Introducing Bi Characters
Welcome to another installment of Queering the Narrative, the writing blog about how to write more authentic and respectful queer characters! Today, we’re going to talk about Introducing Bi Characters.
The most important thing about introducing bi characters is that you have to be explicit. Even when bi characters appear in fiction, it’s rare for them to state their identity. This enhances the cultural perception that bisexuality is something to be ashamed of or kept hidden, so bear it in mind when introducing bi characters . Bi representation is just as important as any other queer representation — keeping it vague is harmful to the community as a whole.
There is some debate about the use of the term “bisexual” vs. “pansexual”. Though the term “bisexual” may come from a linguistically flawed origin, it does not in fact mean “attracted to both genders” (which would exclude nonbinary folk). Bisexuality is defined as attraction to “two or more genders”. Pansexual, on the other hand, refers to attraction to all genders. Neither term is inherently more or less problematic — and honestly, you can be both.
For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to use “bi” in this post, but that doesn’t mean they only like cis men and cis women. When I refer to attraction to multiple genders, that isn’t constrained to the binary.
Bad ways of introducing bi characters
These methods of introducing bi characters contribute to the erasure or demonization of bisexual people. They rely on the ideas that a bi person is confused, unable to decide, or otherwise uninterested in defining their own sexuality. You should steer clear of them in your introduction to a character’s orientation.
“Not Interested in Labels”
Just. Say. They’re. Bi.
In a lot of media, someone might have a conversation where, when discussing the character’s sexuality, the character will say something to the effect that they are “not interested in labels”. This sucks. Sure, there are probably a ton of bi/pan folks who are sick of trying to explain their orientation to ogling onlookers, but that’s partially because it so rarely appears explicitly in fiction, so we have to explain our orientation. Avoid contributing to bi erasure by bucking this immensely frustrating trend. If your character is bi/pan, SAY IT.
Many people believe that bisexual folks are “going through a phase”, “confused”, or “need to make up their minds”. This is a problematic attitude that many bi people have to endure every time they come out, and is often perpetuated in media portrayals.
If a character is asked about their sexual proclivities and their response is something along the lines of “I just can’t make up my mind”, then you’ve got a problem with how you’re conceptualizing bisexual people. We don’t decide one way or another — our attraction to other genders doesn’t fizzle out, even if we do find a long-term partner of a certain gender.
Desire to cheat
Bi folks deal with a lot of shit from both the straight and queer communities. We’re often seen as untrustworthy and at a higher potential to cheat on our SOs. I would be EXTREMELY CAUTIOUS with introducing bi characters by making them consider cheating on their partner with someone of a different gender. This narrative is often an extrapolation of a harmful trope that paints bisexual people in a negative light.
Iffy ways of introducing bi characters
These methods of introducing bi characters can be effective in the right stories, but can be tricky to respectfully navigate. Sensitivity readers will be helpful if you want to go one of these routes and are not yourself bisexual.
If someone tells you they are queer, you should NOT repeat that without their consent. This is just as true of bi characters as of any other queer character!
Due to the negative misconceptions and connotations of bisexuality in popular media, it’s possible that someone outing your bi character can lead to negative reactions from other characters. If someone is outed, this should be a learning opportunity — for the outer, for the person who reacted poorly to it, and possibly for the reader. Casually being outed by a buddy isn’t the worst thing in the world, but even that should be addressed as uncool.
Sometimes, a character that is only “known” for heterosexual attraction might develop a crush on someone of a different gender than usual. Or, it might be that those around the character think the character is straight, but somehow discover that they are attracted to multiple genders. When something like this occurs in fiction, it often leads to a confrontation — a moment where the bisexual character is put on the spot, and the other characters demand an explanation.
This trope is very similar to being outed. It puts the bi character in a position that they either have to lie, or explain their orientation — possibly before they’re ready for the people confronting them to know about it. This can be an immensely uncomfortable scene for a queer reader to endure — being basically forced by a group of friends into coming out is a distressing moment that many of have endured, and the rest hope to never have to deal with.
If you want to go the confrontation route, consider why you’re doing it. If the entire idea is to stir up dramatic tension by using the bi character’s orientation, you might want to rethink it. If you’re going to use it, it should be as a moment of growth — either for the characters doing the confronting, or for the bi character to realize that they need to ditch these friends. Either way, be sure to tread carefully.
Jokes about threesomes/polyamory/etc.
Generally, this will come up as a perception that someone else has about a character’s bisexuality. If your goal is a respectful narrative, then this is best used to illustrate someone being an ass — some bi people want threesomes, some are polyamorous, but to assume that someone is more interested in those things based solely on their bisexuality is biphobic.
If you’re thinking of introducing bi characters into your narrative this way, make it a learning opportunity. Character shouldn’t be allowed “get away” with saying things like this — they should be reprimanded by either the bi character or a friend who is coming to their defense.
Many sexual partners
A lot of people have multiple sexual partners. If someone is both a flirt and bi, they might have partners of multiple genders — that is not inherently problematic. However, bisexuality is very often equated with a higher sexual proclivity, or a sort of “Anything that moves” attitude. These things are biphobic and, once again, contribute to negative stereotypes about bisexual people. If you’re introducing bi characters by having them sleep around, think critically about why they’re doing that — and make sure the answer isn’t just because they’re bi.
Good ways of introducing bi characters
These methods of introducing bi characters are both respectful and explicit of their orientation, so that your bi character isn’t reduced to a harmful trope and you don’t contribute to bi erasure. Yay!
Letting your character come out is almost always the best way to reveal their queer identities. When you allow your characters to come out to one another, you let them retain agency. The most important thing here is that your character describes themself as bi (or is equally explicit about their attraction, if it’s in a world where the term “bisexual” might not exist in the same way). Otherwise, it’ll just be another frustrating moment of erasure for your bi readers.
NOTE: It’s possible that a bi character doesn’t feel comfortable naming their sexuality — that’s a very natural part of coming to terms with your orientation. If this is an arc, end it with a character saying they’re bi, not “settling on” one option or another — that’s just not how it works!
Referencing past partners
(Just about) Everyone’s got exes, and this is also true of bi folk. Sometimes, they’ll have exes of multiple genders. This isn’t always the case, as it is not a requirement for a bi person to sleep with a gender to know that they’re attracted to that gender, but it’s possible. This can be a good way to be explicit with their sexuality — no one even has to comment on it!
If a bisexual character is comfortable with those around them, they might casually references past partners. If they aren’t, they’ll likely only talk about them with to the people they trust. No matter the situation, it’s best that at some point someone says that the character is bi (preferably the character themself).
Expressions of attraction
Another great way for you to show that a character experiences attraction to multiple genders is by allowing them to express attraction to people of multiple genders. This doesn’t always mean someone is bi, but can be a good indication
Just be aware that everyone experiences attraction differently. Many real-life bi people describe their attractions to different genders as being distinct — they might feel a hot-n-ready response to a masculine-presenting person, but feel a more demure and fuzzy attraction to a feminine-presenting person (or the opposite!).
Keep these things in mind when writing expressions of bi attraction — it’s not as cut and dry as you might think, and if you’re not yourself bi, it’s important to try and conceptualize different ways of being attracted to people (and possibly get some sensitivity readers to check your work). And, once again: it’s best if at some point someone says that your character is bisexual.
When introducing bi characters, it’s important that you are mindful of the various harmful tropes about bisexual people that exist. Give bisexual characters agency over their sexuality, and make sure that some says that the character is bi — there’s nothing more frustrating than a piece of media that refuses to acknowledge that there is a perfectly usable word for a character who is attracted to more than one gender!
Also, as always, consider the tone of your story. If you’re going for something escapist or lighthearted, then introducing bi characters by having them endure biphobia might not be the right choice — you may end up alienating the exact population that you’re writing about!
That’s it for this week’s installment of Queering the Narrative! I’ll be back again soon with more information about how to write authentic queer characters. As always, please leave questions and comments down below. And until next time, cheers!