LGBT+ Representation: How to Write Truly Diverse Characters

LGBT+ Representation: How to Write Truly Diverse Characters

As a straight, white, middle class, able-bodied, conventionally attractive woman, I’m pretty well represented. In the world; in movies; and in fiction.

Of course, that’s not to say that women like me are always proportionally represented in the media, film, and fiction. It’s also not to say that when they are represented, they’re represented well. But generally speaking, the women I’ve seen in fiction look like me. They behave like me. They feel like me. They’ve had similar life experiences to me.

All of which means I’ve never had to think about representation that much. Not on a personal level at least. Sure, I’ve Retweeted my fair share of Jezebel and Huffington Post articles about the lack of female representation in films; and I try periodically to raise awareness of the distinct lack of women of colour in the media – but I’ve never had to read book after book, or watch TV show after TV show, and think ‘Why do none of these people look, behave, or think like me?’

In short, I am very privileged.

But lately I have been trying to think about representation in the media more closely. I’ve started to pay proper attention to whether or not people who aren’t like me are properly represented.

Which begs the question, what qualifies as good representation?

[bctt tweet=”What is ‘good’ LGBT+ representation?” username=”oawoodward”]

I recently finished reading Carrie Hope Fletcher’s On The Other Side – which contains three LGBT+ characters. One’s bisexual; one’s pansexual; and one’s homosexual.

In a Q&A video on her popular YouTube channel, Carrie addressed the inclusion of LGBT+ characters in her novel, saying:

It’s 2016, and why there aren’t more LGBT+ characters in book is beyond me. I wanted to include those characters in the book because there are people just like them existing, living their lives out there in the world. So the idea that they shouldn’t be represented in fiction is weird.

Which is very true. That’s exactly why we need better representation in every aspect of life. There are people in the real world having those experiences. And it can be heartbreakingly isolating to never see yourself represented in idealised, imaginary worlds.

Carrie also spoke about the fact that these characters happened to be LGBT+, but those weren’t the most interesting things about them. Which again, is a very important part of representation.

Yes, we need stories about gay people being gay, and bisexual people being bisexual, and black people being black people. But we also need stories about gay people being astronauts, and bisexual people working in banks, and black people going to Tesco at 2am because they ran out of milk.

Which unfortunately isn’t quite the case in On The Other Side.

Whilst the bisexual character in On The Other Side is bisexual and also a (relatively) well-rounded character, both the pansexual character and the gay character are merely LGBT+ as a plot point.

The pansexual character is only pansexual to prompt the gay character to come out. The gay character is only gay to dramatically alter the book’s course of events.

In short, despite the fact that Carrie (rightly) tries to represent a range of sexualities in On The Other Side, her LGBT+ characters kind of miss the mark. Although Carrie wanted to include LGBT+ characters that were more interesting than their sexuality, all she actually did is include LGBT+ characters whose sexualities were a plot point for our straight protagonist.

[bctt tweet=”‘LGBT character should be more than just a plot point'” username=”oawoodward”]

This is where I think a lot of representation struggles. Authors, writers, and creators often focus on including diverse characters, but they think that the art of writing a diverse character is a mystical secret that differs wildly from the art of writing a straight, cis, white character.

When in reality, if you want to write a diverse character whose diversity is not simply a major (or minor) plot point, or the be all and end all of their personality, you simply write a ‘normal’ character – and then you make them diverse.

If you want to write a well-rounded female character, try writing a male character – and then just make them female.

If you want to write a well-rounded LGBT+ character, try writing a cis/straight character – and then make them LGBT+.

This is of course not to say that female-ness or LGBT+-ness or blackness or any other diverse-ness aren’t important parts of people’s and characters’ identity. Of course that’s not true. Our characteristics shape our identities which shape our experiences which in turn shape our identities further – and to pretend otherwise if frankly just unhelpful.

But when it comes to realistic representation in fiction, the media, and films, it’s worth remembering that ‘diverse’ characters can and should have more to them than their diversity.

Basic representation is important. Well-rounded representation is vital.

[bctt tweet=”Basic representation is important. Well-rounded representation is vital.” username=”oawoodward”]

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2 Comments

  1. September 8, 2016 / 12:47

    I love this piece. I’ve not read the book you mention, but it sounds like although the thought was there, the aim didn’t really work out – and in situations like this it really isn’t just the thought that counts.
    I think one of the thins that needs addressing here is diversity of writers too – not to say that straight people can’t write LGBT characters or so on, or that black writers have to write about race, but ensuring fair representation and diversity of authors is key to ensuring fair representation and diversity of characters, I think.
    Lx | Lightly We Go

    • Liv Woodward
      September 20, 2016 / 13:26

      Thank you! Yes, intentions were definitely there – and I don’t want to discredit good and needed intentions, but unfortunately too often best intentions miss the mark.

      You’re definitely right about the diversity of writers being important too. Whilst it shouldn’t be solely up to minorities to represent themselves in fiction, the best way to get diverse fiction out in the world is to promote and value diverse writers.

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