Oh, hello there. Don’t mind me, the panicked queer author hiding in the corner of the Romance party, sweating nervously at the prospect of having taken on far more than they can chew. As with writing LGBTQ+ relationships themselves, writing about LGBTQ+ topics can be fraught with anxiety. Am I ‘queer enough’ to adequately address this issue? Since I write about two queer characters navigating a relationship, will people assume I’m speaking for the wider community, rather than myself alone? Will I face scrutiny or criticism for daring to even discuss being queer? (If you know, you know.)
How to write LGBTQ+ relationships, you ask?
Well, my awkward, honest answer is simply this: How many queer relationships are there in the world?
Tongue firmly in cheek, I’m imagining a voice recorder hovering somewhere near my face. When it comes to ‘writing the Other’, there can often be a tendency to over-simplify, or assume one voice represents all voices in a marginalised community. Believe me, I am not that person. Let me tell you, ‘pride’ is an interesting concept – the summit of ‘Coming Out Mountain’, let’s say, rather than the first baby steps of living a life that’s true to yourself.
I was raised in an abusive and queerphobic household. As well as challenging a lot of internalised queerphobia, I continue to educate myself in much the same way I’m encouraging you to do in this article. We live in a heteronormative world, and whether straight or queer (including questioning), there’s a lot for us all to learn and un-learn. But in all seriousness, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to read these words, and I hope you gain something from this article, whether that’s confidence, clarity, or curiosity. I understand there’s a lot of terminology and concepts that can seem unfamiliar or confusing at first, and I’d like to reassure you I’m always happy to have respectful conversations on this topic if you’d like to reach out to me on Instagram.
For those satisfied with a short, sweet (and perhaps over-simplified) answer, here it comes – write LGBTQ+ relationships exactly as you would any straight relationship. Certainly in terms of characterisation, story structure, and beats, to the extent you subscribe to those approaches.
Except, it’s not quite that simple, is it? While preparing this article, I reached out to my followers to learn what would be most helpful, and I’ve tried to take their advice and questions into account. Since I’m not writing a thesis, I hope you’ll understand that I can’t cover every possible subtopic. As one member of the LGBTQ+ community, the humble opinion of one queer human being is all I can offer. This is why – beyond all else – I encourage you to talk to as many people in the LGBTQ+ community as possible, and to read widely, especially seeking out books written by Own Voices authors. I’m always happy to point you in the right direction if you’d like some reading recommendations to add to your stack, or you can find me on Goodreads.
A quick note on terminology: writing LGBTQ+ relationships means writing a relationship where at least one character isn’t straight. Queer characters stay queer even if they’re part of a straight-passing relationship (e.g. a pansexual female character is no less queer for dating a male character, whether he’s straight or queer). I use queer and LGBTQ+ interchangeably, for ease of communication, and to be as inclusive as possible. Please interpret my use of the word ‘relationships’ as you wish. For context, it is not meant to refer exclusively to alloromantic, allosexual, or monogamous relationships. I’ve done my best to use inclusive language throughout this article, and if I could make improvements in the future, please reach out to me privately.
Queer identities are vast and complex, and often intersect in interesting ways (e.g. you might have a non-binary character like Milly the Special Educational Needs trainee teacher, who is also bisexual, and who is experimenting with she/they pronouns, but who doesn’t feel confident in their identity as of yet. Maybe they run into Will, the withdrawn, grumpy academic, who gives the impression of being genderfluid, but who dislikes using labels for himself). A ‘Meet Cute’ in the university library might lead to connecting over Japanese films and the struggles of sourcing vegan cheese that doesn’t taste like rubbery socks (clearly, our setting must be the early 2010s – as any well-informed reader would know, the situation has thankfully improved somewhat). But an abusive ex and unsupportive family members – coupled with dwindling financial resources thanks to ruthless zero hours contracts – make this star-crossed love story look hopeless. Can Milly and Will make it work, and is there a better place waiting for them, somewhere over the horizon?
Right about now, some of you might be thinking: Milly and Will, haven’t I heard of them somewhere before? I could direct you to an appropriate meme, but suffice it to say, LGBTQ+ characters are well-rounded characters, first and foremost, much as queer people are just that – people. Real people, with full lives and complex psychologies. While being queer isn’t their entire identity (and shouldn’t be written as such), it does remain a fundamentally important part of their identity, and in 2022, it’s honestly no longer appropriate to ignore their existence. Granted, this can be a complicated balance to strike, and that’s why enlisting the help of members of the LGBTQ+ community can be so helpful and rewarding. On Fiverr, for instance, you’ll find sensitivity readers of all identities, many offering budget-friendly services (I hope to join their ranks, one day in the not-too-distant future).
Whether straight or queer, if you want to write LGBTQ+ relationships that fall outside of your own experience, you’ll want to educate yourself, and do your research. Personally, I find this part of the creative process genuinely fun and interesting. It’s a chance to learn more, and to better understand the diversity of the world in which we live. While writing We Become Shadows, I drew on my own experiences to inform Charlie and Vasco’s journeys towards understanding their identities, landing somewhere around panromantic demisexual for Charlie (after a long process of questioning), and sex-neutral grey-ace for Vasco, who I think will embrace Queer in the final part of the trilogy. While some people eschew labels altogether, they can also be a helpful way of understanding our own complex identities. It's absolutely fine and natural if how we understand ourselves shifts over time, and it should be the same for our characters. Of course, I had to research many other aspects of Charlie and Vasco’s relationship – affectionately known as Varlie amongst the fanbase (because don’t think for one moment I was going to miss a chance to include that humblebrag). Ultimately, I put in the work because I want readers to invest in their relationship with so much passion they believe Varlie could be real.
When it comes to worldbuilding, I think there are a few different branches to consider. For writers of Contemporary Fiction and Romance set in ‘our world’, writing normalised LGBTQ+ relationships is a relatively simple process, and general attitudes towards the characters will largely depend on the religious, cultural and social attitudes of the setting. For writers of Fantasy and Historical Fiction, I’d recommend exploring the subgenres of queer ahistorical fiction and queer ahistorical fantasy to see how the past can be explored through a queer lens, or even reimagined entirely (‘Before We Disappear’ by Shaun David Hutchinson is one of my favourite examples from this genre). For Sci-Fi and writers of all genres working with a future timeline, either of our world or your own, you have the freedom to imagine anything you like, with regards to acceptance. Why let yourself be limited?
Your options are infinite, and frankly, I find that exciting. I write Slavic-inspired Dark Fantasy set in a reimagined Cold War era, where witches are relentlessly persecuted, and the main characters have been raised under the boot of a militarised state. In We Become Shadows, I’ve had the chance to explore a variety of attitudes towards Charlie and Vasco’s relationship, from fully supportive acceptance to snide intolerance, depending on what best suits the characters and their environment. As a reader, I’m always interested in opportunities for nuance, while as a writer I’ve enjoyed exploring opportunities to learn what sort of reactions these attitudes spark in Charlie and Vasco, whether that’s distrust, resignation, comfort, or hope.
There is an important question about one’s ‘place’ when it comes to writing certain characters and relationships. You might ask, ‘But Lily, as a straight person (or even an X/Y/Z person in the LGBTQ+ community), is it my place to write about characters whose experiences are different to my own? I’ve never been in a relationship with someone who is X/Y/Z, so how can I …’
I can only speak for myself, but I might answer: If your character is queer, and there is any prospect of them being in a relationship – because of course that isn’t a given; and even if it’s romantic, that relationship might not be sexual; and even if it is sexual, the demands of the story may not require you to depict those scenes on the page – write it to the best of your ability, then seek support to improve it until you’re satisfied you’ve created the best story possible. As writers, what else can we do, in the end?
Someone is always going to find something to criticise, so as long as you commit to respectful representation, why not go ahead and give it your best shot? I know many people, myself included, who find great comfort in seeing fictional queer relationships presented as totally normal – because that’s what they are, ultimately. Not every story needs to feature queer trauma, and there are countless wonderful books centring queer joy. My best advice is to seek out as many varied opinions as you can, and to reflect on your own attitudes critically and compassionately, if you feel the desire to do that work. Respectful representation is crucial, but you don’t have to do it alone. Between the wealth of resources available online; countless books across multiple genres; and community members ready and willing to share their experiences and expertise, you’ll have plenty of support.
Visibility matters. The best characters take up long-term residence in our hearts, and they deserve as many varied relationships and experiences as we can imagine. Centre their humanity; read widely to build confidence and develop your own tastes; stay humble when it comes to taking advice; and remember to ask support when you need it. I have absolute faith you’ll do just fine!
I’ll leave you with a (very brief) selection of people (mostly Bookstagrammers) to follow on Instagram. They all do a great job raising visibility of books with LGBTQ+ characters and/or engaging with relevant topics of interest:
And if you’re feeling inspired, don’t forget to slide into my DMs and tell me all about your newest LGBTQ+ OTP! (or even OT3?)
Meet Lily Rooke
Lily Rooke (they/them) is the author of the LGBTQ+ dark fantasy Bloodwitch series, of which 'The Dying Light' is currently published. Look out for the second part in the trilogy, 'We Become Shadows', coming soon. Lily lives and writes in Tokyo, Japan, and writes about neurodivergence and queer identities. Typically anxious and surrounded by half-finished mugs of herbal tea, they love reading, watching anime, and experiencing the world from a safe distance.