writing lgbtq characters for fiction writers and screenwriters
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20 Tips for Writing LGBTQ Characters

Author & reviewer Tucker Lieberman shares 20 tips for writing LGBTQ characters for fiction writers & screenwriters in this detailed writing resource.

20 Tips for Writing LGBTQ Characters

by Tucker Lieberman

Writing lgbtq characters for fiction writers and screenwriters

A guide to writing LGBTQ characters in your fiction or screenplays

What does it mean to have “good LGBTQ representation” in your creative writing? How do you make sure that your LGBTQ characters are shining, true, and not offending?

We seek ourselves in books, and we seek others. We seek solace. Community. Knowledge. How do you write LGBTQ characters effectively so that your readers have the capacity to enjoy it?

The great news is: You have so many freedoms.

There are multiple ways to tell your story and to talk about what’s important to your characters. Writers, it’s time to get started.

Here are 20 things you should know about writing LGBTQ characters.

  1. Understand your character as a whole person. 
understand a person as a whole in order to write a strong character

Understanding a character’s sexuality and gender is rooted in understanding them as a person. Help the character excavate their desires:

  • What do they want?
  • What’s in their way? 
  • How are they standing in their own way?
  • What won’t they settle for?
  • What will it feel like when they arrive?
  • How will they know they’ve done it?

See: the answers to these questions don’t have to be about their sexuality or gender. There’s more to them than that. If you establish their goals early, it’ll be easier for you to tell the story. Your character might surprise you by changing what they want. You can work on this in developmental editing and with beta readers.

  1. Don’t try to prove the character’s identity

There’s no essential characteristic that makes someone lesbian, gay, bi, trans, or queer. Some people know their sexual orientation before they’ve had sex. Some people know they’re trans and don’t entertain the idea of changing their body. 

When revealing a character as LGBTQ, one option is to do a “tell” instead of a “show.” The character can simply say “I’m gay” and leave it at that. This approach may not fit your story, but it’s one of your freedoms.

  1. Say who they are directly, or maybe don’t say it at all. 

I’m taking a bet that in your novel about a woman operating a bulldozer on an all-male construction site, the woman doesn’t “happen to be” a butch lesbian. The phrase “happens to be” usually sounds as though someone’s tiptoeing around, apologizing for, or downplaying the importance of an identity. When planning fiction about her, go bold: She is a butch lesbian.

Avoid the phrase “happen(s) to be” in relation to their sexuality or gender.

A person’s identity is often relevant to a situation, even if subtly. If you’re inclined to mention their identity at all, go ahead and say who they are. If it feels weird to speak directly about it, it might be irrelevant, in which case there’s no need to bring it up indirectly either, and you’re free to drop it.

  1. Learn real terminology or invent new words

Language is historically and culturally specific. The word “homosexual” in English, for example, has different connotations depending on what decade you’re in. Go back far enough and you’ll find a different word altogether. Learn a different language, and you’ll find that language has different categories and nuances. 

If you’re writing realistic fiction, you have a responsibility to learn real words. There’s a difference between affirming, friendly language and delegitimizing, rude language. Language shifts over time, and you can try to reflect the time period you’re writing about.

If your narrative has a fantasy element, you can invent or repurpose words. This can happen in your story too. You’re free to do it. No one has the authority to decide that you’ve broken the rules of “confabulous memoir.”

“I grew up in a crooked house in a place called Gloom,” Kai Cheng Thom says in Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir.

  1. Allow the character to make their own meaning

Consider what words resonate with the character about their identity. The 2023 novel Pedro & Daniel by Federico Erebia is built around dichos (Spanish for “proverbs”) that gain meaning for the boys as they grow up. A character can also develop their own set of symbols: sunrise, flag, basketball. Some of these might be related to their LGBTQ identity.

Pedro & Daniel by Federico Erebia

  1. Be ambiguous if you want

Some characters are “coded” as LGBTQ through stereotypes, common tropes, sideways references, and so on. The story never explicitly labels them as “gay” or “transgender” nor announces relevant facts. Instead, the author drops hints, like a gender-neutral reference to a lover.

Readers have different reactions to this kind of ambiguity. Some readers expect and crave clarity. Others appreciate the flexibility to imagine characters in ways that appeal to them.

  1. Explore a character’s myriad traits, not just their sexuality and gender
LGBTQ characters have different personality traits unrelated to their sexuality and gender

Readers will interpret your character through many traits:

  • what work they do
  • how much money they have
  • what principles they hold
  • what hobbies they enjoy
  • who they spend time with
  • who their role models are
  • who has cast them out

Is this part of writing LGBTQ characters? Yes, it is! A person has their sexuality and gender all the time, including when they’re doing regular human stuff like working or spending time with their friends. Their LGBTQ identity closes some doors and opens others. It affects how they show up in the world. And the other things they do in the world in turn affect their experience of sexuality and gender.

You don’t have to justify how certain character traits relate to their LGBTQ identity. You may know the answer—or not. You have the freedom not to present the case in every chapter for exactly why and how your story is an LGBTQ story.

  1. Include as much, or as little, “LGBTQ stuff” as you see fit

There’s no universal answer for what’s “too much” or “too little” attention given to a character’s sexuality or gender. Readers will arrive at their opinion based on their own preferences.

You have the freedom to focus on your character’s obviously LGBTQ-specific life experiences:

  • coming out
  • finding lovers
  • experiencing rejection or discrimination
  • taking care of their sexual health (like HIV treatment)
  • managing their fertility
  • having feelings about their own body
  • shopping for gender-nonconforming clothes
  • introducing themselves to others by a new name
  • going to Pride marches

You may instead choose to devote the majority of space to less obviously queer/trans topics. That’s your freedom too.

  1. What is your character’s self-knowledge? Let it be complicated.

The character knows they’re gay. If you feel the need to explain how they know it, try these narrative angles:

  • When did the character first think they might be gay?
  • Did they ever try to be straight?
  • How do they sense what feels “right” or “wrong”?
  • What gives them pleasure?
  • When did they know “for sure”?
  • Are they sure now, and does certainty matter to them?

Do some research (and have fun doing it!) by getting some awesome LGBTQ books from indie presses & authors.

  1. Your character’s gender transition will probably take time
snail chasing a clock

A trans person’s physical changes (if they make any) take a while. The impact of hormones might take several months or a year to become obvious, and surgery requires weeks or months of recovery. A person may schedule procedures years apart. No one shows up to tell them when their transition is formally “over.”

Some trans people change their name multiple times, waiting to find one that fits. Some prefer to be called different pronouns in different contexts.

Meanwhile, if your character is currently “in transition,” how do they feel about their gender and body? How do others understand (or fail to understand) their changes? Are others aware that changes are happening? What does the trans person want them to know? Does the trans person care what others think?

  1. Don’t forget your character’s ongoing life changes

When someone first acknowledges and accepts their sexuality or gender, it may coincide with other life changes like:

  • leaving their parents’ house
  • dropping out of high school or college
  • switching jobs or career paths
  • divorcing
  • ending friendships
  • quitting religion
  • moving to a new city
  • meeting new friends and lovers

Some people continue with huge changes every year. Others settle down. A character comes out as bisexual…and what they do next is up to them.

  1. Let them screw up

Our identities are no guarantee that we’re enlightened, that we have solidarity, nor even that we’re polite. We screw it up with each other. We make mistakes. Gay men can be misogynist; lesbians can be rude and hurtful to men. A bisexual person can pressure a trans person to get surgery; a trans person can assume a bisexual person is “confused” about themselves. Friends disappoint each other. Coworkers “out” each other. That’s real life.

As real people, we’re obligated to clean up our messes. But in fiction, it’s more complicated. You’re free to show a character doing something wrong, making no reparation, and feeling no remorse. If you do, show us, please, why that’s important to the story.

Spreading negative ideas about LGBTQ people, even in fiction, can have real-life effects, so evil LGBTQ characters remain controversial. Learn about the history of “homosexual villain” tropes. You’re free to write unsavory queer characters—and to receive the consequences of doing so.

  1. Who is on your character’s “naughty and nice list?”

A queer/trans person remembers to whom they’ve come out: friends, family, colleagues, neighbors. They may have renegotiated relationships based on others’ reactions. They know who knows they’re gay, or at least they have a good sense of it. They also have a list of everyone who doesn’t deserve to know.

  1. Ignore the haters

In a homophobic and transphobic climate, authors and publishers are sometimes nervous about writing LGBTQ characters provocatively. But making those characters tame and uncontroversial may not be the best solution for your novel.

You may want to achieve “balance” of some sort for artistic or commercial reasons. However, there’s no compromise to be struck with homophobes and transphobes—they’ll always be unhappy and they’ll give you nothing in return. You’re free to tell them where to go.

  1. “LGBTQ” can move beyond dictionary definitions
dictionary definition crossed out

Personal epiphanies—a moment of insight or growth—can feel tied to LGBTQ identity. A person is at a rock concert, a philosophy class, having lunch with a friend, praying in a house of worship, breaking up with a lover, buying an outfit. Suddenly, an insight hits.

Often, it’s hard to explain why the insight should feel queer or trans, since a straight, cisgender person could have a similar insight.

To answer that, look at the character holistically. Even if individual stepping stones don’t seem to be about gender or sexuality, each one is part of the person’s path. The character is LGBTQ every day, so anything they experience can feel related to their gender or sexuality.

Their thoughts and feelings occur in a broader context, connected to other thoughts and feelings. The person has metaphorically saved these thoughts to the “trans/queer” folder on their mental hard drive. Their insights have LGBTQ flavor and significance for them. 

It doesn’t matter what being LGBTQ means objectively or according to the dictionary. It matters what it means to this character.

  1. Visibility or privacy can be a strategic choice

LGBTQ people are affected by interpersonal prejudice and marginalized by larger systems. Each person has their own preferred ways of negotiating risks and living their life. 

Visibility or privacy can be a strategic choice. One person may come out to many friends so they have allies and can swiftly assert their dignity whenever it’s challenged. Another may stay tightly closeted to avoid becoming the target of hate and discrimination. See how this plays out in the 2023 novel And Then He Sang a Lullaby by Ani Kayode Somtochukwu, in which young gay men in Nigeria must stay under the radar of police.

Visibility or privacy can also be part of someone’s personality. Their preference may not vary by situation, and they may not game it out ahead of time. They may manage or express their identity more or less in the same way everywhere they go, no matter the risks or lack thereof.

In fiction, ask: How does the character’s choice work out in their story? Are their expectations met, or does something else happen? 

And Then He Sang a Lullaby by Ani Kayode Somtochukwu

  1. Understand what “good LGBTQ representation” means

When writing LGBTQ characters, the idea of “representation,” and thus what it means for rep to be “good,” varies.

“Good LGBTQ rep” can mean that the author:

  • Clearly labels a character’s sexual or gender identity
  • Describes or discusses sexualities, bodies, or identities
  • Ensures that all references to LGBTQ people or issues are complimentary and supportive
  • Gives a character at least one realistic LGBTQ experience or trait (even if it’s an exceptional or unusual one)
  • Bases a character on a typical LGBTQ person
  • Challenges harmful stereotypes
  • Draws from existing LGBTQ fictional narrative tropes or literary archetypes
  • Sets up an important LGBTQ character as an exemplary human being
  • Omits hate and violence that isn’t essential to the story
  • Delivers a happy ending for all LGBTQ characters

Furthermore, “good LGBTQ rep” can mean that a reader:

  • Learns something about some aspect of LGBTQ identity
  • Personally relates to one of the LGBTQ characters
  • Feels emotionally comforted
  • Agrees with the book’s message or takeaway
  • Generally likes the book

However, not all fiction strives to be educational, relatable, comforting, correct, or popular. Some novels achieve something else.

You know why you’re writing your book. Define your goal, and you’ll discover how to achieve it well. If the term “good LGBTQ representation” feels confusing or irrelevant, you’re free to use another term to describe your goal for this novel.

  1. Seek help!
william shakespeare asking someone to read his book

Writing a novel is a huge undertaking. You’ll grow as a person and as a writer too. As you do, your book will improve.

You don’t have to do it alone. Set aside a budget—this is an important investment—and hire the right people.

Sensitivity reader or cultural consultant

Hiring a sensitivity reader is a good idea even if you’re writing a character with an identity or experience similar to your own (called “own voices”). For example, I’m a transgender man, and I hired a trans sensitivity reader to see what they thought about my transgender character and my book as a whole. They wrote up a hundred reactions, and I adjusted my book. No two people have the same knowledge base and perspective. Salt and Sage keeps a roster of sensitivity readers.

Beta readers

When you have a complete, clean draft of your story and you’re still willing to accept feedback, beta readers can help. With no prior knowledge of your novel or your writing process, they serve as an early audience, reading and reacting to your story. You can hire a team of beta readers through Independent Book Review.

Cover artist

While you’re at it, support an openly LGBTQ artist! Find artists in directories like Queer Cartoonists Database or under the latest social media hashtag for queer/trans artists. 

  1. Manage your own author identity your own way

Publishers and marketers often ask for “LGBTQ books.” This can mean various things. They may seek:

  • an openly LGBTQ author
  • a main character with a specific identity
  • a genre (e.g., romance)
  • a theme (e.g., how nightclubs are policed)

That’s what they may have in mind. But how do you see it? What does writing LGBTQ characters mean to you?

Do what’s right for your story. No one story can fit every publisher’s call for LGBTQ books.

Disclose your own information carefully, and name your boundaries regarding how it’s used. Keep that in mind as you phrase your bio and book description—and as you write the story itself.

  1. Be who you are

Writing LGBTQ characters in fiction, selling those books, and putting them into eager readers’ hands depends on political conditions. We ourselves need the freedom to be LGBTQ in our real lives. Be who you are, and help create a world where others have that freedom too. 

What are your favorite books with LGBTQ characters? Let me know in the comments!

About the Author

Tucker Lieberman is the author of the metafictional Most Famous Short Film of All Time (tRaum Books, 2022). Being a transgender man has been a big, weird part of his life. He’s married to another man, the Hugo-longlisted fan writer Arturo Serrano, author of the multiply queer alternate history To Climates Unknown (2021). They live in Bogotá, Colombia.

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