How to Write Gay Characters Well In Your Stories
In my over two years writing down my thoughts and tips on writing, I have said a lot about how great and important diversity is in your stories. I have written blog posts on why diversity matters. I have spent time covering some FAQs to help people to understand and write diversity well. I’ve even challenged people to change the language they use when talking about diversity! When it comes to talking about writing gay characters well, though, I haven’t said a whole lot at all.
In fact, apart from my post on trans women on Episode, I haven’t spent a great deal of time speaking about individual minority groups at all. That’s really a mistake on my part, to be honest. Each group has its own needs and challenges when it comes to portraying them in stories. Sure, they have a lot of common ground, but I’m really not doing diversity any justice if I just clump minorities together into one big post. Diverse groups have diverse needs! What you need now is more specific information.
So, to kick off this beautiful Pride month, let’s cover what you can do in your writing to portray gay characters well.
Don’t Let Fear Stop You
When you first start creating gay characters for your writing, it can be scary. You may be terrified that you’ll do it wrong, or that you might get criticised by LGBTQ+ activists. It might put you off to think that you could accidentally fall into harmful stereotypes. I get that.
However, I am here to tell you that you can do it! All it takes is some care, thought, research and an openness to criticism and you’ll be writing gay characters in no time!
I know that you might be worried about the reception of your work. I am a bisexual or pansexual (still trying to work that out) person and I still get those sudden stabs of fear, too! They’re normal. I don’t blame you for having that worry! In fact, it might be a good thing! It shows that you are really keen to write good gay characters, after all.
But the thing is: we need more gay representation out there. We need gay people with unique and interesting personalities to get their time in the spotlight. For a long time, gay people have had very few characters that they could idolise and identify with. Letting your fear stop you from helping this cause would be a real shame.
So just be open with yourself and your readers. Let us all know that you are new to writing gay characters and that you need all of the feedback you can get. As long as you mean well and you don’t shut your ears to those who want to help you, most reasonable people will understand!
Be open and supportive. Don’t let the fear consume you. Be cautious and self-critical! Show that you’re a great ally and keep learning!
Be Open to Criticism
One of the worst things that people can do when they are writing gay characters (or any other kind of minority for that matter) is to think they know best already and ignore all of the advice the LGBTQ+ activists are trying to give them.
It makes you look arrogant or rude, or like you don’t care enough about your gay characters to try to portray them well. If that’s the case, how are you going to learn and grow as a writer?
In reality, we all make mistakes. I fall into stereotypes about the minority groups I’m actually part of sometimes without realising it!
When I write a gay character that upsets people, the chances are that they will tell me how they feel. The best thing to do then is to listen. Most reasonable people don’t want to trash you because you made a mistake, even today with cancel culture as big as it is!
Most people want to know that it is a mistake and that you will try to do better in the future. They want to see that you are committed to learning and growing as a writer. They don’t do it to hate on all the work you’ve done. No! It’s just that there have been so many harmful portrayals of gay people in the past that they want some good representation now.
You don’t even have to agree with all of the criticism you get! Just make sure you listen with an open mind and take what they say on board. Then, calmly and respectfully explain that you do get where they are coming from, but you have a plan for your character in the future. Show that you’ve listened first. Then respond.
Being Gay Shouldn’t Define Your Characters
The worst thing to see in someone’s writing is when a character’s defining characteristic is that they are gay. It is so infuriating! I have said this before, but no one in the world is defined by how straight they are. So why would gay people be defined by their sexuality?
There is nothing more boring than someone who is defined by what they like in a partner. I mean, what are they going to do in your story other than be gay? Sounds kinda bad to me.
That is all that being gay is. Being is just about what gender a person is attracted to. That’s all. If being gay means anything else to your characters, like the way they dress or act, there is a 99.99% chance that you are writing a character packed full of gay stereotypes. Not good!
If you are serious about writing gay characters well, you need to make sure that they have other things that make them who they are. Humans are complex beings. There are lots of little jigsaw pieces that come together to make a person’s identity. Sexuality is just one piece.
Try some of the following tips. They should help you to make a well-rounded gay character who is more than just their sexuality.
Think About Their Purpose in the Story
Why do you want to have a gay character in your story? Is it because you wanted to do some good for gay representation? Did you create an important character and just happen to make them gay? Did you just make two characters of the same gender who had great chemistry? Or maybe you thought long and hard about a romance in your story and realised that writing a gay love story just made sense? Those are all great reasons to include a gay character in your writing. Plus, they’re not the only ones!
Then there are the bad reasons. These include:
- Making a gay character because that was the minority group you were missing, or working through minority groups to put in your story (what I call Shopping List Diversity).
- Including a gay character or couple to shut your readers up.
- Deciding that, as a progressive, you need a gay character in your story to make it “woke”.
- Fetishising gay people (I will go into this later).
Give Them Hobbies and Interests
When thinking about your gay character, you need to make sure that they think and act like real people. After all, gay people are real people. They aren’t just a sexuality.
In order to do that, you need to give the character enough of a personality for the reader to see that they are real. It’s all about that development! This is true of any character, to be honest, but it gets especially pushed aside when it comes to gay characters in the media.
A good way to make sure that all of your gay characters feel real in your writing is to make sure that you give them hobbies and interests. Think about what they like to do when they aren’t helping you to forward the plot! It shows that you are giving them the thought and care that they deserve.
I’ve said before that you need to think about what all of your characters do when they aren’t in the spotlight. If it’s like they sit in a closet and wait for their next scene, you have an issue.
Hobbies and interests don’t just show your readers that you’ve put some thought and care into your characters. They also help you to judge how they would react to situations they get into. If they like to do sports, they might be able to run fast! That might come up in the main story!
I recommend Notebook.ai for your planning. It can help you to sort out your ideas, but it also gives you great prompts to help you develop your characters.
Give Them Plots That Aren’t Completely About Their Sexuality
How many stories have you read that have the gay character who struggles with coming out? Maybe they have a dad who can’t bring himself to accept his child’s sexuality? Or they might have to deal with some homophobic people throwing around abuse? I’m sure we’ve all seen a story like that before!
While stories about coming out and overcoming stigma can be very helpful and empowering, they’re not the only kind of story out there! So, they aren’t the only kind of story that you can have gay characters in!
If you want to show that you don’t treat your gay characters like their sexuality is the only important thing about them, why not give them a story full of struggles that aren’t all about the gender they like to date? I’m not saying that you can’t have them fall in love in your story. Of course not! I’m saying that you don’t need to focus on their experiences as a gay person. What about their experiences as a person?
So why not write a plot for your gay character in which they have the same struggles with their partner that a straight couple would? As much as I hate bad boy stories, why not have a bad boy who falls in love with a guy? Or a bad girl who falls for a girl? Anyone can fall for the bad kid on the block. Why not your gay character?
Or you can leave sexuality alone completely and focus on other things. In my story When I’m Gone, there is a love story, but the main plot is all about fighting racial injustice! Just because they’re gay, it doesn’t mean their story has to be about how gay they are!
Treat Their Sexuality Like it’s Normal
One of the best ways that you can write gay characters well is to treat them in the same way as you would straight characters. It’s the 21st Century! Being gay is normal in the Western World! Make sure that you’re with the times in your writing! Don’t be left behind!
In Skulduggery Pleasant (which is, in my opinion, one of the best Young Adult Fantasy book series out there), the main character is bi. While this isn’t shown until much later in the story, people treat it as normal from very early on. People ask Valkyrie if her new love interest is a girl or a boy. Tanith, who acts as a sister to her, has had relationships with men and women. No one bats an eye with gay love in the books. They just mention it in the same way they would a straight love.
If you want to see it for yourself, why not pick up the Skulduggery Pleasant book series from Amazon? It is a fantastic read, and not just for how it handles sexuality!
The good thing about this is that it’s probably the safest way to have gay characters in your writing without offending people. I will never stop you from writing about the topics that you want to. I couldn’t even if I tried! However, I will say that it is much harder to get gay characters right as a straight person when you focus on the fact that they are gay. It can be done for sure! Homophobia and coming out are complex things, though. If you aren’t 100% sure how to write gay characters well, it might be good to leave it to the pros until you get more experience.
Don’t Fetishise Gay People
I get it. There are some awesome gay people out there! If you’ve ever been to a gay club or spent time at a Pride Parade, you might be in awe of the fun and accepting culture that many LGBTQ+ people have spend time to cultivate. I don’t blame you for loving it!
However, make sure that you don’t let this fascination and awe turn into fetishisation, or we could be in for some real trouble.
There are loads of different ways that you can fetishise gay people, but I would say that there are two huge ones at the moment that I think we need to talk about.
First, you have the issue of lesbian relationships in the media being there for the sake of straight male fascination. What do I mean by this? Well, there are so many stories, films and shows out there in which two women kiss for the sake of pleasing men, both in the audience and in the story itself. Think of Friends when Rachel and Monica kiss to please Joey and Chandler so that they can keep their apartment!
Then there’s the issue of what are often known as Fujoshis. They’re basically the same thing as the men who fetishise lesbian women, but the opposite way around. While the term started in Japan and usually refers to women who fetishise and obsess over same-sex relationships between men in manga and anime, it has become a huge thing in fanfiction too!
The problem with fetishisation is that it is very dehumanising. It turns gay people into objects that you can ogle over. It’s really bad for normalisation and can cause some awful stereotypes to fester!
Take Gay Relationships Seriously
Thanks to all of the fetishisation of gay people, we now have a situation in which many people don’t treat gay relationships seriously. This is especially true when it comes to how lesbian women are treated.
On the extreme end of things, you have some weird people who think that all lesbians are women who were “wronged” by men. That’s so dumb it hurts! But on the more mild side of things, you have lots of people who think that lesbian relationships “don’t count” as real relationships.
Even if they don’t actually consciously think that lesbian relationships don’t count, they sure as hell treat them that way! I mean, think of all the guys in straight relationships who would flip out if their girlfriends kissed a guy, but don’t see it as cheating when they kiss a girl instead! Think of all the straight girls who think that they can get a free pass to kiss other girls in clubs because they don’t take the kiss seriously.
I’m not saying that a straight guy can’t be fine with girlfriend kissing a girl. There are loads of reasons why it might be fine and it really depends on how much you communicate about what’s ok in your relationship. However, are a hell of a lot of people out there who just don’t treat a lesbian kiss with the same weight as a straight one.
If you’re a straight guy who’s ok with his girlfriend kissing a girl or a straight girl who kisses other girls for fun, that’s your business. However, if you’re reading this, then you want to help with representation by writing gay characters well. So if that’s the case, I suggest taking some time to have a think about if you take lesbian relationships seriously or not.
If it Isn’t “Normal” in the Story World, Make it Normal in the Narrative
There’s no doubt that there are a hell of a lot of gay people who go through hell. They get treated badly for something that they can’t control and that really isn’t hurting anyone. I get that you might want to show a little realism in your stories by showing your readers what homophobia looks like. If that’s the case, it makes sense that people in your story might not treat gay people as “normal”.
However, there is a huge difference between what’s normal in the world of your story and what’s normal in your narrative. After all, your readers don’t have to agree with every single character in your story! It’s up to you to present the characters’ views in ways that steer your readers to who’s in the right and who’s wrong.
When you write about homophobia, you can be at risk of making it seem normal. If likeable characters are homophobic, it might come off as being a likeable trait in your story! Yikes! There’s only one real way to stop that: make it a flaw.
If you like a character but they are a little bit of a homophobe, show that it’s a bad trait! All characters need flaws, after all. As long as you show that homophobia is wrong, you are on your way to doing gay people justice in your story! Make your character learn or grow. Show your readers that they are making a mistake. Open their eyes to the injustice in the world.
And then, of course, there’s the easier way. You can make the good guys allies and the bad guys homophobes. Just take the time to show the reader that homophobes are wrong, even if the characters don’t know that!
Why do we try to treat gay people as normal in our stories? Well, it is one of the best ways to make sure that people accept gay people in real life and treat them with the respect and care that they deserve.
When you read lots of stories about gay characters just being normal people, or you watch a TV show with a gay man that you relate to, it takes away that fear of the unknown that can really affect the way you treat others. You get used to the idea that gay people are normal! And it’s not only that! If they have thoughts, feelings, hobbies and interests that you can relate to, it will help you to empathise and relate to them!
Sure, most people don’t just read one story and suddenly relate to gay people. It can happen, but it’s not usually the case. Instead, it’s an ongoing process of normalisation that happens when you get exposed to normal people who happen to be gay over and over again. All those people who think that they are immune to it? Well, they just don’t see it! I promise you that it’s happening to them, too! Even if they try to fight it!
So when you take the time to show that your gay characters are just like the rest of your characters in your story, you are helping. You’re adding one more story to the normalisation pool that we are helping to grow. You are making the normalisation of gay people in real life a little easier one story read at a time!
Actually Show That They’re Gay
Let’s talk about J.K. Rowling.
As much as I hate the fact that she thinks she has a right to dictate how other people experience gender, let’s put aside the fact that she’s a TERF at the moment and focus on how she portrays gay people in Harry Potter.
Yes, she might say that Dumbledore is gay outside of the story, but she spends no time showing it in her writing. And sure, I defended her when she first said he’s gay. I mean, what person in real life knows their headmaster’s sexuality? Personally, when I was at school, I was shocked when a teacher told me they were married or with someone! I mean, what?! Teachers are people?! Harry didn’t even know that Dumbledore had a brother, after all! A brother who he’d met every time he went to the Hog’s Head, no less!
But when I went to the cinema and saw that Dumbledore was not shown to be gay in The Crimes of Grindelwald, I was so sad.
It’s all well and good to think in your head that your character is gay. It’s a whole other thing to write it! And if you don’t write it in your story, it doesn’t matter. Sorry!
If you have the chance to show that your character is gay and you choose not to write about it, you are copping out. It’s as simple as that. You need to show that they’re gay in order to actually help with gay representation in any meaningful way. If your readers can’t tell, what’s the point?
Be Aware of the Stereotypes
Let’s be honest: stereotypes aren’t just an issue with gay characters. Too many stereotypes of any minority group can kill any good story and make you look kinda unoriginal. When it comes to gay characters, though, they’re everywhere.
You have the sassy gay best friend who loves to shop and knows a little too much about shoes. You have the butch lesbian who likes beer, wears nothing but tartan and is sick of, or even hates men. Then there’s the aggressive bully who uses violence to hide his issues with sexuality. Maybe even a “he’s actually gay but that never comes up” gay like Dumbledore. Or what about the male villain who is coded to be gay to make him seem “creepy” like Moriarity from Sherlock.
Many people say that stereotypes come from somewhere. I’m sure they do! There are definitely sassy gay guys who like fashion in the world. There are gay people who do evil things, too! But that’s not the point. The point is that these stereotypes are shown on TV way too often. Gay people aren’t a monolith. They all act differently and have their own independent thoughts and feelings. When you spend so much time writing the same old gay characters, it adds to this idea that gay people are all the same, which is just so untrue!
My advice is to read up on the stereotypes that exist about gay people. TV Tropes has a huge list of stereotypes that you can look to if you want some ideas on what to avoid. It’s a little bit overwhelming, though! So I like Advocate’s shorter list to start with so you get a taste of what to avoid.
Tropes Are Hard to Do Well
I know I said that you should be aware of stereotypes, but that doesn’t mean you always need to get rid of them! Sometimes, using tropes can help you to comment on how silly stereotypes are. If you’re really snazzy, you can even make a joke of the fact that the reader expects the gay characters in your story to act in a certain way. When you use tropes to show how silly stereotypes are, we call it a deconstruction.
Let’s take the Gay Best Friend trope as an example. One one hand, you could add to the stereotype by just having a gay character who is the best friend of the main character and unapologetically acts in a sassy, camp way. On the other hand, you could use this Gay Best Friend trope to explore the expectations that readers have for those kinds of characters. A good way to. do this may be to have a straight best friend to the gay main. Or maybe it’s to have a character in the story comment on the Gay Best Friend trope and then spend some time showing how your gay character is way more than just a trope.
This is very hard to do well, though, and I don’t recommend trying if you’re just starting out with writing gay characters. Why? Well, it’s a difficult balance to strike. While you might want to use these tropes to challenge themselves, you may end up perpetuating the stereotypes. You may want to help, but you might not have the nuance to do it right just yet.
It has nothing to do with whether you’re gay or not! You just need to know your limits and skills. Spend time writing good gay characters without using the tropes first. Then you can branch out.
Their Backstory Doesn’t Always Need to be Tragic
A lot of the gay characters in the media at the moment have tragic backstories. Their families don’t support them. They were bullied at school. They had to give up their faith because religious people don’t approve of them. Stories like that happen on a daily basis in the real world, so it makes sense that so many writers want to add tragedy to the stories of their gay characters.
However, not all gay people experience worlds like that. Some have amazing support networks from the very start! Others find escapism in online communities that accept them for who they are (the ShanniiWrites Forums being one of those places). So it might be a good idea to not get caught up with the tragic. Explore different gay experiences to show that you get that there isn’t just one “gay life”.
There’s more to it than that, though. It’s not just about showing that you get that gay people are complex and diverse. It’s about letting your stories be the change you want to see! If you have made the decision to give your gay characters a plot that isn’t about them being gay, why not take the time to give them a loving environment? Show that it is possible to treat gay people just like everyone else.
In fact, it’s much easier to treat gay characters as normal in your writing than to get those tragic backstories right! When you try to do the tragedy, you run the risk of using tragedy in the gay community as a lazy plot device. On the other hand, all you have to do to treat a gay person as normal is treat them just like everyone else! Show your readers that it is possible!
But Also Be Aware of the Dangers and Struggles Gay People May Face
Let’s not shy away from what gay people go through either, though. It is 100% fair if you want to spend the time to show that LGBTQ+ people go through a hell of a lot. It’s realistic, after all, and it shows that you get that gay people don’t just float through life. They can face some real struggles!
I know that it might sound contradictory, but it is a good idea to talk to some gay people or jump on Google to find out what dangers and struggles the LGBTQ+ community goes through. You might find that there are things you never even thought of! Sure, a lot of people spend a lot of time talking about hate crimes and intolerant parents. That’s a huge part of a lot of gay people’s lives. However, there is a lot more to it than that.
You have people who think that you’re hitting on them because you like their gender, even though straight people don’t have to go through this! Weird! There’s the fact that some people find an excuse not to hire you. What about the fact that every gay character ever has to face a whole mob of people online calling them “political” just for existing?
A good way to strike a balance between a tragic backstory and not ignoring the struggles is to give your gay characters a good support system in the people around them. Then, you can show that they go through a hell of a lot of bigotry in their lives! But when it comes down to it, they have a strong base that they can rely on. You can show that they have to go through a lot, but that they can find a group of people who love them for who they are.
Think About the “Bury Your Gays” Trope
The “Bury Your Gays” trope is huge in the media. As TV Tropes has a great guide to the trope that you should definitely check out! In short, “Bury Your Gays” refers to the fact that gay characters are usually killed off more frequently than straight ones.
What do I mean by that? Well, we don’t have that many gay characters as it is. Then, when they do show up in stories, they get killed off so often! The TV Tropes article says that this is because gay characters are seen as “more expendable” straight ones. While I think that is true to some extent, I don’t think that’s the whole story.
As a pansexual person myself, I have struggled with the “Bury Your Gays” trope in my own writing. I write a great gay character only to realise that I’ve given them huge death flags! When I choose to kill off a character, it can sometimes take me a while to realise that they’re very likely to be gay.
And that isn’t because I hate people like me or that I see gay people as expendable! No! Rather, it comes from a well-meaning place. The problem is that my gay characters are usually likeable! Very likeable, in fact! So when I need to kill off a character that the reader will care about, I find that most of the characters whose deaths will pack a punch are the gay ones. Oops!
I think we all need to take some time to think about whether you’ve fallen into this trap by accident. I know that the chances are you aren’t killing them off on purpose. But do you really want to help add to the number of dead gay characters? I know I don’t! So be aware of this trope!
Not All Religious People are Homophobic
I am pansexual, Non-Binary and a huge supporter of gay rights. Guess what? I’m a Roman Catholic!
I think that a lot of people fall into the trap of making all of their religious characters homophobic. They fall into the trap of thinking that all homophobes are the way they are because of a religion, but that’s not the case at all!
In fact, I think it’s becoming more and more common for people with no religion to hold homophobic beliefs. There is a whole sub-community of people online who spend their time trying to undermine our calls for equality. Most of them use “Christian values” to their advantage, but aren’t religious in the slightest.
Sure, there are lots of homophobic religious people out there! Don’t get me wrong! But don’t think that you need to be religious to be a homophobe. You certainly don’t need to be a homophobe to be religious!
It really depends on how you interpret your religion. There are Muslim alliances dedicated to sexual and gender diversity. You have Quest for LGBTQ+ Catholics. Don’t forget about Jewish LGBTQ+ organisations! I love the Christian LGBTQ-affirming YouTuber, God Is Grey! There are religious gays and allies out there! You’ve just got to look for them!
So when you make a religious character, make sure that you think about if you need them to be against the LGBTQ+ community or not. They don’t have to be!
Your Characters Don’t Need to Know Their Sexuality Straight Away
I’m going to let you into a little secret: I’m still discovering my own sexuality! Actually, my gender identity, too! This time last year, I would have told you that I am a bisexual woman. I spent a whole lot of time over the past year realising that I don’t care about gender at all. I don’t care about my own gender or my partner’s. So, no I would say that I am agender and pansexual.
Some people come to terms with the fact that they are gay in their 80s or 90s. Some people know straight away. Others spend their whole lives no knowing their own sexuality! There is really no rush to know everything about yourself.
While I will always promote self-discovery, it is important to know that everyone does this on their own terms and in their own time. It can take time to learn what you like in a partner. And that’s if you want a partner at all!
The same is true for your characters. They don’t need to know what gender(s) they want to date at the start of your story. They can spend some time learning about themselves in the plot, if you want! And even when they do, it might take them some time to settle on a label for their sexuality that fits them perfectly. They might never find that label! That is fine!
Don’t feel the need to rush your character out of the closet. Sure, you need to actually show that they are, in fact, gay or queer. Otherwise, it’s just queerbaiting. But just because you should show it in your story, it doesn’t mean you have to spell it out for your reader in words!
Consider Beta Readers
If you want to to justice to your gay character, I suggest a beta reader or two.
A beta reader is someone who reads your story before you post it online or publish it. They help you to iron out the kinks of your story by asking you questions that your readers may want to ask. They’ll be able to point out the issues with your story that you couldn’t notice and let you know when something isn’t as clear as you’d want it to be.
When it comes to writing gay characters, beta readers are a great tool. They can let you know if there are any issues with your story or character and give you suggestions on how you can do better.
It’s a good idea to have a few gay people read through your story and give you their thoughts. Why a few? Well, as I’ve said before, gay people aren’t a monolith! It’s good to get a few different perspectives! If they all point out the same issue, it might give you a good insight into what you should work on!
Plus, listening to your beta readers shows that you are open-minded and willing to grow and change. There’s nothing better than that!
If you need to find a beta reader or two, why not hop onto the ShanniiWrites Forums?
As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.
I was talking to a friend a while ago about how there really aren’t a whole lot of books that featured gay characters or relationships in them! Most of the stories that do have them also tend to place a large emphasis on coming out, rather than just letting them be in happy relationships. I’d love to see more characters that are clearly in a gay relationship, and that’s just what’s normal for them. Stereotypes are definitely also a problem when the characters are just put on the sidelines of a story, because those characters are already tend to have limited characterization. The gay coding to be creepy part was actually the most interesting part of this blog post, just because it made me think about how standard that is in the media, even though there’s nothing creepy about it.
Definitely agree with this!