14.03: Writing the Other—Bisexual Characters

Your Hosts: Dan, Tempest, DongWon, and TJ

This is the first of our Writing The Other episodes, in which we set out to help writers portray people who are unlike them. In this episode we’re joined by T.J. Berry. She walks us through the language and terminology of bisexuality.



Find and watch the 100th episode of Brooklyn 99, which portrays the coming-out of a bisexual character

Space Unicorn Blues, by T.J. Berry

40 thoughts on “14.03: Writing the Other—Bisexual Characters”

  1. Assuming you don’t have sensitivity readers or even know where to find them, how do you know when a story is not yours to tell? Because I have one I’ve been sitting on and not writing because I’m not sure I should be.

    1. Is your character sexuality just an aspect of their character or is it the focal point of the story? For example, is it about them being an assassin that really likes kittens and has a mission to find a stolen jewel and they just happened to be bisexual or whatever or is it a story of them progressing through life and how they cope specifically with their sexuality? If it is the latter I don’t think you should write it but if it’s the first one go ahead.

  2. Yeah, I have a steampunk bi protagonist who’s Anglo-Indian, not a good thing to be in Edwardian Empire. So there’s your intersectionality :-)

    The series genre is crime fiction and her bisexuality is not a major plot point, it took me by surprise, but when I wrote the prequel I made sure I planted the seeds.

    She was the one who showed me I was bi – being old I spent over 50 years wondering why I was different but not being quite sure what that difference was :-)

    (Currently being a little devilish with a YA secondary world fantasy complete with the love triangle trope. Except the protagonist is ace/aro [plus the intersectionality of being PoC in a white world], and she is just not interested :-) I’m so naughty.)

  3. One of the best episodes in a long time, in my humble opinion. I’d love to hear more from all of these guests.

  4. I was a little disappointed. You said you were switching from a “what writers get wrong” to a “how to” sort of idea. But then the episode was almost entirely “don’t do this”.
    I was left still having no idea what it means to be bi. TJ says she is married, but is still bi. I have no idea what that means. For me, when I got married, my sexual orientation then became irrelevant. At least if I want to be faithful.

    1. Hi

      Well, I can help you with some of that. I’ve been married for 35 years with two kids, 100% faithful to my wife, and I’m bi :-)

      Just because I got married does that mean I stopped noticing that a woman is a woman?

      I can think “that’s an attractive woman” without being unfaithful, I can even have that discussion with my wife, who may or may not agree (she’s straight). I can also think “that’s an attractive man” – also doesn’t mean I’m unfaithful, and have that discussion with my wife (she knows I’m bi).

      A thought is not a crime, only actions might be. Naturally I do not act on those thoughts, they’re just thoughts. My wife is also my best friend, I’m not screwing up our relationship for a bit of ass, male, female or anything else. That doesn’t mean I magically became blind. And neither did you.

      The main issues with writing a bi character were right there in the podcast. It wouldn’t hurt to listen again.

    2. You can be faithful and still be attracted to other people, including other genders. This can happen with any sexuality. Whether someone is heterosexual or queer, being faithful is a choice. Hope this helps.

  5. I have no frame of reference for this- what is a good rate of pay for a sensitivity reader? And where are the best places to find them?

    1. This is something I’ve been really struggling with, which was completely not addressed here, is that most rates I’ve seen is $250 US for a moderate length work. Which suggests that the 5 readers referenced in this work would cost $1250, which is totally financially unfeasible for most people. Even $250 would be quite a lot for me, and I am better off than a lot of people I know. I’ve asked around what you do about that and got a lot of shrugs and a few suggestions to “well maybe you could trade for something” which all seem financially unrealistic.

      I mean, I totally think sensitivity readers are a really great idea, I desperately want someone to give me a work around for “everyone should be writing diversely… also it costs a lot of money” but I haven’t found one yet.

      1. Rachel: Adding up the fees I have spent on sensitivity readers, I think I have paid around $1400 USD through roughly a two year span. (4 readers for one project, one of whom had to cancel partway and took only the first half of the fee, and one reader so far for another. The primary project was longer than 100k so the rate was a bit higher than standard in most cases.) Yes, that is a big bite of money. No, I have no answers.

        You may get lower rates from friends and acquaintances — you may even get one for free or for the cost of a dinner out or a return favour later (Although, with a sensitivity reading rather than a friendly critique, there’s an extra layer of labour and stress in having to tell you if and how you’ve committed a fail — plus of course needing to have a friend/acquaintance who has both some editorial skill and is aware of the common issues with the representation of their specific marginalizations and intersections — and that makes it better to pay at least something, even if you get a discount).

        If people know you are broke, you may be able to agree to payment plans. (Most of mine were payment of roughly half to start and half on delivery because I asked when I was solvent enough I could pay the full fee in short order, but I know that’s not the only option).

        1. I will confess some of my frustration about this is my concern that pushing authors to use paid sensitivity readers distracts from the fact that really, I think publishing houses should probably be the ones finding and paying sensitivity readers as specialist editors, in most cases.

          I totally agree that sensitivity readers are necessary and need to be paid fairly, I want to make that super, super clear, that that is not the source of my frustration.

          But I am a little worried we’re moving towards a system where most editing of a book is handled by the publishing house after the book is sold… so if I have a fairly homogenous book with few non-ownvoices characters then I can just work on finding an agent… but if you want your book to be diverse… well.. $1400 is just what that costs…

          1. There may be something to having the editor and publisher behind the work — although I recently recommended one of the sensitivity readers I used to an editor doing work on a writer’s book, so some of them recognize that this is a thing that can be done at later levels, too.

            You also likely don’t have to use more than one or two unless your book hits a lot of intersections at once — as long as you are aware that one or two are not going to necessarily agree or catch everything. They’ll likely note any issue so big it would require a total rewrite of the plot to make a workable book… and if you’re concerned about smaller issues later, you can always use a part of an advance to get one or two more pairs of eyes on it after you had an acceptance, because the editor will pretty much invariably have revisions anyhow. (I have had turnarounds shorter than a month, so this wouldn’t necessarily extend the rewrites significantly). It’s risky in case someone does say there’s something so big you can’t see how to fix it, but it is a way to make sure you have the money.

            But I need an agent to take my book, and an editor to make an offer, before I can claim any kind of authority in my thinking.

            1. I think you may be misunderstanding me. In the same way the publishing house would pay a copy editor, they should pay a sensitivity reader. Not that you should be able to do it with advance money. Some publishing houses already do it.

              That said I think I’m a little bit guilty of being pessimistic, because even if you can’t afford a sensitivity reader there is an intermediate thing which I have used of asking people specific questions or to look over specific scenes or characters. Its not perfect because you have to know what to ask, but paying someone for an hour worth of questions is a lot more feasible.

              1. Actually, now that I think about it, for me specifically if I ever get an advance, setting aside a chunk of it as a sensitivity reader fund would be a great idea (although given that I am not actually a very good writer by the time I get one I might very well be able to afford them without it).

                But I don’t have any serious aspirations to ever write as a full time job and that goes a long way to making that feasible.

              2. I don’t all disagree but publishers are less and less willing to outsource even basics like copyediting.

                Also, the risk in having the publisher do it is that the book may be an irredeemable mess as regards representation and then what does the editor do? Copy editing is a safer risk: the book has to be decently solid plot and character and world- building wise before a copy edit is even viable. But a book can be all those things and still be a hurtful mess start to finish. And the editors tend not to be marginalized people or people who will spot the issue.

                It does behoove the writer to get some checking done first.

                1. I don’t disagree. I just don’t think you can call something that costs more than a months rent for most people “some checking”.

                  If you’re writing something exceptionally sensitive then its different and its an exceptional cost to go with a specific situation. But if you attach a $1400 dollar cost to just any old book then there’s huge numbers of people who you just lock out of publishing entirely. Many of them minorities themselves. Every writing community I’ve spent any time in is crammed full of very poor, marginalized writers who agonize about whether its okay to even think about publishing some of their work because of the risk of mis-stepping on the diversity issues, even for ownvoices characters.

                  And no one talks about it. No one. Not one person that I can find will willingly address this except to say “its a difficult situation”. Half the conversations I find verge on calling it a personal failing.

                  1. “Just any old book” shouldn’t have a $1400 cost. (For one thing, dock $350 off that cost for one book, as my number above is for sensitivity readings for 2 books, albeit one of which has only had one to date.) It really depends on what you include and how much in touch with that community you are already. I had a Japanese-Canadian protagonist and an African American “supporting actor” in one book and Anishinaabe characters in another, and I definitely needed a check on those.

                    However, I also had LGBT+ stuff in both — but both I and at least two of my beta readers/general critiquers, were *also* some shade of queer — that two of my sensitivity readers also were is a plus, but if I had only been able to find straight/cis sensitivity readers for racial issues, I would have felt comfortable going forth as-is, so this didn’t incur extra costs.

                    But here’s what it boils down to: you’re right. It is a big cost. It is a cost a person from a marginalized community is much less likely to be able to afford.

                    It’s also a cost that marginalized communities are least likely to incur, though, and in some cases might benefit from – they often *have* the experience that others are looking to have their work checked over for, and can make money thereby. It’s a cost that most often falls hardest on rich and middle class cishet white able people.

                    It is also possible to be a cis straight able white person and stone broke, or even just not able to randomly float extra cash – and it is even more possible to be from one marginalization and need advice on writing another. Personally, I do not at all blame a person who has no money, or has money but not $250-$350 extra easily on hand at a given time, for trying to find an alternate way. It’s definitely not a personal failing to find it daunting or offputting.

                    Literally two years before the majority of that expense, I wouldn’t have been able to do that comfortably. My husband’s job had dissolved from under him, I was still a stay at home mom. We were never in dire straits, but we weren’t throwing $250 around casually either.

                    1. That is fair.

                      And I absolutely don’t mean to critique your commentary about them (I’m a little afraid I’m starting to come off that way), I’m more bothered by it being blown past in the podcast… again. It just really bothers me that it feels like no one will willingly acknowledge that financial limitations affect this unless I bring it up.

                      If I was writing a main character of a different race I’d sit on that until I could afford a sensitivity reader too. Its possible that I’m just new at this and the podcasts expected the audience to know this sort of differentiation all ready, but if there’s a guide to that floating around I certainly haven’t been able to find it.

                    2. I don’t think you’re being critical of *me*. I feel like you’re frustrated with the finances, and that’s valid.

                      Not long ago, it was a nigh universal rule that no writers should have to incur any expense beyond basic postage and printing before getting published. Publishers covered all the editorial fees and copy editing, and in theory were more willing to take a book in need of work. Now, that’s gotten tangled up; indies of course incur all the costs themselves, for editing and marketing and graphic design — and at the exact same time, publishers are being told to cut the budget to the bone, and are less willing to pay for anything they feel they can cut – up to and including copy editing — rather than add the new idea of sensitivity reading to the budget.

    2. Don’t. Its a bad idea. One person can’t speak for the sensitivities of an entire culture.

  6. To me, being married means that if I am attracted to a boy, a girl, or something else, I pay no attention to the feeling. That said, I do sometimes talk with my wife about good looking females around, but I am just as likely to talk about good looking guys around.
    My wife is a woman, and happily so, but if she magically became a man, or decided she was a man, I think I would still be attracted to him, or her, or whatever. I am married to a person, not a sexual identification.
    If these things mean that I am bi, I don’t care. I am a person, not a sexual preference identifier.

    1. Father Beast, some people are demisexual, which means that they *only* feel attraction to those who they are in love with. So a demisexual who is in a monogamous marriage may possibly never feel attraction to anybody who’s not their spouse.

      Some people are not demisexual, but their version of monogamy includes not dwelling on feelings of attraction to somebody who’s not their spouse. That’s a valid position, as long as both partners are on the same page.

      However, a lot of people – I’d guess probably most people – do allow themselves to notice other attractive people, even while remaining faithful to a monogamous commitment. I often hear partnered people talking about attractive celebrities, for example. I know lots of people who have crushes on celebrities. This doesn’t mean they are cheating on their partners. In my friend circle, I can’t think of anybody who would be upset or hurt to hear their partner say that a famous actor is good looking.

      If your character is bi and also in a relationship, you don’t ever have to write your character being attracted to anybody else. (However, if you do, you may want to include more than one gender.) What’s more likely to be relevant in a bi character is the way they relate to the world. For example, if your setting is the real world, where homophobia and biphobia exist, a bi character in a heterosexual relationship may still feel hurt on a personal level when witnessing homophobia. A bi character in a same gender relationship may be completely faithful in that relationship, but can still feel upset when gay friends make jokes implying “you’re gay now.” Being forced to adopt the label of gay ignores a bi person’s whole history, which may include previous romances with other genders.

      1. I feel hurt at displays of homophobic, biphobic, heterophobic, etc. activity, and I don’t think that has to do with my sexual attraction or activity.

        All I’m getting out of this discussion is that bi people are just like anyone else, and aren’t actually different.

        1. Well, yes. Bi people are people like any other.

          Just one comment on you mentioning that as a straight person you also feel hurt when you see homophobia. I have no doubt that you do, and that shows empathy on your part, which I appreciate. However, I do want to point out one difference. A bi person, witnessing homophobia may also feel visceral fear, alienation, and the type of anger that comes from being *personally* attacked. There can be more of that immediate sense of danger. Or the may be a feeling of being isolated from your peers, especially if your peers think you’re straight and casually say homophobic things in front of you.

          And, similarly, if bi man is perceived as gay by his gay male friends, if he has friends who make comments about how gross it is to kiss a woman, that bi man may feel alienated from that friend group, because it can feel like a personal attack on who he is. He may never kiss a woman again, but it’s still a part of him that’s being insulted.

          If you’re writing a fantasy or science fiction world where there is no discrimination, the experience of people of different sexual orientations is going to be very similar. They’re all going to have very similar ways of relating to the world. And that can be very refreshing to both write and read.

          And, of course, even in the real world, there are bi people who are accepted by their communities. I brought up some of the potential challenges, simply to explain why a bi identity may be relevant to some characters, and why they may not want to be seen by others as straight or gay. Of course there are millions of bi people in the world and there are many different types of experiences that people have.

        2. I mean, deep down I guess we’re not any different than other people. Just try to keep in mind how the world reacts to bisexual people, and in turn how bisexual people, in turn, would react to that.

          And I agree with what Cheer was saying. A lot of people get upset by discrimination. But the person experiencing that themselves is likely to feel much stronger (and afraid) about it than someone whose upset on their behalf.

          My own view is that just because you marry a person of the opposite gender doesn’t mean you stop identifying as bisexual or internalizing what is said about bisexual/queer people.

          For fantasy/sci-fi that doesn’t have a discriminatory society, I’d just say make sure the character’s romantic past isn’t trivialized.

          (Like with Willow from Buffy. That irritated me so much as a teen so I felt very validated when I heard that as an example.)

          Just because someone isn’t dating someone of the same gender anymore, doesn’t mean that what the person had wasn’t love or that it was just a phase/experimentation.

          1. As one example of actual fear: A straight person in a straight monogamous relationship need have no fear that their other seemingly straight monogamous friends will react badly if they jokingly mention their crush on the latest celebrity — a woman admiring Chadwick Boseman, for instance. A bisexual woman (like me) has to “read the room” to make the *exact same kind of joke* about Lupita Nyong’o. Even if “out” to close friends. Is there someone new? Are they someone where this is likely to be friction? What about at the workplace? Will I be at risk of harassment or losing my job if I mention it? Do I have to out myself to complain about the homophobic jokes others make to HR? Do I want to? It colours a lot of things you do besides just marry and have sex. And while risk assessment like this is some of it, it’s not even all about risk vs. reward. What about enjoying a chick flick? Do my friends assume I am enjoying a story of women as friends because I am “shipping” someone? And is it a bad thing if I am?

            1. That is the truth, Lenora. The constant second-guessing on what you can or can’t say is a real pain. Only my immediate family (wife, kids) know plus a bunch of people online (hi guys!).

              It’s not that I keep it a secret particularly, but it’s not a thing that comes up in casual conversation generally :-)

              1. I am lucky in my locale and/or choice of friends, as I’m both fairly out and far from alone in my day to day social circle. But then I hit my husband’s extended family and… suddenly I have one area of conversation I feel I have to be careful about. I mean, I can still talk about music, kids, board games, bad inside jokes, food, cooking, housework, the day job (within reason, there are some things that are under non-disclosure agreements too), hobbies, history… but there is still a little more hesitation and a little more awareness I am not necessarily being my whole self.

  7. I appreciated learning a little bit about Bisexuals in the beginning and middle of this podcast. However, the last portion about sensitivity readers was disturbing.

    The idea that a writer would encourage another writer to limit the words and phrases they use makes me feel very uncomfortable. The idea that the main hosts wouldn’t push back on that idea leaves me very disappointed.

    1. The reason is that certain words and phrases are really harmful to some communities and people outside those communities may cause harm if they use those words or phrases without knowing what they mean.

    2. I think it’s less about limiting words and more about trying to be more accurate and make sure the character rings true.

      And it’s not uncommon for a writer to have someone with greater knowledge about the novel’s subject glance through it to make sure you’re not too off with things. It can be immersion breaking for the audience if you get things wrong and in some cases downright offensive. (And if someone’s writing a bisexual character, I’m going to assume that wouldn’t be the goal they were aiming for.)

    3. You think that if you were writing a bi character who was a tragic cliché (IE, they seem to have plot armour while they’re dating the same sex, but once they fall in love with another person of their gender, they die tragically within a few episodes, or turn evil because their partner dies tragically) you WOULDN’T want someone to say to you, “You know, this is a common cliché that many LGBT people find very annoying. You can avoid it by tweaking the plot or characters in X, Y, or Z way, or even some other solution of your devising. Just don’t make it look like deciding to take a partner of the same sex is something that must always end badly.”?

      I sure would. It’s not a matter of limiting your words any more than saying “Look, this plot could be resolved if these two characters sat down and talked for 5 minutes” or “This isn’t how the physics work” is limiting your words. Having another tragic LGBT scene and having a plot dependant on two people not talking or bad science — these are all things that get your book thrown across the room and get you bad reviews.

    1. That’s what I was coming in to point out! At least the new one is correctly labeled .05?

      1. No, it’s .5, which is wrong from at least a software-versioning point of view. Something tells me the version/sequence number is not a top priority ;-)

  8. At one point, they mention The Good Place’s creators saying the character Eleanor isn’t bisexual. I’m trying to confirm this and can’t find anything, just cast members saying she *is* and opinion pieces on whether it’s good/bad rep. Does anyone know if there’s a source for this?

  9. The Good Place has since embraced Eleanor’s bisexuality and she’s even said in a recent episode, “More guys should be bi, it’s 2018, it’s like ‘get over yourselves’.” Which, it’s weird to tell people to change their sexual orientation, but at the same time it’s saying telling people it’s okay to embrace the bisexual label openly.
    Another exploration of bisexuality occurs in An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green, where the main character is pressured by her publicist to present as gay to the world since it’s ‘easier’. She goes along with it for a while, but eventually gets fed up with it and tells the world otherwise.
    And a third example is Thomas Sanders’ cartoon therapy videos where one character has homophobic grandfather, but considers the fact that he’s bi means he gets the last laugh. Yelling at the sky “I’m bisexual!” was a little over the top, but it certainly got the point across.
    And a fourth one: Rose Quartz in Steven Universe is shown to have had many relationships over her long life, most notably with the female Pearl and the male Greg. This case is a bit murky, though, since Pearl likely read a lot more into her relationship with Rose than Rose did and Rose seems to have preferred men.
    And, of course, there’s The Legend of Korra which ends with two bi girls getting together (though it was a little vague in the cartoon itself and had to be confirmed by the creators right after the fact).

    I don’t think any of these examples are perfect in execution, but it does show that we are making strides in how we implement bi characters in fiction.

    1. I actually loved Eleanor the moment she started outing herself — to me there’s a very clear transition between her making the kinds of jokes het female friends make about one another’s looks and the “wait, actually, I find her *hot* for real…” — I can see what T.J. Berry means about playing it for a joke, but I guess in the rest of the madcap stuff I hadn’t seen it as any more or worse of a joke than Tahani/Jason (it is definitely much less serious than Eleanor/Chidi). I guess it helps not to listen to what the writers say outside the show.

      Although come to think of it, I can’t imagine the show letting the two characters kiss or lounge together in bed, and that’s a pity. But also so so so common that even I sometimes forget to notice that it’s been erased again.

  10. This was a really great episode and I very much appreciate the perspective that it has provided. I have added to my TBR and will add this to my TBW.

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