Representation & empathy in a YA queer fairy tale

A guest blog post by Audrey T. Carroll

Image provided by Audrey T. Carroll

My WIP novel is a YA queer fairy tale. At the heart of all of it is two girls falling in love; around them, a school that works by dark fairy tale logic. I’ve discovered, the deeper I get into this first draft, how much of it rotates on an axis of self-acceptance, shame, and the temptation to wish away a part of yourself.

So I want to focus on the two main characters of this whole romance…

First, we have Celeste who, among other things, realizes that she is bisexual over the course of the novel, thanks to the fact that she falls for the new girl in school. Simone has known for quite some time that she is a lesbian, and she has relatively recently been diagnosed with fibromyalgia.

When I came up with the idea for this story, before this story was even a fantasy, I made a very conscious choice about these girls’ identities. One of the first decisions I made about the novel at all was that Celeste would be bisexual. As a writer and as a reader (and as an avid viewer of television), I get frustrated by the lack of fair representation that bi women get. (Bi men have a whole set of problematic representation/lack thereof of their own, of course.) They may be confused, “gay now,” or villainous, or, more often than not, they’re just not represented at all. I’ve written before about opportunities for bisexuality that go untapped, and some of my frustrations with that, so I won’t go super into detail with that here. Suffice it to say that I wanted Celeste to have some part of me, so she inherited my bisexuality, my glasses, and my sweet tooth.

Simone has fibromyalgia. This realization came significantly later, but I realized that I had an opportunity here. I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in March 2016, and had been showing symptoms since at least October 2015. Granted, I walk with a cane and Simone does not, as one separation in the manifestations of our disability, but fibro comes in all kinds of shapes and sizes. I saw a real opportunity here to represent someone with fibro–a condition that many don’t know about and way too many don’t believe exists, despite the fact that it’s estimated more than 5 million adult Americans have the condition–and that’s without getting into worldwide stats. And this girl who had fibro could be a love interest and a hero and function as more than her disability or what people have termed “disability porn.” The fibromyalgia was one of my first windows into Simone’s life and mindset, and she only developed further from there, inheriting from me a need for answers and an independent determination to fix problems on her own to a point of it becoming overwhelming.

That said, neither one of these girls is a perfect representation of me, either me now at 26 or me at 16. For Simone’s identity as a lesbian, for instance, it requires more intuiting of her feelings and mindset than it does for her fibromyalgia. Celeste might be bisexual, but she’s also of Peruvian descent, which is not my experience. Representation of different kinds of people is important to me. It’s something that I want to make sure I get right. I think the first step toward that is the simplest: Remember to imagine other humans as complex humans with full lives and intersectional identities.

Trying to depict your character as entirely driven by, say, their relationship with one person is lazy writing. For the marginalized, complex and informed and empathetic representation is vital. There are lots of possibilities for how you can approach your characters in such a way that they function as people first, people who happen to have, and to varying degrees are affected by, different aspects of themselves. For instance, you could find one or two qualities that you share with each of your characters and use those as guiding anchors toward crafting other parts of their personalities. Another strategy is that you could use life experience to draw on, which depends on you truly listening to and trying to understand other people in a meaningful way. However you attempt this, I think the way to get at truth is with compassionate rendering of people both like and unlike you–not an obligation to make all characters likable or perfect, but to go beyond the obvious stereotype, and then the less obvious stereotype, beyond simply defining a character by one aspect of their life or another, and make your best effort to craft characters who are well-rounded and dynamic and as alive as words make possible.


Audrey T. Carroll is a Queens, NYC native currently pursuing her English PhD at the University of Rhode Island. Her obsessions include kittens, coffee, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Fiction International, The Fem, Feminine Inquiry, and others. Queen of Pentacles, her debut poetry collection, is available from Choose the Sword Press. She can be found at and @AudreyTCarroll on Twitter.