Bi Visibility Day 2019 is celebrated on the 23rd September (today), so it seems very appropriate to write this week’s blog on bisexuality. There are many myths about the orientation, which can cause misrepresentation in books and other media. To combat this, today’s ‘Writing Right’ blog is all about How to Write Bisexual Characters.
Let’s crack on!
What is ‘Writing Right’?
Representation matters. The ‘Writing Right’ blog series is a collection of articles written by and with people who have first hand knowledge of an under-represented or misrepresented topic.
The intention is to inform writers of common stereotypes vs. ‘the truth’. This means that authors can then write from a place of knowledge and understanding, hopefully avoiding misrepresentation and offence.
Obviously, I cannot be all things at once–therefore guest blogs are VERY welcome. If you would like to write a ‘Writing Right’ blog about a topic close to your heart, drop me a line via the Contact page.
A note on creating characters
When creating any book character, you must consider both their Character Aspects and Personality Traits.
What’s the difference?
Character Aspects are qualities that make up a character’s identity, e.g. gender, sexuality, age, race and ethnicity, disability, neurotypicality, religion, class, nationality and culture.
Personality Traits are qualities that make up a character’s personality, e.g. courageous, lazy, calm, dramatic, fair, intuitive, hardworking, heroic, cheerful, organised, messy, loyal, pessimistic, patient.
Why is the difference important?
Whilst Character Aspects can inform Personality Traits, they are not a substitute for them. For example, whilst a character’s sexuality is a core part of that character’s being, it is not the only thing worthy of note.
For example, a bisexual person might be compassionate for others because they understand what it means to be discriminated against (a positive trait). Alternatively, they might be aggressive when confronted with any discrimination because they’ve simply had enough (a negative trait).
Their sexuality may affect their agency / decision making… but it might not.
Additionally, this character could be messy, brave, capitalist, clever, sarcastic, be addicted to candyfloss and love playing water polo. These latter attributes have nothing to do with their sexuality!
I speak more about this–and the avoidance of ‘Tokenism’–in The 3 Pillars of Writing Great Characters.
Right. That’s the basics covered.
Now, let’s get to grips with bisexuality!
Today’s ‘Writing Right’ friends are: Sally Berrow, Holly Smith and myself. With thanks to James Drake for additional input.
What is bisexuality?
Bisexuality is the quality of being sexually attracted to more than one gender / males and females.
Myths about bisexuality
Bisexual people are attracted to all men and women.
Kim says: This is just… ridiculously untrue. Is every straight person attracted to every member of the opposite sex they meet? No. Well, the same principles apply here.
This is a trope that is commonly seen when characters first come out as bisexual. Their friends sometimes make comments along the lines of “Oh, well, I’m fine with it… but you don’t fancy me, do you?”
Additionally, straight characters can labour under the misbelief that it’s somehow easier for bisexuals to find a romantic partner because they “have more choice.”
Bisexual people are attracted to men and women equally.
Sally says: Not all bisexual ratios are a 50/50 split, which is how they are commonly portrayed in fiction and the media. This is also a common stereotype in real life too.
Whereas some bisexual people may be attracted to men and women in equal measure, most bisexuals of my acquaintance have a preference towards men or women. Think of it like a spectrum.
On the extreme ends of the spectrum, we have 100% ATTRACTED TO WOMEN (hetero male or lesbian female) and 100% ATTRACTED TO MEN (hetero female or gay male).
Bisexual people fall somewhere between. The three examples I have given are
- #1 – Prefers women but is attracted to the occasional man;
- #2 – Is attracted to men and women equally;
- #3 – Prefers men but finds the odd woman too hot to handle.
Kim says: I usually explain this by using hair colour as an example. I have a strong natural preference for dark haired people. They are ‘my type’. However, I will occasionally find a redhead or a blonde attractive too. The same basic principle applies here.
Every bisexual person is obsessed with sex.
Honestly, I feel like this is a stereotype that has been perpetuated by the porn industry. Unfortunately, it has bled into fiction as well.
Whilst you do get individual people who have a high sex drive, this is neither the default for bisexuals, nor is it exclusive to bisexuals.
If your bisexual character is ‘obsessed’ with sex (rather than enjoys a healthy sex life with set boundaries) then I’d suggest that’s due to a psychological influence rather than their sexuality. If it hinders their character development or agency, they might want to see a therapist.
Bisexual people need to experience sexual relations with one or both genders before they know they’re bisexual.
Sally says: You do not need to have done anything a member of the opposite sex / the same sex to realise you’re bisexual. That’s like saying a heterosexual virgin doesn’t know they’re straight.
There’s… well, there’s not much more to say on this, is there? See above.
Bisexuality is a temporary stop-gap between being straight and being gay.
This is a complicated myth because it is sometimes true.
Due to social pressures, some people who later identify as gay or lesbian first claim to be bisexual.
For instance, for religious, political or family reasons, it is sometimes more acceptable to be ‘partly gay’ than ‘all the way gay’. Once you throw in personal influences like experience and denial, it becomes even more complicated.
The important thing here is to recognise that this is not the case for everyone. I would even go so far as to say that this is not the case for most. Bisexuality isn’t ‘just a phase’–in either direction!
Bisexual people are ‘fake’ gays who can choose to be with members of the opposite gender (appear straight).
Society is a complex construct and the LGBTQ+ community has faced (and faces) its share of discrimination. This discrimination can lead to biphobia.
Whilst biphobia is most definitely experienced from the heterosexual community, it is also something (disappointingly!) experienced within the LGBTQ+ community.
As many members of the LGBTQ+ community face serious discrimination on a daily basis, it might seem like it’s easier to hide a bisexual orientation. For instance, a bisexual person could deliberately date only members of the opposite sex, and therefore escape discrimination by appearing ‘straight’.
However, no one chooses who they fall in love with.
Whilst dating members of the opposite sex leads to less discrimination in our current (intolerant) society, the fact that a bisexual girl can date a boy and a bisexual boy can date a girl does not invalidate either their sexual orientation or their choice of partner.
In short: it doesn’t make them ‘fake’ anythings.
If a bisexual person ends up with a member of the opposite sex, they are now straight.
Kim says: This is simply not how sexuality works.
Whilst sexuality is arguably fluid, if a person identifies as bisexual, they are bisexual.
Commitment is a lovely thing, but if a bisexual woman marries a man, or a bisexual man marries a woman, it doesn’t mean they are now straight.
Likewise, if a bisexual person marries someone of the same sex, it doesn’t make them gay or lesbian. It just means that this lucky bisexual person has found someone amazing they want to be with forever.
Bisexual people are more likely to cheat.
Kim says: This idea makes me very cross.
A bisexual person is no more likely to cheat than a heterosexual or a homosexual person. Cheating on a partner is a matter of circumstance, personality, principle and morality (or lack thereof), not sexual orientation.
All bisexual people are willing to have threesomes.
Sally says: Just… no.
Threesomes (or – for that matter – other specific sex acts) are unrelated to an individual’s sexual preference. I personally know more heterosexual people who are willing to partake in threesomes than bisexuals who are comfortable with the idea.
All bisexuals are white, middle-class women.
Holly says: Why is it always white women?
Bisexual people are people. That means they come in all shapes, sizes, ages, races, genders, classes… you get the picture.
In fiction–and, indeed, in some parts of society–bisexuality is largely whitewashed. Additionally, bisexuality is attributed mainly to women in fiction because male bisexuality is something no one really speaks about.
The reason I’ve put this myth at #10 is because I want to leave you with an important reminder:
THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS ‘TOO DIVERSE’.
If someone tells you that you can’t have a character who is (for example) a male bisexual POC with a disability because they aren’t ‘realistic’… they are WRONG. This may seem obvious, but it is a criticism I have come across a lot and it’s incredibly annoying.
So, those are 10 common myths about bisexuality. But, if there are so many ways writers can get it wrong…
Does anyone get it right?
We live in a wonderful time when authors, screenwriters and other media creators are trying their best to improve representation of all kinds.
Sally says: It’s hard to find bi rep [in books] at all beyond tokenism. Flicking through my Goodreads has just highlighted to me how shockingly rare bi representation is at all, let alone good representation – but that’s part of the problem…
Suffice to say then, if you’re thinking about putting bisexual characters in your novel, there’s plenty of room for them on the bookshelf. Just make sure you craft them mindfully.
So what are some good examples?
Kim says: I can think of three off the top of my head. Alex Claremont-Diaz from Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston, Darryl Whitefeather from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Rosa Diaz from Brooklyn 99.
Considering Alex is the protagonist of a romance book, he does a great job of not letting his sexuality overshadow his personality.
Throughout the story, he has clear motivations, interests and aims–most of which have nothing to do with his love interest.
He’s very driven, intelligent and a little vain, but he has something political he wants to achieve by the end of the book. This goal is given equal billing with the romance story line. Things don’t just stop for him because he finds someone hot. He’s also hilarious.
Darryl is a committed father, bleeding-heart lawyer and a loyal friend.
He has no lengthy story arc where he struggles to come to terms with his bisexuality. He just accepts it as a part of himself.
Additionally, Darryl’s sexuality doesn’t change who he is as a person. That is vital.
He doesn’t become promiscuous, irresponsible or unstable. He’s the same old Darryl, fully committed to his partner who now just happens to be a man.
Additionally, Darryl is good representation because he openly admits he is bisexual (and uses that word!). This contrasts with TV shows like Orange is the New Black that, despite having a bisexual protagonist, only ever said the word ‘bisexual’ in the final season.
Detective Rosa Diaz
Rosa Diaz is someone you want in your corner. She’s tough, capable, intelligent and… intensely private. So, although it took several seasons for her to come out as bisexual to her co-workers, it seemed perfectly natural for her to do so only once it became relevant.
She explains that the reason she didn’t tell anyone she was bi (before she started dating a woman on the show) was because “it wasn’t anyone’s business.”
Why is this good?
Many people think that showing diversity in books (and TV) means making that diverse aspect wave a neon sign saying ‘Over here!’. That’s not the case.
As writers, whilst it’s wonderful to want to include and represent characters with lots of different backgrounds, sometimes representation can seem forced if characters are introduced incorrectly.
If you are writing bisexual characters, don’t feel pressured to reveal they are bisexual. No one shakes a stranger’s hand and says, “Hi, I’m Joe Bloggs, I’m bisexual.” If your character does that (or similar), it’s clumsy exposition that hints that the writer doesn’t really understand their characters or their craft.
Once (or if) it becomes relevant for the readership to know, then reveal it as naturally and mindfully as possible. This means considering the myths above and–if necessary–talking to people with relevant experience.
So, do you think you’re ready to craft realistic and compelling bisexual characters? Is there anything (or anyone) I’ve missed? Drop your comments below!