Welcome back to the How To Write LGBTQIA+ Characters series. If you haven’t read the other two articles in this series, please check them out at How To Write LGBTQIA+ Characters: An Introduction and How To Write LGBTQIA+ Characters: Lesbians.
Today we concentrate on how to write male characters that like men and to do so, I’ve enlisted author Scott Swenson to help give his insight in writing LGBTQIA+ characters. Swenson is a dark poetry and prose published author who also happens to be a gay man in his 50’s. His goal as a writer is to never identify the orientation of the character he’s writing about but let the details do the work for him.
We will talk about the stereotypes gay individuals experience and how to avoid these pitfalls that society has trained us to expect. I’ll point out right now that this is a very diluted guide and you should still do more in-depth research on your own to make sure your writing is as accurate as possible.
Swenson says that “the interesting thing about stereotypes, in general, is that enough people either acted or were perceived in a certain way to start the stereotype in the first place. Most stereotypes are rooted in some kind of fact but are weak shortcuts for authors.” Though realistic, dimensional, and believable characters can have certain “stereotypical qualities,” they also have to have parts of them that break the stereotypes and don’t fit the mold.
So what are these stereotypes you may ask? The most prominent stereotype in society is the “limp-wristed, feminine, flight attendant who is very promiscuous and afraid of commitment” Swenson says, but there are others. Here are those that have accepted names within the gay community:
- Twinks, which are the young gay “pretty boys.”
- Otters, which are furry Twinks.
- Bears, which are the hairy men, usually beefier and older.
- Polar bears, which are the bears but who are old enough to have grey hair.
Another stereotype that is found within the gay community is based on their preferred sexual position:
- Bottoms, or
Since the LGBTQ+ community has discovered a much broader spectrum of varied behavior, these stereotypes are slowly waning.
Identifying and avoiding harmful queer tropes won’t be easy, and it most certainly isn’t a linear, clear-cut process. Swenson says that “you will always run the risk of hurting someone’s feelings. Humans are very complex and avoiding all negativity is nearly impossible. My suggestion is to find balance. Recognize that most characters have both admirable and possibly embarrassing qualities. Work to identify both. Even villains do good sometimes. Even within your full piece, make sure that not all of the good people look and act like you and all the bad people don’t. Most importantly, create your characters from a place of kindness. If you are truly kind in your heart, it will read in the characters you write.”
Additionally, to create three-dimensional characters, you have to break the stereotypes. Swenson offers this piece of advice: “Write a “twink” who loves football and has been in a monogamous relationship with his high school boyfriend for 3 years. Another way to avoid flat characters based on type is to actually meet and talk to someone similar to the character you wish to write. If you know someone similar to your character, seek out those things in their life that DON’T fit the stereotype.”
A tip for writers on writing queer characters is not to write them at all. Just like I highlighted in the first article of the series (How To Write LGBTQIA+ Characters: An Introduction), he says not to “focus on writing “queer characters,” instead, write characters who live and breath and interact…and happen to be queer.” Here are some other tips he offers:
- He says he often says: “I’m gay, I’m right-handed and I’m 6 feet 3 inches tall. These are all part of who I am and all equally as important. Not only will you write dull, one-dimensional characters if they are “only queer”, you also run a greater risk of offending someone.”
- Let the character’s actions and relationships define them, not their words. A young woman who shares the way her female roommate makes her feel is far more compelling than her saying: “I’m a lesbian.”
- Authors are often drawn to “coming out stories,” perhaps because this is a very important (and often difficult) time in many gay people’s lives. Personally, I am much more drawn to stories about the next steps or the challenges that come about as LGBTQ+ people grow older. I’ve read enough coming out stories…but I’m old.
- Finally, try to avoid writing queer characters in a vacuum. In other words, recognize that most studies suggest that 1 in 10 people identify as gay…don’t forget the other 9.
And as I stated in the previous articles of this series, to accurately portray characters you should read LGBTQIA+ themed books and movies. Swenson states that the correct portrayal of gay characters is really a question of taste, but that he really liked “the approach that the movie and TV series world of “Love Simon/Love Victor” has taken [for instance]. These young characters make mistakes, are embraced by some and rejected by others. I think it has helped make queer youth a bit less scary for those who have been raised to oppose it.” Also, do your own research, ask people in the community, and most of all, be accepting of any and all constructive criticism of your characters, not as an attack on yourself, but as a way to become a better writer overall.
In the next installment of the series, we’ll be talking about writing bisexual individuals.