Part 1: The Basics
I’ve just finished reading Steph Bowe’s Night Swimming, a super cute and overall positive AusQueerYA. A full review will be up soon, but one thing that struck me was the repeat of the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ trope and the ‘Awkward Lesbian’ thing, that we also saw in Erin Gough’s Flywheel. I really enjoyed both of these books, but I did not see myself or any of my Queer friends within these pages. Props to Gough and Bowe for including Women of Colour, but I wanted more depth from these Queer characters. We are not all whimsical meerkats or rough and tumble gals who don’t realise how drop dead beautiful we are until someone tucks our hair back behind our ear and puts a dress on us. I want to see greater diversity amongst our Queer characters, so welcome to our three-part series on Writing Queer Characters.
Creating interesting, memorable, well-rounded and relatable characters is one of the hardest and most enjoyable parts of writing. It’s like playing the Sims, except with way more options and less social acceptability. Your novel will likely have a mix of Queer and not-Queer characters, but this post is about the Queer ones. How do you create Queer characters that aren’t walking stereotypes, don’t seem like cardboard copies of L Word characters and are actual human beings and not just ‘Gay Person No. 736373 who exists solely to be a gay person in this novel’? Strap yourselves in kids, this will be more confusing than your first girl-crush.
Think of your characters like that episode of Sabrina the Teenage Witch where the Aunts make perfect boyfriends out of magic dough and Sabrina’s is called Chad and it was the best episode ever.
If you’re a Planner, you might like to download a character fact sheet and fill it in the old fashioned way. There are plenty on the web, like this one for example Character Chart for Fiction. Bonus of using a chart is that you’re sure not to forget anything (like how I once got through three chapters before I realised one of my characters didn’t have a name) and it’s all nicely ordered. Charts help prompt you to think about things you might never have considered. On the downside, charts tend to create flat characters, who still need to be brought to life by dialogue and action.
As a Panster, I prefer to let my characters create themselves. I start with a general idea of gender, name and age (for YA, your main character should be 14-19, but there is some leeway depending on the genre). Then I let them walk around in my head while I go about my day. Does anyone else seem to get all their best ideas in the shower? When they’ve had a few conversations with me and acted out a few random scenes, I start to write, throwing them together with other characters and in different scenarios and seeing where it takes me. Does my character start swearing a lot? Are they funny? Are they shy? Are they a flirt? Are they me? It’s easier to create characters that are well-rounded if they are given the chance to develop organically.
This is a good way to find out early on if your main character and your romantic lead (if you have one) have chemistry, before spending hours charting their personalities. The downside of this is that you might miss key things or fall victim to the fictional-dream-shattering changing eye-colour trap. My advice is to combine the two. Have a rough idea of who your characters are, but let them guide you. Write down these basic facts and consider what they are showing you. Are your main characters too similar? Do they make sense in the context of your world?
One thing I think is really important to consider from the very beginning of this process is your characters sexuality/gender. To write realistic and meaningful Queer characters, their sexuality cannot be an after thought of the author. Construct characters from within their personal context from the outset. Sexuality/gender is not the number one defining feature of people, but being Queer does influence the way we present ourselves, our likes, hobbies, families and friends. It is important to understand how those things are connected for your characters.
There was a while there (maybe it’s still going on, I’m not sure on account of the super-gay bubble I tend to operate in), where it was the ‘in’ thing to write Queer characters as ‘just regular folk who happen to be Queer in a total non-issue kind of way’. That’s a nice idea, I guess. I’m happy that not all AusQueerYA’s have to be about homophobia, but brushing aside a character’s Queerness to make them seem more ‘mainstream’ isn’t cool. Being Queer for a lot (not all, but a lot) of people isn’t just about sexuality/gender, it’s about culture, community and politics. Try to consider your characters as less ‘a person who just happens to be gay’ and more of, ‘a person who is gay’. Small difference, but there is no ‘just happens to be’. Being Queer doesn’t just happen, it takes a lot of emotional, psychological and sometimes physical effort. Be nice if it didn’t, but that’s the lay of the land. This isn’t to say you have to make your characters all be outrageously over the top Queer if you don’t want to, but acknowledge your character’s efforts. Anything less is just straight-washing.
Now that we have a vague idea on who our characters are, we can develop their personalities. In Part 2 we’ll look at common stereotypes and tropes (such as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl) and how to avoid them without your novel turning into an episode of Degrassi.