Writing Gay Characters into Your Novel
It’s important to get it right, but so easy to get wrong
“Upon seeing the combination of white socks with black shoes being worn by Kevin, Joeux whipped around and lowered his shades. He didn’t need to say a word, Kevin knew the crime he’d just committed, and he knew what his punishment would be..”
Please wait a minute while I throw up.
Most authors are in the business of capitalising on the moment we’re all living in. They know that selling a book is even harder than being accepted for publication in the first place, so timing and cultural accuracy is everything.
This has resulted in authors scrambling to make sure that their gay and trans characters are being featured front and centre in their upcoming novels as a result of LGBTQ+ culture entering the cultural mainstream.
Pioneering a trend is everything when submitting a manuscript, but it can’t come at the expense of your characters.
I commend you for taking the initiative to include gay characters in your novels as a way of being inclusive capitalising on the new normal. But I implore you to get it right, because your readers aren’t going to appreciate you turning queer people into cartoons just because you don’t understand how a gay character should be written.
So allow me to run you through some helpful pointers that may turn your annoyingly stereotypical character into a fleshed out and relatable member of your character family.
This first tip is really important and seemingly not very widely known, but being gay is not the most important part of most people’s identity.
I can’t speak for everyone, but most gay and queer individuals don’t walk around all day thinking about their gayness.
They don’t make decisions that are motivated by the fact that they’re gay, and they don’t want things that are different to what anyone else wants.
Queer people are just people. They have goals and dreams, fears and insecurities. They are valid, everyday people who think as much about being gay as straight people think about being straight. Which is not very often.
So when writing your gay character, please make sure you bring it up only as often as you bring up the sexual identity of your straight characters.
There’s no need to provide backstory or any other extra exposition to explain to the reader that your character is gay. The worst case scenario is that you spend pages trying to justify why your character is gay, or justify how their gayness adds to the narrative.
Your character’s sexual identity doesn’t need to contribute or take away from the narrative at all. The only thing you need to be sure of is that if you’d like to give your character a romantic interest, make sure the romantic interest is the same gender as your character. That’s it.
If you’d like to add a trans character, it’s even simpler, because the sexual orientation of a trans person may be different to the gender with which they identify. Perhaps they love the same gender, or maybe they don’t.
As the author, you should know and understand who and what your character wants, but there’s no need to justify or explain all of this to your reader.
Just as with any other character, there will be a lot you know about your character that your readers will never find out. Don’t feel forced to add extra exposition just because the end of the book is approaching and you haven’t made it clear enough that your character is gay.
“Joeux noticed the sun shining out through the clouds, and knew deep down that it was totally jean-shorts weather!”
Gay readers should connect with your character because of who they are, not just because of who they love. A book that’s this shallow is probably not likely to fly off the shelves.
Allow your character to live their life as you would any other character, and make sure they have just as much access and intelligence as anyone else. Which brings us to our next point.
Assuming that every gay guy is an effeminate bitch who’s obsessed with fashion is about as accurate as assuming that every straight guy is a drunk loser who loves sport.
We’re all nuanced creatures who have complex personalities that are a mix of logical and illogical elements that mix and blend into a complicated human.
There’s no need to paint your character into a corner just so that your reader knows which one is gay.
I have author friends who still won’t write gay characters into their books because they’re too scared to write dialogue for this character. To that I say, why does the dialogue have to be different at all?
As far as I’m concerned, men and women both want to eat, sleep, and have sex.
“I believe that all anyone really wants in this life is to sit in peace and eat a sandwich.” — Liz Lemon
Your gay male character doesn’t need a side hustle as a drag queen, and your gay female character doesn’t need a construction hobby.
When you find these characters in books (outside of farce), you can assume that the author has a a certain stereotype in mind and is going to jam that square peg into the round hole as hard as they can until it fits.
Let’s say that you’re writing a male lawyer who’s always enjoyed the perks of being a man and being on top. But you’ve decided that this lawyer is going to transition into a woman and you want to write this journey into your novel.
In that case the circumstances surrounding this person’s job, family, and coworkers should be influenced by this transition.
People are going to treat her differently than they treated him. They’re going to be uncomfortable and maybe hostile, and this character may lose some of the perks that she used to enjoy. I encourage you to write in the frustration that she must be feeling from all this. Tell us the journey she goes on, and allow her personality to be affected.
Just don’t fall into the trap of making the frustration part of who she is. She’s going through a hard time, but she’ll come out the other side a more fulfilled and happier person.
If you’re not trans yourself and haven’t lived this experience, in my opinion, you’re entitled to your craft and you should still write what you feel inspired to write. However, I highly recommend reaching out to someone who has lived this life and ask their advice.
If this person is willing to let you into their mind, ask them about their emotional journey and find out how it truly affected them.
Then, once you’ve drafted your story, let this person read it and provide their feedback.
The lawyer example I provided is actually based on someone I once knew many years ago. Her story really inspired me, and I would have never been able to simply guess the experiences she lived through if I were to base a character on her.
We as writers think that we can weave an accurate and fulfilling story entirely from our imagination. Although if you’re writing fantasy or sci fi and none of this relates to your extraterrestrial aliens, then your imagination is probably more than enough.
But if you’re a human trying to tell the story of other humans, think more about the story you want to tell.
Understand how others think and feel. Remind yourself that we’re all the same, and who you love doesn’t shape the person that you are.
If you want to novelise an experience you can’t relate to, reach out to more people and find a way to relate.
Take care of your characters, because they are in turn taking care of your readers.
So the better you construct them, the better they’ll connect with your audience, and the more your work is likely to sell.