We’ve all heard the advice. Maybe we’ve even taken it.
“Write what you know.”
But let’s be honest—if every writer ascribed to that, books would be a lot more dull.
Authors don’t have to know how to solve crimes to write a good mystery, and we don’t have to be in a committed long-term relationship to write satisfying happily ever afters.
And if authors want our books to look like the world around us, we’re going to write characters whose identities we don’t share.
Writing something you’re not familiar with—be it crime scene analysis or a character with a different experience than you—takes research.
More research than reading just one article. But when it comes to accurately writing queer characters, answering the questions below will provide a starting point. While aimed more toward non-queer writers, the questions serve as a good foundation regardless of author identity.
How Does This Character Identify?
Notice I used non-queer rather than straight as the opposite of queer? That’s because queer people can be straight!
The LGBTQIA+ spectrum includes a lot of identities.
For instance, people who are transgender, asexual, and aromantic all can also be straight.
There is no cookie-cutter queer character. Different queer identities will of course have different experiences. Intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, also plays a significant role. Identities and marginalizations overlap and become more than the sum of their parts. A white lesbian’s experience will be different than a Black lesbian’s.
You need to know how your character identifies in order to take steps to ensure accurate representation.
Are You the Right Person to Tell This Story?
No one but you can answer this question. While anyone is “allowed” to write whatever characters and stories they want, if you’re reading this article, hopefully it’s because you care about not doing harm to readers with marginalized identities. Sometimes, not doing harm means realizing a story is not yours to tell and stepping aside. If you had never heard of asexuality as an orientation before reading the previous question, you probably shouldn’t write a story with an asexual lead. Writing a character well requires more than just being vaguely familiar with their identity.
Additionally, there are certain queer stories that may be better coming from queer authors. Coming out stories, for instance, will be more authentic from authors who have had the experience themselves. A good guideline is to write characters who are queer but do not write about being queer.
Do You Have Only One Queer Character?
Having only one queer character affects your story in a lot of ways.
First of all, you’re not allowed to kill them.
That might sound silly, but it’s true. Because if you do kill off your only queer character, you’re taking part in a trope known as Bury Your Gays. Too often in media, queer people die. This may have gotten its start because in the past queer stories couldn’t be told if they had a happy ending. (Seriously, look into the Hays Code or read about lesbian pulp novels here.) But now, queer characters are often treated as more expendable than non-queer characters. In media where supposedly “anyone can die,” why does the character who actually dies tend to be queer?
Autostraddle has two lists: one of lesbian and bisexual TV characters who got happy endings, and one of lesbian and bisexual TV characters who died. The happy list has 29 characters. The dead character list? 208. Almost ten times as long.
I’m not saying you can never kill a queer character—but is this a trend you really want to add to?
Another issue with having only one queer character is that queer people seek each other out. It is unusual in real life for a queer person to have no other queer friends. Even—and perhaps especially—in places that aren’t accepting and have fewer queer people, because there the need for community is stronger.
Does Your Character “Just Happen” to be Queer?
Sometimes non-queer people write characters who just happen to be queer. It’s not a big deal! It’s just another character trait—like if they were blonde or left-handed.
This is not how any queer adult I know views their queerness.
Downplaying a character’s queerness like this is not supportive. Being queer affects how I interact with the world and how the world interacts with me. Treating it as something unimportant treats a part of me as unimportant. Not to mention it ignores a real and significant part of my experience. There is more to writing a queer character than a line here or there about who they’re attracted to.
Answering these questions will not magically make you write the perfect queer character.
If you’re writing a queer character and you’re not queer, get a sensitivity reader. Get more than one.
This goes for any marginalized identity you’re writing that you don’t share. Read works by marginalized writers. Do your research. Reading this article is a step in the right direction, but it is not the be all, end all.
The bottom line is if you can’t do the work to ensure your work doesn’t contain harmful stereotypes, don’t include the rep.