There is no one right way to write queer women or queer relationships featuring two women. I’ll be using the term queer because relationships involving two women can encompass multiple orientations.
5 Tips for Writing Good F/F Representation
Don’t perpetuate stereotypes.
Do question your own biases.
Do give your characters an HEA and acknowledge that HEA.
Do ask if you’re the right person to tell the story.
Do your due diligence.
Before we dive in, I want to stress that my experience will differ from someone else’s experience will differ from someone else’s…and you get the gist. No group is a monolith and no one person speaks for everyone. You can’t write the queer experience because there’s no such thing as a universal queer experience. Attempting to do so will likely result in stereotypical characters, which I think we can all agree is something we want to avoid. Which brings us to our first don’t.
1. Don’t perpetuate stereotypes.
Just so we’re all on the same page regarding the definition, according to Merriam Webster, a stereotype is a “standardized mental picture […] that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment.”
Put plainly, perpetuating queer stereotypes creates forgettable one-dimensional characters.
Not only is it lazy writing, but you can do a lot of harm to those who don’t fit the stereotypical idea of what it means to be a queer woman. A lot of us have worked very hard to escape negative stereotypes, so to see them reinforced in romance novels—the place where many of us seek an escape—can be frustrating if not agonizing. Further, stereotypical portrayals can be othering to those questioning their identities and how they fit in LGBTQIA+ spaces and Romancelandia.
These are just a handful of some of the worst (and most laughable) stereotypes queer women face. By no means is this list exhaustive, so if you’re looking for more stereotypes to avoid, Google is your friend.
Sexual assault presented as a reason for sexual orientation.
Please don’t root your characters’ sexual orientation in a backstory of trauma. It’s perfectly fine to tackle tough issues like sexual assault respectfully, and to have queer characters who have experienced sexual trauma, but don’t make it the reason for their queerness. Queer identity and orientation require no more reason than non-queer identity. And on that note, please don’t reduce sexual trauma to a plot device for any reason ever. Handle this topic with care, respect, and give your characters and readers the dignity they deserve.
Queer women hate men.
Working off the same logic as the last point, queer women aren’t queer because we’ve been wronged by a man or men. One, it’s blatantly wrong, and two, it ignores the idea that some women who are attracted to women are attracted to men, too.
Someone needs to be the man.
This perpetuates the notion of gender deficiency in same sex relationships which in turn, limits gender to a binary as opposed to a spectrum of identities.
“You don’t look like a lesbian” or “You look straight.”
For starters, what does it look like to be straight? What does it look like to be queer? Did you have an easy answer for one and a more complicated answer for the other? Maybe unpack that. Are your characters wearing plaid or are they good at sports or are they rocking a short haircut because it fits their character, or did you write them that way because you were seeking a quick shortcut or visual cue to express their sexuality in a way you’ve seen done before?
Stating that characters must look a certain way or adhere to certain behaviors basically says if they don’t fit in a particular box—a collective, homogenized idea of what it means to be a queer woman— they don’t belong.
It’s harmful to those figuring out their identities and sexualities and it excludes individuals from LGBTQIA+ spaces and Romancelandia which alienates readers.
2. Do question your own biases.
We’re often unaware of our biases, making them unconscious or implicit. You might be asking yourself, “Well, how do I question my biases if I don’t know I have them?” Good question! As people, and specifically as writers, we should constantly be asking ourselves why. Why did I portray a character that way? Why do I have this character doing this thing? Why did I give this character this quirk/flaw/trait?
Asking why is the most fundamental way to perform a self-check on bias in our own writing.
Unconscious biases can be personal, but one I’ve noticed that’s unfortunately all too common is the idea of real sex.
“It’s not real sex unless…” or “Oh, that doesn’t count” or “They didn’t go all the way.”
Real sex is whatever you want it to be, but limiting it to a narrow definition that only PIV or vaginal intercourse is real and everything else is foreplay or lead-up to a main event diminishes all the other awesome ways of having sex. Perhaps it sounds innocuous, but it’s not. Sex between two women can be just as varied—or conversely, it can be just as vanilla—as sex between anyone else. Whether you’re writing F/F or not, this is something you can challenge by carefully considering the words you use and how you use them. We’re writers. Language matters.
3. Do give your characters an HEA and acknowledge that HEA.
Happy ever afters for queer women are not historically inaccurate. The world has always been a diverse place and queer women have been around forever. Affirming identity is not a sales tactic, nor is diverse representation inherently preachy.
On the flip side, there’s a way to acknowledge historical injustice without centering your stories on queer pain, but this might be one of those areas where you need to ask yourself if you’re the right person to tell that story.
Writing contests have experienced issues with judging from scoresheet verbiage to low-scoring for no reason other than the presence of queer relationships. When I say scoresheet verbiage, I mean exclusionary language like “hero and heroine” as opposed to “main characters” or “main character and love interest(s)”. The questions asked by RWA during chapter contests and the Golden Heart and RITA contests, “Does the entry contain a central love story?” and “Is the resolution of the romance emotionally satisfying and optimistic?” have been met with no by small-minded individuals whose personal definition of a romance is between a man and a woman. Challenge this backwards assumption in what you write and read (and judge!) by acknowledging that a romance between two women that has an emotionally satisfying and optimistic resolution—with both characters alive and together at the end—is an HEA.
Love is love. Don’t be an asshole. It’s that simple.
4. Do ask if you are the right person to tell this story.
This is not a question anyone can answer but you. I’m a huge proponent of Own Voices, but it’s not for me to tell you what you can or can’t write. Asking yourself why you’re writing a particular character, story, or relationship is the first step in deciding whether this is your story to tell.
5. Do your due diligence.
Whether you’re writing outside of your lane of experience or not, write with respect. That means doing your research, hiring sensitivity readers, reading widely, and accepting your limitations if you aren’t of the same identity or orientation as your characters. That can mean writing queer characters, but not about coming out or what it means to be queer. It can also mean accepting that certain words have been reclaimed, but they shouldn’t be used lightly or without an understanding of their history. Perhaps you shouldn’t use them. Again, when in doubt, Google is your friend.
Above all else, read and support your fellow writers! If you’re looking for recommendations to fill your TBR list, check out The Lesbian Review.