Writing bi characters

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Writing as a bi author can be fraught. If you write mostly about straight (or presumed straight) characters, people assume you’re straight. Then you write a single same-sex relationship and people get mad, because you what could you, A Straight, know about that?

Conversely, you could write mostly queer stuff, get “typecast” as a queer writer, and then the readers get annoyed when a book billed as “queer” ended up with an opposite-sex pairing, even if both characters are canonically bi.

There’s no winning, so I just please myself. Some of my books have opposite-sex romances, some have same-sex romances, and I’m planning one with no romance in it at all.

Oddly, though, it took me a while to write about bi characters. I mentioned briefly that Resa, the second protagonist in Bisection, was sometimes interested in women. And all of the aliens in that book are pan. But I hesitated to get into it. To talk about what it’s like to be bi, how people see characters who are bi.

I wrote The Sea of Clouds, the second Imperial Mars book, after coming out to a select group of people. It made me think about being bi a lot more than I had when it was something hardly anybody knew. That may be why it ended up with so many bi characters. (I feel like titling it Lesbian Space Pirates 2: The One Where Everyone’s Bi.)

Of course the second you write about bi characters, there’s this worry you won’t do it right. There are a few damaging tropes, and honestly you may offend people whatever you do, as I said above. That said, here are a few tropes I try to avoid.

“They’re bi, meaning sexually ravenous and indiscriminate”

There’s nothing wrong with a bi person who likes to have lots of sex with lots of different people. I have a friend like that. But it’s interesting the way this is always the way bi characters are portrayed. “He would date anybody with a pulse! Even a man!!” Ew. Commander Riker, for instance, absolutely would date anybody with a pulse (or without one, if their species had their circulatory system set up differently) but that’s not because he’s bi. I think it’s because of that sexy sexy beard.

I subverted this trope by having a bi character who’s a huge flirt, but secretly, he’s completely monogamous. Because casual relationships just don’t appeal to him, and when he falls, he falls hard. I like that he’s not a stereotype.

“Whoa, is their partner okay with that?”

The whole idea that somebody’s partner has a right to be upset that they’re attracted to people is . . . a little icky. Sure, it would be a shock to find out someone had a side of themself you didn’t know about. But presumably you get over that.

I wrote a sapphic relationship in which one character discovers the other is bi. And yeah, she’s upset at first that she hadn’t known. But she also realizes that it’s not a threat to her, not if her girlfriend is loyal to her, which she is.

“Bisexual is a trans-exclusive term”

I hate this entire discourse. Bi people are attracted to trans people; everybody can be! If you’re into men, you’re into trans men (and may not even know it). If you’re into women, you have probably crushed on at least one trans woman. And bi has always been understood to include nonbinary people too. Nonbinary people have been a part of my writing for several books now, and at least one of them is married to a bi person. (Now I feel like I have to decide the Princess Consort’s orientation. *smacks muse with newspaper* We’re writing a blog post right now! Down!)

“But that does/doesn’t mean you’re bi!”

This is just a whole cluster of things I don’t like. I’m just as annoyed by “oh, you were attracted to a woman one time? ADMIT IT, YOU’RE BI” as I am by “just because you can find women attractive doesn’t mean you’re bi.” And the slightly-related assumption, “all bi people like men and women equally.” Bi is just a whole big umbrella of things, from a straight-married woman who’s never kissed a girl but has always found them pretty, to a man who has slept with exactly equal numbers of men and women. And guess who gets to decide whether the label is for you? You do. If you are primarily attracted to one sex, but occasionally have feelings for the other . . . you get to decide how important those feelings are to you. You get to decide if that’s part of your identity or just a thing that happens sometimes.

Some bi people have a strong preference, but still like the label because it makes clear they’re still open to something else. Some bi people have no preference at all. Some bi people are fluid, and their attractions change over years. All of them choose the word because they feel it fits their experience. If they don’t feel bi fits them . . . they aren’t bi, and they can pick a word that suits them better, like pan or fluid or gay or straight. Because I’m not here to police anybody’s identities.

I’ve wandered kind of far from the topic of writing, so let’s bring it back: you get to decide whether you use the word bi in your writing, or you use another word that fits your characters better, or you don’t label it and let people figure it out. The Martian nobility have a number of terms for bi, because marriage preferences are so important to them. The aliens in Bisection do not have a word, because they cannot conceive of avoiding a relationship over something like gender. Besides, they switch genders a lot!

That’s all I can think of for the moment. For the most part, I think people should relax and just try to write good characters. Some people are going to hate them, but you can’t please everyone. If you’re bi, that’s probably a lesson you’ve already had to learn. If you’re not bi, hopefully the pitfalls I’ve listed will help you avoid anything that’s outright offensive.

Do you write bi characters? Are there bi characters you’ve loved reading about?

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