This article contains spoilers for the TV show BoJack Horseman.
There’s an ongoing debate in writing: how do you write honest representation when it means including experiences outside of your own? How can you be inclusive of other genders and sexualities in your writing?
I mull over these questions a lot, trying to determine how I can best represent other communities and experiences. But as a straight white male, I do not have the answer. I have a limited world view, and will never fully understand the experiences of other people.
Yet, I can’t just write a book about only straight white cisgender men. That would be awful, boring, shallow, and dishonest.
So what do we do? How do we go about offering the best representation of communities we don’t belong to?
The clearest answer we have is empathy. Writing and telling stories is all about empathizing with our characters, and figuring out what they’re going through.
I think the first step is to acknowledge that you don’t know everything. There’s no possible way to know what everyone is going through. We don’t see every aspect of every second of everyone’s life, so how could we possibly pretend to know the best way to write about their lives? You’ve probably heard the phrase, “what you don’t know could fill a book”. It’s true. Once we recognize that, we can begin to learn more and educate ourselves.
An excellent way to educate oneself is to listen. Talk to your friends in the LGBTQ+ community and hear what they have to say. Read books by LGBTQ+ authors, and find literature with LGBTQ+ representation. The best way to expand your worldview is to expose yourself to others, and that requires you to shut up and listen to them.
That being said, it’s not the job of your LGBTQ+ friends to educate you. You must educate yourself. You can ask your friends for help and use them as a resource, but they should not be pushing you to learn. It is your responsibility to seek out information and teach yourself.
Part of teaching yourself includes learning about harmful stereotypes. Too often, LGBTQ+ characters are portrayed in literature and film in ways that are actually hurtful. Representation matters, but honest representation matters more. Here’s a list of some stereotypes to avoid:
One of the best portrayals of an LGBTQ+ character I’ve ever seen is in the Netflix show BoJack Horseman. The character Todd comes out as asexual in the season three finale. Before then, he’s defined as a character with his own quirks and passions. He plays an integral role in the story, and his sexuality fleshes him out as an actual person.
What’s more, following Todd’s coming out, he continues to play a role in the story, and has entire arcs throughout the rest of the show. Oftentimes, an LGBTQ+ character’s arc ends after they’ve come out, but BoJack Horseman continues utilizing Todd to drive the story. He’s seen not as a token, but a character with motivations and desires.
Once you’ve written an LGBTQ+ character, have someone who is a part of the community read your work. Getting multiple people with differing backgrounds and perspectives will help you flesh out your characters, avoid stereotypes, and overall improve your representation. Having sensitivity readers in the editing process to specifically check for respect and legitimacy will also help. Again, you don’t know what other people experience, so listening to them plays a crucial role in your writing.
As someone who is still working on the best ways to honestly represent people of different orientations, I’ve learned how challenging it can be. Honest representation is important, and doing it effectively requires patience and empathy. To be inclusive in a truthful and respectful way, we need to admit our shortcomings and practice listening as we write.
is a writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Graduating in May 2020 with a degree in English Literature with a Writing Emphasis, Ian writes comics, poetry, and scripts. He is currently an intern for The Brain Health Magazine and aims to work in the comic publishing industry. In his spare time, Ian plays Dungeons & Dragons, board games, and bass guitar.