I was hooked the second I picked up The Lightning Thief, the first in Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series. Percy quickly became one of my favorite fictional characters: he’s snarky, clever, bad at following rules, and good at problem-solving. However, Percy’s also straight and white—which isn’t necessarily a problem, until you notice that almost every other character in the series is, too.
But Riordan eventually became aware that his books didn’t accurately represent the demographic he was writing for. The author, who is straight and white himself, learned from his interactions with students as a middle school and high school teacher that his books needed more diverse characters. A dozen novels later, Riordan’s books are some of the most diverse ones on shelves. His Heroes of Olympus series featured a character coming out and coming to terms with his sexuality; his Trials of Apollo series, my current favorite (I’ll always love you, though, Percy!) centers on a bisexual main character—which is probably why it’s my favorite. I’m bisexual and trust me when I say, there aren’t many of us represented in literature.
Riordan isn’t perfect, but he does his best to create diverse characters so vibrant they leap off the page—and, in my opinion, he succeeds remarkably well. If you’re a straight writer and you also want to include a diverse cast, I’d love to be your starting point for help! Here are a few tips for creating LGBTQ characters that are just as realistic as your other characters, despite the differences in lived experiences.
1. Create Realistic Characters First
What if Hermione Granger weren’t a complex, socially-awkward brainiac constantly tasked with saving her clueless friends from danger? What if she spent the entire series obsessing over boys and nothing else? For starters, she’d be nowhere near the iconic character status she has today. While Hermione’s sexual orientation and relationship with Ron is a crucial part of her personality and character, it’s not her defining trait.
As you create your own characters, make sure not to privilege one trait above the others—including their sexual orientation. It’s not just obnoxious or offensive; it’s just plain bad writing.
Take your cues from books about coming out. For instance, the primary conflict in Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda revolves around the main character, Simon, wrestling with coming out. But his sexuality is far from the be-all, end-all of Simon’s personality; he’s a fully realized character with hopes and dreams and stresses ranging beyond the central conflict. If a book explicitly about sexuality can create fully fleshed-out characters that everyone can relate to, so can you in whatever genre you prefer.
So if you’re a straight author setting out to write more diverse books, write your LGBTQ characters the same way you’d write anyone else. Like your character’s competitive streak or their love of alt-rock, their sexuality is just another component of their personality and lived experience.
2. Read, Read, Read
Read books by LGBTQ people about LGBTQ people, like Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan, and More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera.
Check out books by LGBTQ people about straight people, like O! Pioneers by Willa Cather or Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote. And don’t forget books by straight people about LGBTQ characters, like Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, Ask the Passengers by A.S. King, and The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater.
Once you’ve read their books, read author interviews. Read their afterwords and forewords. Read everything of theirs you can get your hands on. Read Albertalli talking about creating realistic characters, Riordan on his character Nico coming out, and Phyllis Nagy on writing the script for Carol.
In other words: read more stuff than just this article by me! See how other authors create characters who jump off the page, figure out how they do it, and, in the words of Austin Kleon, proceed to “steal like an artist”—imitate the things you love that other authors do and do them in your own unique way.
3. Find Diversity Readers
Like other editors, diversity (or sensitivity) readers provide critical feedback on your work’s representation of historically marginalized groups. They don’t censor your text, read for plot holes, or critique grammar; rather, as members of a marginalized group, they’re uniquely positioned to comment on stereotypes and other issues that a reader from the same group would pick up on. In other words, their job is to make your book better for your target audience.
Sensitivity readers weren’t mainstream in the publishing industry until a few years ago, but they’re gradually becoming more common. For example, Maggie Stiefvater, who is white, worked with sensitivity readers for her standalone book All the Crooked Saints, which centers on Latinx characters; Becky Albertalli relied on sensitivity readers for her second book, The Upside of Unrequited Love, onwards. Of her experience with diversity readers, author Anna Hecker said in Writer’s Digest:
Without red-lining specific words, [the readers] suggested new terms and topics I could research to make the details of my characters’ lives more authentic. Perhaps best of all, they opened up my eyes to my own ingrained bias in how I perceive and describe people of all races.
[. . .] I think we can all agree that multidimensional characters, fresh perspectives, and detailed, believable world-building all make for better books. They certainly did with mine—and with many others.
Sensitivity readers can also alleviate the problem of tokenizing, or asking one member of a group to represent the whole: you can have as many sensitivity readers as you need. Their comments can be a great starting point for a conversation, not a be-all, end-all of the “right” way to write a character.
4. Be Willing to Accept Feedback
Remember that Daniel Radcliffe Saturday Night Live sketch where, after doing an Irish jig featuring a display of calligraphy, he says, “I tried, and therefore no one can criticize me”? If you’re a writer creating characters who belong to a group you aren’t a part of, do not be Daniel Radcliffe in that one Saturday Night Live sketch.
You can do your best by reading, researching, editing, and remembering that a crucial part of being a good writer is stepping into someone else’s radically different shoes. But, even after all that, if someone from the community you’re writing about cringes at your character, don’t react with a huffy, “I tried, and therefore no one can criticize me.”
Instead, just like you would with any type of feedback, be open to criticism about your diverse characters. After all, an essential part of being a good ally and a good author is making it clear you’re ready to learn and listen. You don’t have to take one person’s criticisms as the absolute truth, but if you’re getting consistently similar feedback, it’s time to find a new approach.
You Can Create Relatable Characters
In an interview with the book review blog Just Love, Rick Riordan said,
I never feel that I have to create a character out of the void that I don’t relate to. They are connected to me from the start, no matter how different their life experience is. I think the flipside of respecting diversity [is] respecting how alike we are, too. We are all human with the same needs and feelings.
Wherever your characters come from, whoever they are, whatever their sexual orientations are, your task is simple: figure out how you relate to them—then write. These four tips are just a starting point; now have fun writing characters you and your readers will love.
How do you include more diversity in your novels? What are some methods that work for you? We’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions.