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Old 06-16-2017, 02:09 PM
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Default Writing LGBT Characters

I know a few people on this forum identify on the LGBT spectrum, and I know others here have connections to the LGBT community, so I thought this might be a worthwhile place to have this discussion. As there are also many other storytellers here, both of the RPG and written variety, I hoped this would be of general interest.

As everyone knows (I hope), I write stories. Sometimes, those stories are even published. I believe stories should reflect the world, and I endeavor to write characters from varying walks of life, experiences, and backgrounds. This includes racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, and religious diversity. To that end, in my current WiP, a manuscript for an epic fantasy novel, one of the major POV characters is a bisexual man.

Some of you may have read one of my previous forays into writing a gay character: Iago Gentile. I posted two spin-off short stories based on Gentile, who originated as an NPC in the Pacific Flame RPG campaign. If anyone is interested in taking a look at how I've handled that character in (unfortunately incomplete) stories, they can be found Part 1 and Part 2.

My current WiP has led me to thinking about representation of sexuality in characters. I have questions both in the general and the specific if anyone is interested in further discussion. While I'm specifically talking about a bisexual character, I'm very interested in the answers in a broader sense as well. For example, I've considered, but never written, a transman or transwoman, so feedback on any aspect of the LGBT spectrum would be welcome.

1) Are there common stereotypes about LGBT characters you're sick of, tired of, annoyed with, or flat out hate to see repeated?

2) Similarly, are there common storylines you feel are overdone? Common storylines you find offensive?

3)
a) What is an example of a well done LGBT character? If there is one, can you give an example of an LGBT character in a fantasy setting? (If you have multiple examples, that would be great!)

b) What is an example, in your opinion, of a poorly done LGBT character? (Likewise, multiple examples would be helpful.)

4) What is your thought on foregrounding vs. backgrounding of character's sexuality? (In most stories, cis-/het- character's sexuality are backgrounded. However, it is common for LGBT characters to be foregrounded. For example, "coming out" or "family reconciliation" plotlines foreground the sexual orientation of the character. Contrast this with stories where romance or erotic situations are simply part of the character's life, not the driving aspect of their narrative.)

5) Is there a type of story you would like to see, or would like to see more of, featuring LGBT characters?

6)
a) What are your thought on a non-LGBT person writing LGBT characters? Is this an example of appropriation? Or a necessary aspect of fiction?

b) Do you have any specific advice for a non-LGBT person who wishes to write about LGBT characters?

Some specifics.

The PoV character in my WiP is a bisexual man. His story is in an epic fantasy milieu in a locations (meant to) reminiscent of Renaissance Italy, Ottoman North Africa, and Age of Sail New World colonies,with technology roughly equivalent to the late 18th Century (blackpowder and gaslight, but no steam power.)

The setting does not feature any particular homophobia. Nor is it my intention to tell a reconciliation or coming out plot. While there is an analogue religion to the Catholic church, it has no prohibition on sexual orientation. Similarly, women hold positions of power and authority without comment despite its inconsistency with regard to period accuracy. It isn't my interest (for this story) to address contemporary issues of discrimination. As far as issues go, they involve questions of colonialism and anti-colonialism, power and the perversion of power, and the conflict of religious cultures within that framework.

The PoV character is a veteran soldier turned sorcerer's apprentice. He suffers from war-related PTSD. While he has issues with his family, those issues have nothing to do with his orientation. He has an unrequited love interest in his (male) teacher. The PoV character has numerous brief sexual encounters with both genders, but his only lasting romantic relationship was a backstory romance with a man who was assassinated. I write morally grey worlds, but the PoV character falls broadly onto the side of the "good" guys, such as good guys are in my work. He is charitable to the misfortunate, but he does have some prejudices based on the intersection of religion and magic.

I) It can be difficult to say from a character sketch, but does anything stand out from this sketch as problematic?

II) If you have read any of the Iago Gentile stories, what is your assessment of my handling of that character? Are there obvious pitfalls I made in his representation? The PoV character under discussion bears some similarities to Gentile in a broad sense, but his guilt is impersonal, stemming from war rather than a specific tragic loss.

Any further discussion welcome! The questions above are just my own thoughts, btw. Don't feel constrained to use them as a specific framework. Any feedback, especially from LGBT individuals, is most appreciated.

As a final note, have I posted a similar question before? I have the strongest feeling I did, but I can't find it. Maybe I've just considered posting this question? Ugh. Maybe I'm just going senile in my middle age.

Last edited by Archaelos; 06-16-2017 at 02:12 PM.
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Old 06-16-2017, 03:14 PM
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A character I remember being done well was Jim McCarthy from the War Against the Chtorr books.

I also think Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate books feature some well done GLBTQ characters.

I don't seek out GLBTQ stories generally because everything mainstream usually sucks while simultaneously being forwarded to me by every single well meaning cis straight friend I have anywhere in the world with an internet connection so sadly I can't give too much beyond that. I will say that I prefer when the characters orientation is just a trait they have rather than the trait that defines them and it sounds like you're setitng out to avoid that.
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Old 06-16-2017, 03:27 PM
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As a bisexual man, who's lived a generally straight life, a few thoughts:

1. As far as stereotypes, the ones prevalent when I tried (unsuccessfully) to enter the LGBT community 25 year or so ago are:

a. Bisexual men are really gay men who can't admit it.
b. Bisexual men are really straight men who want to increase their likelihood of getting laid.

There's also a lot of stuff lingering around that bisexuals have a harder time with commitment. (I think the idea is that it's a different sexual urge for gay sex than for straight sex, so since a monogamous partner only has one set of parts, one side will be left unsatisfied.) It's not really true.

As such, when you speak of "numerous brief encounters" I think you need to be careful not to play into that stereotype, or to address it in some way.

As for a well done LGBT character, one portrayal I've always liked is Tom Collins as portrayed by Jesse L Martin in the film adaption of Rent. His sexuality is there; it's not hidden in the background, but there's a lot more to the character than the fact he's gay. It's a tough line to walk I think.

As far as the questions about appropriation and the like...I think it's BS. If only gay authors can have gay characters, and only Asian authors can write Asian characters, etc. we're going to continue to lack integration in our fiction.

Now that said, I think the challenge is in the research. Far too many authors simply use stereotypical "templates" for what it means to by "X" when X is some socio-cultural group they don't belong to.
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Old 06-17-2017, 01:27 PM
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1) Are there common stereotypes about LGBT characters you're sick of, tired of, annoyed with, or flat out hate to see repeated?
Bisexual women that occasionally date women but will always find their "happily ever after" with a man, and I suppose the opposite for bisexual men (though the former is a well known trope). Queer characters dying needlessly. A cis person being treated like a saint for being able to "overlook" their partner being trans, and "loving them in spite of it".

Quote:
2) Similarly, are there common storylines you feel are overdone? Common storylines you find offensive?
I guess the above could be considered storylines too?

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3)
a) What is an example of a well done LGBT character? If there is one, can you give an example of an LGBT character in a fantasy setting? (If you have multiple examples, that would be great!)
"The 100", Lexa and Clarke. Although this
Spoiler!
Had they explored his bisexuality more, Gaeta from "BSG". Don't laugh, but I think Xena was a relatively well portrayed queer woman from the 90s. Several of the characters from "Spartacus". Kalinda Sharma from "The Good Wife", mostly. Some of the couples in "Orange Is The New Black". Several characters from Atwood's novels (particularly "The Handmaid's Tale"), though I can't recall if she's ever written a queer relationship, just queer characters. I haven't seen it personally, but "Legend Of Korra". Captain Raymond Holt from "Brooklyn Nine Nine", SERIOUSLY. And hell, why not Yara (Asha) Greyjoy from "Game Of Thrones".


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b) What is an example, in your opinion, of a poorly done LGBT character? (Likewise, multiple examples would be helpful.)

Any time a character is a lesbian and just needs "the right dick" to fix them, like "Gigli". Any time female bisexuality or lesbianism is portrayed just as erotica for the male gaze, like "Basic Instinct". Any time a trans person (and most often, this is trans women) is portrayed as being "deceitful" by not disclosing being trans, like "Ace Ventura". Etc. ad infinitum


Quote:
4) What is your thought on foregrounding vs. backgrounding of character's sexuality? (In most stories, cis-/het- character's sexuality are backgrounded. However, it is common for LGBT characters to be foregrounded. For example, "coming out" or "family reconciliation" plotlines foreground the sexual orientation of the character. Contrast this with stories where romance or erotic situations are simply part of the character's life, not the driving aspect of their narrative.)

Although coming out stories are important and can be powerful, I feel somewhat similar to these as I do to superhero origin stories. Maybe it's cool we skip the exposition this time? Maybe it's okay if we walk into the middle of the story and there's a queer person, just being queer, and it's a part of the story and it's a part of them and it doesn't have to be built on this huge tragic backstory.

Quote:
5) Is there a type of story you would like to see, or would like to see more of, featuring LGBT characters?
Happy ones? I'm all for a good drama, but I would love some queer stories that are just happy go lucky or at least have a happy ending. I'd like to see storylines with older LGBT people. QUEER HISTORICAL FICTION IS MY JAM. Especially with real life historically queer people, eg. Alexander the Great. And most of all, I want storylines with queer people where they can talk about being queer and do queer things but them being queer isn't what the storyline hinges on.

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6)
a) What are your thought on a non-LGBT person writing LGBT characters? Is this an example of appropriation? Or a necessary aspect of fiction?

It's not appropriation and I think it's necessary for all writers to diversify their characters BUT I think caution should be taken. The same caution I would take writing characters of color, trans characters, etc. Basically, do your research. Like this!


Quote:
b) Do you have any specific advice for a non-LGBT person who wishes to write about LGBT characters?

Do your research! Listen to the LGBT people in your life. From a variety of age groups. And realize that one queer person's experience is not the next queer person's. Your one LGBT friend is not a monolith and doesn't speak for everyone in the community.

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I) It can be difficult to say from a character sketch, but does anything stand out from this sketch as problematic?

Nothing jumps out. Is this character white or a person of color? That's interesting to know considering you're tackling colonialism.

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Ugh. Maybe I'm just going senile in my old age.
Fixed <3
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Old 06-17-2017, 08:23 PM
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Looking this story over, I would have to ask "why?"
You pretty much eliminate all reason for the reader to be interested in the character's sexual preference. And if we judge from the limited sample of the Gentile stories, sex stories are not your strong point. The stories would be better if all sex were removed.
I suppose it might be a matter of keeping up with current fads, but the bisexual fad is already fading, and Ischade reminds us there is already a lot of bad bi-sexual works. If you can't do it well, better to do something else, and the mere fact of asking here calls that into question.
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Old 06-18-2017, 03:05 PM
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Originally Posted by Ischade View Post
I will say that I prefer when the characters orientation is just a trait they have rather than the trait that defines them and it sounds like you're setitng out to avoid that.
That's my intention; how well I accomplish it remains to be seen, of course.

Thanks for the recommendations. I have Carriger on my to-read list because of the gaslight fantasy aspect, but I'll make sure to try to raise the priority.

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Originally Posted by Brother Brian View Post
As such, when you speak of "numerous brief encounters" I think you need to be careful not to play into that stereotype, or to address it in some way.
I'll bear this in mind as I progress. Hopefully, the character's grounding and backstory will provide enough depth not to come across this way, but it's definitely worth noting as a potential problem. The reader will see his backstory from another character's PoV, including a committed relationship. As with Itchy's comments, execution is the proof, so I'll add this to my questions for future beta readers.

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Now that said, I think the challenge is in the research. Far too many authors simply use stereotypical "templates" for what it means to by "X" when X is some socio-cultural group they don't belong to.
The stereotypical template is exactly what I want to avoid. I'd like to say all of my characters are three dimensional, but authorial myopia and all that. Hopefully, I can accomplish dimensionality with a major PoV character at least.

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Some of the couples in "Orange Is The New Black".
Thanks for all the recs, but with OITNB specifically (since I just watched the most recent season), which couple do you think works best? Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) is my favourite character, but her relationships are dysfunctional and probably not the best lesson in what "works".

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Any time a character is a lesbian and just needs "the right dick" to fix them, like "Gigli".
I loathe the "fix them" trope in relationships of all types. If I ever knowingly write it, readers are free to pelt me with rotten vegetables. (To be clear, I don't mind character evolution stories where characters grow through their relationships. It's the idea of "fixing" that irks me to no end.)

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Happy ones?
Happiness is a somewhat relative term in my writing, but it isn't my intention for this character to have a particularly tragic arc. So, maybe?

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I'd like to see storylines with older LGBT people.
Older characters in general are in short supply (by which, I mean characters who present as older. 7000 y.o. vampires with the body and mind of a seventeen-year-old boy don't count.) Lack of age diversity is an important issue in its own right. The POVs in my manuscript exist across an age spectrum. The bisexual man is in his thirties for most of his storyline (though he's seen in his twenties and in his forties in other PoVs.)

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Basically, do your research. Like this!
I'll continue research as I progress, and hopefully I can also further the question with beta readers when I've completed the manuscript.

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Your one LGBT friend is not a monolith and doesn't speak for everyone in the community.
Very true. I'm also working to include diverse LGBT secondary characters within the frame of the story to avoid some sort of appearance of proscriptivity.

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Is this character white or a person of color? That's interesting to know considering you're tackling colonialism.
No. The bisexual man is one of five major PoVs. Three of those are POC, however he is white/pseudo-European. One of those is a WOC whose sexuality hasn't coalesced in my head yet. At one point, I had considered she might be a lesbian, but I've waffled because of concern about the "male erotic wish fulfillment" trope you mentioned above.

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Fixed <3
HAHA.

/mutters dang kids /mutters

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Looking this story over, I would have to ask "why?"
Because I write descriptive fiction and LGBT people exist. Do I need another reason? Well, for this character, his voice suggested bisexuality as I developed his narrative arc. One of his original traits was his unrequited crush on his male mentor.

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And if we judge from the limited sample of the Gentile stories, sex stories are not your strong point.
If one approached the Gentile stories in search of erotica, I would assume one would be gravely disappointed.

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I suppose it might be a matter of keeping up with current fads,
When do you expect the sex fad to end? Will it be soon? As I flip through the canon of Western literature, I find Aeschyllus, Sappho, Plautus, Lucretius, Catullus, Virgil, Petronius, Ovid...

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Old 06-18-2017, 09:18 PM
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Thanks for all the recs, but with OITNB specifically (since I just watched the most recent season), which couple do you think works best?
I was thinking Poussey and Soso. And I just love Poussey in general.
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Old 06-18-2017, 11:56 PM
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I'm also working to include diverse LGBT secondary characters within the frame of the story to avoid some sort of appearance of proscriptivity.
That is opposed to the diversity of Hollywood b-movies, where each of the heroes is scripted to appeal to a particular group of viewers. That might be a good sales move here, but these groups do not mix, except for the political reasons you have already ruled out. The gay and lesbian are not looking for the same thing, nor in the same place. and each type is downright rare.

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If one approached the Gentile stories in search of erotica, I would assume one would be gravely disappointed.
But that is the sample you have provided to judge by. Whether or not it is correct evidence, it does not bode well for the idea.

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When do you expect the sex fad to end?
Now where is it "the sex fad"? There are dozens of sex fads rising and or falling at any time. The one under discussion here is bi-sexual.

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As I flip through the canon of Western literature, I find Aeschyllus, Sappho, Plautus, Lucretius, Catullus, Virgil, Petronius, Ovid...
As I flip thru the articles on Wikipedia, I find most of the articles on these people don't even contain the word "sex", and the list of notable bi-sexual writers has even fewer of these, indeed, having more living than dead. Even Sappho has little to no evidence of sex with males. and http://www.iep.utm.edu/lucretiu/ says "... Lucretius (whose blistering, two hundred line denunciation of sexual love comprises one of the memorable highlights of the poem)..."
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Old 06-19-2017, 12:13 PM
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Originally Posted by Archaelos
Older characters in general are in short supply (by which, I mean characters who present as older. 7000 y.o. vampires with the body and mind of a seventeen-year-old boy don't count.) Lack of age diversity is an important issue in its own right. The POVs in my manuscript exist across an age spectrum. The bisexual man is in his thirties for most of his storyline (though he's seen in his twenties and in his forties in other PoVs.)
Wanted to circle back to this. You're right, ageism is present everywhere and with every demographic, but there's a couple reasons why I think it's so important to see older people in the LGBT community.

1. Many times, you will see that queer and trans folks have shorter lifespans than their straight and cis peers. A lot of this is due to hate crimes, addiction/homelessness/suicide issues that stem from the stigma of being LGBT and rejection from a heteronormative world. And of course, not to mention that a whole generation of queer and trans folks were lost to the HIV crisis while those in power knowingly did nothing. So I know when I see an older person identifying as LGBT, there's this warm feeling of, "They made it through tough times, and I can too".

2. I think one of the most insidious parts of homophobia/transphobia is portraying anything outside of being straight and cis as a modern invention, or a "fad". Terminology has definitely changed and evolved, but queer and trans folk have been around since the beginning of time. But often, LGBT people are told that this is brand new, that we are a people without a history, without historical figures. It's very invalidating. Showing older LGBT people, in fiction and in nonfiction, is a reminder we've been around forever and are valid.

I recently finished a volunteer gig with my city's LGBT Center where I worked with senior citizens. There are so many issues unique to queer and trans seniors. Housing issues, lack of family and friends, etc. So protecting our older LGBT generation has recently become a bigger pet issue of mine.
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Old 06-19-2017, 06:03 PM
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I recently finished a volunteer gig with my city's LGBT Center where I worked with senior citizens. There are so many issues unique to queer and trans seniors. Housing issues, lack of family and friends, etc. So protecting our older LGBT generation has recently become a bigger pet issue of mine.
Fair points. Thank you for providing a perspective on the question I hadn't considered. I'll try to keep it in mind as I develop future characters, both for this manuscript and for other stories I will write.

I'm making an effort to work against many of my casual, default assumptions when working on characters, this is one aspect of my process. Sometimes, even recognizing those assumptions can be difficult, making this sort of dialogue-feedback invaluable.

I'll answer one of my own questions as well:

One of the character's who greatly influenced my thoughts is Dorian Pavus from the game Dragon Age: Inquisition. He's gay -- openly, proudly so -- but that's no more his defining trait than the average character's heterosexuality would be for them. Dorian is learned scholar, a powerful mage, and a patriot-reformer with torn loyalties. His most significant relationships are with two men -- neither of which is or has ever been Dorian's lover. He has a personal quest that does touch on the family reconciliation trope, but in this case Dorian's story was written by a gay writer who has his own life experiences to draw on.

The point being that Dorian -- like Poussey Washington -- is a complex character with myriad facets. He isn't a token homosexual to satisfy a "fad". He's a multifaceted character intended to represent part of the human experience. He's flawed, potentially problematic in some aspects, but beautifully written and wonderfully considered.
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