Updated: Apr 14
Today's article is all about writing queer and questioning characters. It's actually a guest blogger today, who has chosen to remain anonymous, but they bring up some excellent points. This is an important and complex topic but my guest blogger brings it all together in an easy to understand way. I also got the chance to ask them some questions about their background, some good examples of rep, and a handful of book and media recommendations!
It has been a lovely experience watching popular media evolve. From the smash hit Black Panther to the cute rom-com Love, Simon, more and more room has been created for diverse narratives for normally margined characters, such as fat people, women of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community. As an ally of the community and someone questioning her sexuality, I can appreciate all of the bisexual and lesbian women finally getting a chance to be heard on the screen, but there is one member of the community who doesn’t get as much of a chance to shine as her counterparts.
The one who’s questioning.
I can practically guarantee that you’ve never heard of questioning. It’s not talked about very much, more of a hushed topic behind closed doors. The ‘Q’ of LGBTQ+ can mean queer—an umbrella term of people attracted to people of the same sex—but it can also mean questioning—anyone considered who they are attracted to or who believes that they may be queer. I should know, I am one of those seemingly few people.
I was invited to do a guest post on my friend Lev’s blog to write about two things: how to write questioning characters and how to write gay characters when you’re straight, mostly because I’m doing both and with some help from some friends of mine, I’ve gathered a few tips on how to write good rep without insulting anyone or adhering to outdated stereotypes.
How To Write Questioning Characters
Questioning people are often used to being attracted to those of the opposite sex, but they will have some deep, deep feelings that were previously unexplored until they just can’t ignore it anymore. Many of these people grew up religious and learned that this feeling was a sin, so they suppressed it to adhere to doctrine. It can be a painful and lonely experience, so here are some tips for you to do this properly (not that I’m an expert!):
Don’t make them use labels if they don’t want to. If you don’t think there’s no discrimination within the gay community, you’d be very wrong. Bisexual people are often told to ‘pick a side’ or that being bi is just a pit stop on the way to being fully gay, and while I know that sexuality is a fluid spectrum, it isn’t anyone’s job to tell you what you are. If you feel your character doesn’t fit a label, for God’s sake, don’t make them! I’ve changed my ‘label’ multiple times and so have many other members of the community. My friend once told me, “I like who I like, and nothing else matters.” I couldn’t agree with those words more because, at the end of the day, gender doesn’t determine who we like, not really.
Portray their inner thoughts. There will be times when your character thinks a boy is attractive, but they will also think a girl is attractive. When you think you’re straight, it’s mind-blowing, this experience, but it happens. Maybe Finn is checking out Rey while she works out but then sees Poe lifting weights and can’t tear his eyes off of him. It’s natural, it’s human and it’s in all of us, and it’s important to have those thoughts out in the open where they’re not exactly unabashed and proud, but not feeling shame and dirty either.
Make them question their own feelings. If you’re raised religious and are feeling an attraction to someone of the same sex, you’re questioning everything you’ve ever known about yourself and the world around you (perhaps that’s why they’re called questioning?). On the other hand, you’ve been raised in this world and to an extent, it’s part of your identity. It feels like picking between two halves of yourself, and it’s a struggle because it seems you cannot be one without betraying the other. This kind of thinking is evident and even though it’s not fun to write about, it makes people feel a hell of a lot less alone because it’s empowering for someone to say the words that you’ve been thinking in your head for months. Let them be scared that they’re just straight and looking for attention. Let them worry about other people’s opinions. Let them question themselves. Let them. Please.
Let them go at their own pace. They will not figure everything out right away! It’s so annoying to see that when it doesn’t feel authentic and natural, so if it doesn’t feel like that, don’t push it! Treat your character as a human because they are, and it’s their journey to go on. Also, don’t let anyone tell you that it’s confusing to see that, because that’s kind of the point. They’re questioning.
How To Write Gay Characters When You’re Not Gay
The source material is key. Don’t dive in headfirst without looking at some good examples of layered gay characters. The stereotypes are not all there is to the community. Not every gay person is draped in rainbow colors and flirting with everyone in sight, just like not every straight person is on Tinder and desperate to find love. We evolve beyond the lines. Some examples of good material are Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda and Leah On the Offbeat for novels, and Legends of Tomorrow and One Day at a Time for shows (both are on Netflix! Elena Alvarez and Sara Lance are my queens!)
Ask some people! Talk to gay people, lesbians, bisexual people, asexual people, questioning people, nonbinary people, trans people. Have some decency and don’t just write things and make them token characters! It’s not fun and it’s not funny. Gay people aren’t here to be your kink, your ‘gay best friend’ stereotype or to fill your diversity quota; they’re people with desires and dreams and layers like everyone else, so don’t be insensitive. Do your research and be thorough, out of respect.
Don’t adhere to stereotypes. Not every gay person is into everyone they meet. Not every bi person has an equal attraction to both genders. Not every questioning person is religious. It’s a board experience to question and accept your sexuality for what it is, so have respect for a rich, diverse experience. People can tell the difference between sincerity and being fake to get what? People’s respect? Money? Fame? It’s ridiculous, frankly, so don’t do it. It comes across as fake if you write it from a fake point of view. You didn’t have to make an LGBTQ+ character, but you made that choice, hopefully, for the right reasons.
Don’t make it the main trait of your character. Sexuality is a big part of identity, yes, but casual rep is such a good thing! The whole point of writing these stories is to normalize it and make it a regular thing, not like a unicorn in a forest or something. Having a character holding hands and cuddling with their same-sex partner and not making a big thing of it can often have a bigger effect than you could ever imagine. For some pointers on some causal queer rep, watch One Day at a Time, Brooklyn Nine-Nine or Supergirl.
What inspires you the most as a writer?
What inspires me most as a writer is other people. I started writing stories because I wanted to make my own so that no matter what age I was, I would always have something of my own to read. As I got older, it just became my lifeline when I didn't see people who were like me in popular media.
If you could meet any author, who would you meet?
Elizabeth Acevedo! My favorite book is "The Poet X", which talks about sexual harassment and questioning religion. Her character Xiomara was the first one I really gelled with, and I would love to meet her in person and tell her how much her book means to me.
When did you first start writing?
My first story was written at the age of 10 for a vocab assignment. I actually turned it in late because I didn't feel that the story was finished and I almost got a zero, but the story was messily written and six pages long! I thank God every day that my teacher was patient enough to wait for me to finish.
What is your favorite genre to write in? Why?
I love realistic fiction. I grew up reading it and people are so diverse and varied in real life that I feel it's best expressed in realistic fiction and romance. I do love sci-fi though because often POCs, women and LGBTQ+ characters get such casual rep in them, and realistic fiction tends to make those qualities a HUGE HUGE deal.
What do you believe are signs of good representation in writing?
Signs of good rep...diverse characters, layers in said characters, not making the minority trait the whole focus of the story, good research if it's not an own-voices novel.
Do you remember the first book that exposed you to queer characters?
The first queer rep I saw, specifically with queer black girls, in a book was from "The Stars and the Blackness Between Them."
What are some stories that you love and have good representation?
Different categories for this! TV shows: One Day at a Time, Legends of Tomorrow, Grown-ish, Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Movies: Love, Simon; Let It Snow, To All the Boys I've Loved Before. Books: The Poet X, the Honors trilogy, 19 Love Songs, Girls of Paper and Fire, Odd One Out, Hot Dog Girl, Final Draft, The Princess and the Fangirl and the Summer of Jordi Perez (lots of books, but that's because I love a good queer romance novel!)