germany's laws dealt specifically with gay men, Spain's laws dealt with same sex encounters regardless of gender.

Spain's 1928 Penal Code, which was enacted under the dictatorship of General Primo de Riveria, imposed "a punishment of two to twelve years in prison for anyone convicted of indecent offenses with a person of the same sex." Article 616 stipulated that "whosoever engages habitually or scandalously in indecent acts with a person of the same sex, will be fined 1,000 to 10,000 pesetas and will be declared unfit for public service for a period of six to twelve years." (The dictionary of homophobia: a global history of gay and lesbian experience, [edited] by Louis-Georges Tin, 2008)

Now that I know all of these things, how do I place this information into my story without it sounding like I'm giving the reader a lecture? That's where characterization comes in. I had to think about how these various things would affect Diago and Miquel. Would they go to the types of balls mentioned in 'Los Invisibles'? Probably not due to their association with Los Nefilim. They would keep a lower profile among the mortals; however, both would frequent cafes with other musicians and poets.

They would also stay abreast of the ways in which laws changed from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries. I have a brief scene in Without Light or Guide between Diago, Miquel, and Guillermo:

Guillermo nodded. “Good. And remember, you won’t be alone. Garcia is going with you.”

Diago glanced across the street where Inspector Juan Garcia’s dark wiry frame was partially hidden in the shadows. Garcia was all edges and serrations, with a temper thin as a blade. He wasn’t as old as Guillermo, Diago, and Miquel, but he had a couple of centuries on the younger Nefilim. His age and loyal service had won him trusted positions from Guillermo. Now he served as a police inspector in Barcelona’s Urban Guard. He touched the brim of his hat when he caught Diago looking at him.

Diago returned the gesture with a nod, but that was as far as his courtesy went. “Anybody but him.”

Guillermo glanced over his shoulder at Garcia. “I know you two have had differences in the past—”

“He threatened to arrest me on deviancy charges.”

Miquel popped the knuckles of his right hand. “I had a talk with him about that.”

Guillermo frowned. “So I heard. You’re my second-in-command, and I won’t have you settling disputes with your fists.”

Miquel opened his mouth to protest.

Guillermo cut him off. “Control your temper. From now on, if you have a problem you can’t fix with diplomacy, you come to me.”

Miquel’s dark eyes slid away from Guillermo’s gaze in a maybe, maybe not look Diago knew too well.

There is no need for me to go into a great deal of detail about either Article 69 or 616 here, because this is a novella (read: word counts). I want my dialogue to pop, not devolve into a legal treatise. Yet with this short passage I've shown the reader that Garcia is homophobic and hates Diago enough to use his position as Inspector to make trouble for him. The reader also gets a better sense of Miquel, who sees himself as Diago's protector, as well as his relationship with Guillermo. All because of one law.

In the new novel Where Oblivion Dwells, I have a couple of scenes where Diago has to take existing laws into consideration as he moves from one country to another. He realizes in one scene that he can't out himself to a younger man for fear of being stopped and convicted under the laws in Germany, where Guillermo's influence wouldn't be able to mitigate the court's decisions.

While I need a strong understanding of the laws and cultural attitudes of the time period, I don't necessarily need to bore my reader with them. Finding interesting ways in which to give my characters more depth is part of the fun of writing.

I hope you enjoyed the first episode of Fieldnotes. This one was a little longer than I intended to write, but I felt that was okay given this is the inaugural post. Stay tuned ... there will be more later; although most won't be quite this long.