Tropes to Avoid when Writing Bi Characters
Welcome back to Queering the Narrative! Last week we talked about writing bi characters, focusing on what bisexuality is, how it feels, and some suggestions on good ways to write bi character. This week, we’ll be continuing that discussion by going over some things you should avoid when writing bi characters! I touched on some of these in my post on introducing bi characters, but they deserve their own discussion.
Bi erasure is probably the best-known and widely perpetrated of these tropes. This is the practice of having a character that is attracted to multiple genders, but never making it explicit that they’re bi. This is often done by having them “settle on” a particular gender, or by otherwise minimizing the importance of their same-gender attraction — or, in some rare but still problematic cases, their heterosexual attraction.
In media AND in real life, bisexual people are casually forgotten, or called confused, or classified as “turned gay/straight.” When writing bi characters, the best way to make sure your representation is respectful is to be explicit about their bisexuality.
Note: If you/your character prefers the term pan, you can definitely use that instead of bi. Just don’t hate on bi folks when you do it!
Bisexual people aren’t any more likely to cheat than monosexual people. This is a harmful prejudice against bi people that people use as an excuse not to date us, rooted in the idea that we’re oversexed, “can’t get enough,” or “can’t decide.” This sucks. We aren’t more likely to cheat just because we can potentially experience attraction to a wider breadth of people.
Narratives that revolve around a bi person cheating on their S.O. should be treated with EXTREME caution, and are probably best avoided. If you aren’t bi, don’t write this story — you’re far more likely to play into the negative tropes than to turn them on their head.
“Not really queer”
Many people think that, because bi folks experience so-called “hetero” attraction, we are somehow not as queer as other members of the LGBTQ+ community.
This can sometimes manifest within the queer community itself, sometimes even leading to assertions that bi folks shouldn’t at Pride events, or should only be at Pride if they’re in a same-sex relationship. There’s a lot of reasons that this is illogical, but the primary one is that bi people are ALWAYS queer, even if they’re dating someone of a different gender!
This also comes up when non-queer folks ignore a bi person’s queerness, behaving as though they’re “mostly straight” or “not like THOSE queer people.” This makes bi people uncomfortable. We ourselves are queer, and we aren’t trying to distance ourselves from that community. If someone treats a bi person this way, the bi person is extremely unlikely to trust them, and may even regret that they came out to that person.
Not all bi folks are out-loud-and-proud, and not all have embraced their bisexuality for a variety of societal reasons. When writing bi characters, though, it’s important to remember that we’re just as queer as anyone else in the LGBTQ+ community. It’s right there in the acronym!
Related to both the “not really queer” and the “cheater” trope, a lot of folks are under the impression that a bi person will somehow betray them. This comes from some sort of fear that a bi person is a “sleeper agent” — queer folks are scared they’re “really straight” and straight folks that they’re “really gay”, meaning both groups are hesitant to accept them.
In a surprising amount of contemporary fiction, this plays out as the bi character betraying the other queer characters in the narrative. This is directly harmful to bi people, and plays into the idea that we are all just waiting to turn on the rest of the queer community.
For an example of this exact problem, check out Meredith Russo’s If I Was Your Girl (spoiler warning). Though it contains a pretty good portrayal of a trans woman, the novel treats its singular bisexual character horribly — she’s portrayed as thoughtless and flaky, and ends up betraying the trust of just about every queer character in the protagonist’s school. This is a terrible portrayal of a bisexual character. Don’t do this.
One of the most common ways for media to signal that a character is bisexual is by having them flirt and sleep with a wide number of people of multiple genders. This is often used as a device to avoid having to say the character is bi (contributing to bi erasure), and also plays into the trope that bi folks are more likely to cheat. But not all bi folks are promiscuous, and our orientation is NOT inherently tied to our sexual proclivities!
MTV’s “The Shannara Chronicles”
There’s nothing inherently wrong with a promiscuous bisexual character — it’s just that it’s a pervasive trope, because it seems like a lot of people can’t wrap their heads around a way to demonstrate that a character is bi except by having them sleep with everyone.
I think there’s still room for this in fiction — our world needs more sex-positive media that isn’t played for laughs or as some moralistic lesson about the virtues of chastity.
So, if you go for a nuanced portrayal of a sex-positive bisexual character, go for it! Just remember that it’s been done, and to avoid fetishization. Queerness isn’t all about sex, and bisexuality isn’t something people do just because its “hot.” Also be sure not to demonize the promiscuity — a bi person’s sexuality is often used to demonstrate that they are evil/immoral because they like sex so much that they’re willing to do it with literally anyone.
“Just a phase”
Monosexual people tend to think that bisexuality is a transient thing, that we are somehow simply confused or will otherwise move on from being bisexual at some point in our life. But bisexual people don’t “settle” on one gender, even if they’re in a long-term relationship.
A bisexual person’s attraction to multiple genders doesn’t disappear when they get married. Don’t imply that somehow a bisexual person made up their mind at the end of a romantic narrative. This is a vast misunderstanding of bisexuality!
Bi people have faced a lot of prejudice and erasure throughout history, both inside and outside of the queer community, and it’s important to keep these things in mind when writing bi characters. I think there’s a conception that bi characters are easy to write because they’re “queer-lite”, or basically just straight. This isn’t true — bisexuality is just as nuanced and complex as any queer identity, and deserves the same love, attention, and respect as any queer character.
That’s it for this week! Check back next Friday for another Queering the Narrative. And until then, stay safe, stay healthy, and keep writing!