SEXtember: Captive Prince author C.S. Pacat talks importance of diverse LGBTQ representation in fiction
FAR from being just another epic fantasy series of warring kingdoms and political intrigue, the Captive Prince books has captured the hearts of fans worldwide for its intense representation of queer relationships. Natalie Ng caught up with series’ author C.S. Pacat to discuss her process in crafting LGBTQ fiction and the need for diverse representation of LGBTQ characters and stories.
Growing up, Melbourne-born author C.S. Pacat was frustrated by the lack of queer representation in the fiction genre. Despite reading plenty of it during her teens and early 20s, the sore under-representation of LGBTQ communities on commercial bookshelves eventually led her to write for an online audience where stories of LGBTQ people and issues in genre-based writing were more than welcomed.
From there, the University of Melbourne-educated writer spawned an online serial entirely through her LiveJournal account, before self-publishing through Amazon after her fans clamoured for a paperback version. The book became a hit on Amazon and she subsequently landed a deal with Penguin to publish the series.
A fantasy series, Captive Prince‘s story sees Damen, the rightful heir of the throne to the kingdom of Akielos, exiled to the rival kingdom of Vere after a political coup. He is given to the Crown Prince of Vere, Laurent, as a pleasure slave initially but their relationship slowly morphs from enemies to lovers.
Set against the backdrop of a treacherous political environment, the series has been praised by readers and critics alike for its thorough and considered writing towards queer men and of queer sex.
In the first part of our interview with Pacat, we discuss proper representation and writing of LGBTQ stories and characters, her influences, and the advice she has for young writers looking to create their own LGBTQ fiction.
Male/male fiction and other LGBTQ stories obviously exist, but they’re usually on the fringes and hardly part of mainstream literature. As an avid reader, I’m always looking for diversity in my reading and this was something I noticed and was frustrated by. Was that part of your experience reading fiction growing up? And did that “gap” motivate you to write Captive Prince?
Pacat: I definitely felt the same way. When I was growing up, my adolescence was in the ’90s, and if you were interested in genre fiction, books with any kind of queer representation were really thin on the ground. It was literally possible to finish all the books that had any kind of LGBT content. You could turn the last page and finish the book and think, “What’s next?” because you had finished everything. So like a lot of readers that age, I was really hungry just to see different representations and I was always looking for it.
I spent a lot of time in my late teens and early 20s reading fiction online because there was a really vibrant community there. The content there was very queer, it felt comfortable and very welcoming to me.
So when I started to write, I knew that was what I wanted to do but I also knew that there was very little like it on commercial bookshelves. So the reason I originated that book as an online serial was because I simply assumed “this cannot be a book”. Because I knew what a book was, and a book was nothing like what I was doing.
I guess that’s also why I feel that the online space is so important because it provides a tradition where books like mine could come out of.
What’s interesting too is that the books are marketed as being a “queer Game of Thrones” and I don’t necessarily agree with that.
Pacat: I think that somewhere embedded in our minds, we all know that Game of Thrones isn’t queer, and anything in opposition to Game of Thrones would be queer, since we know that content is very very straight. And while we know that there are pockets of the fantasy genre that are really diverse and really interesting, by and large, fantasy – for all that word implies – can be a really conservative genre at times.
Very often, most of the time what we see in fantasy is still that Tolkein-esque nostalgia of the past. And the past is very limiting for people of any kind of minority background because we are locked out of nostalgia. The past is a place where we have less representation and fewer rights and we are not as comfortable there as someone who is from a majority viewpoint.
Were there any LGBT books/movies/characters that influenced the writing of Captive Prince?
Pacat: Probably one of my biggest influences was a series called The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett. She’s a historical fiction writer and the books are a historical saga. It’s based around the main character Lymond, who is this fantastic antihero and he is canonically bisexual in the series, even though the series itself is very hetero-erotic. A heteromantic relationship defines him throughout the series. I think when I read that series, there was something about the way Dunnett approached his bisexuality that I found very comfortable and familiar.
Even though she was writing that series in the ’50s and ’60s, there was absolutely no fingerprints of the morality of that era. She just went about writing it in a very free, expressive way that clicked with me, and in some ways, influenced Captive Prince. I wanted to write a universe where there was a comfortable, homo-normative sexuality as well, where people felt that this was a comfortable space for sexual expression.
What are you enjoying in fiction or TV right now, and do they have any LGBTQ characters?
Pacat: I just read Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie and I really enjoyed it. I thought it was one of the best sci-fi novels I’d read in the past few years. It’s very well-written and a page turner, first of all. It’s also very genderqueer, and it engages with all sorts of concepts like identity and gender to colonialism and cultural differences. It has a really broad intellectual scope, so it’s fascinating as well as being a good story.
I also watch Penny Dreadful. I found it really interesting that they allowed the characters to have that kind of ambiguity in their sexuality and especially that they allowed one of the characters that they coded to be quite straight (Ethan Chandler, played by Josh Hartnett) to have a gay love scene with Dorian Gray. So I thought that was amazing for the show to do that. And to do it very freely as well.
Oh and The 100! The second season of that show has one of the most amazing female characters on TV, and I was so happy to see bisexual representation on a TV show. I’m the sort of person who will watch any TV show from beginning to end for one bisexual character so I was really happy that there was a bisexual character on an actually good show!
How did you go about in your world building with regards to sexuality, since that is one of the most unique aspects about the world of Captive Prince? Perhaps, in terms of how you drew from sexuality in Ancient Greek society?
Pacat: I think it was two things. First of all, I drew on Ancient Greece as a starting point for [Captive Prince‘s fictional world of] Akielos. I think we all know that Ancient Greece is one of the few societies that… had a different construct of sexuality than we do today.
So when we think about Ancient Greece, we instinctively grasp that while sexual attraction is innate, sexual identity is a construct, and it is constructed differently in different cultures and time periods. And we know that it was constructed very differently in Ancient Greece and that they had very different ideas of what sexual identity was then. So when we encounter a culture that is very much like Ancient Greece, in the case of Akielos, we already start to understand that we might be engaging in different constructs of sexuality in this book. So that is why I drew on that there.
Then, when it came to the [Captive Prince‘s fictional] Veretian society and setting it up, I wanted to set up a society that had a set of guidelines around sexual behaviour that was very different from our own, and was not based on any kind of religious morality. That was more a secular construction.
I felt that adding religious weight to sexual behaviour can create a kind of a culture of shame and sex-negativity that I was not interested in engaging with this book. I wanted it to feel a lot more comfortable than that, and very free from the kinds of baggage sexual expression faces in our own society. A lot of our sexual taboos come out of really old, antiquated readings of religious text, so I wanted to push that all to one side and create something that was completely new and felt very fresh, very different from the way sexuality has been constructed in our society now.
How did you go about writing the sex scenes for your book? What kind of research did you do or who did you talk to make those scenes as accurate as possible?
Pacat: They are the worst! I find them so hard to write, they are so difficult! They usually take me the longest out of any scene. A lot of times I think sex is where we express our most intimate selves. So narratively, sex is like a climax. But it’s also the point of the story where all the personal issues that the characters carry with them are the most heightened, and are technically the most difficult for me, the writer to carry off. So there are a lot of things I’m trying to juggle with when writing the sex scenes. I wouldn’t necessarily say I did research. It wasn’t like, as though, I went on “an erotic journey” of exploration in order to write the sex scenes. [laughs]
I felt like it was more important that the sex scenes felt emotionally true, that it was true to the characters and more human than anything else. I had also talked to a lot of people and even watched and read pornography, but when it came to writing the sex scenes, I had to put all of that to one side, because a lot of times “what had been done before” was not useful to me in writing these characters. It was a red herring and it would lead me down the wrong path.
In the general scope of fiction, sex scenes usually only feature prominently in the romance genre and their purpose is supposed to be telling of the characters and where they are at with the relationship. If they feature in genre fiction like fantasy, sci-fi or crime, it’s usually used for shock value, or glossed over completely. The Captive Prince books are fantasy, so it was very rewarding to see the sex scenes here receive the same attention they would in a romantic fiction.
Pacat: That’s very interesting that you should say that. I know that my book is very cross-genre in a lot of ways and I know that it is getting published in a different genre in every country but I never thought about it being cross-genre in that way.
I suppose that you’re right. On the one hand, I don’t understand, because the sex is the good stuff, so why would you not want to include that? Like I said, it is the point where the character has exposed themselves the most so it’s really interesting even outside of an erotic context, [to observe it from] a character’s standpoint.
On the other hand, I kind of understand, because they’re difficult to do and those scenes have so much power in themselves, that they can derail from a larger narrative unless you’re really careful.
What challenges did you face in writing a male/male romance in terms of the stereotypes that come with romance writing and gender constructs?
Pacat: I think the biggest challenge but also the greatest strength of the [male/male] genre is that it is comparatively new. It is not completely new, obviously, and there have been throughout history, male/male romances. But as a genre with its own conventions and its own rules, it is comparatively new.
And I think that on the one hand, that’s very liberating because it means you can construct the new when you write. You’re not bound by expectation and tradition in the same way that you are when writing male/female romances. You’re a little bit more free when it comes to gender constructs. Although, unfortunately, no one is ever free from gender constructs, you’re always engaging with it in some way.
Also, you’re slightly freer in terms of reader expectations. How the story goes, how the erotic scenes are going to play out – there is much more of a blank canvas. What makes that more difficult though, in writing, is that the absolute most difficult thing to do is to imagine something new. When nothing has come before, the sheer aspect of imagination to push yourself into a new space is so much greater than simply reconfiguring a set of archetypes or tropes that have been played with before and then adding your own new flair on top of those.
I think we are at a really exciting time where we are just starting to understand that when it comes to queer fiction and when we have an LGBTQ character, they don’t necessarily have to have the “gay narrative”. That is not what defines them as a character anymore. We are starting to see that the character can have a hero’s journey narrative, or a romance narrative, or they can have a mystery detective narrative.
They can just be a character in a book, and their sexuality can just be one aspect of a larger story.
Do you have any advice to give to young writers ? And especially writers who are writing LGBTQ characters?
Pacat: I would say I have two main pieces of advice. The first, in terms of writing the characters respectfully, produce as much dialogue as you can have with members of the group that you’re writing about if you’re not a member of a group yourself. Just be really open to dialogue, be really open to critical dialogue, and then be open to the fact that no matter how much dialogue you might have you might still get it wrong and you have to be fine about it and be open to critique.
You have to be conscious about the fact that when you write stories about a group of people who have not had so much of a chance to tell their own stories, you have to be especially respectful of what it is you are doing. Otherwise your writing becomes a kind of literary colonialism. If you’re a member of the group yourself, then go for it. We need as much diversity in our characters and stories as much as we can get.
The other thing I would say is that try not to limit yourselves in terms of what you want to write about [even if it] already exists. I think it’s really easy to look at the commercially published landscape and think, “Well this is what a book is, so if I want to publish a book I have to write a book that is like this.”
And in that case you’re just going to be emulating what’s come before, and what’s come before is really boring in terms of representation. So I would say, write a story that you would want to read and think, “This is what I’m going to do”, regardless of whether it is like anything that’s been published before. And that’s when you’re going to create something really exciting. I think we are lucky to live in a time where mediums like the internet are allowing those new types of stories to gain traction and hopefully start new traditions and creative spaces that really interesting works will be fertile.
If you enjoyed what author C.S. Pacat had to say about the importance of crafting proper and diverse LGBTQ representation in fiction, stay tuned for the second part of our interview with the author.