How to Write LGBT+ Characters

Join us in welcoming guest blogger, Hannah Givens. We met Hannah through another mutual blogger friend over a year ago and we fell in love with her super intelligent and pop culture rich blog,Things Matter. We asked her here today to talk about an important and seldom addressed topic: how to write sensitive and realistic lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender characters.This is a subject we knew almost nothing about, but we wanted to know more, and thought our readers would too.

Please give a warm Write On Sisters welcome to Hannah!

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So, you want to write a queer character? Great! Your fiction will be more realistic, and your audience will thank you for your respect. Of course, it can be challenging to write outside your comfort zone, but it’s definitely not impossible.

For our purposes, your writing will fall into one of three categories, and your approach will vary slightly depending on the category.

1) Historical Fiction
As with any kind of historical fiction, research is your friend. How did people live during your time period? If someone didn’t want a traditional marriage or a traditional gender role, what other options were available? In ancient history, the culture might be open to male homosexuality but not female, or open to all homosexuality as long as all parties went home to their opposite-sex partners at the end of the day. Other cultures and time periods were less hospitable, and people had to find creative ways to break taboos. What code words and signals would a gay man use to meet other men in the 1900s versus the 1950s?
The most important thing to remember is that queer people have existed in every time and place, you just have to find them. It doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom either, even if you’re dealing with a restrictive time period. Queer people can make their own happy endings, if that’s what your story needs — look at Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake, a lesbian couple in early-1800s America who lived in a de facto marriage for 44 years. It can happen.

2) Contemporary Fiction
With a story set in the present, research is still your friend, but in this case you’re fortunate to have all the primary sources you could possibly want! Talk to people, read blogs, read books, find out what it’s like. Use resources like the Diversity Cross Check tumblr to locate people willing to answer questions.
We’re in a transitional phase at the moment where homosexuality is becoming commonplace, but we’re not stopping there. People are exploring all kinds of new identities and understandings. Labels are many, varied, and personal. As a writer, terminology is something to treat with great care, keeping your character’s personality and backstory in mind. Some people are accustomed to the word “queer” being derogatory, and would never apply it to themselves. Others, like me, use the term as a general catchall for LGBTQQIA+ (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer Questioning Intersex Asexual and more.) People fall onto a whole gender spectrum far beyond male/female, and they have any number of pronouns to go with those identities. As a writer, if you’re not sure you’re using a term correctly or representing an identity accurately, hold off on that using it or presenting that character until you’re confident.
The most important thing here is that a queer person is probably not thinking about their queerness every second of the day. It’s totally fine to write an “issues” book or a coming-out novel, but don’t be limited by that — queerness doesn’t have to be the plot!

3) Science Fiction/Fantasy
In these genres, it’s totally up to you! You don’t have to worry about what it was “really” like in some other time period, you can design your world any way you want. If your story is based on Earth or is meant to be a human future, then modern issues might be an influence. If not, or if you’re far enough into the future, you have free reign to create not just characters but whole societies. This can be especially interesting if you want to explore different ideas of gender, like in the recent award-winning Ancillary series by Ann Leckie.
As with terminology, you’ll want to be reasonably secure in your point of view to avoid accidentally creating a world with unfortunate implications that will reflect back on you as an author. That’s easy to do even for the most well-meaning of creators. I’m not trying to scare you off, though. The most important thing here, and really with any genre, is to have the queer characters! Even if they aren’t central, you can still reference how queer people fit into the society you’ve created. If they’re totally nonexistent, if there’s no place for them at all, then I’ve got news for you… You’re writing a dystopia!

One More Most-Important Thing
Including the queer characters really is the most-est important, even if you make mistakes. In most circumstances and for most stories, you’ll write a queer character just like any other. But if you’re having trouble, or you feel like your research is getting the better of you, it never hurts to try things the other way around: Look at your existing lineup and try some experiments. What would happen if your POV character came out? Could one of your characters be transgender? At the least you’ll get some good practice in conceiving fully-formed queer people, and while you’re doing that, you may find your characters are already queerer than you thought!

Hannah GivensGuest Blogger: Hannah Givens is a history and museum studies student in the Deep South. She blogs about history, pop culture, sci-fi writing, and queer issues of all kinds. She is also the founder of the twitter hashtag, #queerpop, and a member of the Non-Binary Book Club. Find her at Thing Matter, or on Twitter with @HannahEGivens.


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16 thoughts on “How to Write LGBT+ Characters”

  1. Very good article. I need to ask a question though: how should I write a bisexual character without him being cliché or offensive?
    Thank you!

  2. I’m so glad you included historical fiction here. It’s too easy to present a period as the dominant culture and privileged people of the time would have viewed their own world, but diversity of all kinds has been present throughout history.

  3. To me, the story is what matters. If my story as about a married man having an affair with a woman, that is the story. If it’s about a man married to a woman but he is also having an affair with a man, that is the story – and the characters need to be built accordingly. BTW, if in the first example you assumed my man was married to a woman, you failed the first test. I didn’t say it, but maybe you assumed it. He may have been a man married to a man but having an affair with a woman. To me, I don’t mind letting readers cast their own assumptions into my story.

    In most of my stories, the sexuality isn’t central to the plot so it isn’t addressed. I usually go along the lines of, how would someone know if my bank robber was gay or not. He’s a bank robber. Maybe it doesn’t matter to my plot that he’s gay.

    Was my helpful doctor character black? He was, but was important that go out of my way to say so? I don’t know. My black author friends said they assumed all my characters were black except for the redhead. Maybe my gay readers assume a lot of characters are gay if sexuality doesn’t come up. When the college students were running from bullets, they didn’t ask the two guards shooting at them if they were gay.

    Represent the world as you see it, and tell an interesting as hell story. Don’t avert your eyes to avoid talking about certain characters because it’s tricky territory, and don’t include them just to show your agenda. Tell a good story and most people will also love the characters. Use the resources above to help you get it there.

    1. Good points! There’s certainly nothing wrong with letting people make their own assumptions. I generally find that most people will assume a character is straight, though, rather than the reverse, because we’re in that transitional period. It’s the same with race — I think it was Homestuck that designed colorless characters so readers could infer whatever race they wanted, but most readers just assumed all the characters were white. (Not sure, I read about it in an article I can’t find to link…) Anyway, “cis white male” is still the default mindset in mainstream fiction. But your approach of letting it be what it is, not avoiding controversial characters but addressing it when relevant, can be an effective way to start undermining those audience assumptions!

      1. I agree that mainstream fiction is definitely influenced by a default mindset, but I have to say that more and more agents and publishers become LGBT+ friendly. I think Dan’s point about the story being centre stage is the main one and the underlying implication of avoiding unnecessary politics that ruin good stories. My urban fantasy novel is not about LGBT+ romance but has one in it. It’s a secondary plot, many fantasy stories have a romance subplot and not for one second I hesitated adding one even though I know I may face resistance and/or unnecessary branding. People would not think twice if it was a hetero romance. It shouldn’t matter either way.

  4. How to write LGBT+ characters?

    Putting aside the romance genre it’s interesting how there don’t exist articles on how to write hetero characters. Why is that? Why do we need to create guides for people who are outside what is considered the sexuality and gender norm? What is so different between two women loving each other compared to a woman and a man loving each other? Why would you need to do special research for a lesbian or a trans character if you want to use them in a story? What is different about them that they need separate consideration? Yes their life circumstances are different (like everyone else’s) and yes those circumstances may be the reason for them being the kind of person they are today but that is not necessary part of the story or something that needs to be brought up. Their sexuality is not defining them.

    So I think one answer to the question on how to write LGBTQIA characters is this: write them the same way you’d write hetero characters. Well rounded and three dimensional characters need deep research regardless of their sexuality. Research that of course doesn’t exclude the sexuality depending on the story. But it’s no different that any hetero characters.

    We exist as a minority because of discrimination so if you want to embrace diversity and equality treat your characters (and us) as normal and average human beings avoiding stereotyping. If being trans or lesbian or gay or anything is important to your story, then by all means research and use it. But otherwise a self-identifying woman is a woman regardless of whether she was born with a vagina or not and a self-identifying man is a man regardless of whether he sleeps with men or women. In the same sense accept that there are people who are right between the polar genders but never on them and embrace them equally as part of the same diversity. Isolation in minorities and stereotyping is horrendous regardless of the reasons behind it or the good and no so good intentions. Embrace diversity and equality without judging and stereotyping people. Simple as that.


    1. It’s certainly a balancing act between “enough research to be realistic” and “so much research that the person becomes an object.” Writing queer characters should be pretty much the same as writing straight/cis ones.

      Regarding the need for these guides, though, I do think they’re important. Even the most well-meaning writer may not have any idea how to go about writing a queer character if they’ve never thought about it before. If I wanted to write a story about someone from Russia, I would need to do particular research to make that happen, and I’d want to see articles written by Russians about what their experience is like. If I’m writing an American group I’m not familiar with, it’s the same. If I was writing about a person who’s exactly like me except 90 years old, that would be enough difference from me that I need to do special research into how to write that person believably and meaningfully. The question is even more fraught when it concerns a marginalized group, because it’s so easy to be hurtful or play into stereotypes without realizing it’s even happening. Once an author has the basics down, the “special treatment” isn’t really necessary anymore.

      Thank you for bringing up the idea that it doesn’t always matter, though. I have a trans character in my current WIP, and because his role in the story is related to his job and not much personal at all, it’s actually really difficult to convey to the audience that he is in fact trans! Sometimes a character’s queerness is really the least relevant part of them, depending on the context, so it’s really a case-by-case thing.

      1. Yes I totally agree it’s a case by case thing and an act of balance. I think what I detest most is stories that carry a political agenda, regardless of whether I agree with it or not. It’s the same thing with using LGBT+ characters and LGBT-phobia as a means to advance the plot. Unless the book is about bigotry and homophobia, I think it could ruin the story. I try to follow the golden rule of revealing only what matters to the story, leaving everything else out. This is the reason I don’t try to set a theme for my stories and leave it to develop naturally. Or at least that is my intention, we’ll see how that works. I want to tell stories not preach. People have enough preaching in their lives.

  5. One thing that it’s important to remember when writing LGBT characters is that, unless your book is erotica or romance with erotic elements, our sexuality doesn’t define us. Don’t focus on the sexual aspects of our personalities when writing LGBT characters, focus on the person/the character. There are, of course, trials and tribulations associated with being LGBT that heterosexuals don’t experience and those should be reflected in your story where appropriate to round out the character but don’t make it all about sexuality. Your LGBT readers will thank you for the more accurate depiction of who they really are and your straight readers won’t be reading more needless stereotyping that turns so many of them off.

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