A Fantasy Author's Adventures in Fiction & Life

Tag: diverse characters

LGBTQIA+ Visibility

Writing Diverse Characters LGBTQIA+ will cover; general advice on referring to humans’ gender and romantic/sex lives in a queer inclusive way, that doesn’t perpetuate the myth of heteronormativity. It will offer suggestions on writing that queer rep that is visibly inclusive of a range of LGBTQIA+ identities, avoiding erasure, and some tips on writing authentic LGBTQIA+ representation.

As a child, I assumed books referring to ‘humans’ were talking about men, women and children. By around age eight (in the 1990’s), I became aware that history was mostly written about men, by men, for men. Meanwhile most news was about men and lo and behold, men were the usual main characters in fiction. I grew up in a world that frequently ignored, omitted and when it got away with it, excluded women, let alone the entire LGBTQIA+ community.

Now I write as a nonbinary, asexual, aromantic person who mostly encounters fiction which ignores, excludes and appears mostly oblivious to the existence of my gender and sexuality. This is why I want writers to make conscious word choices, which allow people of any gender or sexual orientation to see themselves in your writing and to perceive themselves as belonging in the world of your fiction. So I’ll start there, before looking at writing specific queer identities.

In How Not To Write Diverse Characters, I mentioned the inherent bias and prejudice of the world in which we have all been raised. In relation to perceiving gender in books, there’s the still the chance readers will assume your use of the words; ‘doctors’, ‘police,’ ‘lawyers,’ ‘scientists,’ ‘soldiers’ and jobs in historically male-dominated fields refer to men. Conversely, they may assume your ‘teachers’ and ‘nurses’ are women and that no term refers to nonbinary people.

To get around this, I suggest also using gendered nouns when referring to people whose job title readers may assume refer to men. In my Ruarnon Trilogy, the umbrella term for nonbinary genders is ‘midlun.’ So when referring to soldiers, I refer to ‘men, women and midluns’. In our world, you could refer to ‘men women and nonbinary people.’ Explicitly mentioning nonbinary people has the added bonus of implying that ‘men’ and ‘women’ both very much include trans men and trans women.

This is simple. A character mentions having a crush on someone, dating someone, finding someone attractive or having a partner. Do you have other characters respond using gender neutral language, until they know the pronouns/ gender of the love interest/ partner?

This is not just gender diverse inclusive by not assigning gender on the basis of names. Its acknowledging that people of any gender can be attracted to any gender and that gay, lesbian, bi and pansexual identities exist and it challenges the idea that cis/heterosexual is the ‘norm.’

Your characters use of gender neutral language in reference to, and their interest in the love interest/partner suggests and normalise those characters acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual and pansexual relationships. A small gesture from you as a writer, that can mean a lot to readers within the LGBTQIA+ community.

If you’re a cis, binary gender writer, you may not yet feel ready to (having researched us), include nonbinary characters in your cast. But you can acknowledge the existence of nonbinary people, and help the world realise we exist without doing that.

Little things, like having a toilet with an icon of a person half in a dress and half in pants to signal a gender neutral toilet. Or including ‘Mx.’ as on option for titles in paperwork your characters fill in. Hell, you could go wild and have a department store with a gender neutral clothing section instead of Ladies-wear and Mens-ware only! (I would LOOOOOVVVVE this! Why on earth does clothing almost ALWAYs ‘have’ to be sold by binary gender? GAH!)

Again, even if you have no trans or nonbinary characters, when characters meet new people in your fiction, have them mention their pronouns as well as their names. Having someone say, “Hey, I’m Tom, he/him” acknowledges that just because Tom’s biological sex is likely male doesn’t mean he is therefore, necessarily male. And when you stop assuming that, you signal the possibility that trans and nonbinary people exist. Suddenly we’re no longer invisible in the world of your writing.

Try to be conscious of situations where characters take on gender roles, or are divided and required to act by gender. I don’t just mean go beyond sexist, heteronormative tropes like dad is the breadwinner, and mum is stay at home housewife (cue vomit). Be conscious of fields and jobs in our world (like front line soldiers, or in the Australian conservative political party, cabinet ministers) where women tend to be excluded and men to dominate.

If you’re going to have female sex workers, have male ones. Female strippers? Where are the naked men? Housewife? Where’s the house husband? Why are all the presidents men? Write more male teachers, nurses and happy, healthy fathers! Write women soldiers/ crime bosses, presidents etc. Have nonbinary characters do literally any job under the sun; because if we’re out, we’re not going to let biological sex get in our way!

Bottom line; consciously avoid limiting roles by gender! (Unless its your plot/ historical, BUT some people have ALWAYS defied binary gender norms –look at women pirates of the 19th and 20th centuries, for eg.)

In My Big Fat Wedding 3, there’s a scene where the bride asks women to line up on one side of the room and copy her dance, and the groom asks men to line up on his side and copy his dance. And I thought, but what will the nonbinary character do?

First they danced with the men and did the men’s dance. Then they switched to the women’s side and did the women’s dance. The other dancers were visibly fine with this. Its a great example of how characters in your story may adhere to traditional gender norms, but there can still be a place for gender nonconforming characters.

So if you have traditional gender roles in your writing, how will you create space for nonbinary and gender nonconforming people to exist in your fictional world?

I’m a BIG fan of Wheel of Time and well aware it was written before it occurred to nonbinary people such as myself that we needn’t accept ill-fitting binary pronouns, nor conform to binary norms, nor had even heard the word ‘nonbinary’. So I don’t feel left out when women wield Saidar, and men wield Saidin and nonbinary people don’t seem to exist in the world the wheel weaves. But if you’re writing now, and planning a gendered magic system —don’t forget to think carefully how you’ll include gender nonconforming people!

In my third novel (War in Sorcery’s Shadow), magic and its wielders live in hiding. Children who can wield magic are taught by secret organisations. Sorcery being first mastered during a sexist age, and used in violence against women, Luvaras Priests (Luvaras being god of sorcery) teach boys magic, and Luvaras Priestesses created a safe space to teach girls magic separately.

But if magical education is binary gendered, and gendered behaviours are encouraged because of the gender segregation of magical learning, what about kids who aren’t binary male or female? Who teaches them? So came a third order, The Devoted, adults of various nonbinary genders who educate children of similar identities. Unbound by binary notions of gender, these tend to be the most flexible, and some of the most highly skilled sorcerers on Umarinaris. (Also because many of them are neurodiverse, and or physically disabled).

My point being: consider situations where a scene may divide your characters by gender, and consciously create a space for nonbinary and gender nonconforming characters to be present as their authentic selves.

Situations where people relate to one another, select their clothes and otherwise behave according to binary gender ‘norms’ are when I feel most like a bystander, a visitor passing through (yes, I relate to Dr Who in this) in life and fiction. Its a big disconnect I’ve felt my whole life. And spending a moment to phrase a sentence gender inclusively, or mention a minor character’s nonbinary existence in passing can easily change that disconnection for your gender-nonconforming readers to a feeling of inclusion.

Writing Visible Trans Characters

I assume if you’re still reading, I assume you disagree with US states legislating gender diverse people out of existence and are concerned about respectfully representing trans people in your fiction. I’ve spoken to writers who’ve said, ‘I write my trans woman as a woman, because she’s a woman, but how do I show that she’s trans?’
If you don’t indicate she’s trans, let alone show it clearly, there’s every chance she’ll be cis-washed by cis readers who assume she’s yet another cis woman.

Trans Visibility

If your character has socially (and perhaps medically) transitioned and is living their best life presenting as their gender identity, how do you indicate that they are indeed trans? How do you respectfully let trans readers see themselves on the page and acknowledge and normalise the existence of trans characters in your writing? How do you do so in a way that feels natural to the story and doesn’t come across as forced?

It could be as simple as a pronoun slip. A character refers to your trans/ nonbinary character by the wrong binary pronoun, then apologises and corrects the pronoun. If the pronoun change occurred in recent years, you could even have another character comment about, ‘we’re all learning’, to indicate that characters are still adjusting to the trans character’s social transition.

What if you want to be more explicit, and ensure that trans presences in your work are indeed seen, and not cis-gender washed? You could go further, as Dr Who did with Donna’s trans daughter Rose. In a scene where boys are teasing Rose as she enters her house, Donna’s mother says to Donna, ‘They didn’t pick on him when he was– sorry.’ Thus Rose’s trans identity is explicitly shown, in a respectful manner.

For more on writing trans characters, see this great advice by Charlie Jane.

Nonbinary Visibility

This can also be as simple to reveal as a pronoun slip. When my nonbinary character Ruarnon meets a foreign dignitary who refers to Ruarnon as ‘he’, Ruarnon’s advisor says, ‘their Benevelonce uses they.’ For people who are ‘up’ with pronouns, its clear we’re dealing with a nonbinary character.

The catch is, I came out as nonbinary in 2020 and had a complete stranger politely respond to my public request to be referred to as they/them by saying, ‘I’m not sure what that means.’ This amounted to, ‘I don’t know what ‘nonbinary’ means.’ My family and colleagues response was pretty much, ‘We like/ love you, but we don’t really get what nonbinary is.’

So how can writers explicitly and respectfully signal that a character is nonbinary (and perhaps what that could mean)? And how will this be relevant to the story?

Nonbinary Visibility and Inclusive Language

This is where inclusive language choices come in. When you are referring to a crowd, consider how you refer not just to ‘men and women’ or ‘ladies and gentleman.’ In my Ruarnon Trilogy, I invented a word for nonbinary (midlun) and when naming genders I state; men, women AND midluns.

If there’s a show, consider ‘ladies, gentlemen and friends beyond the binary,’ or if you’re North American, ‘guys, gals and nonbinary pals.’ Consider, ‘colleagues,’ ‘friends’, ‘folks’, ‘people’ or a gender inclusive term instead of ‘ladies’ when its a group of women and one nonbinary person, or vice versa with men. (Every time people at work address me and female colleagues as ‘ladies’ I have to remind myself that they include me in that term, because I’ve never seen myself in it and would otherwise feel excluded by it).

Beyond that, if your they/them has a beard and is wearing a dress, or doesn’t wear make up when everyone else expects them to, or pairs a ‘men’s’ top with a ‘women’s’ skirt or makes gender ambiguous clothing choices —we’ll get the picture. Especially with gender inclusive language and nonbinary pronouns in use (whether it be they/them pronouns or neo pronouns like ne/nir).

Asexual Visibility

Again, I’m flagging this individually as a lesser known queer identity, in this case one the asexuals I know often feel writers get wrong. A common mistake seems to labelling a character as ‘asexual’ and then having them behave like an allosexual person. If you want to write an asexual character, the first thing you need to do is know that asexual (like ‘nonbinary’) is an umbrella term and will present in different ways for different asexual people.

So when it comes to actually showing an asexual character, you might show them date someone and become very emotionally attached before showing any signs of being sexually attracted to them (demisexual). You may have a character who will read/ view a sex scene but expresses disinterest in having sex with another person (aegosexual). You may write a character who expresses no interest in sexual or romantic relationships and is perfectly content with the platonic relationships in their life (*waves in aromantic asexual*).

If you don’t know much about asexuality or writing asexual characters, The Asexual Awareness and Education Centre is a good place to start.

Bi and Pansexual Visibility

To step out of my lane for a moment, don’t be the heterosexual writer who writes ‘bisexual’ or ‘pansexual’ characters who only ever demonstrate attraction to, or interest in, the opposite biological sex. Absolutely, your bisexual or pansexual character could be a woman in a long-term, monogamous relationship with a man, or vice versa (and yes, still totally bi/ pan). But if you only write that character attracted to or showing interest in people of the opposite biological sex (and their life isn’t endangered by demonstrating queer attraction); you’re mislabelling a heterosexual character ‘bisexual/ pansexual’/ or just plain misrepresenting bi/pansexual people.

Writing outside your identity means writing outside your personal life experience. It means questioning every assumption and thing you personally consider ‘normal’. For queer identities, this can mean throwing everything you know/ assume/ have personally experienced about gender, sexual and romantic attraction out the window. Don’t forget to step out of your shoes, before trying to step into those of a character from a different identity to yours.

Queer Character and Relationship Visibility & Queer Normative

If you haven’t explicitly decided whether settings in your book are going to be queer normative, queer positive or trans/homophobic, now is the time to decide. Will it be safe for recognisably queer couples to engage in public displays of affection? Will your same-sex couples dance intimately together on the public dance floor? Will they kiss at sunset on the beach? Will you have a same-sex married couple(s) or marriage?

What spaces are publicly out trans and nonbinary people seen and known to occupy? Which positions and which institutions are trans, nobinary and recognisable characters of all LGBTQIA+ identities employed in? The level of LGBTQIA+ normativeness/ acceptance etc can be clearly indicated by these things. (Same can be asked and shown of women characters and levels of sexism in your society).

Queer Normative Representation in Speculative Fiction

If you’re writing speculative fiction, this is where you can say ‘yes’ to all of the above. Heck, you can write a world where whenever a character mentions being attracted to someone or having a partner, no one makes assumptions about that person’s gender.

You can write a world in which no one refers to a child using binary pronouns until that child has decided and articulated which pronouns fit them (and in which everyone respects that child changing their mind, because its for the individual to identify their gender, not for society to impose gender on anyone).

If only the heterosexual couple get to kiss, you’ve normalised that, but are you also normalising the idea that queer couples don’t (or shouldn’t) display affection for each other? Or are you writing a queer couple in a way that homophobic readers can easily interpret as ‘just friends’, thus erasing their queer identities?

If you genuinely want to write inclusively I’m sure the above is not your intention. The problem is the above interpretations align with age-old prejudices and are easy for readers to make, if there is a double standard in how you present marginalised vs. non-marginalised sexualities. So be conscious of times when you treat a marginalised character differently (in anyway, full stop), how you’re treating them differently and clear on your purpose in doing so.

Inclusive Fiction Examples

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3 has a nonbinary mayor who is the epitome of queer joy, and a perfect example of letting a character be their authentic queer self and other characters being cool with it.

Umbrella Academy (Netflix) has a trans and a nonbinary pansexual main character, who just happen to be two of seven siblings at the centre of the world’s destruction. Its also in the ‘be gay, do crime’ genre, trans Victor being very troubled and destructive, and Klaus a (recovering) drug addict. This is a great example of how when characters just happen to be marginalised, they can also happen to be anything else. (Fall of the House of Usher takes ‘be gay, do crime’ to even greater extremes, though serious dark horror warning on that one).

Imperfects (Netflix) does double duty with an asexual character whose sexuality is initially shown through her taste in skin-covering, not-too-clingy clothing, who’s romantically attracted to women.

People To Help You Write The Other

Find Sensitivity Readers or Editors

Bisexual/ Pansexual/ Fluidity Sensitivity Readers Spreadsheet (lists emails of 100+ sensitivity readers, courtesy of @saltandsagebook).

As with other marginalised identities, post on whichever social media you use, and or search posts for sensitivity readers (I’ve seen a few offering their services on Bsky).

Writing Diverse Characters (3): LGBTQIA+ Incusivity

Further Reading/ Resources Linked Further Above

Insights from my blogs;
Identifying as Nonbinary
What Does Pride Mean to You?

The Asexual Awareness and Education Centre

Charlie Jane’s Article on Writing Trans Characters

My blogs on How Not To Write Diverse Characters

And on Writing Neurodiverse and Disabled Characters

To write diverse characters, you need to consider which diverse identities you’re including, why and how to naturally indicate that a certain character is diverse/ marginalised and in what way. You need to include characters respectfully, without alienating that character/ identity. But also to consider and show ‘normal’ as that character experiences it, including situations in which their behaviour will ‘normally’ not conform to what ‘most people’ are doing. And in all of this, you need to be mindful using inclusive language in your writing.
This blog will unpack all of these things, but first, some general notes on writing marginalised characters from Vaela and Micah. (If you missed my post on avoiding problematic representation, maybe start there).

Stay In Your Lane -Defined by Vaela & Micah

Every book should have diversity. Every book that shows our world or a world like ours, should have it. And that’s why it’s important to distinguish between – writing a marginalized character vs – writing the struggles of a marginalized character.

Basically, write your Black or Indigenous characters, but don’t write their oppression and their struggle against it unless you are a member of that group. If you haven’t experienced that struggle, it is not your place to portray it as though you know it. You don’t.

You might know what their oppression looks like from the outside, but don’t try to tell stories that quite literally aren’t yours. That’s not diversity, that’s appropriation.

Even when simply putting marginalized characters into your books, it’s a good idea to hire a sensitivity reader of that character’s community. Sensitivity readers can stop glaring flaws and offensive depictions, and can enrich and add to a marginalized character with their own experiences and input.

Research is of course always important. And here it’s necessary that it’s not a matter of “how much research is enough,” but rather that research is a process. Learning about other identities is a continual process, and one that is usually never finished. But it’s well worth it.

You can read Vaela and Micah’s full thread here.

Know Why You’re Writing This Marginalised Character

Before we dive into the writing of diverse characters, I think its important to be clear about which diverse identities you’re including and why. Intent gives you purpose, and guides how you go about completing a task. So consider: are you writing a marginalised identity to:

Have people in your story world resemble the diversity of humanity in real life?

Have marginalised readers pick up your book and see themselves on its pages? And realise this isn’t yet another book about other people, its actually about them too?

To spread awareness (of any particular?) marginalised people’s existence and or to normalise their presence in fiction?

To give non-marginalised people the chance to emotionally connect with/ relate to/ sympathise with marginalised people they may not interact with in real life? (This is easier when you’re writing own voices, but likely if you’re an empathetic writer, though I’d recommend a sensitivity reader if this is part of your purpose or inclination.)

To subvert, challenge or destroy stereotypes with more rounded, more authentic representation of a certain identities? (Great, though again I suggest a sensitivity reader to help you with the ‘authentic’ part).

Write Inclusively

When you first plan characters, think outside the box of your own identities, life experience and upbringing. Every character who sets foot on the page is an opportunity for diversity. That assistant might use speech to text technology to make notes because they’re dyslexic. That autistic side character may hesitate to join the party because bright lights, loud music and crowds make them deeply uncomfortable. The friend your MC confides in may bounce from one topic to another at great speed in conversation, because they have ADHD or are in a hyper stage of bipolar.

Job one on my writing diverse characters list is: look for opportunities to incidentally reveal that a character is in some way a marginalised person. If you do this for multiple identities, you could tick the ‘writing a world as diverse as our own box’ —even if only minor characters in your story are diverse. You’d also be raising awareness of and normalising the existence of people with these identities, and letting marginalised people glimpse themselves on the page. Sure, this is surface and entry level stuff, but if you’re new to writing diverse characters, this is all it takes to get started.

Writing Inclusive, Non-alienating Descriptions

To ensure you do write inclusively, its good to monitor if there are any times in your story when a marginalised character is singled out or alienated from the other characters (or the reader). Some of these times may reflect prejudice, bigotry and or discrimination in the world of your story, as you intend. But some may not.

For example, describing the appearance of people of colour and not white characters. Not commenting on white characters accessories, but being sure to point out the character wearing a turban or hijab. Or not describing what the white kids eat at lunch time, but mentioning the ‘strange’ meats in sauces and green or purple, crumpet-like bread the African kids are eating.

If you only describe the appearance and culture of characters who aren’t like you, you’re positioning them so its obvious how ‘other’ and ‘different’ and ‘not like us/ the other characters’ the marginalised characters are. You’re positioning them to be isolated from fellow characters and the reader the moment you introduce them. So when it comes to describing marginalised characters, try to evade double standards in what you do and don’t mention about appearances and culture.

Write Fully Rounded Diverse Characters,
Not Defined by their ‘diverse’ identity

Focus on the big picture of your ‘diverse’ characters —initially. Consider their family, friends, foes, hopes, dreams etc. Don’t let what makes them different define the way you write them. Give them strengths, weaknesses, backstory, aspirations, fears, loves etc —like your other characters. And don’t let how they are ‘different’ define their aspirations, fears, backstory etc. Let characters exist beyond the manner in which they are marginalised.

What this Means (in part) for Disabled Characters

Yes, if your character is disabled/ neurodiverse, this may mean researching assistive technology and or strategies/ adjustments/ treatments that enable your characters to pursue their dreams despite the limitations of their disability. Don’t just write them off because they’re vision impaired, or ‘its too crowded for an autistic person to function’ or ‘all soldiers must depend solely on brute force to survive battle’ —must they?

I would love to see more disabled characters finding ways to work with/ around their disability, at the heart of stories action. So often in action movies, fantasy, SciFi even in romance you see the muscular man. The thin woman. Physically ‘attractive’ people with 20-20 vision, all of their limbs and senses functioning at full capacity, unimpeded by chronic illness or disability, their brains mostly co-operating with them.

There’s a saying, ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. And I’ve seen so few fictional characters readers with disabilities can aspire to be. So please include disabled characters in your books! (But not to inspire or motivate other characters/ the reader. There’s a lot of issues with that, explored unapologetically in this article by a disabled author.)

Write Your Diverse Adult Characters as Adults

Certain marginalised identities get infantilised. My open, honest expression of ADHD excitement and impulsivity often leads people to view me as 15-20 years younger than I am. Sure, I can be a big kid by nature (and enjoy doing so). I also hold the views of the highly educated, extensively life experienced adult that I am. But people who stereotype me because of my ADHD, or mistake my unfiltered ADHD behaviour for lack of intelligence, are oblivious to my adult capacity.

Asexual people can also be infantilised. Like they aren’t ‘grown up enough’ to want to have sex with other people, or to be sexually attracted to other people. Just in case anyone is confused: having sex with other people is not a milestone of maturity that must be crossed to claim adult status. A tiny minority of the population do not experience sexual attraction to other people (or don’t unless they’re already emotionally intimate) and may not wish to have sex with other people *waves in asexual*.

Then there are disabled people or older people, particularly those dependent on carers to, for example, get in and out of the shower. Just because a person’s physical capacity is reduced does not mean they lack the maturity, life experience and knowledge —the intellect— of the adult they are. (Alzheimer’s and Dementia being more variable, grey categories here).

Then there’s white characters longing to save poor, ‘helpless’ people of colour —the white saviours I warned you to avoid writing in my diverse characters big don’ts blog. I suspect all white saviours are infantilising people of colour.

So even if your marginalised character appears to you ‘child-like’ in some way, don’t lose sight of the knowledge, experience and intellectual capacity they also have as an adult —and write it.

Know the Specific Identity
& Write It Authentically

Stop assuming (anything). Step out of your shoes. Put yourself in your character’s shoes. This is where you start researching the particular identity/ marginalisation you’re representing.

What May be Normal for That Identity?

Once you’ve tried to step out of your life experience and the expectations it and your upbringing, culture etc have given you, its time to research what may be normal for the diverse identity you are writing, so you can imagine their world. I stress ‘may be normal for that identity’ because as they tell us in teacher training, ‘if you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism.’ People’s experiences will vary, even among people with the same diverse identity, especially if that person/ character is marginalised in multiple ways.

Possible Examples of Marginalised Identity ‘Normal’

-always eating with your hands (some people of colour).

-using assistive devices to read/ write/ view/ move (some disabled people).

-carefully pacing yourself with physical activities and balancing them with rest every day. And avoiding prolonged standing or sitting (disabled people with chronic/ invisible illness, particularly chronic fatigue and long covid).

-a preference for uncluttered, neutral coloured, quiet living, working and digital spaces (actually autistic and ADHD people).

-a predisposition to assume they have done something wrong, or their company is unwanted (some forms of anxiety).

-struggling to get out of bed or perform physical activities because you’re so weighed down by the pointlessness of everything (one experience of depression).

-characters buying and wearing clothing and accessories irrespective of their biological sex (many trans and some nonbinary people).

-being attracted to and dating people of the opposite or multiple genders or being in a romantic/ sexual relationship with more than one partner (LGBTQIA+).

-not being sexually or romantically attracted to anyone, period (some asexual spectrum people).

How Might A Marginalised Identity
Not Conform to Majority Expectations?

As marginalised characters live different versions of ‘normal’ than non-marginalised characters, there are times when marginalised will not behave the same way as other characters. They may not even behave in ways many people expect, or defy other character’s (and the reader’s) expectations. So in showing each diverse person, consider the contexts in which they may present/ feel/ think/ behave differently to non-marginalised people.

A Disabled example of Nonconformity

Your characters attend a public event where everyone is expected to stand. It may be a person in a wheel chair who remains seated. Or maybe its someone with an invisible illness like long covid, chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromalgia limiting their stamina and making prolonged standing (more than a few minutes) painful, uncomfortable and or impossible. (I really should have got medical exemption from yard duty and standing during assembly when I had long covid).

A Gender Diverse Example

Its a special occasion. Men are wearing suits and women are wearing fancy dresses. But do all women want to wear dresses? And what are nonbinary people wearing? Are there feminine and masculine suits? Suit jackets with skirts? Is the gender of everyone’s formal clothing matching their biological sex (assigned at birth)? And as a nonbinary person, let me tell you that gender diverse people’s clothes may not fit their figure as well as cis people’s —where our gender identity expression and biological sex don’t match.

Asexual Spectrum Example

Your characters are teenagers and everyone is gossiping about their boyfriend, girlfriend or whoever they have a crush on. Except the asexual, aromantic character. They don’t seem to ‘like’ anyone in the same way people ‘like’ them or that their friends ‘like’ people of the opposite/ same sex/ both. (*waves in asexual aromantic*)

First Nations’ People Example

Its the characters national country day. Everyone is celebrating the public holiday with family meals. Except the country’s First Nations people, who are holding a national day of mourning and commemorating being invaded and colonised. (*jabs finger at Australia and tells their country to get its shit sorted*).

ADHD Example

Technology is being a nuisance in your characters office. Everyone is logically trying to problem solve it, aside from the wildly impatient ADHD character. They keep leaping between multiple solutions, forgeting what they’ve tried, why it didn’t work or what to do next. And get frustrated because tech is moving so slowly they’ve forgotten why they had that tab open and the three things they planned to do after it. Because when things move slowly they swiftly become bored, then distracted by multiple other things. (*waves in ADHD*)

Mind Your Words

Two Wrong Words about a Nonbinary Character= BAD

Without context and knowledge, you can incidentally, needlessly slap marginalised readers in the face. I experienced it in a review of my debut. The reviewers clearly, sincerely wanted to encourage nonbinary main characters. But in reviewing my book, they criticised the ‘gender reveal’ of my nonbinary MC.

If you know anything about current transphobia, you’ll know that since 2008, ‘Gender Reveal Parties’ have celebrated how a baby’s biological sex ‘reveals’ their gender identity. You’ll know such a perspective erases the existence of trans and nonbinary people and recognise ‘gender reveal parties’ as the transphobic practice they are. But if you didn’t know this -words matter, history matters and context matters.

I can give you additional context here too. No-one ever refers to the ‘gender reveal’ of a male or female character. Because we know the character will be male or female. We expect it. Its ‘normal’. And sometimes we forget nonbinary people exist, and they’re never main characters, so when we come across one as a main character its like, ‘Oh yeah! Nonbinary people exist (and can be characters, even main characters). I forgot! What a revelation!’

Here I am, being referred to by the wrong pronouns (by people who know my pronouns) and mis-gendered by strangers everyday in my real life. And people are reminding me in writing that most people forget I exist.

That’s how easy it is as a non-marginalised person, ignorant of context, to blunder in and accidentally slap a marginalised reader with a mere two terrible word choices.

Research Your Words

So if you’re about to describe a marginalised character… stop.
1. Did you research respectful terms to describe them first?
You’ll find plenty in White Writers Writing POC and for not using ableist language; (after the list ableist terms) this list of better alternatives.

2. Did you Google the adjective you’re considering describing a marginalised identity by and that identity’s name together? This is a simple way to get context you may lack from not having lived as a marginalised character, or not belonging to the same communities as they do.

Inclusive Fiction Examples

Shallan (PTSD rep) and Renarin (autism rep) in the Stormlight Archives. These are interesting because they are point of view characters, and Brandon Sanderson didn’t write either as own voices. He did however do his homework and wrote both the impact of Shallan’s experience of PTSD and Renarin’s autism sensitively.

Lupin (Netflix) has a male main character who’s black. He’s French (as is the show), street smart (tough upbringing), charming, clever, highly capable and a loving (ex) husband and father, countering many negative stereotypes of black men.

Locke & Key (Netlix) has a secondary character who is a double amputee. Yet how he lost his feet isn’t mentioned, because this isn’t a story about his experience as a disabled person. Its a fantasy story in which he ends up playing an important role.

People To Help You Write The Other

Listen To People

Your writing community (on whichever social media/ Discord servers you talk to writers) is a good place to listen to people marginalised in the same way as your characters. Try searching hashtags like: #neurodiverse, #actuallyautistic, #ADHD, #ChronicIllness/ #longcovid, #disability, #BLM etc.
On Blue sky, hear what life is like from posts by people living it on; neurodiversity, chronic illness, disability, LGBTQIA+, BlackSky.

If you’re a children’s fiction author, you may be able to talk to marginalised people by submitting a form to Inclusive Minds, a paid service connecting children’s book authors to marginalised people, whose experience and advice can help you write their identities authentically.

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More Resources to Help You Write Neurodiverse Characters

Writing Diverse Characters Part 1: Big Don’ts

Writing Diverse Characters Part 3: LGBTQIA+

I Think I’m Neurodiverse (ADHD?)
Managing my Neurodiversity —ADHD

List of Neurodiverse Definitions and some behaviours by Best Resources for Achievement and Intervention re Neurodiversity in Higher Education.

Writing Characters With Autism by Disability in Kidlit.

Salt and Sage Books Incomplete Guides book series on writing asexual, black and autistic characters, fat positivity and sexual assault, written by own voices authors.

Writing ‘Diverse’ Characters 1: How Not To

I assume you’re here because you’re interested in writing diverse characters and inclusive books that represent the human diversity of our world. You probably aim to write a range of identities and character backgrounds sensitively, respectfully and in a way that prompts diverse readers to be thrilled to see themselves in your book’s pages (as opposed to hurt by offensive, ignorant, prejudiced representation). This two part blog, written by a white, nonbinary, aromantic, asexual, neurodiverse, chronically ill/ disabled author, aims to introduce you to or help you evaluate your knowledge of common pitfalls in diverse rep. It contains many links to further reading (by more qualified authors in the case of BIPOC rep) along the way.

Why Write Diverse Characters? -My Identity Reasons

I first drafted this blog around 3 years ago, thinking, ‘I’d like to write more diverse characters. I’d like to not perpetuate the myth that ‘everyone’ is white, and cishet, able-bodied and neurotypical in my books —by only writing those characters. I need to educate myself about many marginalised identities.’

Guess what? As a 90’s child, where ‘queer’ meant gay, lesbian or ‘transexual,’ and ADHD and autism were ‘boy things’, it turned out the world I grew up in was so ignorant and devoid of diverse representation that it hadn’t allowed me to recognise my own diverse identities.

I am one of many people who grew up knowing they had ‘quirks’, which I later realised neatly fit under ADHD. Who thought the differences between ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are vastly over exaggerated and mostly mythical —easy to think when you’re nonbinary). And who thought most adults are obsessed with sex and fixated on romance —easy to think as an asexual who doesn’t experience sexual attraction and an aromantic who’s never been ‘in love’.

I grew up almost NEVER seeing who I was in ANYONE else. To such an extent I didn’t have the words or labels to articulate to other humans who I AM. To this day, many people are mystified by the fact I don’t have a romantic partner. I’m the first nonbinary person most people I’ve met have met. And people frequently underestimate the extent to which my ADHD and, courtesy of long covid, my chronic illness (fibromaylgia) impact my life on a daily basis. This is why I think it would be awesome to see more diverse characters in books.

Writing ‘The Other’ Complications

Our challenge as writers is having been raised in a society built on foundations of racism, white supremacy, ableism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia. A multi-generational hangover of deep-seated prejudices makes it so easy (and likely) for us to have internalised unconscious, ignorant bias. And because of that, we’re at risk of perpetuating harmful stereotypes and of alienating and hurting the people we’re trying to include in our stories.

Be concious of how, when and why you set diverse characters apart. I assume we arrived at calling people of colour, first nations, queer and disabled people (including chronically ill, neurodiverse, and people facing mental health challenges) ‘diverse’ because they’re ‘different’ or ‘other’. Different to what? To white, heterosexual, cis and binary gender, able-bodied, neurotypical; aka ‘normal’ people?

Historically to be ‘diverse’ was to be ‘abnormal’, to have something ‘wrong’ with you. Enter white supremacy, sexism, ableism, homophobia etc and prejudice-packed, lying narratives they spawned, like supposed superiority of white, male, cishet, able-bodied, neurotypical people. If you leave diverse your characters out, or highlight their traits -but not those of ‘normal’ characters- or treat diverse characters differently, could prejudice could be in play? What do your critical readers think?

On top of that, you may never have had a face to face (or digital) conversation with one (let alone a group) of individuals sharing many identities you’d like to include in your books. Even if you have, you may never have heard them share, with uncensored honesty, their personal experiences as a ‘diverse’ person.

And while focused on diversity and not representing people offensively, you could fall into the trap of losing sight of that character as a fully rounded human -not limited to and defined by their diverse identity- and fail to write them as that fully rounded human.

How Do You Begin Writing A Marginalized Person Whose Identity You Don’t Share?

Every stereotype we don’t notice, every prejudiced or biased view that was ‘normal’ and ‘mainstream’ when we were growing up is at risk of perpetuating itself in our writing. So what do we need to know to avoid that?

Learn What Problematic Rep Looks Like,
—then don’t write it

Physical ‘Abnormalities’ Are ‘Evil’
Sexism, Ageism, Fatphobia & Ableism

Be conscious of traits you give human antagonists. Consider that in fairytales the villain is often an ugly old witch —and you NEVER saw kindly, wise, older women who were positive characters. Or the villain was wicked, jealous stepmothers —so much so I’ve had primary school students ask me why fairytales portray all stepmothers as evil. And nowhere do such stories comment on the systematic sexism and misogyny that disempowered and made women vulnerable historically, and so often the hero is a man. The message in these tales seems to be, ‘any woman with power is evil’ and ‘all good rulers are men.’

What sort of message does your villain tell readers? If the message is ‘being an arsehole is bad’ —you’re fine. But if the villain is the only person of colour, the only older woman, neurodiverse, disabled or the only plus sized character? (See Dudley and Vernon Dursley for fatphobia). What does that say about those identities, traits and people?

Be especially conscious of traits. Have you noticed how often baddies in films have skin defects, physical ailments or other forms of disability? And until very recently other disabled characters tended to be non-existent in fiction? Looks like a pretty clear message that disabled people are bad.

Have you ever seen villains who move their hands, feet or engage in other rhythmic, repetitive ‘weird’/ ‘scary’ movements? (Especially in cartoons). My (autistic) mother recently pointed out to me that this is stimming, a behaviour autistic and sometimes ADHD people use to regulate our emotions and or bodies when we’re under or over stimulated. So don’t make your only stimming, and by extension, your only neurodiverse character the villain!

(For disability stereotypes to avoid, see this post from the Disability History Museum.)

Marginalised Characters as Villains

If you’re worrying you can’t make marginalized characters villains, please don’t. I’d like to see a lot more neurodiverse and disabled characters represented at all —let alone as main characters— before I feel the world is ready for us as villains (without continuing to stigmatise us).

But if you have neurodiverse/ disabled characters as baddies AND gooddies AND neutral characters and the character who’s technically good but also kind of an obstacle? And you’re representing all your (quite a few) marginalised characters as fully rounded identities? —It follows that some of them may be villains, like Desire in The Sandman (a nonbinary character whom I as an enby viewer loved).

Or you may write deeply flawed/ morally grey characters who also happen to be marginalised. For example, Klaus in The Umbrella Academy, who’s initially a barely functional drug addict, but I LOVE them too. And they’re also a hero —again, balance matters. Or Victor in the same show, again, a deeply flawed character who (spoilers) the world, and also happens to be trans.

Just be careful that ARE writing villains who HAPPEN to be queer/ POC etc. NOT villains because they are gay, or black or a (woman). And this needs saying because writers are STILL getting it wrong. Take the 2016 film Split for example. Mental health challenges make you a serial killer? No, they fucking don’t! LOADs of people combatting a whole range of mental health challenges are NOT murderers. Please don’t blame extreme violence in your writing on ‘mental illness.’ Which leads to the next section.

Mad = Bad & Ableism

How many times have you heard opinions you vehemently object to in recent years and called the person, ‘mad’, a ‘lunatic,’ ‘blind’ or ‘deaf’? Sorry, you’re guilty of ableism 101, differentiating between you and people you disagree with by implying those you disagree with are disabled (I’ve also been guilty of this). I know, it’s so tempting to call Trumpists and TERFs crazy and stupid, and blind to the way the hands they worship bite, rather than feed us all. But it isn’t maddness, and it isn’t blindness. These people are NOT disabled. There’s nothing neurologically different in their minds (with the exception of Trump and narcism).

The difference is that covid minimizers, climate change deniers, TERFs etc are wilfully ignorant. They choose not to know. They choose not to believe. But when we call them ‘mad’ alongside ‘bad’… we’re insulting everyone and anyone who’s ever genuinely struggled with their mental health. We’re insulting people who fight their own mental health to function, by lumping them in the same category as people who are too cowardly or too lazy or too gullibly believing Murdoch media to bother facing reality.

So when your characters describe or respond to your book’s equivalent of MAGA characters, please don’t write them doing so in a way that insults actual disabled people.

Ableist language is still rife in the western world, so for a list of common ableist adjectives to avoid and for more accurate, non-ableist adjectives and terms, see this list from Augsberg University. And for how to respectfully write neurodiverse and disabled characters, see part 2 of this blog series.

Bury Your Gays/ Sad Gays

There’s a history of that one token gay character dying in chapter/ act one, while the cishet characters live on. (For details of a bunch of problematic gay and lesbian rep see ‘Bury Your Gays‘ on TV Tropes, a useful resources for identifying tropes, stereotypes and among them, harmful ones).

If you have a minor character who’s going to die quickly —don’t make them gay. Don’t make them your only queer (or otherwise marginalised )character either.

Yes, a book in which loads of people die and some of them are queer can be fine —provided you DON’T kill off ALL the ONLY queer side/ main characters/ couples. Some of them need to survive, just as some of the cishet ones will —see Bury Your Gays for why this is historically and contextually important.

And don’t just write the ‘sad gay’ who’s sad because of ‘the struggle to be queer’. In looking for competitions I could enter my book in, I was astounded that I, queer author of a queer MC didn’t fit the criteria of an LGBTQIA book competition because… I wrote a civilisation (in an epic fantasy) in which being queer is normal and queer joy is a thing! Life can be shitty for LGBTQIA+ (especially trans) people in the real world. Can you give us some queer joy in fiction?

Queer Rep Resources

For why Queer rep is needed, why queer struggles need to be shown in literature but also why queer people like myself want to see some queer joy, this article on Queer Rep in Media is a good (and brief) summary.

More resources with details of problematic queer tropes:
No Bisexuals and Hide Your Lesbians from TV Tropes.
You’ll also find problematic tropes mixed in among common, unharmful queer stereotypes (all linked to explanations of each trope on the list) on Tv Trope’s Queer As Tropes and Homophobia Index.

Part 3 of this Blog: Writing LGBTQIA+ Characters

White Saviours & Racism

While reading to clarify my understanding of ‘white saviour’ for this post, I came across an article (Content Warning on this one!) about a real life white saviour. A story about a modern white person so convinced of their own good will and superiority that they decided to administer medical treatment to Ugandans (via a charity), despite not having any medical qualifications. Yes, their actions killed patients as well as ‘saving’ them. No, this white ‘saviour’ faced no legal ramifications.

In the articles I browsed, white saviours seem to have in common the desire to help BIPOC, often via charity/ foreign aid (as much to make themselves feel better as to benefit others). This may not be a problem, if white saviours didn’t also believe in their ‘superior’ ability to help BIPOC, whilst ignoring how being heirs of white colonialism and supremacy benefits white people on one hand and failing to see how systems built on both systematically disadvantage BIPOC on the other (as mentioned in this article.)

My current thoughts on white saviours is their racism and white supremacy corrupts, can impair and severely limits their capacity to ‘do good’. So if you’re writing a white person who wants to help others… be careful you don’t unintentionally write a white saviour.

(For more examples of how white saviours may present, see an extensive list of them on Wikepedia.)

White Saviours & Racism Resources

As a white writer living on the land of the Wurundjeri people, land that was never ceded and always was and always will be Aboriginal land (aka as an heir of racist colonialism), this is where I point you to BIPOC people to tell us how to represent them.

But first, if you’re unsure, unclear or feeling ambivalent about how racism may have tainted the perspective you’re writing from, I highly recommend the book White Women, Everything you already know about your own racism and how to do better by Regina Jackson and Saira Rao. (Men and nonbinary people, this book will also give you insights into sexism from a cis women’s perspective, which I found educational as a nonbinary person).

For many resources citing potential pitfalls of white people writing POC, see White Writers Writing POC.

For racial stereotypes (and advice on positively writing POC), see Writing With Colour.

Next in This Blog Series

Writing Diverse Characters Part 2: Gives advice on and provides more resources about how to naturally, respectfully and authentically include neurodiverse and disabled and some POC characters, with inclusive language.

Part 3: will focus on Writing LGBTQIA+ characters, and be published in April.

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Further Reading/ Resources Linked Further Above

White Writers Writing POC

Writing With Colour

Ableist Terms and more accurate, non-ableist alternatives.

Disability Stereo Types to avoid

Queer Tropes to avoid from TV Tropes: Bury Your Gays, No Bisexuals, Hide Your Lesbians and Homophobia Index.

Part 2 of this Blog: Writing Neurodiverse and Disabled Characters

Part 3 of this Blog: Writing LGBTQIA+ Characters

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