World of Ruin: LGBTQIA+?

If you read my work, you probably know representation is a pretty major part of my aesthetic. I write characters from a rainbow of cultures and identities.

One question I’ve seen periodically is about what makes a book an “LGBT book,” and, more specifically to me, “do you write LGBT books?”

And the answer is, well, kinda?

What does it all mean?

I mean, cis-hetero apex-privilege me isn’t going to claim that sort of label. I don’t write about “what it’s really like” to be gay or trans, and I wouldn’t, because that’s not my story to tell. Nor do I think that’s the only story that can or should be told about LGBTQ+ characters, and thus I make it a point to include LOTS of characters of various identities and orientations. They have what I have occasionally described as queer* content–that is, people of non-straight orientations and non-cis genders having feelings, engaging in romances, expressing themselves sexually, and generally doing everything my straight cis-characters do, including, y’know, existing.

(*Note: Some people don’t like the term “queer,” typically due to a long history of negative association. When I grew up, that word was hurled like an expletive and otherwise used as part of abuse. By contrast, I have always used it and am using it here in the best possible way, to describe the overall LGBTQIA+ community and applicable themes. I absolutely do not mean it in any insulting way.)

Does that make my books “LGBT books”? Maybe?

Let’s see. Throughout the course of my World of Ruin books, what have we dealt with in terms of LGBT representation?

Regel: Only wearing a shirt because it’s cold.

The Gender Spectrum

First, before we even get into the characters, there’s something we should talk about in terms of gender representation.

Gender is a spectrum, both in our world and in the World of Ruin.

In most of the World of Ruin, especially in the city of Tar Vangr, children are not “assigned” a gender–as children, they are simply referred to as “Child” and “they/them” as a singular pronoun. It is customary for children to choose their own gender representation, which may or may not have any relationship to how their bodies look. Most choose “man” or “woman” and some choose “neither,” at which point they are commonly referred to by “they/them” as a gender neutral pronoun. The term “nonbinary” doesn’t exist in the World of Ruin, at least not so far, but the concept of nonbinary people is baked into the culture.

Also: intersex people (which is to say, in simplified terms, people with ambiguous or various genitalia and/or other physical features that do not clearly correspond to any particular sex/gender) are more common in the World of Ruin than our own world, which is part of why this has evolved as the cultural expectation.

This sort of fluid attitude is not always the case in the southern city of Luether, especially among the Blood Ravalis, who are intentionally set up as a patriarchal “hardened gender roles” sort of folk. This is thematically important, as the Ravalis show us what happens when you cling too tightly to patriarchy, and it blows up in your face. They are, by and large, the *bad guys* or–since it’s a gray, gritty world–it should be understood that obsessive masculine posturing (or toxic masculinity, if you will) is a bad thing.

I mean, even the ostensibly crazed Children of Ruin (the raving barbarians of my setting)  don’t ascribe to a gender binary or gender roles, outside of their matriarchal religion: specifically, the Circle of Druids, who have only female members (whether cis or not, it doesn’t matter). And even that institution is crumbling. (No further spoilers for Mask of the Blood Queen.) Many barbarians can’t be neatly labeled male or female, and don’t think of themselves that way. And no one among their ranks has a problem with that–it’s just how it goes.

And the Deathless Fae, featuring mostly in book 3… well, they aren’t even really human. Some consider themselves “men,” some “women,” some only “fae.” A good number of them do not associate with the gender they performed during their mortal lives, particularly the Deathless Rose and a couple others I won’t name, so as not to spoil it.

So that right there is an example of the queer content baked right into the worldbuilding. But what about the characters?

Ovelia: Mostly into ladies. And swords.

So Many Queer Characters

Of the four core characters–Regel, Ovelia, Mask, and Davargorn–only Regel is “mostly” straight (bi/pansexual* but mostly into women). We only ever really see him in romances with women in the books, though a couple of people he has romantic moments with are of somewhat more ambiguous gender. (That gets into the Deathless, who are essentially all trans by definition, but I wouldn’t want to give too many spoilers for book 3.)

(*Note: I am using these terms to be roughly equivalent. There are people out there who prefer the term “bisexual,” and there are people who prefer the term “pansexual,” and there are people out there who absolutely LOVE one term and absolutely LOATHE the other. I am not taking sides on the issue. If the community comes to a consensus on terms to use, fine, I’ll happily adjust my usage, but until then, I will honor those people I know who embrace the term “bisexual” and those who embrace the term “pansexual” and I will not erase anyone.)

Ovelia is definitely into both men and women, but seems to form much stronger relationships with women. She had a couple things with men in books 1 and 2 (a couple of those relationships, um, kinda messed up), then she goes through a torrid relationship with a woman in book 2 and then ends up in a strong committed romance with a woman in books 3 and 4. By that time, her attraction for men is mostly on a low simmer, and she doesn’t have another thing with a dude for the rest of the series.

Mask… Mask is asexual, though not necessarily aromantic. I made it a point to write out any potential sexual relationships. The sorcerer just isn’t interested, though that doesn’t mean they won’t exploit others’ desires (see the sad case of Tithian Davargorn).

Tithian is only shown in relationships with women thus far, but he talks about occasionally having sex with other men. (Though without a romantic element. Maybe the term for him would be bisexual/heteroromantic.)

So that’s 3 out of 4 main characters who are explicitly LGBTQIA+ (we’ll give Regel the benefit of the doubt), but what about other supporting characters?

Garin Ravalis, well, he’s gay and very conflicted about his homophobic’s family’s expectations of him. He can occasionally switch hit and have sex with a woman, but only with a LOT of effort and in a pretty singular situation. (A little bit the way gay men in a heteronormative culture like our own might have sex with women to “prove” their masculinity or ape straightness. And obviously it’s awful that anyone should feel pressured to do this.)

Lady Shard, who shows up in book 2, has a cameo in book 3, and then is an important supporting character in book 4, is essentially a committed lesbian, despite some relationships with men in the past.

Paeter Ravalis, who only appears in flashbacks, was definitely pansexual, though he put out the impression of being straight. Also a raging misogynist, which did not work out well for him.

Lan Ravalis… I think arguments could be made about Lan, who has a certain amount of not entirely healthy fixation with his older brother’s life and sexual exploits. He exploits women whenever possible and holds not a shred of respect for them, but maybe he’s trying too hard? Anyway.

And then there’s Dar-Karsk, the barbarian rotpriest who appears in book 3 and has a major role throughout that book and book 4, who is *absolutely* bi/pan. In many ways, he’s the opposite of Mask, using his voracious sexual appetites to his advantage.

So, what’s that? 80%-90% non-straight characters?

Jeez, maybe these *are* LGBT books…

Mask: Be as kinky as you want to be.

In conclusion

And yeah, maybe it’s a function of what fantasy is to me. I cut my teeth on the Forgotten Realms, where sexuality and gender are significantly more fluid and malleable. I often describe sexuality in the Realms to my players this way: Pansexuality is as common in the Realms as heterosexuality is here. It is kind of a basic assumption that everyone is bi/pan, and it’s rare to find someone who is committed to only one or a limited range of gender expressions. Rare, but not stigmatized.

Why is this the case? Well, in a fantasy world like the Realms, with so many different sorts of folk (elves, dwarves, dragons, etc) and magic to modify one’s body with very little effort, it would just be profoundly limiting to restrict one’s sexual tastes to one particular thing or one’s conception of gender to some sort of binary.

Fantasy worlds are a mirror to our own, and worlds like the Realms–and like the World of Ruin–tell us something about how we view gender and sexuality, and they give us space to ask some questions and ponder some more expansive views.

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The High Priestess: Janna Blair

This post contains spoilers for my Persona-H campaign, so if you’re one of my players, LOOK AWAY, BOY!!!!

Anyway. Now that THAT’s out of the way…

The High Priestess

Shy, smart, and intensely loyal to her companions, Janna Blair is a classic Priestess character for the Persona series. Cishetero, she/her, brown haired and green eyed, she’s a high school freshman (14-15), putting her one year behind most of the team, but she’s more academically gifted than almost any of them. They first encounter her in Geometry, the math class most students take the year after Algebra (which most students take as freshmen), and she’s clearly bored in that class. To explain her academic ability, she studies Trigonometry over the summer and skips straight to Calculus as a sophomore. Janna is also a gifted gymnast and athlete, though her extreme introversion keeps her from bragging about her talents.

Janna 5

Janna Blair, artist unknown (?)

As impressive as she is, Janna has grown up in the shadow of her older brother, Brent, who is not only academically gifted (though his talents are more modest than hers), but he has something she lacks: popularity. Janna has long since given up on being as cool or as loved as her brother, and it seems like nothing she does can ever live up to him or their parents’ perceived expectations.

Janna isn’t great with people, especially boys, whom she finds annoyingly attractive but impossible to understand or attract. She doesn’t expect anyone to notice her, ever. Through a series of coincidences, she claims a near total stranger (Wayne Iori, one of the player characters) as her boyfriend in order to stave off the unwelcome advances of some upperclassmen hitting on her, and when that actually works, she is astonished. Her dubious brother insists the two accompany him and his girlfriend Claire on a date, which ends up being the whole group going to a hockey game. Wayne goes through with the deception, and Janna is surprised when she actually has a decent time and wants to see Wayne again. It is this event that unlocks her metaverse, Seattle Underground.

Awakening and Persona

Forced out of her shell a bit, Janna subconsciously welcomes the Heroes to her own world, where she is an underdog archeologist and scholar trying (and failing) to recover buried secrets that will make her world famous. Her rival in this reality is the Shadow version of her brother Brent, an albino reflection of the man who seeks the secrets of the underground world for his own greed and advancement. He always seems to be a step ahead of her, and is constantly injuring her, sometimes apparently mortally.

When Janna accepts her desire to revel in the action—when she comes to understand that she craves the rush as much as the knowledge gained from her adventures—Janna is able to take a (literal) leap of faith and finally awaken her Persona, Lara Croft, Tomb Raider. Self-determined, powerful, and confident in her ability to rise to any occasion. But also prioritizing wisdom and knowledge as a means of understanding her enemies, rather than simply opposing them.

Shadow Tomb Raider

Promotional art for Shadow of the Tomb Raider, copyright Crystal Dynamics

Janna is unique amongst the Heroes of the campaign in that she doesn’t use a gun. Instead, her weapons are, in keeping with her Persona, a climbing axe that can also be turned into a bow. (The bow deals “gun” damage, the way every other character has a melee attack that deals Physical damage and a ranged attack that deals Gun damage.)

Shadow and Fear

Janna’s fear to be overcome over the course of the game is the fear of being overshadowed and not being good enough. She has had to grow up in the shadow of her older, brilliant, charismatic brother Brent, who she sees subconsciously as oppressing her (hence her Awakening, see above). On her own, she has to come to see her value to her friends and her value as a person even if she isn’t perfect.

When Janna’s shadow takes charge of her physical self, she becomes dismissive, cruel, and, well, basically a mean-girl. She dresses provocatively, shows up fashionably late to her classes, and replies to overtures with insults, rather than her usual shyness. Rather infamously, she once dismissed Uki’s concern about her with “later slut!” and then just walked away. Her shadow self believes disdain and dislike is still better than indifference—no press is bad press—and by the time the heroes awaken her back to her true self, her reputation at the school is in tatters. Fortunately, this event transpires shortly before summer break, giving her a chance to reinvent herself in the fall.

Social Link

Janna is first and foremost an academic and a clear thinker, so her primary role in the group tends to be studying support and tutoring. Once unlocked, she is one of the most efficient routes to studying (including her in a study session boosts the Knowledge points gained), and time spent with her on a social link scene tends to net a character some Knowledge points. Her overall story arc as a social link involves trying to graduate from high school at the end of her sophomore year, failing to get early admission into the schools she wants to go to, and realizing the value in taking her time to nurture friendships and grow up before she pushes herself forward. Depending on player actions, she either stays to finish out high school or goes to study overseas in Japan to broaden her horizons.

Easter Eggs

The name “Janna Blair,” her initials being “J. B.” or “B. J.” is not accidental. For those familiar with the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck (and other variants, including the deck used in both Persona 3 and Persona 4), you’ll note that the High Priestess (or Papess) card contains the letters B and J for Boaz and Jachin, the black and white pillars of the entrance to Solomon’s temple in ancient Israel. In Persona 5, the letters don’t actually appear on the oddly stylized card, but that games Priestess character (Makoto Nijima) wears the letters B.J. literally embroidered on her collar, so that whenever they cut to her speaking, you can see them in her character portrait.

The High Priestess

A visual aid (Persona decks copyright Atlus)

The Magician: Jimmy Calendar

Jimmy Calendar is a PC in my Persona tabletop game, played by my friend Jose. If any of my players are reading this, possibly some light spoilers ahead, but I’m going to try to keep this surface-level enough that you can read it all right.

This is the first of my character write-ups for my Persona-H campaign, based on the popular and fascinating Shin Megami Tensei: Persona series. I’ll probably be jumping around with these, since the PCs have yet to meet every NPC of every Arcana in the game, and the PCs themselves–Jimmy, Wayne, Zach, and Uki–are of the I. Magician, VII. Chariot, XI. Strength, and XV. Devil Arcana respectively. We’re going to start with the lowest card first, and go from there.

I’ll be posting a page to provide links to all the write-ups as well. 🙂

Jimmy Calendar

The Magician: Jimmy Calendar Artist unknown (?)

The Magician

A high school sophomore (15 going on 16), cis heterosexual (mostly), he/him, dark-haired, warm complexion, maybe Mediterranean in origin, Jimmy Calendar is your classic Magician Arcana character.

He’s not very academically inclined (read: he doesn’t study and is widely considered the class dunce), enthusiastic, eternally optimistic, and constantly joking, even if no one’s laughing. He has an eye for the ladies, though they typically ignore him or groan when he’s around, and he’s constantly bragging about his romantic skills though he’s never had a girlfriend or been on an actual date.

Seriously, it’s bad. Whenever a new female NPC shows up, he falls head over heels in love with her on sight. It is rare that Jimmy can turn down a suggestion or request from a female character, which Uki has used frequently to her advantage to put him in embarrassing situations. (She has the pics to prove it.)

Jimmy possesses that most Magician of qualities—self-confidence—and he has it in spades. Despite clear indications that he’s in over his head or that he’s messing something up, he still perseveres in his goals because “well, it’ll all work out.” Generally, he seems like a jokester bro type, but there’s interesting depth to his character. He demonstrates strong loyalty to his friends, and he’s always there to cheer everyone up with a joke or a smile. He keeps a cool head under pressure and has proven to be quite resourceful.

He’s adopted, being raised by two somewhat eccentric Japanese émigrés who’ve settled in Seattle for work in the Aerospace industry. His dad, Tatsuya Suou, is an engineer who loves tinkering with motorcycles, while his mother, Maya, teaches Jazzercise, Zumba, and other such exercise classes. Jimmy retains very little of his life before being adopted as an infant: only his name. He’s never met his biological parents.

Awakening and Persona

Despite his immaturity and occasionally cringe-inducing antics, Jimmy possesses a strong urge to help people and protect those in danger. His Persona, Batman, first manifested in the metaverse of Darkest Seattle (a 1950s era gothic reimagining of Seattle, which resembled Gotham City more than anything else), wherein his newfound teammates were about to be gunned down by his arch-nemesis, Timothy Brothers as the Jester (a combination of the Joker, Kefka from FFVI, and Pennywise the Clown from It).

Why Batman? Because Batman is a figure of wit and resourcefulness, who is capable of going it alone but is always at his best when working with others. He represents complete and utter confidence in himself and his abilities, as well as the drive to get done what needs to get done by any means necessary. Also because he’s just so dang KEWL for a nerd like Jimmy.

batman_davidfinch.0

Batman, art by David Finch

In Persona-H, everyone has a weapon that is also a gun. In combat, Jimmy uses kinetic gloves that are also shotguns. (Picture Yang’s weapon from RWBY.)

Shadow and Fear

In Persona-Heroic, the main challenge the characters must overcome is fear, which is slowly leaking into the world, threatening the downfall of civilization and an apocalyptic event. (Because this is Shin Megami Tensei, after all, and that’s how these things go.)

Jimmy’s fear is the fear of being alone. Of being ignored. Of being on the outside looking in. Of being forgotten. Though he’d prefer to be liked, he doesn’t mind people disliking him, so long as they have some opinion of him. Though he frequently claims to be “just fine” on his own, he’s also driven by an overwhelming urge to form connections with people. To have friends. Because ultimately he can’t go it entirely alone, and needs to be able to rely on others just as he needs to be relied upon.

Social Link

Every character in my games has a social link of their own, to reflect their particular Arcana. It associates with another character of the same Arcana who is involved in their lives in some way, and progressing the social link often involves acting in accordance with their Arcana.

In Jimmy’s case, the Magician social link relates to a girl at his school named Mei, a shy transfer student who exudes that kind of guileless charm and appeal that is basically exactly his type. He fell pretty hard for her at first glance, and developing a relationship with her and providing a stable, confident, reliable support shoulder for her to lean on. It turns out that Mei is an orphan and has a very dark secret, and dealing with that secret will require Jimmy to grow up and exercise his full wit and character.

Easter Eggs

Persona is BIG on self-referential inclusions, and you get plenty of crossover and references to other games in the series. This is also the case in my game, which assumes that all the main numbered Persona games (1-5) have occurred in the universe of the game, at least in some form.

Those of you familiar with the Persona series may have noted the names of Jimmy’s adoptive parents, Tatsuya Suou and Maya. Tatsuya is the lead character of Persona 2: Innocent Sin, wherein Maya is an important supporting character and potential love interest. Then the dynamic is flipped in Persona 2: Eternal Punishment, Maya is the main character and Tatsuya a key supporting character. Persona 2 took place nearly twenty years ago by the time of my game, so these characters are in their late 30s/early 40s. Jimmy is not their biological son, obviously, but they play an important role in the story.