LGBTQ+ Characters: A primer for beginning screenwriters

Representation isn’t the be all, end all of anything, but it does matter — culturally, artistically, and, yes, even practically. Almost every single day I see a “Script Wanted” ad in my inbox that specifies a desire for LGBTQ-, BIPOC-, and female-driven stories. These kinds of scripts are increasingly hot commodities as the marketplace catches up with the facts of diversity and cultural hegemony. However, as I’ve written before about gender, these identities aren’t empty labels to be switched at will. Humans are like tapestries, and when you weave in a certain color or material, it shifts the appearance and structure of the piece as a whole. So here are some tips for incorporating LGBTQ+ characters and themes into your screenplays, especially for new (and heteronormative) screenwriters.

Research Time

A good starting place for writing your first LGBTQ character is doing a little research, preferably in a medium other than television or film. Focusing on autobiographies, memoirs, and personal essays will likely give you the deepest insight in the multifaceted experience of queerness, and it will help you avoid inadvertently replicating outdated Hollywood tropes. No one resource will give you “all” the answers. Heck, 10 separate resources won’t do the trick, either. This process is about internalizing what you can from others’ experiences and using that knowledge to create emotionally resonant characters and narratives. Of course, all of the normal rules about life rights apply — don’t you dare steal someone’s personal story under the guise of realizing your artistic vision.

I urge extreme caution in using your LGBTQ friends and acquaintances as a resource in this way. The dynamics of every individual relationship are, of course, unique, but no one enjoys feeling objectified — which is almost guaranteed to happen if you pepper someone with requests for intimate details about coming out, discrimination, or love and sex. Individuals also relate to their specific LGBTQ identity in different ways, too. For one person, queerness might be a huge component of their personal story, informing everything from their relationships with family, to their aesthetic preferences, to their career path. Another person might live more quietly with their identity, perhaps due to social constraints or their own focus on other aspects of their identity. In short, put away the BBQ tongs — it is not grilling time.

Beware Fetishization

The most basic rule for LGBTQ characters might be this: don’t use these characters solely as sex objects or fetishize them. In the scripts I read, this phenomenon most frequently happens to LGBTQ female characters written by men. A lesbian character that exists only a symbol of unattainable sexual pleasure for a male protagonist is not representation, my dudes. The truth is, sexuality and sexual relationships are not going to be a part of every single script. If the only way you can think to present the LGBTQ experience is with a sex scene, please go back to the beginning of this article and read it again. Rinse and repeat until you can think of the character’s humanity before their preferred bedroom activities.

I will quickly admit, however, that women writers can be guilty of fetishizing LGBTQ characters, too. These scripts often land in the realm of “trauma porn,” defined in this case as turning the traumatic experiences of an LGBTQ character into salacious fodder for the heteronormative gaze. If your script focuses on a transgender protagonist’s suffering for 100 pages, then culminates in said protagonist’s lynching by group of hillbillies, and then pivots to the protagonist’s sibling using these tragic events to write their first book — well, you’ve checked just about every box on the “LGBTQ Character Development Do Not Do” list. And yes, that’s a real synopsis of a real script. It leaves out some of the worst details, too.

Identity Politics

Although some corners of our cultural discourse have urgently made “identity politics” into an all-encompassing boogeyman, any squeamishness you have on the subject isn’t warranted. If you want to write nuanced and complex characters, it’s a given that considering their backgrounds, aspirations, and experiences (on and off screen!) is critical. Truly, most of what I’ve written here is typical character development advice, with added direction on how to most effectively develop a character with experiences very different from your own.

Setting politics aside (which, honestly, isn’t really a thing I’m capable of, but work with me here), we should all be able to agree as writers that stereotypes are boring. And for our kind, to be boring is a cardinal sin rivaled only by the abandonment of the Oxford comma. Using bisexuality as a proxy for promiscuity, trying to squeeze humor from the tired trope of an effeminate gay man, lauding a tough lesbian side character for her masculine qualities — these things might not personally offend you, but they are not good or interesting writing choices. If the self-centered desire to be a stellar writer is solely what motivates you here, well, it’s not ideal, but it’s better than the alternative.

Embrace Failure

I urge you to remain open to the idea that you might do your level best to write an LGBTQ character and still fall bloodied and battered beneath a hail of misunderstandings and criticisms. Try to embrace negative responses as a learning opportunity, rather than an outright failure. The truth is, there’s no singular LGBTQ experience. As a semi-out bisexual woman (uh, hi Grandma!) who is married to a man, my struggles with self-acceptance, bi-erasure, the media’s hypersexualization of bi folks have been markedly different from the challenges faced by a transgendered person of color or a gay man who comes out in his golden years.

Nonetheless, if someone uses their time to let you know that your portrayal of a marginalized group hurt them, take them seriously. Hear them out. Maybe climb into the backseat and afford them their opportunity at the wheel. Mistakes are ok, and as a beginning screenwriter, you’re bound to make a lot of them. Don’t let your ego overburden your art.

Originally published at https://www.stephanieschellerup.com on November 12, 2020.

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