There is a lot of great advice out there when it comes to creating our characters. From Nancy Kress’ Dynamic Characters to The Positive and Negative Trait Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi there are many excellent resources for writers looking to create truly unique and realistic characters. Even as comprehensive as these helps are, there is one area many writers neglect.
A character’s sexuality and sexual orientation.
‘But I don’t write romance!’ I hear you saying. Romance isn’t always about sex and sex isn’t always about romance. A character’s sexual orientation can have a huge impact on how they are treated by society, their family, how they interact with others around them and how they perceive themselves. It can be a source of both internal and external conflict.
‘But I only write straight characters!’ You say. Okay, nothing wrong with that, but why? Why only write straight characters? It’s almost guaranteed that you personally know, at the very least, one person of a different orientation and the likelihood is that the number is much higher. Our lives are filled with diversity and it stands to reason that our stories should be as well.
Diversity is a huge buzz word right now in the entertainment industry and while there is a great focus on it, the actual results have been marginal at best. Unfortunately some well-meaning writers have perpetuated harmful stereotypes, misrepresented an orientation or been less than accurate in their portrayals of queer* persons.
So how can you add diversity and be inclusive without stumbling into the stereotype trap?
The first step is to realize writing diversity is not hard. Writing a queer character is no harder than writing any other character because, first and foremost, you are writing people; not an orientation. A lesbian is not just a lesbian, she might also be a sister, mother, accountant, scientist, police officer, volunteer firefighter or any number of things that make up someone’s identity. Her orientation is just one aspect of who she is, but it is something that helps define her, just as core traits help define personality.
The second step is to decide if the character’s story is one for you to tell. As I stated last week, some stories need to be told by writers from that particular background. We should recognize when a character’s story might not be ours to tell, especially if the story centers on experiences or hardships related to their race, orientation, physical ability or mental health. As the term goes, stay in your lane. In other words know when to check your privilege and don’t assume any amount of research is going to give you true insight into their struggles. Instead, support authors who are part of those diverse backgrounds.
With that being said, there is nothing wrong with including diverse characters. You absolutely should.
The final step in writing with diversity is actually creating a character that is a fair representation. Everyone’s experiences are going to be different and there is no one right way to write a queer character. However, there are most definitely wrong ways to write them.
Over the next several months I will be going through both the sexual orientation spectrum and the gender identity spectrum and helping you to avoid stereotypes and harmful misinformation. My goal is to help you not only understand your characters better but to feel more comfortable writing with diversity. I myself am a queer person. I identify as an agender/nonbinary panromantic demisexual. That’s probably is a bunch of gibberish right now, but I promise, if you stick with me I’ll show you what those labels mean and what they can mean for your character.
The first place we are going to start with is the Character Sexuality Worksheet. I designed this worksheet to help you answer orientation specific questions about your character. This should give you a launching point for your research. I’ve also included two handy flowcharts to help in case you are not sure where on the spectrum your character might fall.
Please feel free to download and print the worksheet for your private use.
Over the next several months I will be exploring each of the various sexual orientations and gender identities in an effort to help my fellow authors write with more diversity. I will be inviting people of other orientations and gender identities to offer their advice and experiences as well. I sincerely hope you find this of value and please feel free to ask questions.
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What orientation you are most curious about? What else would you like know about sexuality, sexual orientation, and gender identity? Have you written a character from the sexual orientation spectrum? What challenges have you encountered in your effort to add diversity to your writing? Do you have any suggestions or comments for the worksheet or upcoming topics? I look forward to hearing from you.
*As someone who identifies as nonbinary and panromantic demisxual, I am comfortable using the term queer when describing myself or my characters. I am aware that many in the community still feel this is an insult. If you do not identify as part of the spectrum, please refrain from using the term.