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EDIT: Many people who are attempting to answer this question are severely misinterpreting the circumstances and setting of the book, so here is some information about Eris that I thought I had included but actually forgot to. This novel is post-apocalyptic. Eris killed her family as a child in an accident, as she possesses the ability to manipulate life force. She blocked out the memory and had convinced herself that she was the last person on Earth until a group of survivors, including Caspian and Marina, arrive and take her in. Eris has literally never known anyone. She cannot remember her family. I am trying to portray her attraction to both boys and girls in the context of her not having any past experience, and only just meeting people that she finds attractive.

My main character, Eris, in my post-apocalyptic novel is queer. Her first love interest, Caspian, is male, but further on in the story I'm going to introduce a secondary love interest, Marina. As far as the reader knows, Eris is straight, because the only person she has expressed romantic interest in is Caspian, a guy. So how can I believably and casually show that Eris swings both ways without the reader being confused by the time she, Marina, and Caspian are in a love triangle?

I want to make clear: this is not sexual. Eris is 16, Caspian is 17, and Marina is either 16 or 17. I will not portray explicit sexual content to show Eris' completely innocent and newly blooming romantic feelings.

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Your MC has never met a living soul, per your statement. This would mean that she doesn't know who she's attracted to - not until she's met them, and experienced attraction.

She meets a guy, she's attracted to him. At this point, she only knows that she's attracted to him. She doesn't know if she's attracted to people with a penis, or if she's attracted to people with dark hair (or whatever his hair colour is) - she has a sample size of one.

Later, she meets a girl, and she's attracted to her too. Just as the first instance of attraction was a discovery to her, so is the second. She didn't know she would be attracted to this girl until she met her and was attracted to her.

Since the character doesn't know who she's attracted to until it happens, why should the reader? The way I see it, the reader should learn the MC is what we call 'bi' at the same time as the character does. (Except that she has no reason to think of herself in those terms: the terms 'straight', 'gay', 'bisexual' are dictated by our society's perception of what's "normal". If the character has not been exposed to "society", she wouldn't have this frame of reference.)

  • I like this answer, but could you provide information on how one could avoid confusing the reader specifically, since heteronormativity can and will influence how the reader will first perceive a female character's attraction to first a man, then a woman? – weakdna Mar 7 at 0:14
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    @weakdna let the reader be confused for a moment. Let the reader realign their perception in response to new information. That's what discovery is about - learning something new. Eris discovers something, the reader discovers something. – Galastel Mar 7 at 0:19
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I don't think you need to show anything special at all.

Lots of people have multiple love interests (or hookups) over the course of a novel. In some novels, it's entire the premise.

If a character's first relationship in the novel was to a tall blond German runner, you wouldn't think your readers would be confused when the next relationship is with a short bald Nigerian physics professor.

Let your reader be confused. Most readers will figure it out pretty quickly. The few that don't, well, they're the readers that wouldn't really get it after you explained it either.

  • "Let your reader be confused." And also let the character be confused. At 16, there is plenty of experimentation won't "stick". – wetcircuit Mar 5 at 12:36
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    @wetcircuit OP's char. doesn't sound "confused" to me. Anyone who grows up in a community that acknowledges & values all sexual orientations will know theirs pretty early on. I see that in my own child & the children of people I know who raised their kids like that. Experimentation isn't the same as confusion but this character isn't experimenting either. What's new & maybe confusing for that character is the transition from teen feelings to full-blown adult romance/sex (which sounds like will not happen in that book but presumably would in her life later). Her orientation seems pretty set. – Cyn Mar 5 at 14:39
  • I am bi. and an adult and I don't need a lecture in what words mean. I was merely adding to your answer, not "correcting" it. Kids make bad choices, not limited to sexuality, but MANY things, and yes, some of that is being confused by societies mixed-messages. – wetcircuit Mar 5 at 14:44
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    @wetcircuit I'm also bi and felt your idea of "confusion" was a bit off-putting. I didn't grow up with negative messages from my family but definitely from the society and it took me a while (1st year of college) to figure things out (it's easier for women who don't have any feelings for men). I don't like the word "confused" because it goes along with people who only use it for someone who likes people of the same sex who hope it all goes away. Straight people aren't called confused. Can we just punt the word entirely? – Cyn Mar 5 at 14:51
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So how can I believably and casually show that Eris swings both ways ...

EDITED: After clarification from the OP, my first example won't work; the protagonists are too young (~16). However, the answer is roughly the same:

Casually! Have a conversation between Eris and Caspian, or Eris and a friend. And (in the modern world), I'd put aside the "confusion", teenagers in a modern secular city understand same-sex attraction just fine.

An Example: At 16/17 I assume the characters are juniors in high school, eleventh grade in the USA. This would be set in a private conversation, although walking together outdoors is private enough. I put this after a first kiss; for modern times that might be on a first date. If this is the most intimate they've each been with another, that would justify their willingness to be open.

Caspian asked, "Have you ever kissed before? I mean, before me."

"No. Until I met you, my biggest crush was on Elly in the eighth grade. I had dreams about kissing that girl."

Caspian laughed. "Oh, wow. Well, we have that in common. Did you dream about me?"

"Yes. A lot. Have you kissed anybody? Before me?"

"You are my first. I mean besides dreams."

Eris laughed. "Well, it's hard for me to compete with dreams."

"Not so hard," Caspian said. "It's like if you never had ice cream and you keep dreaming about having ice cream, and then you really have ice cream, it's a million times better than you could imagine. I'll choose the real you any day."

Again, the conversation is casual romantic talk. Caspian is only casually surprised Eris admits to her biggest crush being on a girl, and Eris doesn't hesitate to reveal that fact.

The final sentence actually foreshadows the later triangle. Caspian means it in a romantic sense, but Eris has already revealed her dreams of hooking up with Elly, so applied to that, Caspian's assertion that reality can far exceed her dream of a same-sex relationship will, in some sense, come to pass. She will fall in love with Marina.

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    @weakdna "This is a book for teenagers" - I'm afraid we are misinterpreting the meaning of "casually" in your question :) – Alexander Mar 4 at 23:55
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    @weakdna First, I find that implausible, and second, that makes your task impossible. A person that has never met anyone doesn't even contemplate sexuality. Many lifelong self-identified homosexual women say they felt their first love attractions to other girls in pre-school. I think you have set an impossible task, but since it is fiction you can revise your task to make it possible. Even children have "pretend we are married" phases before puberty, and puberty (~ 12, 13) triggers sexualized dreams, often some form of masturbation by 14. Your premise is too unrealistic. – Amadeus Mar 5 at 14:26
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    @weakdna Even if you mean "met" romantically, my sister taught ages 6 to 12 for twenty years, and even then (15 years ago) she noticed girls separating into groups to whisper and giggle about boys two years before "puberty" set in, around the age of 10. Unless she was raised in a basement chained to a pipe, by the age of 16 Eris will have experienced both romantic attraction and sexual interest, even if she hasn't done anything about it (i.e. no romantic experience). Dreams are not "experience". If she is bi, then by 16 she will have had such feelings (and perhaps dreams) for both genders. – Amadeus Mar 5 at 15:14
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    @weakdna I find it implausible. She is 16, and hasn't seen anybody for 16 years? Since she was an infant? How did she learn language, or any kind of human culture, or even know there were multiple genders? By some sort of magic I presume, so by the same mechanism she knows enough to have a civil conversation, she can know about romance, homo/hetero/bi sexuality, and she can know she believes she is bi, and in a casual conversation with Caspian she can let him know she feels attraction to him, but also to some girl they know. He can shrug it off because he is included. – Amadeus Mar 6 at 14:27
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    @weakdna I'm not giving you something to copy to your story. Take it as an example of a casual conversation you can adapt to your specific story circumstances. IMO the story is implausible for Eris that has never known another person since infancy suddenly knows language, culture and customs enough to interact with others. Whatever mechanism you have that explains this magical knowledge bank, it should clearly include all she needs to know on sex and romance. Courtship, love and reproduction are important driving factor of cultural norms and manners, she can't be civil without knowing it. – Amadeus Mar 6 at 14:34
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Is Eris aware of her bisexuality herself? Or is she maybe confused at first as well? If the latter is the case, I think it's quite simple - you can write about her feelings on the subject, and people will understand.

So it all depends a bit on how confident Eris is about her sexuality, and how dramatic the whole thing should be. But I'm going to assume that she herself is not confused by this and that it's not supposed to be a dramatic reveal with a hurt male ex-lover coming to terms with her bisexuality or anything like that, since you say it's supposed to be "casual". You also say that she's grown up isolated, so maybe she never even questioned her bisexual feelings anyway, because the mainstream society we know and love/hate has not influenced her on what is considered appropriate.

In that case, there are two solutions in my mind: the one proposed by Cyn - just don't mention it, people will get it - and the one where someone asks her about it, and she gets the chance for a casual statement. For example a best friend who sees her kissing Marina could ask her "Oh, I thought you were interested in men! What happened?", and she could reply, depending on her character, something like "Uh, bisexuality, it's a thing, google it", or "Actually I don't really have preferences, and Marina is hot as hell". Or whatever. But I don't think such a situation seems forced, because between friends it is perfectly fine to ask about each other's sexual preferences, and to give an honest answer.

I think both are valid, but Cyn's version of not saying anything would be a bit too "aggressively casual" for me personally, I would prefer that someone mentions it but that everyone is cool with it. In our society, LGBT is still something that stands out from the crowd - not in a negative way in many cases, but still in a way that people want to acknowledge it. Just like you would have people remarking on brightly colored hair, it's something that people like to talk about and are curious about.

  • I don't have a problem with it coming up in conversation. Bi-erasure is a real thing and I think it's very important to talk about being bi and to do so casually, especially for those of us in relationships that cause others to perceive us as straight. But I also don't think it's required for the author to create a scene where it comes up in conversation. Because it does come up in the book. The question is about foreshadowing and I don't find that necessary, but I understand that some people do. – Cyn Mar 5 at 14:45
  • I honestly don't know the term "bi-erasure" or what it means. But what I wrote wasn't meant as dismissive towards your suggestion at all. I understood your suggestion in the way that it does not have to be brought up at all, because people will get it - and I agree that it doesn't have to be foreshadowed, but having a conversation at some point about it is, I think, a good idea. So yeah, it seems to me that we agree! – PoorYorick Mar 5 at 14:51
  • I wasn't accusing you of bi-erasure sorry if it came off that way. I just meant that talking about it is good. Bi-erasure is about the concept that society thinks everyone is either straight or gay and forces people into that box. People moving from a partner of one gender to another are said to be "switching sides" or "confused." Both the straight and the gay community do this to bisexuals. (I realize I'm talking about gender as a binary here and it's not, but it works better for these examples, as well as describing mainstream thought). (continued) – Cyn Mar 5 at 15:02
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    People talk about about losing friends/family when they first date someone of the same sex. In my case, I lost a large portion of my community when I went from mostly dating women to falling in love with a man who I'm now married to. My sexual orientation did not change! Will never change! But both the straight & gay community treat me as straight and most do not understand bisexuality. In fact, it's usually treated as "oh so that means you have to be with a man and a woman at the same time?" Poly is fine too but it has nothing to do with sexual orientation and is not part of the def of bi. – Cyn Mar 5 at 15:06
  • Okay I got you! I didn't think you were accusing me of it, I just hadn't heard that term before. I think it's a difficult concept to grasp for many people, so yeah it's definitely good to talk about it. By the way, you might enjoy the song "Getting Bi" from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, it's a funny song about bisexuality and about how it's not the same as being gay. – PoorYorick Mar 5 at 15:15
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If you truly want to be casual, don't mention it at all. Let the reader work it out for themselves.

But, be aware of erasing bi and trans identities, you aren't doing them any favors by "normalizing" to gay

You are setting up a love triangle which may or may not have a conclusion with one being picked over the other. Reader (and author) expectations are a Chekov's gun – no story stands independent of reality. If one person in the triangle is seen as the inevitable conclusion of the character's self-discovery, or coded as the healthier choice by reasons of plot/character, it adds all sorts of implications on the final outcome.

When you shift a character's sexual orientation, there are socially-coded "rules" that popular media seems to reenforce. You are "swimming against a current" of reader expectations, and the normal might depend on the culture.

Characters are rewarded for moving from "straight" to "gay".
Characters are punished for moving from "gay" to "straight".

One is seen as "true", the other is seen as "false". This is of course not how fluid sexuality works, and it completely ignores the experiences of bi and trans people who's normal sexual identities are erased under this "rule".

The rule reflects a modern convention that people will be happier once they "admit" they are gay and stop "pretending" to be straight to conform to society. And of course it use to be the Freudian opposite, gay people were unhappy until they conformed to straight. Both are a reflection of "Heteronormativity" (I won't make up a word like "queernormativity" but that is exactly the dynamic even though it's an oxymoron, it is a reaction to heteronormativity).

To preserve this idea a modern corollary to the rule is also enforced: people who were once "gay" and now have a "straight" relationship are in denial of their "true" selves, they are psychologically false or being deceptive for personal gain.

Again, this isn't how real fluid sexuality works, but this bias is very strongly re-enforced by a society that is uncomfortable with people they can't put in a permanent box, and stick a pin in so they won't squirm out. Be aware of the biases inherent in your generation and your immediate social group.

You are writing bi and trans characters, but are you representing them in a way that is true to their nature, or are you "normalizing" them to confirm social and sexual biases? The issue is that Bi and trans people are sub-minority even as they are lumped under LGBT, so they are erased twice. You may not have room to represent other bi or trans people in your story who could show there is no message behind the final relationship pairing.

  • This doesn't appear to answer the question? – motosubatsu Mar 5 at 14:18
  • The OP is setting up a love triangle which may or may not have a conclusion with one being picked over the other. Reader and author expectations are a Chekov's gun – no story stands independent of reality. If one person in the triangle is seen as an inevitable conclusion of the character's self-discovery, or coded as the healthier choice by reasons of plot/character that adds all sorts of implications on the final outcome. – wetcircuit Mar 5 at 14:25
  • You seem to have gone from the OP's "How can I casually insert sexual orientation?" to, well I have to be honest I'm not quite sure where, some kind of rant suggesting the OP was looking to "erase bi and trans"? Your edit makes (slightly) more sense but I'm sorry I still don't see how this answers the question at hand. – motosubatsu Mar 5 at 14:31
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    LOL, I am warning that there may NOT be a "casual" ie: consequence and implication-free way to do this. Awareness of what might go wrong IS ANSWERING THE QUESTION. – wetcircuit Mar 5 at 14:34
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    No harm, no foul. – motosubatsu Mar 5 at 14:48
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If I'm reading correctly, the crux of your issue is this:

Eris is a girl, she forms a romantic attachment to a boy, the reader assumes she's straight. Later, when she forms a romantic attachment to a girl, the reader may have problems believing it.

If you were to set the issue of sexuality completely aside and approach this as you would any other potentially unbelievable situation in a novel, it may help.

The general consensus for making something, that is potentially unbelievable, believable, is all about set up. To make the later scene with the girl feel completely natural to the reader and not at all unexpected, you can use foreshadowing earlier in your novel.

This concept applies to anything that may jar a reader if it isn't correctly set-up beforehand.

The Shining is a good example:

Stephen King needs the reader to believe that Danny is exceptional and resourceful enough to resist the supernatural forces at play in the hotel, more so even than the adults, and help his mother escape.

He does it by hinting at it in earlier dialogue:

“I asked if your wife fully understood what you would be taking on here. And there’s your son, of course.” He glanced down at the application in front of him. “Daniel. Your wife isn’t a bit intimidated by the idea?”

“Wendy is an extraordinary woman.”

“And your son is also extraordinary?”

Jack smiled, a big wide PR smile. “We like to think so, I suppose. He’s quite self-reliant for a five-year-old.”

If you set up and foreshadow Eris's sexuality, subtly but deftly, in the lead up to the homosexual encounter (a glance here, a thought there, a quick comment in dialogue) it won't come a surprise to the reader and they will accept it without question.

Good luck!

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