Writing Problematic Queer Characters
Updated: Apr 6, 2021
Aka, ways to write LGBTQ+ villains that don't suck.
If you’re engaged with narrative media of any kind, I give it maybe twenty minutes before you come across some discussion of problematic tropes and why they should be avoided. What’s not discussed quite so often is how to avoid them, particularly if you’re writing potentially problematic characters such as criminals, murderers, bigots, or anyone else we’re not particularly supposed to like.
Enter (and try to avoid) the Predatory Queer™.
From Mrs Danvers in Rebecca to Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs to Baron Harkonenn in Dune, to most of the villains in Disney’s animated canon, few storytelling tropes have done more damage than queer coding as shorthand for a sexual pervert or predator. The web is awash with articles about the awfulness of this trope, but in short, predatory queers are written with an implied or overt goal of ‘corrupting innocence.’ At its most harmful, this might manifest as sexual exploitation (Harkonnen), or flat-out murder (insert any psycho killer with trans coding here), and it's fairly transparent how these portrayals feed into common forms of homophobia and transphobia.
If you’re writing an LGBTQ+ character, in any role, you need to be acutely aware of what homophobia or transphobia looks like, both now and historically, from ‘Won’t somebody think of the children?’ to ‘Only perverts catch that’ to 'What do you expect from that lifestyle?' to ‘Keep the pink triangles locked up’ to the garden variety ‘I’m fine with it as long as they don’t try anything on me.’
Seriously. If you're writing LGBTQ+ characters and this is not your lived experience, read. Talk to people. Not only will you avoid adding to the steaming pile of mainstream cultural anti-queerness, you will do wonders for the richness of your characters.
Much mainstream storytelling that has addressed queerness has conflated it with moral corruption of some kind, and used queer signaling (hey Disney) to reinforce that a character is to be mistrusted or feared and must ultimately be destroyed in order to protect ‘the family,’ or whatever constitutes 'normal' social order.
But queer coding and proper use of queer villains can also be a force for good, creating a beloved story or character, with their moral ambiguity intact.
See: this bitch.
As a writer, I also hate being told what I’m ‘not allowed’ to do. So, this post is about how to avoid writing harmful tropes while still enjoying the freedom to write morally ambiguous (or just plain horrible) queer characters. Since my books are mostly about queer characters whose ethics might be described as… shady, these are some simple techniques I've used and encountered for making sure your characters don’t come off as problematic psycho queers.
And of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list, so if you've found other inventive ways to subvert the predatory queer cliché while writing those characters on the dark side... comment section. Hit me.
1) Not the Only Queer in Town
As with the equally bothersome ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope, you can sidestep predatory queer by not making your problematic character/s your only LGBTQ+ representation. This is by far the easiest and most broadly effective way to avoid those nasty tropes. Write a credible range of well-rounded queer characters (try to do better than Mom’s favourite hairdresser, the sassy GBF, or those nice girls who run the hardware store, okay?), and keep your balance between good and evil somewhat proportionate. If your primary villain is queer, then maybe your primary hero needs to be too. This tends not to be a huge concern in my books since more than half of my cast is queer in some form. But even in that case, you need to be aware of distinctions. Eg: a cast packed with happy, healthy, well rounded gays and lesbians means nothing if your only trans character is pointedly evil. Consider what burden of representation may be on your character and how that affects the optics of their behaviour. One series getting it right on Netflix right now is Spanish high school drama Elite, whose cast of wealthy teenage miscreants (sounds familiar…) includes a healthy queer quota with wildly varying levels of integrity, and oh my f***ing god, where were shows like this when I was in my teens?
2) Killer with a Conscience… or a Relatable Need… or an Impossible Choice… or an Awful Reality
Awful people come from all walks of life, including queer life. Some people seem genuinely evil, while others commit evil acts for more concrete reasons. The act may torment them going forward or it may be the lesser of two evils. Or both. It may be the inevitable result of a credible, basic human need which in the case of queer characters is often unrequited love or lust (see Mrs Danvers). It might simply be the outcome of a no-win scenario, or your character might commit corrupt acts for a noble reason, such as Sonny Workzit in Dog Day Afternoon, who needs money for his trans girlfriend’s gender transition. Though based on a real incident, this was a gutsy, progressive premise for a mainstream film in 1975. Also see the New Queer Cinema duo of Gregg Araki’s The Living End and The Wachowski Sisters’ Bound. These stories about queer criminal lovers feature a mix of relatable needs, impossible choices, and most of all, god-awful realities their protagonists need to either escape, or leave their mark on. Theft, murder, and mayhem aside, it’s hard not to root for a character when they’re surrounded by people who are even worse. If you think your reader’s prepared to go there with you, have at it.
3) Charm the Pants Off Them
This is about making your queer character the coolest person in the room, with all their wayward morals intact. There’s been almost as much written about queerness in Star Trek as there has about the predatory queer, but Deep Space Nine’s Garak is a master class in how to make a treacherous queer character so gosh darn charismatic, that even at his most dubious, we don’t conflate his queer signalling with moral corruption (showrunner Ira Steven Behr would not confirm Garak's sexuality until the 2019 documentary What We Left Behind). It’s simply part of the Garak package, which we’ve happily bought and unwrapped by this point. Doing this will even let you get away with certain signaling stereotypes. To pull it off though, the character must be somewhat relatable. Their actions should be altruistic at least some of the time, even if they’re ultimately self-serving. Don’t be afraid to trip them up a few times either. Teflon characters get boring fast, and they should also never be a magical solution to your protagonist’s problems. This trope usually works best in a supporting character who's not overused. If your audience is looking forward to the next time your charming, treacherous queer turns up, you have a winner.
4) Subvert Damaging Tropes
This one is riskier, because it involves veering toward a negative trope, then subverting it in some way. It’s a slight of hand you’ll need to craft very carefully. For instance, if your queer character appears to be eyeing off somebody underage, you’ll want a damn good surprise up your sleeve to justify treading those waters (again, there are legit ways to write predatory queers – see point 1). The conflation of queerness with pedophilia has been a favourite in the arsenal of homophobes since forever. It’s been used to destroy real lives, so it is absolutely not something you want to feed into. An extremely skilled writer can get away with this kind of thing and still leave us feeling empathy for the character, but since you’re probably not Mann or Nabokov, a good subversion of the trope is probably a better choice, and can be super effective if landed well. If you’re not sure it’s going to work, carefully manage how far you go down the path of ‘teasing’ a damaging trope. I make no secret of my admiration for the filmography of Pedro Almodóvar, and part of that admiration is how well he subverts potentially problematic tropes, whether it’s through great writing (Talk to Her), weirdly endearing characters (Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down!) or narrative slight of hand (The Skin I Live In).
5) Create Your Own Hellscape With No Escape (seriously)
Sometimes, a story gets away with monstrous queer characters because there is no ‘straight’ world painted as a 'normal' alternative. A good example is Dennis Cooper’s George Miles novels. You could also argue for Poppy Z Brite’s Exquisite Corpse here, though it also presents the external world as corrupt and unjust. These kinds of transgressive stories blur the line between sexuality and brutality, often presenting little or no light or hope at all. One major reason these stories aren’t usually discussed when we talk about problematic queer portrayals is that they don’t present the straight world as an uncorrupted, normal, ‘healthy’ alternative to the depravity playing out on the page. It's not some paradise from which the protagonists have fallen, or a 'normality' that needs to be restored. The transgressive reality is so complete, the outside world is hardly there at all. Does this make for easy reading? Not at all. Are these stories problematic or anti-queer? Not really. We know what we’re getting into in these stories, and there’s no message, explicit or otherwise, that queerness is what got us there.
Handling Real Queer Horror Stories
How does all of this change when you’re trying to tell the story of, or inspired by an actual queer monster, like a Jeffrey Dahmer or an Aileen Wuornos? For the most part, it doesn’t. But there are some things to keep in mind. Definitely don’t fudge the facts, and don’t try to ‘rehabilitate’ a real killer. Remember, these people destroyed lives. They’re not misunderstood heroes waiting for literary rehabilitation. Keep in mind also that their sexuality colours their crimes, feeding a homophobic narrative that conflates queerness with predatory evil. This comes on top of the damage these real world monsters have already done, since their victims are also frequently members of the LGBTQ+ community. American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace completely blew away my expectations in its handling of this kind of material.
How do you handle such characters in fiction? Make sure they’re not your story’s only manifestation of queerness, or find a new take on the story that subverts your reader’s expectation, or uses the monster in an unexpected way. Rick R. Reed’s book The Man from Milwaukee for example, explores and in some ways ‘humanises’ Dahmer through a series of letters, until… see point 4 about subverting tropes.
This is far from a complete list, but from it all, I want to stress this. When it comes to potentially problematic queer portrayals, it's not about ‘you can’t…’
I hate ‘you can’t…’
‘You can’t…’ is pretty much no help to any writer in any way.
‘You can’t…’ can shrivel and die on the endless vine of useless Internet opinions.
But find ways you can explore problematic queer characters in interesting, unexpected and subversive ways. Remember you’re depicting a community that’s survived one hell of a history.
Be respectful. Be kind. Be complex and original.
Be creative, innovative, and awesome.
Like this bitch.