By Alex London
1. You don’t have to like your characters to love them
The main characters in Proxy are flawed. It becomes clear on the first page that Knox is self-centered, arrogant, and fairly indifferent to the suffering of others, even when he’s the cause of that suffering. In Proxy, the rich are patrons—like Knox—and they pay to have the poor be their proxies, getting punished in their place when they screw up. Knox’s Proxy, Syd, gets punished in his place all the time. It doesn’t stop Knox from gleefully getting into trouble.
So Knox begins the story with some serious empathy problems. He doesn’t care that every time he messes up or acts selfish, Syd is tortured for it. He’s the center of his own universe.
Syd, while easier to like, has his issues too. He believes the worst about everyone, especially himself, and he lives a kind of self-imposed isolation in his own head. He tells himself it has something to do with his sexuality—Syd is gay—but it has a lot more to do with his trust issues—he trusts no one but himself, counts on no one but himself, and works hard to be free of entanglements with other people. He doesn’t want to owe anybody anything. Ever. He’s a caring guy, but he won’t let anyone care about him.
I really wanted to write flawed heroes this way. Teenagers are not perfect and teenagers are certainly not always likable. When I set out to write Proxy, I wanted my teens to be realistic in that way. I never want to see the word “plucky” to describe one of them. They can be jerks, they can be impulsive, they can be self-centered and selfless, capable of cruelty and of grace. The world of Proxy rewards their cruelty far more than their grace. It’s not so different from our own in that way, I suppose.
Of course, in Proxy, extreme events expose, exacerbate, and press against their flaws (and the assumptions underlying them) and Knox and Syd are compelled not only to grapple with the bad guys, but to grapple with themselves. They make the right decisions for the wrong reasons and the wrong decisions for the right reasons. These boys are as real as I could make them and as I explored all their flaws, attitudes, and inconsistencies, I began to see that I didn’t need to resolve them. I didn’t need to “fix” my main characters in order to love them.
I wanted them to be better people then they are, and throughout the story they try to be. As they try, they stumble. I came to see, in their stumbling, that the story lived in those attempts. The heroism I came to love in each of them as I wrote was not in their mastery of events, or special skills, or daring escapes, but in their trying to be their best selves, even when they didn’t stand a chance because I had stacked the deck against them. I suppose that’s the process of growing up in the real world too. We do our best with the flaws we’ve got.
2. Having a queer main character not be a big deal is still a big deal.
When I began writing this book, I wasn’t aware that Syd, Knox’s Proxy, was gay. He came out as I wrote and it just made sense to me. I didn’t really decide to make him gay, so much as allow him to be. His sexuality is not a big deal in the plot (of course, unlike in most action stories, in the end, he doesn’t “get the girl”).
My main concern with Syd was to keep the story compelling, the action fast, and the stakes high. I’m gay and I like action movies and I did think it was kind of cool to create a gay action hero, but it was more a reflection of a reality where gay people are just part of the fabric of life than any kind of statement about anything. In Proxy, Syd’s ability to blow up a platoon of attacking combat robots matters much more than his unrequited crush on another guy in his high school class. I did, however, base a lot of his relationship with his straight best friend on my own metal head best friend in high school. The characters makes jokes about Syd’s sexuality the way guys make jokes about everything, but it is never a driving force of Syd’s feelings about himself or about others. It’s just a part of his world.
It only became clear to me after I turned the book in, as early readers started commenting on Syd’s sexuality not being a big deal, that I—and my publishers—began to realize it still was. By positioning Proxy as a completely mainstream thriller with a gay protagonist without being a book “about” sexuality, we had assumed gay teens were completely mainstream and that pop culture was ready for a gay teen action hero. So far, I’m thrilled to say, that seems to be the case.
It’s a strange position to be in, as readers make a big deal out the fact that Syd’s sexuality is not a big deal, thus making it a big deal (and here I am, doing the same thing). I guess we are in a place where we still need to make a big deal about it not being a big deal so that in the very near future, it really isn’t a big deal, not even worthy of comment. We’re reaching a tipping point—with Malinda Lo’s Adaptation, Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight, Cassie Clare’s Mortal Instruments, Holly Black’s Tithe, and on and on, there are so many books with gay characters that aren’t “gay books.” They are just stories, all kinds of stories with all kinds of characters. I didn’t write Syd to make a statement, but if there is a statement being made with him, I’d like to think it’s this: no single facet of your identity, whether it’s race, religion, gender identity, economic status, sexuality or anything else, limits the kind of stories you can be a part of. Identity informs your experience, but it does not dictate it.
3. Economic diversity is hard.
As youth advocate Bryan Stevenson said, “the opposite of poverty is not wealth, the opposite of poverty is justice.” To me, that is what Proxy is about.
I write from a position of privilege, multiple overlapping kinds of privilege, in fact, which actually made writing Syd’s economic circumstances much more fraught than writing him as a queer character. For one, I am queer, but I am not, nor have I ever been, poor. I have very little debt and the debt I have comes from graduate school. I never had to borrow at usurious interest rates to pay a medical bill or to buy schoolbooks or groceries. I never had to swallow insults from an abusive boss at a minimum wage job because I needed that hourly pay to live, or commute for an hour each way to a job I hate because it’s the only one I could find. I could—and have—quit multiple jobs because I wasn’t happy at them.
Syd does not have that luxury. He puts up with a lot because of his economic circumstances that I never had to. He puts up with actual torture and forced labor. For millions of kids around the world, in the US and abroad, this isn’t dystopian fantasy; it’s a day-to-day lived reality. I wish I were just making it up.
Knox, my other protagonist, comes from a background much more like mine. Although Knox is a (very) heterosexual teenaged boy, he and I are far more similar than not. Like Knox, I went to an elite prep school. Like Knox, I grew up affluent and sheltered from most of the harsher realities of my city. I grew up in Baltimore in the 90s, when the city was having serious economic and social problems (unemployment, high rates of teen pregnancy, high murder rate, and everyone’s favorite, rampant syphilis). I had zero exposure to these things and little to no awareness of them. I, like Knox, worried about my own problems and my own fun and my own resentments, and rarely—if ever—interacted with the other side of the city where I lived. I did not think about privilege. Everyone I knew was in similar circumstances, or at least faked it well enough that I had no idea if they weren’t. I was closeted at my prep school, which fed my anger, but it really isn’t so different from Knox’s anger, which he doesn’t himself fully understand. It’s rage that denying yourself can ignite. I denied my sexuality. Knox denies his empathy, ignores the suffering of others. That takes a toll.
So writing in Proxy it was not the queer element that stretched my imaginative scope. It was the economic, a kind of difference that should be approached with no less caution than any other.
4. The future is freeing.
There is a freedom to writing outside my own perspective in a futuristic setting, in that I can engage with experiences like Syd’s without co-opting the very real lived experience of people today. While the dynamics of race and sexuality in the world of Proxy are slightly different from our own, the economic power dynamics are terribly similar. I could hit them on the nose because I wasn’t writing about my society in this moment, even though I was only writing about my society in this moment. I often ask myself if I could write a character like Syd in a contemporary YA novel, and I am not sure I could. I am not sure his story would be mine to tell. But projecting into a futuristic world allowed me to write a little more directly about the things that concerned me. Speculative fiction offers a distance that is liberating.
The thing I didn’t learn: how to write a thriller.
When I wrote Proxy, I didn’t have a plan. Or even much of an outline. I wrote to my obsessions; I wrote to understand the things that concerned me in the moment—debt, poverty, freedom, privilege, forgiveness, friendship. But most of all, I wrote Proxy because I wanted to tell an exciting story, a story that gripped the reader from the first page to the last, where robots explode and genetically modified armies attack, and where teenagers do some serious butt-kicking. I wrote Proxy because I wanted to find out from page to page what happened next. I hope the big ideas matter to people, and I hope that readers love Syd and Knox as much as I do, but more than any of that, I hope the book is exciting.
I didn’t know you couldn’t have a gay main character in a thriller, so Syd is gay. I didn’t know you couldn’t have meditations on debt and freedom in a thriller, so those are there too. I didn’t know there were any rules, so I didn’t follow any, and I think that is the best part of writing YA now: there are no rules. You can write the story you have to write with the characters you need to write, and if you work hard at it, have some talent, and a little bit of luck, it will find its audience. Editors are hungry for all kinds of stories with all kinds of characters. It’s my job—our job—to create them. Let other people decide the rules. YA is where we break them.
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