As any fiction writer will tell you, crafting queer characters in 2023 can be a bit of a minefield.
Play it safe and vague, and you might veer dangerously close to ‘queerbaiting’ territory. In 2019, we saw a pre-TERF-era J.K. Rowling face criticism after she seemingly retrofitted homosexuality onto Dumbledore, a character already beloved by so many Harry Potter fans. Dumbledore never actually expressed his sexuality leading to criticism of the author. “It’s not enough for J.K. Rowling to say her characters are queer,” wrote The Washington Post. “Show it to us.”
On the other hand, veer too far the other way and you’ve landed firmly in the ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope, with many films and TV shows criticised for creating queer characters who seem to exist only to express their sexuality, often through stereotypical flamboyancy or promiscuity, only to eventually meet some tragic, grim end usually linked directly to their sexuality.
“I think to see a character like myself in those situations is a really cool thing”
LGBTQ+ fans of the fantasy genre should welcome then the arrival of Wylan, a new character with a queer love story in the second season of hit Netflix fantasy drama Shadow and Bone. Played by an English ingenue by the name of Jack Wolfe, Wylan plays a crucial role in the plot of the show’s sophomore season as a love interest to fan favourite Jesper (Kit Young). As the show is based on the hugely popular book series Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, it comes with an already established and enthusiastic fanbase. The pressure of bringing to life a beloved queer character who is already so beloved to fans around the world is not lost on the actor.
“Growing up, I didn’t see that many characters like myself who were in big fantasy series, with violence or [who] even had access to fantasy weapons or got involved in big fights and battles,” Wolfe explained to Attitude. “I think to see a character like myself in those situations is a really cool thing, it’s something that I actually don’t see often.”
“His baggage isn’t his queerness”
Paramount to what makes Wylan a particularly rare role to find, especially in the fantasy genre, is the fact that his queerness is often secondary to the predicaments he finds himself in over the course of the series. “He gets to have a lot of baggage and a lot of history. He gets to fall in love, he gets to be in dangerous situations on the precipice of so many huge, high stakes but he’s never once punished for the love he finds along the way,” Wolfe continued. “His baggage isn’t his queerness.”
Part of what makes the magical world of Shadow and Bone so enticing to its fans is the fact that its characters exist in a universe in which their sexuality is of no concern to anyone else. This can be a pretty radical concept to wrap your head around as an actor, even in 2023, Wolfe explained.
“The first time our characters hold hands in public, I stopped and asked the writer, ‘Just to check, we’re in a new part of the map that Wylan hasn’t visited before, and he’s just had his hand held by Jesper. Would I then look around to make sure that’s okay before they carry on walking?’
“Christina Strain, the writer of that episode, said ‘In this universe it wouldn’t even cross his mind that he wouldn’t be allowed to hold hands with Jesper in any space’. It struck a nerve with me because even as an actor, shooting in a different country and holding hands [with a man], all of these things go through your head and it’s really hard to strip those things away.”
“Sometimes chemistry is chemistry, and it’s undeniable”
Wolfe’s gentle, nuanced performance as Wylan is clearly informed and enhanced by his lived experience as a queer person. Interestingly, though he says he understands arguments that straight actors shouldn’t be playing queer roles whilst queer actors are still struggling. He also posited that people should err on the side of caution when making assumptions about anyone’s sexuality.
“It’s really great that we’re having those conversations… but it’s very nuanced. I don’t think I’ve completely found what my stance on it is, it constantly changes,” he began. “All I can say is that, as a young, queer person, who was aware of their identity, what it would have meant to me to have seen a gay character that I liked, and then found out the actor was gay too and had managed to get to that place…
“As a gay child who felt alone, as so many of us did at the time, to have had more of those examples would have been wonderful, you know?” He made note to stress however that we shouldn’t take a one-size-fits-all approach when looking at the issue. “There’s so much context involved, you know, sometimes chemistry is chemistry, and it’s undeniable.”
“I also really care about people’s right to discover their sexuality or their identity. It can often become quite a binary conversation, where it’s like, someone isn’t queer enough to play something or isn’t outwardly queer enough to play something, and that can be dangerous too because I feel like we can’t know everybody’s true identity.
“It’s wonderful to have actors who are happy and safe enough to be out”
“It’s dangerous to go looking for that sometimes, or to force people to say things they’re not quite ready to say. I want to fiercely protect people’s rights to learn that for themselves…. It’s wonderful to have actors who are happy and safe enough to be out and to say proudly that they’re queer but it doesn’t work for everyone that way.”
Wolfe’s point of course brings to mind the fate of Heartstopper’s Kit Connor, another young Netflix actor on the rise, who last year expressed that he felt forced out of the closet due to the mounting speculation surrounding his sexuality and accusations of ‘queerbaiting’ he faced from fans who had decided the 18-year-old actor was straight.
“I think just the existence of that show is so powerful,” Wolfe mentions. “The fact that a show like that can run on a platform like Netflix, and again, show safe, happy, queer love stories is amazing. Like Six of Crows, it’s actually something that I wish I’d had growing up.”
“The cast are so wonderful in how outspoken they are, but we also owe it to actors to keep them safe too and make sure it’s in their control when they speak about things that are personal to them. It doesn’t belong to anybody else.”
“I’m also a huge fan of the show and the books. It’s like we’re just talking about, you know, a book that I like too”
Managing the delicate relationship with a fervent fandom can be a daunting task for any actor. Of course, the overlap of fantasy fans and queer fans takes this to another level. A quick search on Twitter right now already shows evidence of Jack being crowned the latest idol to Shadow and Bone obsessives worldwide. Dedicated stan accounts with names like ‘Jack Wolfe protector’ have amassed thousands of followers, posting endless fancams shipping Jesper and Wylan. For the moment though, Wolfe is taking it all in his stride.
“Sure, it can absolutely be very intimidating,” Jack admitted. “I try to put myself on the other side of it, I’m also a huge fan of the show and the books. It’s like we’re just talking about, you know, a book that I like too.”
Perhaps what makes it easier to deal with an enthusiastic fandom is having an innate understanding of being a fan yourself. “You know, there are things that I am fiercely protective over and fandoms that I was a huge part of, so I know what that’s like.”
“Every time I meet someone who’s found me through me being a part of the series, like, genuinely the vast majority of the time, I’m like, ‘Oh, I feel we could be very good friends.’”
Shadow and Bone season 2 premieres globally on Thursday 16 March on Netflix.