Saturday, October 16, 2010

Hi, I'm Gay: A Writing Guide

Since Hollywood, comic books, and various other media seem unable to get it down, after a conversation with a friend, I thought I would offer a few tips on how to write characters who are gay. Things I say to do or not to do are just opinions and just rules of thumb, not written in stone and not unchangeable -- most important of all is doing what feels right and what reads right, and what seems to be most effective for the story and genre.

I may not be considered an authority on anything, I honestly don't know. But speaking as someone for whom 'gay' is a social label (one of several), I know what I like.

- If the be-all and end-all of the character is 'a gay guy', toss the concept out. Start over again and develop the character from the beginning. Sexual orientation is an important part of a person, but it isn't the sum total of any person's being. If you're just tossing in this character simply to be a gay presence, you should examine why you feel you want to do that and then ask yourself, who is this character? No-one is just a set of genitalia, to be defined solely by sexual preference. It is just one part of a whole.

- Gay characters do not have to be either irrepressibly cheerful or utterly miserable. In any world, but especially fantasy worlds and settings, consider the logic behind any circumstances where the character is discriminated against or treated poorly. Just because there is high discrimination against non-heterosexuals in this world doesn't mean it's going to be that way by default in any other. The best-known example of this clumsy treatment is Mercedes Lackey's writings, where the main character is a dismal gay guy. Don't feel you have to prove that 'gay' is a misnomer when it comes to homosexuals. It generally makes your work tolerable only by teenagers desperate for any identification, or by people who have absolutely nothing to do with the subject.

On the other hand, irrepressibly cheerful gay guys often come off as trying way too hard. We have problems like anyone else does. Even in a world where gay guys aren't discriminated heavily against, problems must exist. Bad days happen; we aren't always going to be rays of sunshine, as much as we might like to be.

A character can be convincingly mostly cheery or depressive, though. It's just that if a character's raison d'etre is ebullience or misery, they're going to come off as questionable. And if the readers come up with questions about the motivation behind the character's mood and those questions aren't well-addressed in your narrative, it's going to become weaker in their eyes.

- Don't throw in stereotypical health problems because you think it will be engaging to a gay audience. Chances are it won't. If you're not aiming for a gay audience and you throw it in anyway, chances are high that someone in the audience will, regardless, find it cliched and probably very, very presumptuous, or even offensive.

- Gay men are not all feminine, or in touch with their feminine sides. Some are more macho than heterosexual men. There is no such thing as a 'typical' gay guy.

This doesn't mean there aren't mincing camp queens around. There are a lot of them. But it also bears thinking about why these men act so iconoclastic to traditionally expected 'masculine' behaviour. Some act that way as a reaction to what they have been pressured into their whole lives, others because it is truly more comfortable for them. Why would your character act this way? If you don't know, you should think about it.

There's nothing wrong with queeny guys. It's just that they've been far overdone, sometimes in offensive ways, up to now. Some gay audiences will find them irritating and will question the motives of the writer. It is, in some ways, comparable to the presentation of characters of colour in roughly the first half of the 20th century; some of the situations and characters were true to life, but a good many of them were also written by an author simply mashing together stereotypes with little understanding of the reasons behind it, usually only including the characters due to it being a popular trend. Because of that, many of these portrayals are viewed as uncomfortable or even offensive today.

- Similarly iffy are the promiscuous party boy, the body maniac or narcissist, the diva...these have all been overdone. Proceed with care if you intend to try and present them again.

- Be very careful about using epithets. These are words that are offensive by nature. They are generally only permissible when trying to convey some message with the situation, or to teach a lesson. Most gay people will not be comfortable with the 'f' word -- the one that is generally only acceptable when referring to a cigarette. Similarly, don't use the word 'gay' to mean 'stupid' or 'unacceptable' -- many gay people take exception to this, and justifiably. If you don't understand why, simply insert one of your own social labels in there. 'That's so Jewish.' 'That is just the most Chinese-American thing I have ever heard in my life.' 'How black.' It's a really ugly misappropriation of a word by the ignorant.

- Gay people do not exist solely to dole out meaningful advice and life lessons to their heterosexual friends. It happens sometimes, but it's getting a little old for that to be the new standard role for any gay characters. The trope is called the 'magical negro' (and I'm sorry if it sounds insensitive, that's just its name) because of the prevalence of black characters being cast in this role for some time after trend shifts meant they could no longer be caricature comic relief. The same shift of trends seems to have landed gay characters squarely in the position of existing solely to give profound, life-changing advice to their straight buddies.

While it's true that many gay people do actually have a lot to say on the subject, most of the time the characters are not allowed any real lives of their own. Most gay characters still are never allowed to have actual relationships and are basically just accessories to the more 'acceptable' straight characters' lives.

- Gay people aren't all about sex any more than straight people are. Although it is a sexual orientation, that doesn't necessarily refer to sexual intercourse, but instead to sex as in gender. With any character, sexuality or lack thereof is an important part of the character, his or her motivations, and aspects of life. Many gay guys are more comfortable in a mature way with sex, as in sexual intercourse, than their straight friends, simply because it is one of the things that most gay men have to come to terms with during their own self-realisation. One of the only universal unifiers between gay men is a love for other men. Historically, one of the points of unity was the admiration of the male form and the male sexuality.

Many gay men have a more informed approach to sex, but that doesn't mean they're all sex maniacs, or even that all of them have sex at all. Similarly, however, it doesn't mean they don't. If you want to throw a gay character into your story but can't bear to think about him having sex, maybe you should consider whether or not you really can handle having him there.

- Gay men and straight women often get along well. However, that doesn't mean that they're interchangeable or that they experience the same things emotionally, sexually, or otherwise. They have many commonalities, but don't make the mistake many writers do and think that they are basically just the same thing in a different shape. They're not. Men who would rather be women (and vice-versa) are transgender, not gay. It is a very important distinction. Most gay men are happy to be men who like men and don't want to be women, and don't identify as female. Drag queens -- men who dress and often perform on-stage as female characters -- are not necessarily transgender either. In fact, they don't even have to be gay. There are plenty of straight guys who love to wear women's clothing and have absolutely zero desire to actually be female.

If you find yourself writing a gay male character as basically a woman with a penis, there's something wrong. If you find yourself writing a gay male character as endlessly admiring women and desiring to be a woman, ask yourself whether or not you might just want to write a transgender character instead, and do your research. It is a whole different, and of course beautiful, world. Just don't mix them all together and expect no-one to call you on it.

- Most important of all, develop your character organically. Develop his hopes and fears, his triumphs and his tragedies. Don't just fill him full of character flaws, because that tends to be nothing more than a handy way to attempt to cover up weak writing. If he's just a placeholder, ask yourself if making him gay serves any real purpose.

Saying that an otherwise unexceptional character is gay, for no reason other than to make him stand out, usually comes off as desperate and ultimately uninteresting. If the character isn't making an impression, saying that he is gay may win him some fans, but they will quickly give him up if he doesn't grow a personality as well. While it is potentially interesting for a character to have an unexpected sexual preference, ask yourself: what does this contribute to the story and to the character? Does it really have any role? Is there any real reason for it to come up? As someone who has been through many, many dates, I can say that just being gay does not make someone interesting, kind, engaging, deep, or appealing.

These are just my thoughts, and I hope they might at least give you a few thoughts of your own about writing characters who are gay and actual people too. The depth that should be developed with any character must of course be developed regardless of sexuality. That is just one aspect of many that can enrich characters.

And as always, I'd love to hear from any of you with thoughts or ideas about this topic. Let me know your approaches to characters and their sexualities as an aspect of their identities!


  1. Really liked this post. I found it insight and true to point, although one small thing bother me; your use of sexual preference over the better phrasing sexual orientation. Preference tends to imply a choice (one can prefer chocolate over vanilla ice cream; prefer male~male over male~female and so on). It seems to adds undue fire to the argument of being gay as a choice, ya know. Whereas orientation solidifies the stance of whoever is steadfast in one specific manner (such as having sex or more importantly loving someone of the same gender)

  2. That's true, although you should probably know that I'm not the kind of person who believes it's a choice at all! Then again, I'm also not a fan of playing tit for tat with etymology, which always seemed a bit pedantic to me. Still, consider it transformed. I'll change some of the preferences to orientations, in case anyone might feel the way you do about it.

  3. There! I changed a couple of preferences where it was not so well-used. The ones that remain are appropriate enough in their phrasing, but I agree that it's important to nip those sorts of assumptions in the bud.

    A friend of mine has a very good defence to that: when anyone tries to tell him that sexuality is a choice and shouldn't be supported by law, he mentions that freedom of religion is also a choice and is supported by law. He doesn't believe that sexuality is a choice (and appropriately, because it isn't), but typically the kinds of people who try to allege that it is are people to whom religion (or in most cases, 'religion') is important.

    Hopefully in a few generations the people will look back on this whole thing and just shake their heads at the quaint primitive ancestors and their strange prejudices!