RESOURCE LESSON CHARACTERS Writing Queer Characters

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Introduction
In honor of pride month, I decided that it was about time we had a guide discussing how to write queer characters. Now, that's a pretty massive undertaking, so I'm only touching on a handful of concepts. Now, while 'Writing Queer Characters' is a simple and catchy title, this guide isn't meant to be a strict how-to guide. After all, the queer community is incredibly vast and diverse in both the identities it covers as well as in the personalities of its members. This guide is meant to aid in the respectful depiction of groups that often go misrepresented, pointing out some controversial and harmful tropes and ideas that permeate the media.

Disclaimer: it is also important to note that I am operating from a Western perspective, as I live in the U.S., and so that is (mostly) the media that I am discussing. I cannot speak so much to queer culture and toxic representation in other cultures except for what little leaks into Western media.

Queer People
First things first — remember that who your character is will always be more important than their sexuality. You might have noticed that it has become almost obligatory for every sitcom to feature a gay best friend, usually male, usually effeminate and stereotypical, who is only there to support the main character's journey. They usually have very little depth, with their entire character being based on the fact that they are gay. While this appears supportive on the surface, it is still reducing queer people down to a set of stereotypes and denying them their own story in favor of placing them as supporting cast for the straight main characters.

Your character's sexuality shouldn't be their defining trait. It is perfectly fine to have an out and proud queer character, but they should also possess various other characteristics that give them depth and direction to grow just like everyone else.

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Sexuality Matters
Now, don't get me wrong, sexuality does matter. In an effort to avoid the preceding issue, I have noticed plenty of well-meaning allies and even queer people decide to ignore sexuality within their characters entirely. This is not ideal, either. Queer people are not straight people. Queer people have their own history, their own culture, their own language, their own fashion.

For most of history, queer people have had to live entirely separate and secret lives away from heteronormative culture. Did you know that green suits and red ties were once used by MLM (men-loving men) to indicate their sexuality to other MLM? How familiar are you with the handkerchief code? What about the molly-houses of the 19th century? The green carnations? What about Polari? Did you know there was a point where homosexuality was thought to be the result of a woman being born in a male body and vice versa?

Now, the distinction between queer and straight people has diminished greatly over the years. There are plenty of queer people who have absolutely no idea about any of the things I listed above. Personally, I didn't think of myself as a queer person until I took a queer literature class at university, because I was from a small town where only a handful of queer people existed and there was little hope for an entire subculture there. Still, queer culture still very much exists in modern times — look at RuPaul's Drag Race and the continued existence of queer nightclubs for a couple of obvious examples.

More than the difference in culture, being queer also affects how you think and interact with the world. There's the fear of hate crimes that keeps you more alert, the sharpened skill of reading subtext because of the media's long history of erasing and demonizing portrayals of queer people, the shame that some people have been made to feel about their identity… The world interacts with queer people differently than it does straight people, and so queer people interact with it differently in turn.

If your story is set in modern times, these differences might not be as stark, but they are certainly something to consider. It was not long ago that queer people were left to die from AIDS, and only a bit longer that the word "homosexual" was even created. If your story is set in the past, then it's crucial to consider how the character's being queer affects how they live within their world and how they might define themself without the terms and support that exist nowadays.

Most simply, queer representation is still extremely lacking, most of it being subtle or stereotypical, so if you plan to make queer characters, then make them queer.

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Assuming Heteronormative Dynamics
One common issue you'll find in storytelling, especially from straight cis writers, is trying to fit queer relationships into a heternormative box. The patriarchy has created a standard that men must be masculine and dominant while a woman must be feminine and submissive, with the man always being the top during sex while the woman bottoms. As the portrayal of queer people grows, you'll notice that many are written in terms of those standards. There is usually the "masculine" one and the "feminine" one, their personalities reflecting the social norms and stereotypes expected of a heterosexual relationship.

It is not uncommon, even in real life, to hear people ask same-sex couples, "Who wears the pants in the relationship," or even more telling, "Who is the man in the relationship?" The answer, of course, is usually both or neither! While there certainly are MLM who are effeminate and WLW (women-loving women) who are masculine, it should not be expected that a queer relationship automatically follows the masculine-feminine dynamic.

The masculine-feminine dominant-submissive dynamic is limiting to everyone, but for queer couples, it's often just plain untrue. While there certainly are couples that fit into that dynamic, and while there's nothing wrong with that so long as it genuinely makes them happy, there are plenty more masculine-masculine, feminine-feminine, and versatile dynamics.

So why does all this matter? Besides wanting to be more true to real life, queer couples act as an obvious example of how relationships don't have to fit into society's expectations in order to be both healthy and fulfilling. They call into question how "natural" the roles placed upon us actually are, challenging the patriarchal and misogynistic standards we have been shaped by.

Sexual Preferences =/= Personality... Always
In the preceding post, you'll notice how I touched upon the dominant-submissive and top-bottom binaries being tied to the masculine-feminine binary. This is because they often are portrayed as going hand-in-hand. Scrolling through search threads, it's likely that you'll come across threads that simply request "a top" or "a bottom." Despite not having said it explicitly, we understand what is meant by that. A "top" is someone dominant and masculine, while a "bottom" is someone submissive and feminine, each following a cliché set of likes and dislikes based on gender stereotypes. Often, these terms suggest an appearance as well, with "tops" being assumed to be muscular and tall while "bottoms" are wide-hipped, small, and delicate.

Ultimately, though, these binaries are not fixed to each other. Just because someone is a top does not automatically mean that they have masculine interests or ways of dressing. Similarly, someone who is a bottom is not necessarily a pushover wearing lace and frills. "Top," "bottom," and "verse" are simply ways of describing how you like to go about having sex; they say nothing about your personality inside and outside of the bedroom. "Dominant," "submissive," and "switch" are a bit more entangled with personality, at least in the bedroom, but your level of dominance within sexual scenarios does not always correspond with your personality outside of it. There are plenty of submissive tops and dominant bottoms. Dominant tops might be more submissive in daily life than in the bedroom, just as submissive bottoms might be the one "wearing the pants" (wink) in the relationship outside of the bedroom.

Ultimately, all of those terms are ones that apply to the bedroom, and while there can be crossover between your behavior in the bedroom and your behavior outside of it, narrowing people down entirely to just a "top" or a "bottom" is fetishistic. It ignores the person in lieu of seeing them only as a sexual object. That being said, plenty of people will refer to themselves by those terms to describe their personalities, and that's valid. The problem lies in when you expect and assume that people behave in a specific way because of their bedroom preferences and when you think of queer people only in terms of their sex lives.

Fetishization
Speaking of fetishism, it's time to talk about queer fetishism. You're probably most familiar with this in terms of the portrayal of lesbians in mainstream media, with relationships between WLW being almost entirely sexual. This is ultimately due to the male gaze, which treats women as sexual objects for heterosexual men's viewing pleasure. Women are allowed to have sex with one another because it appeals to straight men, but they are rarely allowed to have close emotional bonds with one another. The relationship is usually narrowed down only to sex or eventually discarded for a more emotionally intimate relationship with a man. Portraying WLW in emotionally intimate relationships threatens the patriarchal idea that women need men, after all.

The depiction of MLM is more complicated. In mainstream media, we tend to see the opposite pattern, where men are allowed to be close emotionally but never physically. If you're familiar with the term queerbaiting, which refers to suggesting that two same-sex characters have feelings for one another in order to maintain a queer audience but then never confirming as much, then you likely know what I'm talking about.

Conversely, we have seen a drastic swing within fandom spaces. Misogyny in media tends to lead to female characters being less interesting and their relationships lacking depth in comparison to their male counterparts, and this leads many people to "ship" male characters together instead, creating fanworks that depict them in the sexual and explicitly romantic scenarios media tends to deny its audience. For queer people, shipping is often the only way to see ourselves represented.

Still, there are times when it can go too far, especially when we're talking about fanfiction written about MLM by straight cis teenage girls. While this is certainly not the case for all women writing about MLM, there is sometimes fetishizing being done like with straight men and WLW. They also are more likely to fall into the heteronormative ideals (discussed above) they have been conditioned with, ignoring actual queer experience and culture (usually unintentionally) to portray what they more commonly see. Additionally, there is a bad pattern of toxic tropes within this type of writing (namely self-described 'yaoi' and 'boy love' stories), such as romanticized abuse. Mostly because cis straight women have been conditioned to endure and even romanticize abuse themselves.

Bisexual people, especially bisexual women, also face a lot of fetishism for their sexuality, both by straight people and their fellow queer people. Because they are attracted to men and women, they are often the targets of predatory couples looking for a "unicorn"" that they can take advantage of. In media, bisexual people are often portrayed as especially promiscuous, their more expansive sexual attraction being equated to a need for sex. With bisexual people often going unrepresented in media, erased as either gay or straight depending on who they are dating from one moment to the next, the fact that the representation they do get is so highly sexualized is worrisome.

Trans and intersex people also face a lot of fetishism because they are viewed as "exotic," with people constantly speculating on their genitalia and referring to them with derogatory terms such as shemale and trap. The first term denies people their true gender identity and the latter implies that trans and intersex people are trying to manipulate and coerce people into sex by "pretending" to be another sex. Which, obviously, is not the case. More controversially, there is the term "futanari," used mostly in fandom spaces to describe an intersex individual (also sometimes trans, but usually not) who presents as female with a penis. Whether or not this is a harmful term is up for debate, but it's important to note how it has morphed into being used mostly in sexual contexts to fetishize intersex and trans bodies.

So what's the harm in all this sexualization? Well, as the definition of fetishism explains, it is reducing human beings into sexual objects. This, in turn, increases real-life disrespect and harassment as assholes internalize the notion that queer people only exist for them to get their rocks off. None of this is to say that you shouldn't write queer characters having sex, of course! There's nothing wrong with writing queer sex scenes and/or slutty queer characters. The problem begins when you start denying your queer characters depth and humanity in favor of sexualizing them.

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Intersex Representation
Beyond the fetishism of intersex people, intersex representation is also lacking and sometimes inaccurate. Usually, when you see intersex people in stories, they fall into one of three depictions: 1) female-presenting with a penis, 2) male-presenting with a vagina, or 3) having both fully-functional male and female genitalia. In truth, though, many intersex conditions present more subtly.

For example, those with androgen insensitivity syndrome are born with XY chromosomes and form testes, but their bodies end up developing an entirely female phenotype due to androgen hormones not binding to receptors properly. Unless you were told, you would likely never know they are not cis women. A genotypical female might have congenital adrenal hyperplasia, which can result in something as subtle as growing facial hair and deepening the voice. That is still an intersex condition.

When portraying intersex people, it is important to do your research to make sure you are being accurate, especially when this group goes so underrepresented in the media already. This is odd, considering that (as far as we know right now with limited testing) there are just as many intersex people as people with red hair!

Nonbinary is More than Agenderness and Androgyny
This is a quick reminder that no one owes anyone a specific gender presentation. Trans women don't need to be exceedingly feminine to be women, and trans men don't need to be exceedingly masculine to be men. Similarly, nonbinary folks do not need to be androgynous to be nonbinary. Yet, usually, when they are portrayed in media, they are.

Nonbinary is a huuuge umbrella term for so many identities, with agender (the lack of gender identity) being only one. There are also identities like genderfluid, bigender, demigirl and demiboy, each of which might prefer more feminine or more masculine presentations depending. Agender people might even choose to present more feminine or masculine! They are still all nonbinary, and their identities need to be respected regardless of how they style themselves. So, if you decide to write a nonbinary character, you are not limited to only an androgynous portrayal.

Asexual and Aromantic (Mis)Representation
Asexuality is often referred to as "the invisible sexuality" because of how underrepresented, misunderstood, and easily overlooked it is. It is much easier to talk about something obvious than the absence of something, and that is what asexuality (and it's romantic counterpart aromanticism) is: a lack of sexual attraction. In the few instances that asexuality and aromanticism are portrayed in the media, they are usually rife with misconceptions and harmful tropes, mostly perpetrated by our sex-obsessed society. Even other queer people are perpetrators of ace and arophobia. Let's go over the biggest ones:
  • Asexual =/= Aromantic. While plenty of AroAce people exist, the two terms are often incorrectly conflated. Because romance and sex are so intrinsically linked within Western culture, it is assumed that if you don't feel sexual attraction, you must not feel romantic attraction either. This is not the case, as these two feelings are separate. You can have a "normal" relationship with someone that doesn't involve sex, and you can have a relationship that is purely sexual without romantic intimacy being involved. To denote this separation, many ace and aro folks use double terms to describe where they stand on both spectrums. For example, I myself am panromantic asexual: romantic attraction to any and sexual attraction to none.
  • Asexual/Aromantic =/= Sex/Romance-Averse. Many people assume asexuality is a lack of sexual desire and that all ace people are disgusted by and don't participate in sexual exploits. For aromantics, this assumption exists but with romance instead of sexuality. Neither are true. Both identities refer to a lack of sexual/romantic attraction, not to a lack of libido/romantic need. While there are plenty of sex-averse asexuals and romance-averse aromantics who are disgusted by these things, there are also those who are indifferent or even receptive to them. Many asexual people do still have libidos and engage in sex as more of a biological need, they just don't feel sexual attraction like allosexual people do. They also might engage in sex for other reasons, such as pleasing their partner and increasing emotional intimacy. Same thing for aromantics. They also may be sex/romance-averse when it comes to themselves, but are still interested in sex/romance as concepts, which they might explore through writing and media consumption. There is plenty of gatekeeping surrounding asexuality and aromanticism, too, with people accusing you of faking your identity if you are not sex/romance-averse. This is, obviously, inappropriate and cruel.
  • Sexual Attraction =/= Aesthetic Attraction. On the topic of asexuality gatekeeping, there is also a misunderstanding that asexual people cannot acknowledge someone as attractive. This is incorrect. While ace people may not find someone sexually attractive, they can still find them aesthetically so, and enjoy looking at them. That does not mean they are pretending to be asexual. The comparison I love to use for the allosexuals in my life when discussing the difference is people to butterflies. I can acknowledge that a butterfly is beautiful, and might even want to keep it around me so that I can keep looking at it, but I don't want to fuck the butterfly.
  • Lack of Sex/Romance =/= Lack of Emotions. Many asexual/aromantics in the media are portrayed not as asexual/aromantic people, but as emotionally-distant robots. Both literally and figuratively. Take Data from Star Trek and Sherlock Holmes as examples. Their lack of sexual and romantic desire exists only to make them seem less human. That says it all, I think.
  • Asexuals/Aromantics =/= Broken. Ace and aro people are often dismissed as being medically or psychologically ill. It is assumed that their lack of attraction is the result of hormone issues or psychological trauma. In a sex and romance-crazed society, many people struggle to wrap their heads around people being disinterested in it all. This mindset is used against ace and aro people constantly, a sort of psychological warfare telling them that they are unnatural and in need of fixing. Even some queer people say this, which is particularly ironic! Like lesbians often deal with from straight men, asexual and aromantic people have to deal with allosexuals proclaiming they can "fix them." TW: Some ace people are even the victims of corrective rape, and many have reported being pressured and coerced into sex by their partners at least once as "proof that they love them."
  • Asexuality =/= Chastity. Like any other identity, being asexual is not a choice. It is simply how a person is born. Abstaining from sex for religious and personal reasons despite feeling sexual attraction and desire is known as chastity, it is not asexuality. Sex-averse asexuals are not choosing to abstain from sex despite feeling sexual attraction and desire, they simply lack both innately.
  • Aromantics =/= Fuckfolks. Arophobia often takes the form of accusing aromantics of being predatory sluts who just don't want to commit to a romantic relationship. This, of course, is untrue. Just because aromantics don't feel romantic attraction doesn't mean they are heartless and cruel. They still feel emotions and desire connection, just not in a romantic fashion.

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The Queer-Coded Villain and the Queer Saint
Now, let's talk about some queer tropes in writing. Many people are familiar with the idea of the queer villain popularized by the Hays Code in the 1930s-1960s. For those unfamiliar with the Hays Code, it was a set of "moral" guidelines telling people what they were and were not allowed to show on film. Part of this code was that you could not show queer people, lest it corrupts the innocent viewer. The only time that queer people were shown would be when they were the villains of the story (and usually, they were only queer-coded rather than outright stated to be queer). That way, queerness would be associated with villainy, and when villains were eventually punished, they would be punished partially for their queerness.

It should be obvious why constantly portraying queer people as villains is a bad move, but it would also be bad to swing in the opposite direction and turn queer people into saints. In real life, queer people (and individuals from other marginalized groups) tend to be held to higher standards than their straight cis peers. As if to make up for their queerness, queer people are pressured to be "one of the good ones," and often face more punishment for smaller errors.

Queer people are people and therefore are made up of both good and bad, just like everyone else. Queer people should be allowed to be flawed individuals without being seen as evil, and they don't have to be perfect saints to deserve respect.

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Bury Your Gays
This is another popular trope that many of you are probably familiar with. This trope, most simply, refers to how frequently queer characters die in literature. Of course, a queer person dying in a story is not automatically a "bury your gays" situation. More specifically, this trope refers to the way that stories have historically treated queer characters as particularly expendable. They are killed off early in the story, usually as a way of furthering the plot and the growth of the cis heterosexual characters. They may also be killed simply for the tragedy of it, or worse, because of their queerness.

For a textbook example of the bury your gays trope, refer to the final few episodes of Supernatural. The entire show is filled with queer characters dying, but that ending is particularly hilarious in its use of homophobic tropes.

If you only have one queer character in your story, you have to be particularly careful with their fate. After all, if you kill them, you've just killed off 100% of your queer characters. While you don't need to make queer characters immortal, it is important to consider how necessary it is that the character dies. It is disheartening how many stories about queer people are filled with tragedy. What kind of message do we want to send to young queer readers? To expect tragedy and violence in their lives?

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Internalized Homophobia and Abuse as Romance
This is a trope that is actually very popular even in roleplaying spaces and can be narrowed down to simply "victim X bully." This trope also isn't exclusive to queer people, but when it involves a queer couple, it usually has a particular flavor. It usually involves an out-and-proud queer person being tormented by an in-the-closet queer person who is afraid of their attraction towards them. Often, these stories fall into the trap of heteronormative stereotypes as well, with the out queer character being a feminine pushover while the bully is the masculine aggressor.

Now, writing toxic relationships can be a lot of fun and can even be mentally stimulating if done in a nuanced and self-aware way. With proper development into a healthy relationship, it can even be a relationship you end up rooting for. Problems arise when the abuse becomes romanticized, and the bully character's shitty actions are never explicitly called out and punished by the narrative. Being in a dark place mentally is never an excuse to treat the people around you like shit, and the bully's victim is not obligated to forgive them just because they're struggling internally. "He's mean to you because he likes you" is not an acceptable excuse.

Romanticizing abuse is terrible in general because it encourages everyone to put up with poor treatment in the name of love, but when it is targeted toward queer people who are statistically more likely to face abuse and predatory relationships, it is especially dangerous. There are many queer people, especially older generations of queer people, who have had to stay with abusive partners because they had nowhere else to go, having been abandoned by their families and ostracized by their communities.

There is a noticeable trend of queer people being drawn to horror and being attracted to villain characters, and it's suspected that the reason for this is that most of us are more familiar with toxic relationships than we are with healthy ones. For some of us, our life has been filled with horror. Because we've been treated like monsters, we are more likely to see the human beneath the monster and forgive them for their transgressions. By writing these abuser X abused relationships, though, we might be perpetuating tolerance toward those relationships in real life.

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Conclusion
Ultimately, there is no way to write queer characters. At least, no one way. The queer community is incredibly diverse with so many differing experiences, it is impossible to create any sort of guide about how to write queer people, just as there is no how-to guide for being gay. Still, there is plenty of discussion to be had about how queer people have been portrayed in the past and how they are being portrayed currently, and how harmful some of these portrayals can be. Since Western society has built its queer representation off of many harmful tropes, it is important to bear them in mind when creating your own works so that you can have an earnest and respectful conversation about the issues that still plague the community.