Introducing Queer Characters
Welcome back to Queering the Narrative!
This blog got its start with a post about introducing trans characters, and my Art of Introductions series has been an essential part of the blog ever since then. However, these introduction posts sometimes get a bit granular, and assume that folx know some baselines for introducing queer characters in general.
That’s not the point of this blog. I’m trying to teach everyone, and I know it can be intimidating to delve into the nitty-gritty without having that assumed baseline. So, this week and next, I’m going to be talking about introducing queer characters in a general sense, without a focus on any specific identity! I’m going to be touching on both good ways of introducing queer characters, as well as some… less good, but somewhat common, ways.
I’ve talked about this every single time I’ve talked about introducing queer characters, and I’m going to say it again: letting your characters come out is one of the best ways to introduce their queerness to your narrative! Allowing your character to come out helps alleviate erasure, gives your characters agency over their identities, and models for your audience that it is up to a queer person’s discretion to disclose their own identities.
Coming out can vary widely. It can be big and dramatic, or casual — queer people come out every day to folx that don’t already know their identity. If you want more advice on writing coming out scenes, I’ve got a whole series of posts!
Many of the following introductions — especially the good ones — involve coming out in some way. In the world we currently live in, where straight and cis are considered the default, people have to come out as queer. Since your character is being perceived by folx in our world, they’re going to have to as well. It’s subideal, but it’s what we’ve got to work with, so you might as well do it in a kind and respectful way!
This is when a queer character not only comes out, but explains their identity. This is useful for less commonly known identities, such as pansexual or ace, as well as those that are intensely personal, like many non-binary gender identities.
The Explanation can also often serve as an educational tool for your audience. Using your character to explain more “complicated” topics, like the gender binary or the asexuality spectrum, can be a great way to help people better understand the queer community as a whole!
This is also extremely useful in fantasy, sci-fi, and historical fiction, where modern-day gender and sexuality terms might not be setting-appropriate. It might be strange for a Victorian character to drop the word genderfluid in conversation — but it would be awesome for a character describe how they wish to flow between the roles of man and woman, and occasionally occupy spaces neither can fill. This is a great way to avoid erasure while also maintaining the integrity of your setting!
This refers to little ways you can imply/hint/confirm a character’s queerness by playing into tropes that are common to the identity in question. Signals can include romantic interests, fashion choices, daily rituals, pronouns, and more. It’s kind of an iffy space, in all honesty.
If done right, it can be a great way to show, not tell, your character’s identity. However, this can easily stumble into harmful tropes or casual erasure. Good examples of signaling include same-gender romantic interests or gender-neutral pronouns. On the other hand, signals like harmful transition practices or sexually aggressive lesbians can amplify negative tropes about the identities you’re trying to include!
If you want to use signals as a way of introducing queer characters, make sure you’re doing your research into what is authentic and respectful. If you want a place to start that research, I talk about specific signals in a lot of my art of introductions and tropes to avoid posts! (Also, be sure to at some point make their identities explicit!)
The Dramatic Reveal
Sometimes, this is a gag. Sometimes, it’s a character being outed. Sometimes, it’s them coming out themself. In all cases, the character’s queerness here is some sort of twist, something to make the audience shocked and amazed at your deft story maneuver.
Except, to queer audiences, this can feel a little disrespectful. To us, queerness is normal. It’s exciting to see queer characters in fiction, but that’s because there aren’t enough of them. A big dramatic reveal can feel pandering or insincere, especially when its written in a way that’s inconsistent with queer characters’ lived experiences.
That being said, there is certainly still room for this. Maybe a non-POV character is still coming to terms with their gender or sexuality, and when they finally admit it, it’s a huge moment for them. Maybe the school bully makes some self-discoveries and wants to go big on making amends. Maybe the queen kisses her handmaid in front of the royal court, consequences be damned.
There are two things to consider when introducing queer characters this way. First, make sure it doesn’t come out of the blue, or else it feels like you’re checking diversity boxes. Second, make sure that you’re putting some heart and forethought into the moment, and lay the groundwork for an actual response. If a moment like this just happens in a vacuum, it can feel like you’re using queerness as a cheap throwaway plot device, and that’s not cool.
Gags, Jokes, Etc.
Jokes at the expense of queer people suck. For generations, queerness has been a punchline in media. It’s the final gag that puts cis, straight folx in stitches, the little nod that the audience is supposed to see those sorts of people as outside of polite society. It’s okay to laugh at them because they are, objectively, weird.
This isn’t just a thing that cis/straight folx do. There are people in the LGBT community who think that certain queer folx are too queer, and therefore fair game to be mocked, because apparently they have very short memories and a deficiency of empathy.
Now, that’s not to say that humor can’t be used to introduce a character’s queerness! If you hold a certain queer identity and you know the in-jokes and the respectful ways to poke fun at the inconsistencies in your communities, more power to you! However, I highly recommend that you avoid making such jokes at the expense of communities you aren’t a part of.
That’s it for this week — but there’s still plenty to talk about when it comes to introducing queer characters! I’ll be back next week to finish up this list, but until then stay safe, stay healthy, and keep writing!