[TW for mention of suicide]
Following the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot, I wrote 700,000 words in one year. I was consumed by such love for the Lara Croft/Sam Nishimura ship, I lived in a perpetual writing coma. If I wasn’t writing, I was thinking about writing, or talking about writing, or gushing about how much I loved these two women and what I was going to write about them. I loved their dynamic, their story and everything about them. Even though they weren’t an ‘official’ couple, there was no doubt in my mind that they loved each other.
I’d lie awake in bed at night and imagine the type of adventures they’d have; I’d imagine silly things I could write about while I was driving to work during the day. They were my life, my soul, and I can hardly remember anything about that year that had nothing to do with them.
In the second half of 2013, riding high on the success of a popular 130,000 word slow-burn epic I’d written, I was planning my sequel, another monster story that ended up being 234,000 words long. I’d spent a month plotting what I thought was going to be a great story. I’d consulted folks from the culture I was writing about, I’d done all my archaeological research. As for the narrative, I’d been writing a sort of remix of a bunch of the older game stories into the new reboot, and I’d plotted what I thought was going to be an amazing homage to the original Tomb Raider.
My concept? I was going to transform new Lara Croft—the Lara who felt, and cried, and loved—into the old Lara Croft: someone stoic and unfeeling, someone who distanced herself from everyone around her and killed without remorse.
I was going to do it by killing her best friend and soulmate, Sam Nishimura.
No one would expect it, I reasoned. It would be a really interesting twist to the universe I’d written so far, which was light-hearted and heart-warming. I decided it brought a sort of maturity and reality-check to what had so far been a pretty ‘Disney’ universe, and I was excited to break all my readers’ hearts. ‘They love angst,’ I told myself as I planned the finer details of my story. ‘They’ll love it!’
Now, I’m very lucky in that I happen to have a number of real life friends who work in the writing industry, and a couple of them were working as professional fiction editors at that time. One of them was a structural story editor, and I happened to be over at her house one night and (predictably) gushing about how much I loved my ship.
She sounded interested. “Tell me your story idea,” she said, sipping her beer. “Let me give you some feedback on it.”
Well, she didn’t need to ask me twice! I launched into all the glorious detail of my story as she listened, nodding, until I finally got to the horrible plot twist: Sam didn’t live. She died. Right in front of Lara, while Lara—who had been convinced up until that moment that she could save her—watched, unable to help. It would be such a shock to the readers!
At that moment, she frowned. I stopped. That wasn’t the reaction I’d expected. “What’s wrong?”
She made a face. “Can I ask you some questions?” I nodded, and she did: “Who are your readers?” That was easy: queer 16-30 year olds, mostly. “Why do they like this ship?” Well, because it’s about two women who are so different but so perfect for each other. “And why do they like your stories?” she asked me. “You said your writing is popular, why is that?”
I didn’t need to actually answer that. I knew what she was getting at. People liked my stories because they loved to read about these two women. They loved to read about their relationship, how they navigated their difficulties. They loved all the things that I did about Lara Croft and Sam Nishimura.
“I doubt many people are coming to read your stories because they want to read 200,000 words of struggle and pain only to have their favourite character die,” she said. “I think it’s important for you to be aware of that.”
That floored me. I didn’t really know what to make of it; I thanked her and changed the subject. Honestly, I’d expected her to tell me that my plot idea was great and maybe give me a few tweaks around the edges; I’d never expected her to tell me that the whole point of the story was a bad idea. It knocked the wind out of me.
I couldn’t sleep that night, either. I couldn’t stop thinking about what she’d said: that people didn’t come to my stories to have their hearts broken. They came for the things: the fluff, the banter, the slow-burn. They’d come to read a hundred different ways Lara and Sam could have hooked up—and, the more I thought about it, the more I knew that those were the things I imagined when I was driving, or waiting in queue somewhere, or drifting off to sleep. Those were the things that made me happy.
The edgy, dark idea I’d had about destroying Lara, destroying her trust in the world and in her ability to maintain friendships suddenly didn’t seem like such a genius idea. Building all that darkness into stories that had previously been full of hope and light seemed like a horrible betrayal of my readers. I started writing it anyway, though, while I tried to figure out what I was going to do. Maybe if I just foreshadowed it enough, it wouldn’t be such a shock…?
Consequently, while I was in the middle of writing it, one of my friends—Julia, a lesbian—committed suicide. Her parents had turned her out of home when she was 17, and at 27, she’d had enough and taken her own life. It was horrible because even though I hadn’t spoken to her in a couple of years I still cared about her and wished her well, and the thought of that bright spark being snuffed out was heart-breaking. Her funeral was full of young queers my age—all bawling our eyes out. All unable to believe what had happened. Her family didn’t come.
Another friend who I hadn’t seen for a couple of years hugged me afterwards. Her eyes were red; she’d been crying for some time. “Tell me what you’ve been up to,” she said. “But only tell me happy things. I’ve had enough shit this year.”
It was when I was back at home that evening and I’d sat down to write more of my story that I realised I couldn’t. I couldn’t get that room full of sobbing young queer people out of my head, or what my friend had said: “Only tell me happy things.”
I didn’t want to write angst. I didn’t want to write pain, and suffering, and heartache. I wanted to write about my beautiful, loving ship: two women, soulmates, living happily ever after. Riding off into the sunset together, arm in arm, deliriously happy together. Riding off somewhere far, far away from the deep, soul-wrenching pain I was feeling at that moment. I wanted to bury myself in their love and forget about the world that had caused Julia to take her life.
On that day, mid-way through my story, I decided to change the plot. I wasn’t going to give my characters the ending that Julia had. Sam was going to pull through, and Lara and Sam were going to live happily ever after.
I didn’t realise how important that decision was until I started to notice all the sad endings that were filling up ships around me: Lexa, the lesbian character from from The 100 dying in the most horrible, unceremonious way. Poussey from Orange is the New Black dying in the most horrible, unceremonious away. All around me lesbians were dropping like flies in media and I was seeing so few happy endings for lesbians. Honestly, it was no wonder fangirls were burying themselves in fanfic, trying to ignore canon and pretend they lived in a world where Lexa didn’t die and where her and Clarke could live happily ever after.
I remember receiving an anonymous ask from someone saying, “Tell me Asy, does it get better? Can lesbians be happy?”
Those messages don’t leave me easily, because I was so close to adding another story to the pile: another dead lesbian. Another ruined life. Another reader of mine—they’re mostly all young queers—who would have been crying alone in her room because she’d cared about my character, she’d related to my character, and I lulled her into a false sense of security before ultimately betraying her trust and giving her a cruel reminder of the outside world.
Many of my readers could have been like Julia: lesbians rejected by their family, struggling with depression. Looking for the light, the hope, that things get better and that there’s a place for us.
People turn from canon towards fanfic to escape the narrative of canon where lesbians die. People turn away from life towards fanfic and stories.
And it really struck me how much responsibility I have as a writer to give them hope. To reassure my readers, my young queer readers, that happy endings are real. That people can have them, even though the world outside fandom can often be pitted against us.
People don’t come to my stories to admire my clean narrative, or even because they care at all about the quality of my writing. They come to escape. They come to bury themselves in a world where two women can be in love and have a happy ending. They come to read about women in love who triumph over adversity, no matter the scale of the problems they face.
And it is my responsibility as a writer to give them that: hope. It is my responsibility to build them up, to inspire them, to fill their hearts and their lungs so that when they leave my stories they walk away feeling better about themselves and the world.
I came very, very close to adding another dead lesbian to the pile: never again.
Because of this, I will never write a story where the queer characters get a sad ending. I will never write a story that doesn’t inspire and comfort the people who read it. We suffer enough, us queers, and I consider it my duty as a writer to help you forget that.