Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Token or Broken? Writing LGBT*

By E.R. Ramzipoor, @ER_Ramzipoor

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Writing about people different from ourselves has frequently been a challenge for writers, but our readers are just as diverse as the world we live in. Yet often, even when we want to write more diverse characters, we're not sure how. Today, E.R. Ramzipoor visits the lecture hall to share some tips on how to write LGBT* without falling into clichés and stereotypes.

E.R. is a writer and freelance editor represented by Kristin Nelson of NLA. She is based in Berkeley, CA, where she’s working on a novel about a World War II newspaper heist and writing about tech for Sift Science.

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Take it away E.R...

Our bookshelves are more colorful than they used to be. With the advent of movements like We Need Diverse Books, LGBT* characters are popping up on bestseller lists, and manuscript wish lists, and “best of” lists. Despite attempts at inclusivity, though, many writers still saddle their LGBT* characters with unfortunate maladies: if they’re not a token, they’re broken. If the character is lucky, they’re used as a sassy sidekick (think Damian from Mean Girls). If the character is unlucky, they’re killed off or doomed to live in tragedy (think, well, everything on TV).

Of course, characters die or are relegated as sidekicks all the time. Is there something inherently bad about doing that to a gay or lesbian character? Regardless of how we identify, what should we remember when crafting characters who might identify differently? Let’s traverse these waters together.

What are all those letters?

LGBT* stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. The asterisk is essentially a footnote that reads, “The world is large and contains multitudes, including identities like transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, pansexual, and ‘I’m in high school and not sure of anything yet, let alone my sexuality.’” Someone who is transgender is not cisgender, meaning they don’t identify with the sex they were assigned at birth.

Queer is a bit trickier. Though it was once widely used as a pejorative—and is still sometimes used as a pejorative—queer theorists and LGBT* people have reclaimed the term. If you’re not queer yourself (spoiler: the author of this article is queer), treat the term like cilantro: use it sparingly, thoughtfully, and only after consulting an expert.

How did we get here?

Queer characters are killed off so often, so haphazardly, and so cruelly that it’s become a trope. To figure out how we got here, it helps to travel back to 1928, when a British court banned Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness for defending “unnatural practices between women.” After Hall’s trial, writers looking to beat the censors started killing their queer characters off—physically and emotionally—putting guns to their heads, knives to their throats, and people of the opposite sex in their beds, sometimes all at once. If a book introduced an LGBT* character, the character had to suffer some indignity to demonstrate their immorality. And so queer relationships were fetishized, transformed into tragedy, or dismissed as comedy.

Nearly a century after Radclyffe Hall, the censors are (mostly) dead, but the trope isn’t. Autostraddle has chronicled 173 lesbian and bi characters who’ve died on TV. Gay men aren’t immune, either. And suicide features prominently in stories about young people discovering their sexuality. It’s gotten to the point where it’s newsworthy when LGBT* characters don’t die; the Internet is still all aflutter over a drama-free relationship between two women on Supergirl.

Does that mean there’s no place for tragic queer stories?

No, that’s not what it means. Many books about queer people are tragic because our story has been tragic. Trans people, queer kids, bisexual folks, LGBT* people of color, gay men, and lesbians face alarmingly high murder and suicide rates, persecution, and historical erasure. But many of us have blissfully dreary lives in which the most exciting thing to happen on a Tuesday is half-off avocados at Safeway. We need more stories about characters who are incidentally queer, just as they incidentally like the color orange, or pistachio ice cream.

How can we do better?

Regardless of whether you’re queer, you are equipped with the tools to write about queer characters. Of all the skills in our authorial toolboxes, empathy and sensitivity are the most important—and if you’re a good writer, you’re already using them every time you sit down at a keyboard. Writers go wrong (ha.) when they cast aside these tools and treat LGBT* characters as curiosities rather than people. To avoid falling into that sinkhole, remember these two mantras:

1. Be cautious, but don’t be afraid.

Writers worry about portraying their characters offensively, sometimes to the point where they hire sensitivity readers to review their work. That’s an understandable concern. You don’t want to pepper your work with ham-handed tropes like the limp-wristed, lisping, sassy gay man, or the cold butch lesbian, or the cheating bisexual. Such tropes aren’t just offensive because they’re reductive; they’re also offensive because they’re boring.

But fear leads writers to handle their characters with kid gloves, which colors their work in infantilizing tones. Gay characters are turned into perfect bastions of morality, with no flaws or complexities. Their relationships are portrayed as one-note. In trying to avoid demonizing their LGBT* characters, writers make them one-dimensional. Don’t let your caution become fear. You don’t have to kill your gay character in a fire to make a moral point, but you do have to write people as people.

2. Empathize, but don’t pity.

If you’re like many writers, you begin crafting characters by asking yourself some questions. What does my character like and dislike? What’s their relationship with the world, and with the people in their life? Regardless of whether you’re writing a man, a woman, or a child, these questions don’t change very much. Although a character’s gender, sexuality, or age does impact how they move through the world (men are less likely to get catcalled than woman; cis people are less like to get misgendered than trans people; adults are less likely to save the world than kids), it’s often secondary to other core traits. You reach these core traits by empathizing with your characters, and with people in your life who’ve shared their experiences.

Empathize with your LGBT* characters. Think hard about how they interact with their world. Talk to some real-life LGBT* people, take notes, and incorporate what you’ve learned into your writing. But don’t pity your queer characters. Don’t paint all of their scenes gray; their stories need light, too.

And, above all, question yourself constantly. When you’re describing their mannerisms or appearance, ask yourself: Is this realistic? Even if your character is comic relief, you never want a character to solicit laughs at the expense of their dignity. Ask yourself: Am I trying to solicit pity from the reader? Am I leaning on tropes rather than building a whole person? Just because your character is a sidekick doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be a character.

So, you basically wrote a whole blog post about how we’re supposed to write LGBT* characters the same way we write everyone else?


That’s it?

That’s it. Your authorial responsibilities are the same as they’ve always been: you must write people as people, and their stories must be full and complex. All it has to be is good.


  1. One of the best, if not the best, posts on the topic I've read. Well done.

  2. Thanks for this article. That's the problem with token characters. They are not three-dimensional. If you chose your characters only because they do something differently, it becomes a token. Everyone should be respected as an integral person. Why should someone be defined by his or her sexuality and not for his or her personality, which includes so much more? That's making someone's sexuality at the center of one's life, which is ridiculous and very superficial.

  3. Developing our abilities to write about new and unknown characters and character traits IS an important challenge for all of us. Thanks for clarifying some of the vital aspects so as not to offend anyone by continuing clichés and preconceived ideas.

  4. One of the first comments I got from a straight identifying reader who read one of my mysteries featuring lesbian main characters who were a couple was, "They seem just like me and my husband, just two women."

    Well, yeah...

  5. A lot of people flounder because they aren't very good at writing well-rounded characters in general. It's easier for readers to overlook when the trope isn't linked to race/gender/sexuality/etc (though you'll still get eyerolls for lazily duplicating Alcoholic Detective or Bloodsucking Lawyer or Generically Sullen Teen). If every character is one-dimensional, it's REALLY going to stand out when their sole defining quality is something like their sexuality. When authors get called out on it, the answer shouldn't be defensiveness and "I'm entitled to write what I want!" It should be, "How do I get better at character building and improve my craft?"

  6. Nice article, thank you! I have a secondary character who is gay and will get a romantic subplot over the course of the series (and he gets a happy ending). In the first book I wanted to set this up (subtly because it is a subplot), but it's also world building (he's from a very oppressive society). Interestingly, my LGBTQ beta readers picked up on it right away, but my straight readers missed it entirely. I may have been too subtle, sigh...