Writing Gay Characters
I hear a lot from other writers about how they would love to include gay characters in their stories but are too afraid of screwing them up, so they don't try. I don't like seeing people discouraged from including entire groups of people in their stories. So let's fix things, eh?
Before we get into things, I'd like to make a point about something. This article is called Writing Gay Characters, but it could more accurately be called Writing Non-Straight Characters. But since that take s a lot more typing and frankly sounds clunky, I refer to it as "gay characters." I could say queer, but for me, that word has always meant "strange," so I have a hard time using it to refer to LGBTQ+ people.
Why Write Gay and Lesbian Characters at All?
There are lots of reasons to write gay characters into your stories. Here are five of them.
1. To Challenge Yourself
It's very easy to write about people who are a lot like you. But "easy" and "good" are not always one and the same when it comes to writing. Get yourself out of your comfort zone and stretch those writing muscles in new ways.
2. Because It Means a Lot to Us
One thing that fiction can do for people is give them an escape—a place they can go to feel less alone. For a lot of gay people, being able to see themselves reflected in their media is a big boost to their self-esteem. This can be especially true for those who are in the closet.
3. Because the World Needs More Gay Characters
I am constantly trying to find fiction that is both interesting to me and includes gay people. You'd be surprised how hard this is. I find books that include gay characters, but often they are boring to me. There isn't a lot of variety in the current selection of gay fiction. As more people begin to write it, more diverse stories will be told.
4. For Profit
Gay people are desperate for stories they can relate to, and they don't have a lot to chose from. Often, we are so desperate for depictions of ourselves that we pounce on anything remotely gay. Writing for the sake of money is rarely good, but I understand that people do write for money, and some of them still manage to be good at it. If this is your goal, consider writing some gay characters.
5. Because Art Reflects Life
The world is not a place without gay people, so why should your stories be? Add them in because it's realistic for them to be there.
Any time you put on the mouthpiece of somebody that you're not, there's a professional responsibility to get it right.— Jodi Picoult
Gay Characters vs. Characters Who Just Happen to Be Gay
Consider the following paragraphs of fiction and how they differ:
Bert stood outside his commanding officer's door, hand hovering over it, unclear as to whether he should knock or not. He loved military life, up until his platoon mates had found the picture in his pack. The picture of Bert and Mike, and their daughter on vacation. Now he woke up every day to constant teasing, the words "fudgepacker" written on his forehead in permanent marker. Gays were allowed in Star Fleet, but very few wanted to be in it, and Bert was starting to see why. . .
Bert stood on the cliff face, his breath stuck in his throat. Stepping out into a blitz of raygun fire he could do. Heights, not so much. He remembered going to the gym with his boyfriend and their daughter, and Mike had wanted to go on the rock climbing wall. Even fifty feet up, Bert had started to feel dizzy. Now, almost a mile up a cliff face with some prototype safety gear, there were no words to describe his fear. . .
What's the Difference?
So, can you see the difference? In scenario 1, Bert is a gay character. The conflict of the story revolves around him being gay. If Bert wasn't gay, there would be no story or a very different one. In scenario 2, Bert is still gay, but he has a few other things on his mind. The plot doesn't revolve around Bert's gayness any more than a straight sci-fi military man's story would revolve around his straightness.
Which Is Better?
There's nothing wrong with either one. They both have their place, and different people enjoy different types of stories. But scenario 2 shows that you don't have to hollow out a gay little hole in your story to make room for gay characters. Characters can be gay without getting in the way of the story you want to write, and unless a character's straightness is pivotal to the plot, you can actually make any character gay.
You don't have to make a big deal out of it, either. In scenario 2, Bert didn't have a big coming out to let us know he was gay. In fact, the word "gay" wasn't even used. There was just an offhand detail about Bert's life back at home that was relevant to his current situation. And that little offhand detail just might mean a lot to a gay reader.
Avoiding Clichés When Writing Non-Heterosexual Characters
So, now you know that you can have gay characters in your story, but how should you actually write them? What makes a gay character gay?
At the most basic level, the only difference between gay and straight characters is that gay characters are interested in people of the same sex. There is no universal gay experience. For some, it's a non-issue, and for others, it's a major part of their identity.
In this day and age, gay is a culture. Not every gay person is part of it in the same way not every black person likes R&B and not every woman likes makeup. But some black people do like R&B, some women do like makeup, and yes, some gay people really do love techno music and interior design.
It's always good to be aware of stereotypes, clichés, and overused tropes, no matter what you're writing, and that goes double for writing minorities. Straight people have a huge pool of stories about straight people to choose from. If they find a story they don't like, they toss it and find a new one. But when you're in a minority and not a lot of people are writing about you, you don't have a lot to choose from if you want to read about people like you. Seeing the same old tired storylines is frustrating.
While thousands of years of human storytelling has made it pretty hard not to fall into at least a couple clichés in any story, you can try to avoid the big ones. Some major gay character clichés include killer bisexuals, pregnant lesbians, and predatory gay men. These, among other tropes, have been done to death. Doing them again frustrates readers and makes you look like a lazy writer.
How do you avoid falling into these tired storylines? Do some basic research. You don't have to put gel in your hair and go incognito to the local gay club and live among the gays for weeks taking notes all Jane Goodall-style. Just talk to gay people! Don't know any? The internet is full of them.
Be respectful when you ask your questions, even if the person you ask gets snippy. A lot of gay people get asked the same questions over and over again. Even though this is the first time you are asking these questions, it's most likely not the first time this person has heard them. If they don't want to talk about it, find someone else to ask.
Can't find any gays, even on the internet? There is a place to ask me questions below. I will endeavor to help you write better gays.
Vintage Gay and Lesbian Book CoversClick thumbnail to view full-size
Clichés to Avoid at All Costs
Here is a short list of overused plot points involving gay characters in fiction. These have been written again and again, and most of us find them tired and non-compelling.
For some reason, people who write lesbians think they're being incredibly original by having a story about a lesbian couple trying to get pregnant. This has been done exactly 2,405,305 times before. It creates a scenario where, despite not having relationships with men, the lesbians still desperately need men to achieve their goals. This is not what writing gay characters is about.
For some reason, people find it very easy to write gay villains (or more often, bisexual villains). "But. . . but. . . villains are more fun to write, and I wanted my gay character to be fun." Well, if they aren't balanced by some good gay characters, then all you have are a bunch of evil gays.
Promiscuous Gay Men or Bisexuals
Gay men and bisexuals of both genders are often portrayed as promiscuous, unable to commit, and cold-hearted. Particularly with bisexual people, there is a mistaken idea that they cannot make up their minds and constantly switch back and forth between men and women. This is not the case. For whatever reason, authors often portray them as trying to sleep with anything that moves. For the record, promiscuity has nothing to do with either morality or sexual orientation.
Overly Committed Lesbians
Lesbians have the opposite problem. We're shown as so commitment hungry that we become lifelong partners after one date. This is wildly inaccurate and detracts from the authenticity of the characters.
The Only Gay Characters in the Story Get Together
I have one character who is a lesbian. I have another character who is a lesbian. They're, like, made for each other, right? Wrong. You can and should write gay people who know each other and have zero romantic interest in each other.
The Closeted Homophobe
"I'm mean because deep down, I'm just like you." Yes, this happens, and it is sad and dramatic. But this story has been told too many times. Find another way to create drama in your characters' lives.
"I Wasn't Really Gay!"
Also known as "oh, is it sweeps again already?" This mostly applies to things like television and serial stories. A character who showed no same-sex inclinations previously will experiment with someone of the same sex but either has no intentions of actually pursuing a gay relationship or ultimately decides to stick with the opposite sex. That isn't to say you can't have characters who are questioning their sexuality—just try not to make it glaringly obvious that Lisa only slept with Mary because you were afraid of losing readers' interest.
Appealing to the Opposite Sex
Using lesbians to get straight male readers or gay men to get straight female readers is really annoying and perhaps the most overused gay cliché of them all. Many straight women love stories about lesbians, and straight men are perfectly fine reading about gay men.
I spoke too soon. This is the most annoying and overused gay cliché of them all. All too often, gays end up being redshirts—characters created to die for the sake of the plot. Don't create a gay character just to kill them off.
The Rule of Thumb
Treat the gays like the straights. If a straight person gets something good, so does a gay person. If a gay person gets something bad, so does a straight person.
Homosexual Characters as Tokens
Tokens: good for the carnival, bad for your stories.
Some writers are afraid that if they only have one gay character, that character will feel like a token character who was written gay just to say "Hey! Look at me! I wrote a gay person!" So if you have one, do you have to go full-blown L-Word on your story No. Write as many gay characters as you like.
The trick to avoiding characters coming off as tokens is how you handle them. Do they get their own storylines? Do they seem like they belong in the story? Do they have characteristics outside of stereotypes? Hopefully, you can answer "yes" to these questions.
Romance: How Much Is Too Much/Not Enough?
I receive a lot of feedback on my own work, and I read reviews of other works with gay characters. There are two big and conflicting complaints:
- "Too much sex. Gay people have lives outside the bedroom, you know."
- "Not enough sex. Gay people have sex lives, too."
While it's easy to write this off as "gay people have no idea what they really want," there is a bit of legitimacy to both arguments. There needs to be a balance between your gay characters' relative promiscuity and celibacy, and a lot of writers have a hard time finding this balance.
A Good Rule of Thumb
Let the gay characters do it exactly the same amount as the straight characters. Split it along character significance. If a straight main character has X amount of romance, then so should a gay main character. If a secondary straight character has Y amount of sex, then a secondary gay character should also have Y amount.
If your story does not involve romance of any kind, then don't feel you have to give your gay characters love scenes. If your story is just one big orgy, then your gay characters should be getting it on just as much as their straight cohorts.
Do I Have to Give My Gay Characters a Girlfriend/Boyfriend?
Not if you don't want to, and again, refer to the "as often as straight characters" rule of thumb. Having a story with all the straight people in happy couples and the gay person alone is a bit unfair, and readers will get frustrated.
I Want to Include Gay Romance. How Should I Do It?
Honestly, depending on how erotic you make it, it's more or less the same as heterosexual romance. The gender dynamics are a bit different. Who holds the door open? Who buys who flowers? There are fewer rules when it comes to gay relationships. Consider this an opportunity for literary freedom.
I don't want to get into sex with this, because I'm hoping to keep this a G-rated article, so as far as how gay people actually do it, well, you're on the internet—I'm sure you'll figure it out. The internet is full of really kinky stuff. Some gay people are kinky, while others are very vanilla—just like straight people. Keep that in mind.
What About Butch/Femme Dynamics? Is One Partner Masculine While the Other is Feminine?
This is wrong—very wrong. While many gay couples do enjoy a butch/femme setup in their relationship and follow a lot of the same gender guidelines that straight couples do, many other couples are femme/femme, butch/butch, or I-hate-gender-roles/I-hate-gender-roles. Writing a lesbian couple with two femmes? They can both buy each other flowers. Writing a lesbian couple with two butches? They can both buy each other flowers, too.
The Saint vs. the Devil
So, you can't make your gay characters too evil, too promiscuous, etc. Does that mean they have to have no flaws whatsoever? Of course not. Just stay away from extremes. You don't want them to be completely evil, but completely good isn't good writing, either. Good and evil lie on a spectrum. It's not black and white. Characters can have flaws without being evil.
The gay man could be really cheap and stingy. The lesbian could be quick to carry an irrational grudge. The bisexual could like Linkin Park. All of these are flaws, but not "you're going to the special Hell" flaws.
Gay Characters in Fiction for Children and Young Adults
"There's nothing wrong with gay people, but kids shouldn't know about it." This outlook used to be far too common in writers of young adult fiction, and some still abide by it. In reality, you can and should have gay characters in stories for younger children. There is nothing inherently "adult" or "sexual" about gay people. They are no more sexual than straight people are. A gay person simply existing in a story should not be cause for alarm.
If you feel you must explain gay people to your younger readers, focus on the love aspect of sexual orientation rather than the sex aspect. Mike fell in love with John. Alice fell in love with Christy. Kids are obviously aware that love exists in the world. They see men and women together long before anyone has to go over "the birds and the bees" with them. You shouldn't feel like you have to go over "the bees and the bees" with when writing gay characters into children's books or stories.
How to Fix Gay Tropes in Your Writing
"I've been unknowingly writing horrible gay characters for years! Help!" So, you've written a story about a slutty bisexual pregnant serial killer? Well, let's go over some ways to turn that around.
Bring Back the Balance
So you have a gay character with a bunch of negative characteristics. You can make things better by having a bunch of straight people with the same negative characteristics, showing that it's not just gay people who act that way. Or you can have a bunch of gay people who don't have those negative characteristics. The second choice is the better one.
Mend Their Ways
Who says characters can't change their minds? If characters don't change at all, then you're writing poorly, gay or straight. So who's to say one of those changes can't be towards a positive, less cliché direction?
Write Them Out Then Try Again Later
So maybe you've come to realize that there's nothing you can do to make your gay character better. It might be time for that character to make their grand exit. (Please, don't kill them off if you haven't already.) Then you can either introduce a new gay character in your story or write a new story.
One Final Thing to Keep in Mind
The gay community is notoriously picky about how people write about them. And because the people within the gay community are so diverse, you will always have some people who think you're doing an awful job writing about them.
I cannot speak for the entire gay community when I say this, but as far as I am concerned, as long as you write with the best intentions, truly seek to educate yourself, and try to write gay characters as best you can, then you're doing alright. Take constructive criticism into account, but ultimately know that you will never be able to please everyone (in any genre).
Yoda says "Do or do not. There is no try." That doesn't apply here. You should always try.
More will be added as time goes on and you write questions that compel me.
Why don't you include trans people in this article?
Because trans is not a sexuality. You can be trans and gay, trans and straight, trans and bi, etc. Trans people have some similar issues, but enough differences to warrant "Writing Trans Characters" being a separate article.
There is also the fact that since I can't speak for the whole community I am part of, it's even harder to speak for a community I am not part of. When I do a similar article about writing trans characters, I will have some guest writers help me along. It is not something I can put together myself.
How important is it to showcase someone's sexuality (make a big deal out of it)?
Remember the scenarios above with the "gay character" vs. the "character who just happened to be gay?" What it's there to show is that either way works. Some characters make constant mention of their sexuality, while for others, it's a non-issue.
Some gay readers will like that you address the character's sexuality and think that not talking about it would be an attempt to cover it up. Other gay readers will like that you don't address it, giving your story a sense of "this person is normal, and there's more to them than their sexuality".
It's up to your taste to write it, and your readers' tastes to read it. There is no set quota for how often you need to mention your character is OMGay.
You have a whole bunch of things in the "Avoid at All Costs" section. I should avoid all of those things? All of them?
If you want to write something original, yes. There are a hundred gay character clichés, but I listed the ones that I did because they are either the most overused, the most harmful, or both.
You might look at one of these and think, "Oh, but I bet I can use one of those in a different way that's never been done before!" Believe me, it's been done before.
I only listed nine clichés. There are more than nine things you can do with a gay person's character. If the only attributes you associate gay people with are pregnant, slutty, evil, dead, etc., then you might find your "friend of the gays" card getting revoked.