In some ways fantasy and science fiction stories allow us to delve into a world that is wholly unreal, yet we as readers can relate to the characters and their journeys. However fantastical the world, unique the systems of magic, and creative the creatures that reside within it, readers read these stories and can relate in some manner to the characters we follow. Oftentimes in speculative fiction, the excuses for a lack of diversity can be exceptionally thin or characters that are supposed to be diverse are coded confusingly or badly portrayed. When writing LBGTQ+ characters specifically, coding them correctly can allow readers to feel seen even in the most outlandish of lands.
There’s several ways to code characters, even if you do not want to include a romantic subplot in your story. Queer stories aren’t always romantic, but living in a heteronormative world, it’s important to make sure readers won’t assume a queer character to be straight.
Explicitly mentioning their attraction.
This can be anywhere from an offhand comment in an internal monologue to a casual flirtation with a person of the same gender. Coding for bisexuality or pansexuality will not be clear if the attraction only for the same gender is made clear because readers may assume the character is gay. This may become difficult when coding a lack of attraction (either aromantic or asexual individuals), which requires greater finessing.
Sprinkle contextual details within the story.
This can be done with a quick piece of narration or a conversation with another character. In Chloe Gong’s These Violent Delights, the narrator codes the character Kathleen as a trans woman through the mention of her having an Adam’s apple without using the words transgender (which would not be a term common in 1920s Shanghai) or through trauma (as portraying queer people’s lives as inherently tragic can be problematic). It’s touched on a few more times to remind the reader through flashbacks and short comments, and although the book is not about Kathleen’s gender identity, this fantasy novel weaves her identity seamlessly into the story without leaving room for ambiguity.
Having a brief discussion of a character’s identity.
Coding asexual or aromantic characters (or anyone on the ace or aro spectrum) can be done in a similar way to contextual details by simply including a statement of lack of attraction. This doesn’t need to be a dramatic coming out, but rather a simple detail. With identities that are often underrepresented in media, they might require a bit of explanation, which can be done through conversation.
Fantasy worlds specifically often are based on historical time periods where identities like asexuality or aromanticism may not have been widely understood. Thus, a bit of detail explaining to the reader/another character that this is not a result of trauma (because writing those kinds of stories is a different tight-rope to walk best done by actual ace and/or aro writers) would help cement this to the reader. Additionally, nonbinary and gendernoncomforming characters can also be coded through the use of both contextual details and a discussion of a character’s identity.
Consider worldbuilding a culture that is aware and supportive of queer identities.
They may not use the terms we do today, but even if you are writing a fantasy story based in historical times, there are many indigenous cultures that many times throughout history and through the present have had a complex understanding of gender and sexuality. This can be a great way to have a story that is not eurocentric as well as make readers feel seen in your stories. Of course, make sure not to appropriate indigenous cultures, but consider creating cultures that aren’t hetero and cis-normative to begin with.
We read fantasy to see ourselves in new worlds and hopefully bring back a new understanding of our own world. There’s plenty of fantasy that critiques elements and time periods of history, and there’s a reason why we come back to stories in new worlds time and time again. Yes, to escape, but also to be seen. Seeing yourself in stories can be an inspiration to write or carry that sense of self into this world. Coding queer characters don’t have to be elaborate coming out stories, rather they can be queer people just existing in other worlds, just as they simply exist in this one.
is a high school student from Texas. Her work can be found in The Lunch Ticket, The Hearth Mag, The Paper Crane Journal, and the LASA Composer.