Writing Lesbian Characters
Welcome back to Queering the Narrative! This week, we’re going all the way back to the first letter of the acronym to discuss writing lesbian characters!
In recent years we’ve been blessed with an uptick in lesbian — or, at least, wlw (women-loving-women) representation — like Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Carol, or Blue Is the Warmest Color, in addition to an increase in such relationships in television programs and novels, particularly YA.
However, new representation isn’t necessarily good representation. Much of it focuses on heteronormative ideas of femininity, serves to suit the male gaze, and is utterly lacking in nonwhite characters. So today, we’re going to be focusing on writing lesbian characters well.
What Does Lesbian Mean?
The simplest definition for a lesbian is “a homosexual woman,” referring to a woman who is exclusively attracted to other women, but the truth is a bit more complicated.
First, neither a lesbian nor the subject of her attraction have to be cis. Transgender women who are exclusively attracted to women are lesbians, and lesbians can and often are attracted to trans women (whether or not those women would be comfortable with a penis is a different discussion entirely — and a deeply personal one). The lesbian community has also made space for gender nonconforming individuals. Butch women are the quintessential example, but this also extends to nonbinary folx, especially those who are femme presenting or who have AFAB bodies.
In a truer, broader sense, lesbianism is the celebration of womanhood and femininity coupled with the mindful rejection of the harmful aspects of those cultural ideals.
That is, of course, not to say that every lesbian feels this way. There is a strong subculture of “Gold-Star” or “TERF” lesbians, in which it is a point of pride to reject all things masculine and male — including anyone with an AMAB body. These are the lesbian subgroups which will decry trans women as predatory, despise bisexual women as “traitors” for their attraction to masculine folx, and bemoan the “misguided” trans men and nonbinary folx who have been somehow “coerced” away from true womanhood.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but I don’t like these people. They’re actively harmful to bisexual, trans, nonbinary, and gender expansive folx, and are not representative of the wider lesbian community. If this is how you think of lesbians, and how you’re seeking to represent them, I would encourage you to reevaluate how you think of lesbians and seek out broader insights into what is honestly a beautiful and accepting community.
What’s it like to be a Lesbian?
Writing lesbian characters, of course, is not a matter of simply knowing what lesbianism is — you must also have some idea of what it’s like to be a lesbian.
Lesbians have a rather… fraught relationship with modern media. In reality, lesbian communities are beautiful spaces which advocate self-expression and celebrate the positive aspects of womanhood and femininity while rejecting those ideals and systems which have systematically oppressed AFAB and feminine-aligned people for generations. In much of the broad social conscious, though, lesbians are usually either loud angry men-haters, simple objects of desire, or demure bastions of pure femininity.
The first of these ideas stems from the lesbian community rejecting the existing power structure. No one likes to be rejected, and so many straight men take issue with an entire subculture of people they perceive as summarily dismissing them as potential romantic partners. The second and third contort lesbian relationships to fit the male gaze — either by fetishizing them or by making them more palatable to our heteronormative culture.
These are all things that I’ll go into more detail on next week, but since these are the portrayals of lesbianism that lesbians tend to see, it makes a difference in how they perceive themselves.
Another extremely important aspect of being a lesbian is the cultural idea that lesbians are predatory toward straight women. Again, I’ll go into this in more detail next week, but this particular trope/fear makes a massive impact on how lesbians — and wlw in general — live their lives.
There is a common meme among the lesbian community of useless lesbians — based on the phenomenon that lesbian women tend to miss flirtation or romantic cues form other women, sometimes to comedic extremes. This, however, is born of a cultural fear of being seen as predatory, as well as the heteronormative culture that can make it difficult for queer folx to differentiate romantic feelings from strong platonic ones.
Many lesbian women feel the need to constantly police their own emotional responses and flirtations, lest they accidentally frighten or offend a straight woman, which can have disastrous consequences. Though this is not necessarily universal among lesbian women, it’s a common enough trend to have become memetic, and is therefore something you should be aware of when writing lesbian characters.
Writing Lesbian Characters
The best advice I can give for writing lesbian characters is to avoid thinking of them as monolithic. The lesbian community is broad, nuanced, and variable, filled with people who experience their sexualities and identities in ways that are distinct even from others in their own community.
The world really wants lesbianism to be simple — one cis woman loving another cis woman, maybe with one being “the man” in the relationship — but in truth there infinite ways to be a lesbian. Lesbians can be cis, trans, or nonbinary. There exist masculine lesbians, feminine lesbians, gender nonconforming lesbians. There are fat lesbians, angry lesbians, kind lesbians, lesbians that “look straight,” asexual lesbians, and promiscuous lesbians. Some lesbians fix cars, and others balk at any task that might damage their perfectly-done makeup.
If you’re planning on writing lesbian characters, then it’s likely that you’re going to include more than one in your work. Ask yourself: are all my lesbian characters fundamentally the same, vague variations on a simple singular idea of what it “means” to be a lesbian? If so, consider reevaluating some or all of your characters.
As always, I simply don’t have room in a single post to touch on every important aspect of writing lesbian characters. So next week, as has become tradition, I’ll be touching on some tropes to avoid when writing lesbian characters. Until then, though, stay safe, stay healthy, and keep writing!