How to Add Gay Characters to Your Story Without Resorting to Tokenism
It doesn't have to be complicated.
It wasn’t that long ago that gay characters in media were few and far between, but recently they’re becoming more and more common and spreading into more genres and mediums. And as gay characters (and other MOGAI characters) become a more common sight, more creators are contemplating making their casts a little less straight.
But not all gay characters are created equal. There’s definite concern about accidentally creating a token character, or otherwise crafting representation that ends up being harmful or offensive. This is perhaps especially of concern for straight, cis creators, given that they don’t have personal experiences to draw from when it comes to representing these identities.
So for those who are concerned or just curious, here’s a few quick tips on how to add gay characters to your stories.
1) There doesn’t have to be a “point” to a gay character.
“How do I add a gay character to my novel if I don’t want a romantic subplot?”
“I want to add a gay character to my story, but I’m worried about how to include gay issues without it seeming hamfisted.”
“I would include gay people in my stories if it weren’t so complicated!”
This is something I’ve seen voiced a lot, and I can completely understand why adding diversity to your stories can be daunting from this perspective. But the good news is that there doesn’t have to be a “point” to a gay character, per se. In fact, adding a gay character to your work with the intention that there is a point to their identity probably makes it more likely that you’re writing a stereotype or caricature.
Including gay characters in your work doesn’t have to be any more complicated than including straight characters. If you have a girl reference her wife or a guy mention his ex-boyfriend, that’s fine. It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that if you don’t want to build out romantic subplots or focus your attention on specific political issues. A character can play an important role in the story and be gay simultaneously, without their gayness overshadowing or encompassing their role in the plot.
2) What if my character has traits that are stereotypical of their sexuality?
Stereotyping should be a big concern when writing any minority or disadvantaged identity, but that shouldn’t intimidate you, nor should you find it necessary to scrub a character clean of any traits that might be construed as stereotypical. Did you write a gay male character who’s interested in fashion? That’s fine! As long as there’s more to his character than just that trait, and as long as that trait isn’t treated as a given or something shared by all gay men. People are complicated and diverse, no matter what identity or subculture you’re looking at. As long as you’re mindful of that in your writing, you shouldn’t have too much of an issue.
3) Hire a sensitivity reader
A sensitivity reader is someone from within a marginalized group that evaluates a manuscript to highlight “potential inaccuracies, biases, and reinforcements of harmful stereotypes.” (Sylvester 2017) This can be especially helpful in the above situation, where a writer might be concerned about where the line is for having a few stereotypical traits versus being an actual stereotype. There are many resources where such readers can be found, though be aware that you do have to hire them. That is, sensitivity reading is not something you should expect someone to do for free. It’s hard work and that should be respected and compensated.
4) Don’t assume you know all there is to know
This probably sounds overly simplistic and very vague, but hear me out. There are a lot of people who think they know everything there is to know about gay people, or about black people, or about First Nations people, or about blind people, or about whatever other group you might think of. But that’s a dangerous mentality when creating a story.
Assume you don’t know. Assume there are wide gaps in your understanding of people and identities outside your experiences. The previously mentioned sensitivity readers can help with this, but so can reading or watching media created by people from within these groups. If you want to write a gay character, then read books written by and about gay people, watch movies by and about gay people, consume a wide variety of media by and about gay people. It can open you up to understanding things on a more personal, human level in a way that technical research can often fail to achieve.
5) Be a good ally
Including more diversity in your work is certainly a good place to start, especially if you’re taking the time and care to ensure you aren’t creating tokens or caricatures. But an equally important part of being an ally is supporting the voices of actual marginalized creators.
Like I said previously, reading and watching works by gay creators can be incredibly helpful to your ability to write your own gay characters, but it’s also a way to tangibly support the community. Buying their work, sharing it with friends, and generally boosting it so others can see it are all great ways to be a true ally. Moreover, it helps you avoid falling into the trap of speaking for the community when you create a gay character. If you aren’t gay yourself, you should be supporting the community’s voice and speaking with it, not talking over it.
Sylvester, Natalia. 2017. ‘What a Sensitivity Reader Is (and Isn’t) and How to Hire One.’ Writer Unboxed. Retrieved December 23, 2019 (https://writerunboxed.com/2017/03/03/what-a-sensitivity-reader-is-and-isnt-and-how-to-hire-one/).