Difficult Question About Queer Diversity In Fiction

I am going to ask a question that I find difficult to answer, not because I am trying to challenge anyone, but because I genuinely want to hear what some people think. This is not a rhetorical question, this is a real question I think needs to be discussed in both the book world and in the film and television world. While this isn’t aimed at Book Twitter, I got into thinking about this because of reading discourse on queer diversity in the Book Twitter world.

The first and most important question I’ve really struggled with is related to the idea that we need more explicitly queer characters that state their identity or orientation. There’s this idea in both books and in other media that this implied queerness is just a cop-out and we want characters to verbally state their sexuality at some point. My actual question here is, “Does this risk lowering the standards of writing?”

Let me explain: In books, film, TV, ect, one of the most important rules of writing fiction is to not treat your audience like they’re stupid, and to ‘show it, don’t tell it’. I’m one of those people that really wants to KNOW what the sexual orientation of characters are because it’s just so rare still to have queer characters. However, I’m also a big fan of GOOD writing practices, and often when writers find a way to get their character to explicitly say, “I’m bisexual” or whatever, they end up having something so terribly contrived that it drags the audience out of the story. Nobody likes writing where it feels like the author is explaining something to the audience because they’re too stupid to pick up on the context clues, and there’s a serious risk of that happening in many cases.

Yes, there are definitely cases where it fits into the story to explicitly state a character’s sexuality, but more often than not, it doesn’t fit in good writing. A good example of this would be something I wrote once that won’t ever get published where this character, in a conversation, just ‘casually’ gives the other person their Tragic Past when it really did not fit the situation at all. It was so contrived and terrible, but it managed to inform the audience of the whole bisexual backstory of the character.

My biggest worry is that, with this new “SAY IT OUT LOUD!” representation demand in fiction, it’s going to make so many more situations like this. We’ve all read some story where there was a token queer character who explains their queerness just for the sake of having someone queer in the story, and it’s so cringe-worthy, isn’t it? I once read a book where there was a non-binary character that was a fucking SIDE CHARACTER and they had like two whole pages of explaining their ‘Xie’ pronouns to the protagonist and basically giving a lesson on being non-binary and then THEY WERE NEVER IN THE STORY AGAIN! It was so pointless and clearly token queer character, and I have this really frustrated feeling that with the demands for diversity, more and more people are going to start sticking token queer characters who have several pages of preaching on their gender or sexuality just so people can be sure to check that box. That sort of thing is something terrible for QUALITY writing.

I want queer characters more than you could probably understand, but I’m entirely against sacrificing quality for diversity. It’s the same reason a lot of people get on my case for giving queer films bad ratings on Chelsea Loves Movies (even though I DO give Queer Films a leg up by only comparing them to each other). I want quality diversity, and I won’t sacrifice my standards just to see more people like me on the screen or on a page.

My other difficult question is related to my own issue there, because I have to ask, “Is enjoyment of non-explicit relationships that are expressed the same as heterosexual couples (ie, their relationship can be implied, not explicit) a bad thing, because it allows people to get away with never making good on queer character relationships?”

I’m a big fan, in every medium, of normalizing queerness and not making it something that needs to be pointed out. It’s the only way I WANT to watch/read/consume queerness in fiction. However, I’m also aware that we might not be to the point yet where that’s enough, because I’m sure that there are people who use this as an excuse for ‘subtext’ and never delivering on the implication. Other times, people get really upset over some writer not delivering when I feel like they did deliver absolutely adequate confirmation of the relationship that I felt they were always working towards portraying.

Because I’m so torn on this topic, I want you guys to discuss this one with me. Comment, tweet me, and I would say DM me but I want this to be a public discussion, so try not to do that if you can help it. This is one of those places where I find myself really struggling because what I want in quality leaves gaps for chickening out on going there. What do you guys think?

Author: J. Chelsea Williford

Student at Middle Georgia State University, writer, pop culture lover.

6 thoughts on “Difficult Question About Queer Diversity In Fiction”

  1. This is a good point. I understand why people feel the need for things to be clearly stated, but I agree if it doesn’t fit into the story it ultimately will take away from it, and then runs into ‘preachy’ territory, which I feel is more of a turn off than anything. I feel like many authors really want to write and represent their characters well, but a lot of them don’t know how, and a large part of that is because readers’ opinions are so subjective. Good food for thought at the very least! 🙂

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    1. Opinions are VERY subjective, and when you’re writing queer characters, then you have readers who will get SUPER ANGRY if you don’t ‘get it right’, which I definitely think people consider and ruin their narrative flow by getting ‘preachy’ as you say.

      It’s a really tough balance to find.

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  2. This is hard for me, with characters along a lot of diversity places because I am bad at description, the biggest is physical description, so much so that not only do I do a bad job of highlighting when a character is a black woman that she is black, but so bad that readers think she’s a man. (Which is sort of a different problem of assuming all characters are men unless otherwise explained.) I lean hard into not being explicit on a lot of things.

    But even when I think I am being explicit I’m not explicit enough. A woman had slept with both a man and a woman (it was an awkwardish moment so we were clear that she had had past relationships with both), I thought this was really a good clear way to indicate that she was bi that added the tension I needed to the story and did all the right things. And none of my beta readers got it. But saying “I’m bi.” Feels so convoluted in most cases. I had a friend say to me for the first time in our over a decade of friendship “I’m bi” this weekend, she said it because she was talking about having to say it at a work meeting. But I’ve known since the first time she introduced me to her girlfriend after she’d broken up with her boyfriend. I don’t expect people to say it in real life. I don’t walk around saying “I’m straight.” But maybe it does have to be explicit if saying “Sally said, “That’s my wife in the blue dress.”” Isn’t explicit enough for people to get what that means.

    I don’t know. I struggle with this clearly. I don’t want to write clunky, but I don’t want to have written bi women of color who are read straight men because I’m not explicit enough either.

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    1. See that’s one of my biggest issues. I have a protagonist I mention has an ex-wife. My character is a lesbian, but even if she was bi or pan, to me ‘my ex-wife’ is all that’s necessary. I AM bisexual and I don’t think it’s necessary to go “THIS CHARACTER IS A LESBIAN” instead of “THIS CHARACTER IS BISEXUAL”. However, there’s also the fact that I’m a BIG believer that sexuality can shift over time. There are tons of lesbians that once thought they were straight and even dated guys and liked it, not were closeted and covering for it. It’s entirely possible for someone to have an ex-boyfriend they really were totally in a relationship with but NOW they’ve stopped being attracted to men and are gay, and it’s possible to be TOTALLY GAY and then one day meet a man and things change. My dream in life is to live in an era where there’s no ‘I’m bi!’ or ‘I’m gay!’ because a straight person saying ‘my wife’ is reacted to just the same as a woman saying ‘my wife’.

      But! I know that people still want to be SURE that someone is actually being represented because they want diversity for the sake of diversity, not just normalized, because I know we’re NOT at that point yet where it’s totally normalized. So I don’t want to let people down, but I don’t want to sacrifice writing either. It’s a total struggle.

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      1. Yes. Everything you said, and said it well.

        I still don’t know if I’m ok with forcing my characters into situations where they have to say “I’m Sally and I’m bi and that’s my wife in the blue dress.” But I can absolutely see how it is important for Sally to say that so that someone else can look at it and feel like, hey, that could be me. I exist, I have value, I could be a hero.

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