This weekend, I attended Novacon 50. In addition to being Britain’s longest-running Science Fiction Convention, it also has a massive number of attendees who are authors, writers, and publishers. I volunteered to hold a workshop there based around representation, and writing LGBTQ+ characters even if the author may have been afraid to before.
The aim of this workshop was not to teach the right way to write LGBTQ+ characters, but to encourage people to think, research, and represent people in the most sensitive way that they can.
I am uploading my notes here so that those who were unable to attend can still hear what I have to say.
Writing characters who are a part of the LGBTQ+ community- whether that means they are gay, nonbinary or asexual- can seem like an impossible task with no right answer and many, many wrong ones. Today, I’d like to share some tips and pointers for representing diverse characters in your work.
To begin, I will ask each person their name, pronouns, and their favourite character from a book (scifi or not). We can then discuss these characters, and why they are favoured, in more depth.
Is your favourite character’s gender identity or sexual orientation ever explored?
If a character is gay or transgender, it is likely that it is. However straight, cis characters rarely have to establish this as LGBTQ+ characters do.
Would being in the LGBTQ+ community change your favourite character’s journey at all?
My answer: it depends purely on the person and their story. Example? Luke Skywalker would likely still be the Chosen One if he was gay. He just might not kiss his sister.
However, if Luke Skywalker came out as a trans woman during the course of the story, people may have started to treat her differently.
Let’s start with the basics
Firstly: LGBTQ+ identities are not all about sex or genitals. They are not even all about love. They are also not a choice. All we want to do is be happy as we are.
LGBTQ+ characters are just characters with a different outlook.
Let’s talk about that.
Tell me a bit about your favourite character’s history. Is it happy, or sad?
Everyone changes over time, and everyone has elements of their past which are separate from their current identity. If you are married for example, there was a time before you met that person. If you are trans, there was a time before you had a word for it. Even before a character knew that they were in the LGBTQ+ community, they will have had good days, bad days and defining moments. Embarrassing memories and childhood crushes. But all too often, LGBTQ characters have tragic backstories relating to their identity.
Too often, people assume that every memory before coming out has to be sad.
I myself didn’t transition because I was miserable as I was. I transitioned because it made me happy.
A good character is not defined by their identity. You will rarely learn where someone fits on the rainbow by the first meeting, and sometimes not even on the second. That means they need to have other traits that keep you invested in them as a character.
But how do you introduce their identity to your readers?
A character in Mass Effect Andromeda stirred minor controversy when she opened with the following dialogue:
“Back home, I was filling some test tubes in a dead-end lab. Back then, people knew me as Stephan. But that’s never who I was.”
This seems like an odd thing to say unprompted. Especially to a near-complete stranger.
Let’s talk about this. How could the team behind the game have handled this better?
My answer: Give them time. A character should decide naturally if and when they want to come out. Or perhaps they don’t. Sometimes there are things the reader doesn’t need to know, and that’s okay!
Which brings us to our next point:
Outing – Where a trusted confidante or knowledgeable party discloses private, often sensitive information about someone, usually regarding their sexuality or gender, without their consent.
Outing is one of, if not the worst thing that can happen to an LGBTQ+ person. In many books, movies and TV shows, it is used for cheap drama or interpersonal conflict at the expense of an LGBTQ+ character’s sense of trust or security. In reality, it can be traumatic or even dangerous, especially for those with particularly right-wing or conservative families.
Outing a character is not the only way to add relevant tension, and a character’s journey does not need to be linked with their LGBTQ+ identity at all.
Can you think of a story in which a secret getting out had negative consequences for a character? What was the secret?
A character’s journey and their identity may interact but it is sometimes safest just to have them exist as they are, happy and accepted among their peers even if not by anyone else.
Stereotypes: do I or Don’t I?
Stereotypes can be very dangerous territory to tread, but they are not always a bad thing. Many LGBTQ+ people lean into their respective stereotypes as a form of subculture and/or protest. This can be clearly seen in the presentation of ‘queens’ – a term used to represent extremely effeminate and flamboyant gay men.
Since the Stonewall Riots, LGBTQ+ culture has seen much more growth and acceptance among the general public, yet social occasions such as parades, parties and festivals remain front and centre when it comes to protest and raising awareness, leading to an incredibly bold and vibrant culture.
If you are going to think about referencing LGBTQ+ culture and stereotypes, it is incredibly important to do your own research and listen to people within that group. In this case more than any other, reading news articles is not enough, and likely never will be.
What was the last news article you read that mentioned someone in the LGBTQ+ community? Why were they included?
Outdated stereotypes such as trans women being a threat to feminism, and bisexual people being promiscuous continue to be circulated by news outlets and popular media, so it is very, very important not to perpetuate them, even unintentionally.
If an LGBTQ+ plays a major role in your story, and even if they don’t, a sensitivity reader is a very important thing to have.
Can you think of any places on the internet where an author could reach out to people for research and beta reading?
That said, it is important that people you talk to are willing to help. Don’t crash a safe space and present questions that may bring back unpleasant memories, or base a character’s backstory on someone without permission. Ask first.
If you have ever had a book published, you perhaps are used to handing the reins over to someone else. But, we are often protective over our books and stories as they are. That said, if a beta reader or sensitivity reader expresses concerns, listen, and discuss how to make things better. Even I make mistakes, and the community I am representing is my own.
Even so… no book, or film, or TV show is perfect. In many cases, the internet will be the internet. Sensitivity readers or not, someone will always be offended, somewhere. But representation is important, so don’t let that discourage you. Do your research, make new friends, and above all, be kind.