Introducing Lesbian Characters
Welcome back to Queering the Narrative! Over the last few weeks, I’ve talked a lot about writing lesbian characters. However, we haven’t yet touched on introducing lesbian characters, so that’s what we’ll be focusing on this week!
“Lesbian” characters have seen an uptick in modern media, but as a sort of side-effect of bi erasure, it can sometimes be difficult to identify whether a sapphic character is lesbian, bisexual, or some other variety of wlw.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this (since there is so much overlap between the wlw communities), people deserve to see their own identities fully and authentically represented in the media they consume — and it’s difficult to do that if you’re never certain if your favorite character is technically a lesbian.
Being mindful of how you introduce your character’s sexuality, however, can help mitigate this sort of confusion.
Bad Ways of Introducing Lesbian Characters
If you read my tropes to avoid post about lesbian characters, you’re probably aware of several problematic tropes that plague lesbian characters in fiction. However, some of these are also used as ways of introducing lesbian characters — and that gets really sketchy, since it’s the first impression your audience will get of that character’s identity!
The Vicious Lesbian
This is the term I’m going to use for a common trope of lesbian characters being used as tertiary straw-men to hurl vitriol at a queer character that might be marginalized within the LGBTQIA+ community, such as a trans, nonbinary, or bisexual character. This character usually employs Gold-Star or TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) rhetoric to demonstrate why another character isn’t really queer. She also usually only exists to give a different character — sometimes another lesbian, sometimes not — a chance to step in and show caring and acceptance toward the abused character
It’s not really a coincidence that this character is so often a lesbian — lesbians have long been seen as angry, aggressive, and/or cruel. While sometimes it’s important to note that your queer character may not be accepted in certain queer spaces, having this demonstrated with a mean lesbian only helps to contribute to the trope that lesbians are dangerous or not to be trusted.
Though there are some lesbian subcultures which are extremely unaccepting of certain queer identities, like those lesbians who prescribe to TERF ideology, for the most part the lesbian community is an open and accepting space. To use a lesbian character as a straw-man for scary mean gays is to play into a trope that actively harms real-life lesbians
Introducing characters in opposition to a hateful straw-man might be an effective way to illustrate how that character is “good,” but I recommend thinking critically about why you might think that character specifically needs to be a lesbian.
The Predatory Lesbian
I talked about this in my tropes to avoid post, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but one way that writers love to introduce a character as lesbian is to make them sexually aggressive toward any and all women, regardless of whether or not that woman is actually queer.
This introduciton relies entirely on the harmful predatory lesbian trope. This doesn’t mean that your character can’t be forward or flirtatious — just that you should be careful portraying lesbians as continuing to pursue women who are clearly uncomfortable with their advances, especially if you’re using that to demonstrate some sort of moral deficiency.
Iffy Ways of Introducing Lesbian Characters
These ways of introducing lesbian characters are probably okay, but definitely require some considerations about why you want ot use them!
There are a good number of iconic styles that can help tip off that a character is meant to be a lesbian, such as undercuts, flannels, and Doc Martins. However, the most common way that a writer will attempt to visually signal that a character is queer is by describing them as masculine presenting. This isn’t inherently problematic, but there are a couple of ways it could go wrong.
If the writer goes the full Stone Butch route, they also often pick up the negative tropes associated with Butch women — often portraying them as a Predatory Lesbian under the assumption that the only way to portray a masculine woman is to have them be sexually aggressive toward other women.
In the other direction, the writer relies entirely on subtle “lesbian cues” and never actually says the character is a lesbian. This is a form of queerbaiting, and is something you should avoid. It’s okay to use these cues to hint that a character might be a lesbian when you first introduce them, but you should name their identity at some point in the narrative.
Note also that this is far from a fool-proof method, as there are many Femme and Lipstick lesbians who may not necessarily “look” gay — a woman doesn’t have to be masculine to be a lesbian!
Only Kisses Girls
Honestly, if a character only ever kisses girls and never shows any interest in men, it’s probably a good indication that the character is a lesbian.
If a narrative involves a former male love interest, though, these waters can be a bit muddied — why did she date a man? Is she actually bi, and this is just an example of bi erasure? Or did the character simply come into a better understanding of their own sexuality?
This is a solidly neutral way of introducing lesbian characters, but I’d recommend making some explicit mention of the character’s sexuality at some point in the narrative, just to make sure you and your audience are on the same page about it.
Men Are Icky
This is a slightly less good version of the “Never Interested in Men” introduction I mention later. It plays into the trope that lesbians hate, are disgusted by, or otherwise dislike men in any form, and reduces them to simple “man-haters” — because how could you possibly justify a woman not being attracted to men unless they actively dislike them in every way?
The reason this can be iffy is that oftentimes, writers will confuse “not being attracted to men” with “being disgusted by men as a concept.” In general, lesbians don’t base their entire judgement of individuals on whether or not they’d personally sleep with them.
The thing about this is that some lesbians really do dislike hanging out with cis/straight men, and plenty of them will make disparaging jokes about men. Those things aren’t bad representation, but it’s also not true of all lesbians — and it’s really obvious when a man who doesn’t really get these jokes attempts to write them.
Another way this can go wrong is when the introduction falls into transphobic space, with the lesbian in question equating trans women with men. Don’t do that. It’s not cool.
Good Ways of Introducing Lesbian Characters
These are some pretty fool-proof ways of introducing lesbian characters that are unlikely to cause your audience any distress or offense while also avoiding harmful tropes!
Hands down, as always, the best way to introduce a character’s orientation is to simply have them come out. At some point in your narrative, have your lesbian character say “I’m a lesbian” (or, if you don’t think that term will fit your narrative, have them say “I’m only interested in women”).
This is a simple, straightforward way to show your reader your character’s identity, while helping to retain their agency. If you’re not sure how to write a coming out scene, check out the series I wrote about just that!
Never Interested in Men
If your lesbian character has been out for a long time, or is in a long-term relationship with another woman, it might not be natural for the character themself to come out as lesbian in the narrative.
HOWEVER, to avoid the ambiguity I mentioned in the “Only Kisses Girls” or falling to “Men Are Icky,” I’d recommend at some point mentioning that the character has simply never been interested in men. This could be in contrast to her partner, if her partner is bi, or it could simply be a line included in a description of her backstory (“she’s never been interested in boys, except maybe to fight them” sort of thing).
That’s it for this week! As always, there’s a lot to talk about when it comes to introductions, so sorry that went a bit long. I’ll be back next week with another post, but until then stay safe, stay healthy, and keep writing!