Main Character Sexuality - Do's and Don'ts?
by Todd Rogers
Question: The story that I am currently writing has a main character that starts 18, and gay.
What advice can be given on how best to write a gay character that will not turn the reading public off?
I reference the success of Torchwood in the UK (in all its forms) where its lead male character, Captain Jack Harkness is a bisexual with more homosexual tendencies (and of course played by the inimitable and very gay John Barrowman) and the recent successes in the United States whereby 9 states have now passed Same Sex Marriage Laws (with over 30 states that have pro-gay civil union or domestic partnership laws on the books which is seemingly indicative of a paradigm shift in perception of gays as normal in society).
If there existed a Do's and Don't List...what would it look like?Answer:
Though I can't speak for gay readers, who may want to weigh in on this issue (and whose opinions you may want to solicit), I would suggest that you make the character human, first, foremost, and above all.
If you are aiming at a general audience (which I gather from your question) then what matters is that your reader can imagine themselves in the character's shoes.
Maybe the reader is not gay, but that doesn't matter if you make a character the reader has other things in common with. For instance, everyone can understand what it's like to love. Many people have endured situations of prejudice or of being an outsider. As long as they can draw parallels between themselves and the character (because the character's experience is vividly drawn), they can view the character with sympathy even if not empathy.
More important is everything about the character that is separate from their sexual
orientation. For example, what makes Captain Jack a great character is not his sexual orientation but his courage, his integrity, his values, and his unique and admirable skills. Without those, I doubt anyone (gay or straight) would think him a great character.
In fact, Jack's sexual orientation is almost incidental to his character, and that fact is precisely what gives him the ability to break down barriers.
As long as certain characters or groups are treated as "other" in fiction, the barriers stay intact. It doesn't matter what the otherness derives from - religion, race, sexual orientation, species, mutation, paranormal traits, disease, disability, caste, class, etc. - as long as the trait is presented as "the thing that makes the character different and therefore other" it creates a barrier.
That's okay if you want to create an enemy or an outsider. However, if you want to break down a barrier, you have to create a character whom the reader can look on as the same. You want the reader to say, "I understand how he/she feels. If I were in his shoes, I would feel the same. Moreover, I would do the same." Or perhaps "I hope I would do the same."
You want the character's sexual orientation to be like hair colour - a distinguishing or interesting trait, but not something that makes the readers see the character as other. Make sure the readers can see the character as the same as them, just in a more challenging situation.
Of course, that's if you are writing to a general audience. If you were writing specifically for a gay audience, you would want the character to be someone that audience could closely relate to, and that might mean incorporating some feelings or experiences unique to that audience.