How to Write LGBTQ Characters Well
With this weekend being the start of Pride month, I think it’s a great idea to talk about how we can write our LGBTQ characters well. 2019 is a great time to broaden your horizons and write about a new group of people. There have been talks about representation and how we can write good minority characters! That means that there are more resources for you to look at than ever before! The LGBTQ community always needs allies to help them get their voice heard!
But let’s be honest: writing LGBTQ characters can be a daunting task. As with any other kind of minority group, it seems like people are judging your characters more! Plus the LGBTQ community makes a big deal out of representation, right? You might want to do things right, but it can feel like everyone’s working against you. I get that! But it doesn’t have to be like that! You don’t have to be so stressed. LGBTQ people don’t need to be so different from straight, cis people, really. You just have to make sure that you put some thought and care into how you present them and the messages you give off.
That still sounds scary, right? Well, don’t worry! I’m here to help you! I’m starting a whole series of posts to guide you through making your LGBTQ characters awesome! You won’t feel so lost by the end! Here is a great guide to writing LGBTQ characters well.
Write Characters Who Just Happen to be LGBTQ
Not every story with a gay, trans, bisexual or other LGBTQ character needs to be about their sexuality or gender. We don’t need every single gay MC to come out in the story. We don’t need all of our trans characters to transition right in front of our eyes for your story to represent LGBTQ people well. In fact, we have way too many of those kinds of stories anyway!
It’s harder to write about a minority you’re not part of if you focus too hard on what sets them apart from you. It’s not impossible, but it is going to be much more of a challenge. What I mean by that is that you are going to be able to write a good character much easier if you get over the fact that they’re LGBTQ and make this about all the other things that they have going on in their lives.
When you spend most of your time thinking about the fact that your character is gay, you might find it quite hard to make them feel authentic and realistic if you’re not gay yourself. If you’ve never had an experience of coming out, you might find it hard to show that well. But what about a trans girl who likes football? A gay guy who goes on a quest? An asexual woman who loves animals? You’re going to find it a lot easier to relate to them if you focus on other parts of who they are.
In fact, we are in dire need of stories where the LGBT characters are more than their sexuality or gender. It’s easier for you and shows how normal most LGBTQ people are!
Actually Write That They’re LGBTQ
So you’ve thought about your cast and you want to have an important LGBTQ character. Great! And you don’t want the story to be about how gay they are. Perfect! But don’t fall into the trap of forgetting to mention their sexuality at all. Character details only come alive when you make them clear. All characters have no sexuality or gender at all until you write it!
That means that you can’t really be representing LGBTQ characters if you forget to write that they’re LGBTQ. As much as it would be nice to be able to get onto other parts of what makes them who they are (like I said above), you have to get the right balance. It’s about making sure that you don’t spend too much time on the fact that they’re LGBTQ (it’s not that big of a deal, really), but at the same time, making it clear that they are at some point in the story.
Yes, it might be tempting to say “well, their sexuality doesn’t matter so it doesn’t come up”, but as I’ve said before, you write you characters into existence, so they aren’t anything until you make it real.
The J.K. Rowling Problem
One of the big issues with J.K. Rowling is how she writes, or rather doesn’t write, LGBTQ characters. Forget the arguments that she just retconned the story later. They don’t matter. They’re just guesses. Let’s have a look at the truth and what the real issue is.
You see, Rowling never showed Dumbledore to be gay anywhere in the series. She just announced it later on in an effort to please other people. I think that’s why, anyway. Well, the problem with that is that it makes it seem like she’s sitting on the fence. She can seem cool and progressive without actually doing any of the hard work of representing any group — or getting any of the hate from conservative people. No, I don’t think that there’s any reason why she should have gone into his sexuality in the Harry Potter books. Who knows the sexuality of their headmaster? But when The Crimes of Grindelwald came out, she had a real chance to show people who Dumbledore loved. Then David Yates came along and said that they aren’t going to make Dumbledore “explicitly” gay.
That’s where the problem is. You have the chance to do something that would help a lot of people and you cop out! There’s nothing wrong with not caring if a character is gay, but you have to show their sexuality for it to be real representation. A character has no sexuality unless you write it. And sure, there were clear gay ideas in the film at the end of the day, but they still copped out and gave Dumbledore a magical reason for not fighting Grindelwald. Why not just make the reason be that love clouds your judgement?
There are fixes for writing most kinds of LGBTQ character.
If your character is gay, fixing the issue is pretty easy. Think about how many times a straight person mentions their partner by gender in real life. You must hear “my boyfriend” or “my wife” quite often. I know I do! Well, you can do the same for the gay characters. Have them talk about their partner and make the gender clear. If they’re not with someone yet, have them say they’re looking for a girl/boyfriend. It’s really as simple as that!
Trans characters are a little harder, in my opinion. Lots of trans people “pass” and you have no reason to call them by their old, “dead” name or say that they are trans. It just doesn’t affect your life in any way in your story. And if you want to write a trans character who’d rather focus on other things than being trans, it might be hard to ever bring that up! But the lovely people on Wattpad answered my question with this one: a great way is to casually mention their hormones. Hormones are a regular thing for a lot of trans people in the world and will be for the rest of their lives. Things like that can make your job a lot easier!
To be honest, I have to say that I find mentioning a bi character’s sexuality the hardest. There are many bi people in straight relationships all over the world. How can you show their sexuality if they’re with a person of the opposite sex? Well, you could mention past partners. Have them show attraction to someone of the same sex. Have them say they have no preference. It might be harder, but it’s not impossible!
Remember That Being LGBTQ Isn’t a Plot
A lot of the stories I’ve seen on apps like Episode and Wattpad revolve around the MC’s identity. There’s nothing else to the story! They’ll usually have a title like “Gay Love Story” and the summary will be something along the lines of “two boys fall in love”.
That is not a plot! Sexuality is not enough to make a plot interesting! Could you imagine if this was for a straight, cis love story? “A cis man and a cis woman fall in love”? Snore, am I right? We need to hold LGBTQ stories to the same standard as straight cis ones! How else will we take writing LGBTQ characters seriously?
Let’s be honest here: there’s only one real reason why a story about gay people just being gay would be interesting to you. That’s if you think that gay people are naturally so strange and weird that it’s fun to just watch them live their normal lives. That’s an awful way to think! So why would we just have stories about LGBTQ people doing boring things? Not only is that really bad writing, but it just comes across as if you don’t think LGBTQ people are people. We’re trying to help it to be seen as normal, here! That’s the point of representation! And you turning a character’s gender or sexuality into a spectacle makes them seem like you think that LGBTQ people exist to entertain us. Bad idea!
If you want to show respect to the LGBTQ community and write queer characters well, you need to give them a real plot in your story. Treat their story arc in the same way you would any straight cis MC and you’re on your way to good writing!
Make it Casual
There’s nothing wrong with writing a story where an LGBTQ character doesn’t fit in, as long as you don’t make bigotry seem ok or good! But we have plenty of those! And we will always see them come up until being queer is treated as normal. People who face those struggles will always give us the stories we need to hear.
But we also need stories where LGBTQ characters are treated just like everyone else! We need to show the world that we have a lot more in common than we have differences. At the end of the day, that’s going to be the thing that gets the next generation on our side and helps them to see that being gay or bi or trans or non-binary or just queer isn’t weird and scary. It’s part of who they are and it doesn’t have to mean that they’re treated any different.
If stories about bigots are how we point out the problem, then stories with casual LGBTQ representation would be our way of showing the solution! And we need both of those if we want to make life equal for LGBTQ people in the future.
And no, I’m not saying you can’t write about the struggles yourself. You don’t have to leave the homophobia and transphobia stories to LGBTQ people and forget about it. If that’s the story you have to tell and you can do it well, by all means! What is am saying is that if you’re an ally, why not write a story that shows how much of an ally you are? Why not show us that you can treat LGBTQ characters just like everyone else through both your writing and the characters you make? That’s a powerful thing to show!
Research the Stereotypes
Don’t rely on stereotypes. The camp gay guy? Overdone. The promiscuous bi girl? No! The depressed trans woman? Please throw it out of the window!
On their own, there’s nothing really wrong with any of these characters. But you don’t write your story in a vacuum, so you can’t pretend these stereotypes don’t harm LGBTQ people when they’re done so much. Of course, there are camp gay guys out there! Anyone can sleep around, and trans people do have a higher rate of depression mostly thanks to the way they’re treated. But that’s not all they are. Breaking from those stereotypes can make your story feel fresh and new and speak to queer people all over the world.
And that’s without even thinking about the stereotypes that are plain wrong and actually damage the way the public sees LGBTQ people. Like portraying trans women as predators who go through abuse and hate just to spy on children in bathrooms. Or non-binary people as very confused and very stupid. Or all bi guys as gay people in disguise. These hurt LGBTQ people by undermining their very existence and giving the bigots out there a reason to hate them.
So take a moment to do some research and see if you’re falling into any of those bad stereotypes. Check articles and find twitter pages that are happy to help you. Join a forum or two. Just make sure you’re asking people who are happy to answer!
Don’t Forget the “T” in LGBTQ
Trans people are often forgotten in this mix. In fact, the same is true with all of the other identities that fall under the “Q” part of the acronym, too! Pansexual, asexual, non-binary, intersex… these are all people who are quite hidden in the media at the moment. And there are so many others! Lots of LGBTQ people would love to see you write good characters like them.
I’ve disagreed with many trans people who say you have to have a trans character in your story for it to be seen as LGBTQ. It’s a community, not a checklist. As long as your story has LGBTQ characters that matter, you don’t need to have one of each letter to have a diverse cast. As long as your main character fits the acronym in some way, you have an LGBTQ story on your hands. However, that doesn’t mean that trans people aren’t viciously underrepresented at the moment. There are plenty of trans people who grew up with no clue what they were going through because the “trans issue” is so hidden in the media. And representation goes a long way when it comes to normalisation.
Of course, I’m not the person to tell you what minorities to add in your story. No! That’s not the way to promote good representation! But even if you don’t feel you can represent the trans community, doing research is a great idea. We’re more similar than we’re different, but you can bet that growing up as a different gender to the one that you define as gives you a unique perspective on life. It will do you and your writing a whole deal of good if you try to see the world from someone else’s eyes.
Keep an Open Mind
One thing I see with a lot of people who are on the “outside” of a minority group is that they view that group from their own eyes. That doesn’t sound like a bad thing, right? And it doesn’t have to be! But it’s good to also keep an open mind and listen to the experiences fo the LGBTQ community. You don’t have to agree with everything, but don’t dismiss what people from the community say just because you don’t see it yourself. Sometimes you might be right. Most of the time, though, you can’t see your own blindness.
This happens with most minority groups and not just the LGBTQ community. People on the outside will say “you aren’t oppressed because…” and give a bunch of reasons why they, on the outside, can’t see the oppression. And I get that! Who else’s eyes can you see the world from? But how can you expect to be a good person, let alone a good writer, if you won’t even try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes?
If you want to write LGBTQ characters well, the most important thing you need to do is listen and not judge. There’s no point in doing all of that research if you’re not going to open your mind and truly listen to the things you’re being told. When someone’s telling you about their reality, first clear your mind of your own judgements. Imagine the world through their eyes. Let yourself believe it’s all true. Just give them that respect. The chances are that it’s truer than you think, and you can add your own judgements again later.
Write Good Characters
If you want to write a good LGBTQ character, the first thing you need to do is write a good character. They need to have strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, goals, ambitions, regrets, and so much more. Making a character LGBTQ doesn’t give you a free pass to make them two-dimensional. Sexuality or gender identity does not make a whole personality.
Of course, who someone loves or what they identify as is going to affect some parts of who they are. However, there’s so much to humans. No one wants to read about a gay guy who has nothing going for him than the fact that he’s gay! And the people who are defined by their LGBTQ status become boring quickly in real life, too.
If you’re a straight person who loves animals, the fact that you love animals has nothing to do with the people you love or choose to be with, does it? I sure hope not. And most people have jobs that have nothing to do with what they do in their own bedrooms or what kind of hormones they take. So treat the character as you would any straight, cis character. Give them an arc in the story! Make them learn some lessons along the way. It doesn’t need to be about the fact that they’re LGBTQ.
So take some time to actually give your LGBTQ characters some character and it will with your writing! Do some exercises to develop them. The more you know about them, the higher the chances are that you’re doing a good job.
If in Doubt, Make Them Likeable
I’m not the kind of person to say that all LGBTQ characters need to be good, likeable characters. Not all LGBTQ characters need to be good role models, and not all good role models are 100% perfect. That seems a little patronising to me! Straight, cis guys don’t need all straight, cis guys to be perfect role models to be good members of society. Why should we? What we need is a rounded group of LGBTQ characters who all play different roles in their stories and are of varying levels of goodness. In fact, it’s good to show that LGBTQ people can do evil things just like non-LGBTQ people. It shows that we’re responsible for our actions. Perfect! Just make sure that they’re not bad people because they’re LGBTQ.
But there are also so many queer coded villains out there in the world. Think Him from The Powerpuff Girls or Moriarty from Sherlock or every other anime villain out there. They are so often written as terrifying and the writers draw on the fact that they seem (as they’re rarely confirmed) to be LGBTQ to create that fear.
In real life, LGBTQ people are about as scary as straight, cis people. Most people can agree that liking the same sex doesn’t make you terrifying. And queer coded characters are so often villains that it can be hard to get an LGBTQ villain right in your work. It’s not impossible! By any means! And we do need some LGBTQ villains! But right now, there are so, so many queer coded villains and it’s easy to fall into stereotypes. So if you’re new to the whole writing LGBTQ characters thing, it might be easier for you to start with the likeable characters. You’re less likely to accidentally offend!
Recruit People to Help
This isn’t essential. You can, by all means, write your work and edit it on your own. However, if you’re the kind of person who struggles to see when they’re using bad stereotypes, it might be a good idea to speak to someone with a little bit of experience who can help you. It’s often hard to see the flaws in your own work once you’ve spent a long time writing. So having someone else look over your work can help in so many ways!
You might have an LGBTQ friend who can help. Maybe there’s a forum or online community you’re a part of with people who give honest reviews on this kind of thing. Your best bet is to get a few different points of view and compile all of the info you get. If you’re an Episode writer, we offer a sensitivity check for a small fee here on ShanniiWrites that goes through a few different people in the LGBTQ community. Of course, you’re not going to please everyone, but if you make an effort to be sensitive, people will be more likely to excuse small mistakes and defend you against unfair criticism.
The most important thing you need to do in order to get your LGBTQ characters right is to care. That’s the number one step! As long as you actually care about the characters you’re creating, the rest will be much easier. If you’re ready to put in the work to create good characters over all, you don’t have much to. worry about! We’re not so different, after all.
[…] at all! In fact, I can’t really think of any off the top of my head. And as I said in my post about writing LGBTQ characters, it’s not enough to queer-code a character. What I mean by that is when you make it seem like […]