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I have a character who is assumed to be straight, but after a few months reveals herself to be bisexual.

I don't want her to just come out of nowhere and say that without any kind of hints first because a) it would seem unnatural that there are no signals being sent at all, and b) it would feel sloppy and even like you retconned this onto the character after the fact. As she's being written from the start with this reveal in mind this would be a pretty big failure.

By the same token, however, I don't want to make it too obvious before the reveal, as I still want it to be a surprise to most readers when the reveal happens, but that if they then go back and look at what they've already seen they could realise that there have been clues to it all along.

I'm just having trouble at coming up with ways to do it.

One aspect of the character that already exists and I think I could use is the fact that she's a David Bowie fan. I'm just not sure if I could or should use this as a hint, or how I would go about it if I did. I also would want for there to be more than one hint dropped. I did think that she could maybe admit to having crushes on male celebrities known for being effeminate but that seems like it might carry a few unfortunate implications (while she's bisexual she's also not promiscuous, which I know is an unfortunate stereotype that tends to get associated with bisexuality in fiction).

So basically, I'd really appreciate any help with this that you can offer. How can I hint at a character's sexuality so it will seem more natural when it's later revealed officially, but do it in a natural way that's subtle enough that people could miss it but realise the clues were there in retrospect? How do I do it in a way that's not unintentionally offensive to the LGBTQ+ community? Are there any good examples out there that I could look to for inspiration? I have been looking around but most of what I found was fans "shipping" characters that they like, in some cases with little reason to believe from the source material that such pairings are remotely likely (Not that I'm knocking people who enjoy doing that! Just pointing out that it's making it harder for me to research this topic).

  • Are you writing first person or third person? If you are using first person then simply giving their their thoughts about various people is the easiest way. – S. Mitchell Aug 15 '18 at 21:33
  • No, third person – GordonM Aug 15 '18 at 21:37
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    "it would seem unnatural that there are no signals being sent at all" I don't see why this is unnatural. Many people are private about their sex lives/sexual inclinations. – eyeballfrog Aug 15 '18 at 22:04
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    @gordonm Just wanted to point out that a woman liking "effeminate men" has no bearing on whether they are also attracted to women. You may want to learn more about the queer community, as part of your writing process. – user49466 Aug 16 '18 at 4:38
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    I, personally like David Bowie's music and consider myself a fan of Freddie Mercury. IMHO this kind of "sexuality hint" is just a misconception. A better hint, I would say, it that she is between relationships (or unhappy in her current relationship) and says something along the line that she's disappointed in men in general. – Alexander Aug 16 '18 at 17:17
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Personally, I think that all that's really required is that you don't lead them in the opposite direction intentionally. I have a homosexual woman in my story, and throughout, I make it clear that at the very least, she's not interested sexually in men.

Now, I generally treat sexuality as incidental in my stories, so there's no big 'reveal' scene in my book, but if one were to happen, it wouldn't be too out of left field. She never expressed interest in men, even when others assumed her to be a male character's (who she gets on well with) girlfriend.

As such, her being into women would come off more as an 'oh, that makes sense in hindsight', rather than 'oh, there's another shocking swerve gay just put in to make the writer say 'fooled you' to their readers'.

Here, the only foreshadowing is that she's probably not straight, then her reveal of being gay is... just kind of there. When it comes to the reveal, unless the story's about exploring homophobia/homosexuality's role in society, it's best to make any reveal understated too, like it isn't a big deal. It shouldn't feel like the character has hopped from the worktop in front of her friends randomly to declare 'I'M GAY'.

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    +1. I think you have found the real issue with including a sexuality reveal in a story. The reveal itself, as well as its previous concealment, need to be justified within the plot. That she is gay or not is less important than that she has, up until now, chosen to conceal it and, is only now, choosing to reveal it. That either fits into the story, supported by foreshadowing, impetus and consequences, or it is irrelevant to the story and should be left on the cutting room floor. – Henry Taylor Aug 15 '18 at 22:44
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Bisexual woman here. I’d like to ask a question: if you’re straight, how does your orientation manifest itself in your day to day life?

I’ll tell you how it is for me. When I’m out and about I find my gaze drawn to pretty guys and girls. If I’m with someone I’m attracted to, I’ll be instinctively paying more attention to them, noticing things about them, smiling and laughing more and bouncing off the chemistry. They might pop into my thoughts again later. When I was sixteen I’d seen every film Robert Pattinson had ever been in… and last week I went to see Mamma Mia 2 mainly because I’m absolutely infatuated with Lily James (…and Cher, obviously.)

All this stuff is pretty average, but it’s often taken for granted how something like sexual and romantic orientation permeates one’s life. If you have written straight characters, how does it manifest for them and reveal itself? Is it in their interaction with a character of the opposite sex? Is it an offhand comment about a fantasy future partner, or an affinity for a particular celebrity? Is it in their very thoughts, actions, assumptions? If straight wasn’t the default, how much of it is obvious, and how much is just hinted at?

Think about this and you should start understanding how to tweak those hints to make them signal attraction to both women and men.

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    That's pretty much it. After all, showing that a character is bi shouldn't be different from showing that a character is straight. We are all humans, we do the same tricks. – Liquid Aug 17 '18 at 10:16
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First off, I reckon a female artist like Lady Gaga or Madonna would work better as a hint than David Bowie. As others have pointed out, liking feminine men doesn't necessarily mean you like women as well. Gaga and Madonna are also LGBT icons, so that's another subtle layer of foreshadowing (then again, Bowie is also an LGBT icon).

An interesting hint would be to have her comment on a woman that she isn't attracted to. You could drop this into a conversation like so:

Male Character: [compliments the attractiveness of a woman]
Female Bisexual: Eh. She's nothing special.

When you first read it, under the assumption that she's straight, it sounds like she's just jealous of the woman. When you read it again, now knowing that she's bi, you realise she genuinely just doesn't think the woman is that attractive (or at least, she's not her type). This also has the handy effect of breaking that stereotype of bisexuals being promiscuous, and it's not as glaringly obvious as it would be if she said that the woman was attractive.

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"I don't want her to just come out of nowhere and say that [she's bisexual] without any kind of hints first because a) it would seem unnatural that there are no signals being sent at all, and b) it would feel sloppy and even like you retconned this onto the character after the fact."

I think there are some assumptions implicit in your question that need to be addressed before you approach the issue of how to reveal new aspects of your character. In particular, let me politely challenge your statement above.

Why do there need to be "hints"? Your statement suggests that deeply personal characteristics like sexual preference cannot be concealed and will become apparent to a keen observer. Yet our experience of reality is that even our best friends and close family can successfully conceal such things.

Your character reveals she is bisexual, but was she always sexually attracted to women (as well as men), or did this come as a surprise to her as well? Did a few drinks with a female friend/colleague at a local bar unexpectedly evolve into something deeper? [Boss is a mongrel. Tears. Comfort & reassurance. Hug that lingers and feels good. Kiss, and the lips linger. Eyes lock, reassess, know this is right. Your place or mine...].

In the scenario I've just given, it would be completely credible if your character spent the next day searching through her own memories for hints on how that scenario might have been foreseen. Alternatively, she might have been entirely relaxed about it all, feeling that the previous night was simply a natural expression of her personality.

So, an important process for you as the author is to "get to know" your character. Is her sexual preference a defining element of her personality, or is it just one (possibly even minor) part of her complex nature?

Consider also the reader's perspective. There's plenty we don't know about your character. If, mid story, she signs a document and another character notes with idle interest that she's left-handed, the reader is highly unlikely to stop reading and start searching back for clues of her left-handedness. Did any of us know that her mother was born in South Africa? That a teenage accident left her unable to fully straighten her right elbow? That she dislikes peas? That she's gained weight this year? That she voted for XXX? How does her private sexual preference rank against these other "unknowns" in defining her? Would the reader be jarringly confronted by any of these details, or would they seamlessly mesh into the reader's growing appreciation of your character's complexity?

Lastly, you seem to have some stereotyped assumptions about sexual preference. Why would "having crushes on male celebrities known for being effeminate" be any indicator of a woman's latent sexuality? If you feel unsure how to approach this element of your character, it might be worth asking yourself whether you personally have enough understanding of the LGBTQ+ community. If it's genuinely important that your character is bisexual, perhaps you need to get to know this area of human behaviour a bit better: get advice from your bisexual friends, do some research...

  • want to avoid a situation where the character is suddenly just out. That makes it look like something that was just bolted on rather than a natural character reveal. Also, while the character in question isn't running around waving pride flags she's also not really bothered if people know if she's bi or not, she just doesn't see a need to advertise it. This is only an issue for a romantic part of the story and how to handle it well. As for the celebrity crushes idea, it was just an idea and the reason I brought it up was I was worried it might come across the wrong way. – GordonM Aug 16 '18 at 7:13
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The best way to subtly foreshadow your character's sexuality is to have her engage other members of her sexual orientation in non-sexual ways.

Have her defend someone who has been ostracized by others because of her sexuality. Have her express anger towards a close friend a few minutes (or scenes) after that friend has demonstrated heterosexual prejudice and malice. She might get uncharacteristically angry in the company of same sex couples who are dealing with their orientation better than she is.

You can also use your author's advantage by having her look at or touch her future same-sex love interest shortly after each time other characters show sexual interest in each other. Subtly with this technique is mandatory though, because modern movies have over used it to the point of cliche.

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First, homosexual or bisexuality is not necessarily something that enters into her everyday life.

A good way to give clues toward that is to devise situations in which she can defend others that are homosexuals or bisexuals, have somebody (unimportant) comment on homosexuality as a "choice" or "disease" and have your character disagree, vehemently to calmly. Find ways to show her attitude toward female homosexuality in particular.

Nobody is going to care if your girl is sexually attracted to guys (and bisexual females are not necessarily attracted to effeminate guys, just like homosexual girls can be attracted to either butch or girly girls), as far as most of society is concerned, heterosexual attraction is the norm.

The only real issue, socially, is that she is sexually attracted to women too. You need to devise situations in which she can, effectively, declare her belief that woman-on-woman sex is perfectly normal, and if anything it is the culture that makes women deny their natural urges.

This is a version of "show don't tell". Don't ever have her "come out" as bisexual, find a scene in which it becomes obvious to the reader she just IS bisexual, and attracted to a woman.

Or she drops some history with an old friend you manufacture.

"So how's the love life?"

"Dead. I broke up with Steven, he was getting into weird drug shit. Then I was with this girl Karly for six months, then nothing this year. Did you stick with Mark?"

"Oh please. Mark was three guys ago. I'm thinking of getting on some site."

  • +1 with apologies for the accidental plagiarism! – Henry Taylor Aug 15 '18 at 22:59
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    I don't think that's a particularly good "clue". It strikes me as rather ham-handed, and also "she stuck up for gay people, she must be gay herself" maybe isn't an inference we should encourage. – eyeballfrog Aug 16 '18 at 2:05
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    @amadeus eyeballfrog is correct. What they are saying is that supporting the civil rights of the queer community has no bearing on whether someone is queer. While it may be true that members of the LGBTQ community are more likely to support the civil rights of sexual minorities, its not an appropriate shorthand for one's sexuality. It'd be like if someone tried to infer that a character has a biracial family by them expressing opposition to racism. The implication is that support for civil rights is tied to experiencing that given form of oppression, which is not a concept we should normalize. – user49466 Aug 16 '18 at 4:45
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    The "Dated Katie" line would blow the whole thing wide open, that's not a clue, it's a complete giveaway. But maybe it would work better if switched for a name that's assumed to be male but can apply to females too like Sam. I'm also trying to stay away from the promiscuous bisexual cliché too though, so maybe having her list off past lovers isn't the way to go. – GordonM Aug 16 '18 at 7:06
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    @Amadeus The character in question is in her early twenties so having 3-5 partners by then looks a bit worse than if she was in her early thirties ;) – GordonM Aug 16 '18 at 10:35
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People Say in Jest What They Mean in Earnest.

I am adding a separate answer because I thought of something unrelated to my first. The above is a saying with much truth in it: People often joke about things, when they are probing, or unsure of the company they keep, so that if anybody takes offense they can say "Sorry, really, I was just joking.".

You can use that for your hints. You say (in commentary) "The character in question is in her early twenties". Certainly in America, most women have lost their virginity by then (for women, the average age of first intercourse is about 16.3; only about 25% are still virgins at 21). A bisexual woman would likely have had at least ONE boyfriend by then.

If you make that known for your character, that she did have a heterosexual "serious" or "long term" relationship in the past, people (in the book and readers) will assume that involved hetero intercourse. Since it would be true for your character, she can even make that clear, without lying (to other characters or the reader).

Then you can combine the assumption that she is straight with a sense of humor that she often jokes as if she is attracted to women. All these hints at the truth are concealed as jests (she says in jest what she means in earnest).

Until your reveal comes. Then, reading back, a reader could see that every joke wasn't exactly a joke, there was some truth in it; but because she is not promiscuous, she does not follow through with any actual action, or if somebody seems alarmed or some girl seems to take her up on the joke, she responds that she was just telling a lame joke, she didn't mean anything by it.

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I don't want to make it too obvious before the reveal.

OK, question: why not?

Consider the fundamental structure of a plot twist, or a reveal. It's usually either:

  • Reader is expecting A; has been building up the understanding that A is true. Finally, we find out that A isn't true at all.
  • Reader was not anticipating B -- when B is revealed, it explains a whole bunch of things that were unclear (or misinterpreted) before.

Please note that merely revealing some random snippet of information -- however unanticipated -- doesn't make the reveal significant.
Imagine that in the third act, my protagonist dramatically reveals that his mother's name was... Martha. Is this a big reveal? You hadn't known her name was Martha; you weren't expecting her name to be Martha. But... the reader also don't care what the mother's name was, unless the story has built up some reason for that particular detail to be important.

So you can't structure a big reveal merely by the information that's going to be revealed. You also need to build in the reasons why that information is important. Why is it important that your character is bisexual? What effect does it have? How does it change our understanding of the character, of the plot, of the story?

If it changes nothing, than there's no reason to keep it a secret. Just acknowledge it from the get-go, and be done with it. No need to turn the existence of non-hetero sexuality into a story arc.

If it does change something, then that's where your clues go. Here's some examples, in which I am naming your bi character 'Marcie':

  • Maybe Marcie's bisexuality is important because her female friend Alice is getting feelings for her. Then, one hint might be that Alice finds Marcie surprisingly understanding of her own experiences as a lesbian -- even though Marcie's straight (or so Alice assumes).
  • Maybe it's important because Marcie is the daughter of a great noble, and everyone sees her as the "safe" child who will surely beget her family a heir. The possibility of her pursuing a same-sex relationship instead has been conveniently dismissed. Here, hints might be intimations that "she's not as safe as all that," hints of relationships her family might have disapproved of, anticipation of upcoming ruckus.
  • Maybe it's important because Marcie's friend, Kent, thought he knew everything about her. Her keeping this a secret from him... it's like he never really knew her at all! Here, hints might be Marcie's discomfort with Kent's assumptions, or signals she's deliberately hiding something from him, which seem completely out of character for her.

These are just examples; you'll tailor your solution to your own story. The important thing is how the particular reveal you're going towards, points you at what hints are appropriate to use.

But if it's the plain fact of the character being bisexual that's meant to be a shock, I do urge you to reconsider. "Marcie is bisexual" shouldn't be a shocking statement, any more than "Marcie is Jewish," "Marcie is diabetic," "Marcie is straight." They all can be significant, but they're only appropriate as a reveal in very particular circumstances -- treating the detail as inherently shocking is kind of belittling, even though I don't think you mean it that way!

Best of luck :)

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    +1 for "treating the detail as inherently shocking is kind of belittling." I agree completely and wish I'd said it. – Amadeus Aug 17 '18 at 13:32
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1. Research! If you don't feel you can authentically write this character out of personal experience, do some research first. Interview someone similar to your character, or read memoirs, or do something to make sure you aren't just relying on your personal stereotypes.

2. Iceberg: Take what I usually call the Delany/Sturgeon approach, but which I recently learned is also called the "iceberg" approach (from Hemingway, because an iceberg is mostly under the surface). In this case, it means you create a lot fully-developed backstory on your character's sexuality, but where the only details that make it into the final story are the ones that the POV character would legitimately notice.

I have a similar situation in my current book project, where two characters develop a same-gender romance. I knew that was their arc from the start, and wrote with that in mind. From my point of view this resulted in several fairly obvious clues, but since my POV character never notices, neither did any of my beta readers.

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