I wrote a post last week about diversity. That’s fine and good, but I think support from someone who actually is in a minority – their thoughts and opinions – may be a bit more useful than mine here. So here’s a guest post from a dear friend of mine who does plenty of consuming of all types of creative medium himself.
On Writing Queer Characters
Guest Writer David Delbar
It seems that queer* people are all the rage in media nowadays. From mainstream TV shows to tacky romance novels, queer individuals are experiencing unprecedented representation. Now that we’ve broken through the taboo, the question is “What kind of queer characters should we write?” or “What does good representation look like?” While I certainly don’t have the only correct answer to those questions, I can give you my two cents on the matter.
I know that some people will be complaining “Well, I don’t think that homosexuality is right, so I don’t want to put it in my story.” I would answer, “Why are you on a blog for writing villains, then?” Villains are evil; that’s what makes them villains. I’m pretty sure you don’t approve of evil, either. But a story without a villain, without an antagonist, is no story at all. Stories are about life, about people, and even in the most fantastic of fantasy novels, the closer a character is to a real person, the more we like the story. You don’t have to like homosexuality to write about it well. But you should understand that it is a part of being human, either because you are homosexual yourself or because you will encounter those who are, and stories are richer when we include it. About 5-10% of the population is queer in some way; that’s about 1 in 15 people. Make about the same proportion of characters in your book queer too. Maybe every 15th story, the queer character can even be the protagonist. Inclusion can be done in subtle ways, and for minor characters it may never come up at all. In hostile worlds, queer people tend to group together, and if you focus on such a group, that might tip the percentages of representation. But make sure that the characters are present, in some way or another. Dealing with those moral complexities can elevate your book to a new level.
The first rule is one that long-time readers of this blog should be well familiar with: Queer people are people! That means that their sexual orientation or gender identity is just one of many traits that make them a complete person. You can’t just cut out a cardboard outline and write “gay guy” on it and plop it down in your story. What does this guy think about clam chowder? Is he a fan, or does he hate the taste of shellfish? Is he a staunch supporter of the new evil overlord because the increased stability of the kingdom has allowed him to better sell his lentils, or is he part of the resistance because the minions killed his father?
Steve Jinx from Warehouse 13 is gay, but he is also a human lie detector, a Buddhist, former ATF, very uptight, has a soft spot for girls that remind him of his litter sister, and is estranged from his mother because she didn’t pursue the death penalty against his sister’s murderer. Get it? Complete person.
It’s usually a mistake to say “I need a lesbian at this point of the story” because that almost guarantees that she’ll be too flat of a character. It’s better to ask each of your characters what their sexual orientation might be, perhaps after you’ve asked them about other aspects of their personality.
Now, the importance of your character’s queerness will largely depend on the world around him. A former roommate of mine was mercilessly teased as a child for having red hair. Eventually he realized that it was nothing to be ashamed of, and he is proud of his orange locks. In fact, “ginger” is now a primary aspect of his identity; it’s the subtitle on his Facebook profile. On the other hand, I have striking blue eyes, for which I frequently get complements. Because I’m not teased for them, I tend not to identify as “blue-eyed.” So a good rule of thumb is, the more hostile your world is towards a trait, the more strongly your character will identify with it. Is this a world where being gay is considered sinful and abhorrent? Your character’s sexuality will probably be on his mind a lot more. Is it no big deal to have a same-sex lover? Your character won’t think twice about it then. While the former world is certainly important for telling the oppression narrative many queer people face in the real world, it can be refreshing when characters can just be queer without all the baggage. And then there are mixed worlds, where some people or groups are hostile and others are accepting. How you form the world around your characters will help determine their attitudes about themselves.
Next, don’t be afraid to add in some romance! Sometimes we identify that a character is gay or lesbian or bisexual, but we only have romantic scenes between straight couples. Unless a queer character has chosen not to get romantically involved (such as a vow of celibacy or the like) there’s no reason that he shouldn’t be getting his fair share of love interests. Use your straight characters for a gauge. Is this a story with lots of sex and promiscuity? Make sure your gay characters get some too. Is this a children’s story with schoolyard crushes? Then maybe just have some innocent hand-holding. Most books will fall somewhere in between, so make sure that your queer characters’ romances are at about the same level as your straight ones’.
Korra and Asami are bisexual, and we see both of them give Disney-like kisses to boys. but when they get together, we see some hand holding, but no kissing. See the problem here?
As a side note, be sure that their love interests are fully fleshed out characters too, or you’ll be back to boring cardboard cut outs, and no one wants to fall in love with that.
And speaking of cutouts, remember that the L and the G are just the first two letters of the alphabet soup acronym of LGBTQIA+. Gay and lesbian characters are great, but bisexual ones are great too. It’s ok for a character to fall in love with a girl, then a guy, and then a girl again. It’s ok for them to never fall in love, or not even experience any attraction towards others (called asexuality) or to only experience love for a childhood friend and be totally immune to a seductress (called demi-sexuality). Maybe it’s a woman who always felt like he is in fact a man (transgenderism) or doesn’t feel like either a man or a woman (agenderism) despite having a female body. Perhaps your characters have a change in their DNA that makes them wholly neither male nor female (called intersex, which occurs in about 1 of 100 people, usually in imperceptible ways). Be sure to research the lived experiences of others before making these characters, though. You want your representations to be accurate and lifelike. Sexuality and gender are complex, and in reality it’s unique to each person. If you want to make unique characters, start asking them what their own sexuality and gender are like.
Now, let’s talk villains. It’s 100% ok to have queer villains, since people can be both queer and evil. Just don’t make the mistake of making your character evil because he’s queer. Maybe he turns evil because of resentment for years of ostracism, bullying, or outright violence for his sexual orientation, but being gay isn’t reason enough to turn evil in and of itself. That same alienation can also push a character to great feats of good to prove herself in the eyes of her community. How people react to others shows more about their own character than anything about their queerness. And this is good, because you want to show your queer villain as a person.
The Flash is a good example of balance. Police Captain David Singh (left) is a good guy. The Pied Piper (right) is a villain. Both are gay. Each is his own person.
Queerness is a neutral trait, neither good nor evil. It’s something innate, something a character has no control over. But a character does choose how to respond to their queerness and the reactions of others, and that is what will make him cruel or compassionate, haughty or broken. It’s the interaction with other traits that make things interesting. Queerness is one of many ingredients in the human recipe; while you don’t want it to overpower all the other flavors, you don’t want to leave it out altogether. It’s a great way of making characters (and villains) who are more vibrant, more human, and more alive.
*The term “queer” is often used as an umbrella term to describe those who are part of the rather unwieldy acronym LGBTQIA+. When used respectfully as an adjective, most people find it appropriate. However, you should ask before using it to describe individuals.