“You’re a pervert now. You gotta wear those colours with pride!”
I’ve watched the pilot for HBO’s Looking a few times now. Not because I planned to review it, or because I’ve watched it with other people, or out of particular fondness for a member of the cast.
I keep rewatching it because I identify with it, so much so that it’s forced me to reconsider my view of what it means to identify with a piece of fiction.
I’ve never lived in San Francisco. I’m not even embedded with the gay community. I don’t have many gay friends, either. To be honest, it’s not even the whole cast I identify with.
It’s Patrick (Jonathan Groff).
Patrick is a white gay guy in his 20’s in a big city, where he feels at home despite not having any family in the city. He’s a game level designer – creative, ambitious, if occasionally distracted while on the job. He loves his friends, even when from the outside nobody can quite figure out why they’re friends in the first place. He straddles the two worlds of gay culture: wandering OkCupid hoping that a real candidate will finally surface, but always feeling like everyone knows more about the dating world than he does; alternately, finding himself dragged around the Folsom Street Fair, intrigued by all the leather and overt sexual rebellion but not quite at home in it. He’s awkward, but not socially inept, and generally friendly and cheerful. He overthinks things, which messes him up in whatever milieu he’s in, whether that’s a tentative hookup in a park or a first date with a charming (if condescending) doctor.
I have now told you way more about myself than I’m comfortable with. And all I’ve done is describe a TV character.
There’s even small things that hit me in a personal way. In Looking episode three, Patrick gives a speech about why, being a gay guy, he’s drawn to playing as female characters in games – a speech that I’ve given before. He obsesses over OkCupid match scores despite knowing they’re bullshit. He babbles, particularly when he drinks, which almost destroys a potential relationship in the show’s second episode. All of these causing winces of recognition.
True, I’m a screenwriter in Toronto, not a game designer in San Francisco. Patrick’s best friends are gay men who pull him deeper into their world; mine are mostly straight women for whom I’m their connection to it. And Jonathan Groff’s Patrick is just shy of thirty, while I’m only 23. And deeper than that, while I know his situation like the back of his hand, we are different. He’s a repressed gay guy still struggling to be accepted by a mother who wants him to be normal, or at least he sees it that way, where my mom knew and accepted it before I did. Nowhere were his very particular hang-ups and the details of his lovingly-crafted character more obvious than the show’s fifth episode, a two-person reflection on being gay in a world where it’s okay, but still tenuously so. There’s only a 6-year age gap between us, but six years is a lot these days; and Colorado to San Francisco is similar to Barrie to Toronto, but not similar enough to be identical journeys.
In some ways, those details – Colorado, not Barrie, Ontario; 23, not 29; cautious, not adventurous – tell me as much about myself as they do about his character. Ultimately, his differences clarify my world, and the world that he lives in beautifully. He’s not the subject of a documentary, but that doesn’t matter; he feels real to me, even moreso than characters I’ve fallen in love with before.
Identification is odd. I don’t know how many writers think about it as they write; they often want to create real characters, not aim for a specific reaction from the audience. I’ve never written a character thinking, “I want the audience to see themselves in this character at this specific point”. I think about moments, whether the moment will hit the audience like I’m hoping. But character crafting? That always comes from somewhere inside me, and I think it has to.
How is a writer supposed to think about character identification in their work, beyond the broad hope of being ‘universal yet specific’? How would the writers of Looking feel, reading about how their protagonist feels like me in an only-slightly different life? Alternately, how would I feel if someone felt that way about my work? These are a couple of the questions I think about when pondering on this very specific, personal connection to a work.
In the meantime, I’ll be thinking about Patrick, Looking, and what the gap between his experiences and mine say about the world we live in. And maybe that’s what the writer was hoping for all along.