6 Pitfalls to Avoid When Writing LGBTQI+ Characters in Teen Fiction

Author Lisa Freeman shares 6 pitfalls for writers of YA and MG fiction to avoid when creating LGBTQ characters for their audiences.
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Before you embark on writing a queer character for Young Adult, answer this question: Is there something about his/her/their queerness that is essential to your story, or are you trying to check off one of your agent’s items on a diversity list? If it’s the latter, stop right now. Close your computer. Walk away from the burning building. Do not move forward. Can I stress this more emphatically?

I believe that regardless of your faith, sexual orientation, or race, you can create characters of any type, if you’re willing to do so authentically. Today’s Middle-Grade and Young-Adult readers are savvy and awake; you will not be able to borrow from any preconceived ideas you might have. This also applies to my fellow LGBTQI+ writers. These kids are watching and will hold you accountable. That’s what makes writing this genre so exciting. I hope you reach beyond what you know to accept the challenge of exploring and examining your own fears, moral hang-ups, and prejudices. It may be fiction, but you’re going to learn a lot about yourself and I’m going help you get there.

Lisa Freeman is an author, actress, and teacher best known for her novels HONEY GIRL(2015; Sky Pony Press) and RIPTIDE SUMMER(2017; Sky Pony Press). She grew up amidst the Hollywood scene and emerged as an actress in such films as Back to the Future, Back to the Future II, and Mr. Mom. She earned her MFA and Pedagogy in the Art of Writing degrees from Antioch University and now resides in Santa Monica, California, only miles down the road from State Beach, where her Honey Girls novels take place. You can visit her at Lisa-Freeman.com.

1. Don’t be invasive in your writing and research.

It’s never okay to out somebody. Under no circumstances should you ever violate the privacy of a teen’s life to create your narrative. Do not eavesdrop, follow, or presume it’s okay to open a discussion with someone who doesn’t want to have it. I implore you to take this under serious consideration, even though your writing teacher may have said it’s okay to be aggressive when searching for a story. Sexuality is deeply personal, as is coming out, gender identification, or transition, so a writer must show restraint. Never invade queer space for your own needs.

Find resources that are public. Personas such as the actress Amandla Stenberg and YouTubers Ingrid Nilsen and Tyler Oakley are wonderful examples of influencers who have shared their coming out processes and lives online. It is their choice to have an open discussion with their followers.

2. Avoid stereotypes.

Teen readers must be able to see themselves in your story. This is a common thread that YA authors are aware of, but how one does this with a LGBTQI+ character is through avoiding stereotypes. For example, if you have a boy with a high-pitched voice who is melodramatic and being called a “sissy,” that’s a red flag. Also, not all queer characters hate themselves or struggle in coming out. That might not be their conflict. You’ll have to take into consideration many things to make the stakes high. Here are some suggestions: Consider setting, body image, and, most importantly, what s/he wants. How can you reveal your character through events? What are the conflicts that motivate them forward? If you can set goals through obstacles that are not fixated on their sexuality, you’re heading in the right direction. But if relationships don’t stick, if the tension and pace become repetitive, go back to the question of, "Am I caught in some preconceived notion of what gay is, gay does?" Ask yourself, how does s/he fit in the world? Are they defiant or loyal? What consequences are created by their actions? In my novels, I answer these questions through relationships. It is the most effective way to show when a character is accepting their flaws or getting caught up in them, which leads me to…

3. Don’t be afraid to create an emotional connection with your character.

If you grew up as a queer teen, this is a wonderful opportunity to use some of the feelings, emotions, and fears you had or have, but remember, you are not writing a memoir. If this wasn’t your experience, you may be wondering how a writer who is not gay creates emotional connection with a queer character. Are you willing to examine the complicated and sometimes unexplainable truth of young people who identify as queer? Not sure? Well try this: Wear a shirt that says “Queer.” Even if you’re out, try it. Wear the shirt to work, the bank, the market, whatever a normal day entails. See if you can really live with committing yourself to these fabulous kids. Then, start writing. If you don’t feel safe doing this because you live in a community that is traditional, do not, under any circumstances, explore this experiment. But do explore your own internal reaction to it. This will also help connect you to a queer voice, assuming that you are not a lesbian or gay man, or that you do not identify as genderqueer, transgender, or bisexual.

If you’re thinking of doing a LGBTQI+ media binge starting with Birdcage or the original La Cage aux Folles, this will be entertaining but not necessarily productive, unless you are writing historical fiction and it fits in with your story. There are other queer-conscious resources via the screen. I encourage you to have some fun, watch RuPaul’s Drag Race, and other shows on Logo. If you want a laugh, Kids in the Hall or Portlandia. For beautiful, well-acted performances, see Carol, Blue is the Warmest Color, and Maurice. There are also classics like Personal Best and High Art.

Some literary examples include wonderful books like Tim Federle’s Better Nate than Ever, I Am J by Cris Beam, Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth, Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For and Fun Home, and my favorite, Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle.

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4. Don’t try to protect your queer darlings.

Force your characters out of their comfort zones as quickly as possible. What I’m suggesting goes for all MG, YA, and New Adult characters. Don’t protect these fictional teens from the inevitable challenges of growing up. There will be no transformation if you do. Allow for life on life’s terms. The good and the bad, let them fly for themselves.

5. Don’t make everything about sexual identity.

We queers are more than our sexual preferences. No character is 100 percent anything. Just like any teen character, yours can be hero or victim, offensive or sweet, compassionate or vindictive … the list goes on. Regardless of their salvation or damnation, you must illuminate how they coexist in the world and what makes them unique without fixating on their sexuality. And since the verbal landscape and narrative of gay consciousness is changing rapidly, it might be a good time to take a crash course in the terminology of the LGBTQI+ community.

Do you know what LGBTQI+ means? Pansexual? Do you know the difference between genderqueer and non-binary? Do you know that people with different-sex partners also sometimes identify as queer, as well as bisexual? When I speak with students, I am always schooled about new terms and have learned how some teens hate labels and refuse to identify as anything because it’s absolutely passé to them. When I say I’m a lesbian, sometimes they look at me like I’m a dinosaur for using what they consider an old-fashioned word. This has always opened up a dialogue that I find amazing, but, in order to get there, I’ve had to learn not to be judgmental of how queer youth see themselves. Hopefully it has made me a better writer.

Often people get stuck in the “sex” of an LGBTQI+ character. If you’re writing MG, this really won’t be a problem since novels for 8-12 year olds do not reveal explicit sexuality. YA, on the other hand, also abides to certain boundaries, but allows the transformative experience to be a bit more graphic, if not only from an internal perspective.

6. Don’t skimp on the back story.

Back story is pivotal for all characters, but especially queer ones. Even if they’re only 15, your character has lived a full life before coming to a certain realization about their sexuality. If s/he is coming out, you have to know the history that led to this moment. If they aren’t coming out, the same. If they are pursuing love for the first time, what motivated them to finally take action?

Even if 95 percent does not hit the page, this character you are creating must have a strong undercurrent that fuels their actions forward at all times. This way you won’t have to rely on dialogue. In my first novel, Honey Girl, anything queer-related was always spoken of in code. It was gestured, suggested, implied, but never actually said. This was all established through back story.

I hope these suggestions will help you create a well-crafted story and unforgettable teen characters with worthy goals and riveting transformations that appeal to your readers. To my fellow LGBTQI+ writers, let’s remember we are letting our young queers know that we see them and that they matter. And we all, regardless of our own identity, can help them make sense of this world through our stories.

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If you’re an agent looking to update your information or an author interested in contributing to the GLA blog or the next edition of the book, contact Writer’s Digest Books Managing Editor Cris Freese at cris.freese@fwmedia.com.

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