A lot of people complain that DC comics book are pandering to the LGBT community by shoving LGBT characters into their faces. What are some tips and advice you have for not coming off as pandering when incorporating LGBT characters and themes in your stories?
Let's see here. (Looks at his extensive collection of comic books, novels, DVDs, etc.)
For the most part, when a character is introduced to the typical story line, their sexuality is not an early thing to be discussed. For the most part, in comics and movies that are not "about" the sex the characters are having, it does not even come up during the story. Even in the typical novel it's not something that gets mentioned until it actually affects the story.
Question: How do you know that somebody is a vegetarian? Answer: Don't worry, he will tell you.
Example: How many episodes of Harry Potter were we treated to before JKR told us that Dumbledore was gay?
So, unless the story is specifically about sexual activities, don't even bother mentioning it. If it does not affect the plot, you should carefully consider whether you should talk about it. Not just your character's sexuality, but any detail.
When it does affect the story, you should introduce it like any other bit of information. Show don't tell. Don't make more of a deal of it than any other similarly important detail. Consider how you might explain that this character was a baker by trade, or that character could speak French, or the other liked to garden. The fact that it's a detail about sexuality does not make it special.
For example, if the character is in a couple you could just have the significant other (SO) come in and be described. Your audience will go "Oh, Bill is married to John. OK." And you have introduced them as gay.
Doing anything else turns them into a "dancing bear." It's not so important how well a dancing bear dances, only that it does. So don't turn your characters into a circus performance. Keep them human.
TLDR: sexuality really isn't that important a character trait, don't make a big deal out of it unless it's really integral to the plot.
As a member of the alphabet people, I think a lot of the other answers are really overcomplicating it.
Just don't make a big deal about your characters being LGBT. Treat them exactly like what they are, normal people. Think to yourself, "would I make a big deal out of X if my character were straight?". If the answer is no, then don't make a big deal out of it. If your character's sexuality has precisely nothing to do with the story, don't mention it just to tick the gay character box.
On the other hand, if your characters are on a grand adventure and talking about how much they miss their families, it's perfectly fine to have your LGBT one talk about their same-sex partner. Just do it in exactly the same way as your straight character talked about their wife. The same goes for if it's a rom-com, it's absolutely fine to have the two love interests be whatever sexuality you want, just don't focus on the sexuality itself, focus on the characters.
I guess the only exception to this would be if you're writing about the hardships that come along with being LGBT. In which case, sure, you need to make more of a deal about it. However, unless you're LGBT (or a reformed homophobe I guess), here be dragons. I'd strongly advise against writing about this sort of thing unless you really know what you're talking about.
The homophobes will always complain, so don't worry about them.
The answer by BillOnne is a good one, and I'll echo many of the points there. If I were to rephrase it a bit, I'd say it really goes down to good characterization and showing, not telling. Ideally everything in your story serves more than one purpose, even if it's only characterization. A swordfight is an exciting action piece, yes, but it can also be used to show the differences in the mindset between the characters or have them air grievances, etc.
The most important thing is to balance character building with conservation of detail and showing, not telling. Details should generally be kept to the minimum of what will be necessary to getting across the idea to the audience/what is useful to the story. And when I say "useful", I mean that it literally has use, not just is nice or part of the world.
Conversely, everything you add to a story should have a point, whether it's plot or just supporting the plot via characterization. Sometimes it's important to have a character describe explicitly facts about themselves, or have other characters/the narrator comment on it. Even so, it should always be either plot-relevant (maybe at some point he has to come out, or her girlfriend is kidnapped, or his experience of discrimination causes him to act a certain way towards a character) or as a characterization piece.
One helpful trick is to think about what the equivalent would be of a straight person, and use that to make sure it's adding something to the plot or characterization. For example:
An alert buzzed Alex's phone, and he glanced down to see the meeting invite, as well as a few messages from his girlfriend and some stray emails he wasn't going to get around to any time soon. He dismissed the notification and turned back to his screen.
In this hypothetical story, it's not important to the plot (at least, at the moment) that Alex has a girlfriend; what is important is the characterization of Alex. We feel immediately that he's a busy person, that he seems to lack time or perhaps is a bit cold, and that he's so aware of it that it's routine. And, in such a story, we might well expect that him having a girlfriend would serve as a plot point or factor. Maybe a sub-plot is him learning to value the relationship or realizing that he's not actually into her. Maybe he pursues a goal single-mindedly, and his relationship with her is one small casualty of that pursuit. Maybe he's just a very task-oriented person who has little time for anything but his work and goals, and this is just showing that as we introduce the character.
Him having a girlfriend isn't advancing the plot, but the mention of it is serving the story. If nothing is ever done with the girlfriend or the characterization isn't used/expanded upon later, then that might become a strange, stray piece of detail that isn't helpful, and the audience can be left wondering why it was inserted. Likewise, replacing the girlfriend with a boyfriend wouldn't change the effect that's having, and wouldn't make it feel out of place — so long as the characterization is used.
It doesn't even have to be so distinctly relevant to the characterization:
Alex thanked the man for his time and went back to Betty. "He was pretty cute," she remarked, watching him go. "Seriously?" said Alex. "We don't have time! We need to find someone who knows where the library is."
Why's Betty saying the man is cute? Is she interested in him? Does she think Alex might be interested in him? Is she just needling Alex and his clear impatience? Either way, this could be a throwaway line or a bit of comedic relief, used more for showing the urgency of the situation, Alex's impatience, or Betty's flippancy.
Replacing any of the above examples will show that it's useful in more ways than just saying "by the way, this character has a girlfriend/boyfriend," which makes it much more organic and natural. Replacing any of that with a gay relationship won't change that.
You need to balance three things, tokenism, veiling, and whether masculinity is ok.
There are three extremes that people often go to. One extreme is tokenism, when people make an lgbt person an extreme stereotype. A gay person might be flamboyant and promiscuous and such, and as the only gay person in the story they are representative of your thinking.
Alternatively, you might put a gay person in and have them have no traits of gayness in story. They don't have any real relationship to being gay, and so gay readers won't resonate with their struggles at all.
The third extreme is only presenting acceptable sexualities. Homosexuality is controversial except in the context of flamboyant gay men entertaining women, androgyny leaning feminine is acceptable, trans people are controversial, lesbians are acceptable. This is often done to appease straight male viewers and have lgbt characters, as having lesbians make out is seen as hot. DC comics does this a lot. Superman and Lois did this, with a lot of lesbians and bisexual women, and fairly few gay men, with many of them being naked stereotypes. Sandman did this as well, with lots of good lesbians, and wildly promiscuous and unfaithful and murderous flamboyant gay men.
Here are some tips.
Be careful when you have a small supply of LGBT people.
If you have a lot of LGBT people you can be more experimental. Have some people be more stereotypical, have some LGBT people with very light characterization, have some die, have some villains. If you just have one LGBT character, be careful about writing them in more risky ways.
Look up common issues they have.
If you're writing about a particular identity think about some of the likely issues they have, so that the person can be recognizably LGBT. Is there an issue of shame around LGBTness in the culture? Then they might be reluctant or very prideful to introduce their partner. Are they dressing like an uncommon gender role? Then they may need to adjust their clothes. Is it hard finding lesbians to date? The single lesbian may be pretty eager to find any lesbian around her and extra enthusiastic meeting them.
Give them traits, character arcs, and motivations outside being LGBT
If you have a background LGBT person they don't need a full arc, but for any main character ones, they should want things and change meaningfully. This makes them more fleshed out. This works well even for romance novels- people respect people a lot more if they want more than just to have sex and date, they like people with dreams and ambitions.
This is part of why Lightyear had issues. Their lesbian representation had a really boring character arc about how she wanted to date a woman on a planet rather than flying into space. Know your audience- if you're making a book about flying into space, people need motivations about how space is awesome to be sympathetic, not how about lesbians really like dating lesbians- dating lesbians in space may be more ok.
Support all LGBT people and straight and cis people
Don't make straight people or homosexual men all the villains, or clueless idiots. Don't have long rants about how straight and cis people suck and how homosexual men are evil. Don't have a super villain whose main motivation is turning everyone straight. These are the sorts of things you can play with when you are pretty confident writing LGBT people, but are likely to get you accused of pandering.
Be aware that people will have problems with you regardless.
There's lots of homophobes around. No matter what you do, someone will complain. Keep representing people well regardless.
Make it appropriate for your setting
I believe that people with the desires and feelings that we currently call "LGBT" exist all around the world, have done throughout history, and will continue to do so. However, the way they express themselves, and are treated by society, is very variable, and that will make a difference to how they show up in your story.
If you're writing realistic contemporary fiction, it will make a big difference whether it's set in California or Qatar. If you're writing science fiction or fantasy, you can choose what kind of society you want to portray. If you're writing historical fiction, do your research - don't assume that for thousands of years LGBT people were persecuted worldwide, or worse that they didn't exist, just because European Christian historians didn't write much about them.
Mention it exactly as much as you would any other identity or relationship
If you don't want their treatment or identity to be a key plot point, use it as background detail, just like you might work out how old they are, or what their job is, or what family they have. This doesn't mean you should write "In the café, he met his friend John, 32, who had two brothers, worked in a screwdriver factory, and identified as bisexual". The rule of "show, don't tell" still applies.
But that is not the same as never mentioning it at all - in real life, these are things that are constantly coming up in conversation, and affecting people's lives in all sorts of ways. For instance, consider how often you would write phrases like "his wife", or "her boyfriend"; if you've decided that one of your characters is in a same-sex relationship, these simply become "her wife", or "his boyfriend".
I recently read a book by Jasper Fforde in which one of the main characters is in a wheelchair - but this is never explicitly stated in the entire novel. I actually didn't realise until several chapters in, but then looked back and realised that dozens of little details had been affected by it - she doesn't "walk to the door", she "scoots to the door" or "rolls to the door"; she carries things in her lap; and so on. This felt realistic to me, because being in a wheelchair surely would affect all those parts of your life, so even if it's not a big deal for the plot, or for the other characters, it is visible. I think LGBT characters can be made visible in the same way, and I really enjoy it when a writer does so well.
Find a sensitivity reader. (Ideally one would hire one, but I of course understand that not all authors are in a position to be able to do so, and that in that case it may be possible to find someone willing to volunteer.)
The other sorts of advice you've gotten is of course important and necessary. You do want to focus on providing characters that resonate with those that share their identity, rather than trying to satisfy the unsatisfiable critics who see the mere presence of a queer character as "shoving it down their throat", a notion that is fundamentally based on homophobia/queerphobia/transphobia. You do need to avoid tokenism and stereotypes. You do need to avoid writing your LGBT characters in ways that are fundamentally different from your cishet characters.
But those are all very difficult things to do, especially if you're writing an identity different from your own. The best way to make them easier to do, and to avoid slipping up in ways that are invisible to you, is to get help from an expert.
And that's what a sensitivity reader is: an expert who can provide that advice, who can catch those mistakes. If you find one, and work with them on your specific story, and listen to them, it will help you more than all the general advice put together.
For a bit more on how to approach this, I highly recommend "Sensitivity readers and why I pulled a project." by Mary Robinette Kowal, a short read on working with sensitivity readers when writing characters from marginalized communities. Do note that she takes it as a given that an author would be working with a sensitivity reader if they're serious about getting things right. It's just that good of a practice.
I agree with the highly-voted answers in terms of practical advice, but I think they risk overreaching and implying that a character being LGBTQ is only relevant to their romantic/sexual lives. That's not true for many (most?) LGBTQ people.
LGBTQ people are (often) part of LGBTQ cultures, and if you want to depict them authentically you should try to reflect that. That colours somebody's life far beyond who they date or have sex with; it might impact their dress sense, their hobbies, where they live, what music they listen to, what TV they watch, what slang they use, and who their friends are. None of those things define someone's sexuality or gender identity, but it's silly to pretend that they don't exist.
These are not the same thing as stereotypes (although there might be overlap). Here's an example: stereotypes about gay men include things like being effeminate, bad at sports, liking pink and dressing flamboyantly, and being promiscuous. Actual traits that are pretty typical of young white gay men in London (I say this as one myself) are things like going to the gym a lot, having good dinner parties, following Drag Race and being surprisingly nerdy about public transport infrastructure.
Furthermore, when people are in a position to choose their social circle they often gravitate to others from a similar culture. A lot of fiction has a friend group with one LGBTQ person. In high school, or a team at work, that might well happen because you can't choose your classmates or colleagues. But I formed a circle of friends at university who, as the years have progressed, have almost all turned out to be LGBTQ. I'm a member of an LGBTQ sports club. LGBTQ people vastly outnumber straight cis people among my friends, and almost none of that has anything to do with wanting to date them.
Of course, cultures aren't monolithic and people belong to lots of cultures; young Qatari gay men have a totally different life to young gay men in London, and those young gay men in London will have different cultures depending on their race, their economic situation, their educational background, and everything else that makes up their lives. But being LGBTQ is a big part of people's identities and it's worth recognising that.
In terms of practical advice, if you don't have the experience to write a character authentically then just be aware of that limitation and write carefully; the advice to use a sensitivity reader is good advice. If you want to improve in that direction then do the kind of research you'd do before writing about any unfamiliar culture.
I'm offering a frame challenge.
You can't. Not anymore, anyway. It's been done so much at this point that it's anything but original. Cynics will say it's pandering. Polite critics will point out it's only done because that's currently popular. Most everyone else will be indifferent. It's not new, exciting, or even interesting to most people.
Unless the story is about gay issues it won't help your story and it won't help you gain more audience.
I'd suggest that it won't be beneficial to you as a writer until at the point in the future that it's not being done everywhere anymore.
From my perspective, the most healthy way to treat LGBT topics in the real world is to just assume that all of it is perfectly normal - i.e., LGBT people are normal, the fact that people are relating to these topics is normal, any individual subscribing to any of the philosophies is completely normal, and so on and so forth. All LGBT people I met in real life so far were absolutely the same - they just wanted to be left alone and treated like anyone else. I wouldn't go around and treat people of the other sex, or of different skin colors differently, so the same goes for members of the LGBT community. Or in other words, I would suggest to strongly separate between the actual LGBT people, and the communities who talk a lot, loudly, and aggressively about the topic. Obviously there will be overlap, but the two sets of humans are by far not completely identical.
So the question whether you bring up one of those topics is in the same category as when you decide whether your main protagonist is male/female or which skin color to give them, or whether you go into their emotional or sex life at all. If you find it makes the character and story interesting and serves a purpose, then by all means go ahead. If the story is written from a 1st person point of view, then you better make sure you have a firm grasp on how such a character would feel in real life to avoid being labeled cringeworthy.
As to how to do it in practice; unless the LGBT aspect of your character(s) is your main reason for writing the story, in the first place, I would suggest to just keep it matter-of-fact. It isn't that important - just like it is maybe interesting but not important which style of clothing or which perfume they are wearing. Nothing wrong mentioning it, but unless it's a very important thing to you, just do it matter-of-factly, just as if it were nothing special in their universe.
Obviously, if you want the LGBT topics to be on the top of the list (i.e. by spending a lot of story in how your characters are unfairly treated, or adversely how they fit in just greatly, etc.), then by all means do so, but then that would be a main reason of your book's existence, and you wouldn't have to ask.
A lot of people complain that DC comics book are pandering to the LGBT community by shoving LGBT characters into their faces.
False premise. The simple reality is that after decades of puritan censorship, comic creators are finally able to represent society as it exists today in their works, not society as the evangelical right wishes to exist. That more realistic society naturally includes LGBTQIA+ characters, and news outlets are quick to take note of this because they are controversial (due to the aforementioned evangelicals) and thus generate purchases/clicks. The result is a disproportionately large amount of news published about LGBTQIA+ comic characters which, if one chooses not to look further than the end of one's nose, could easily be construed as them being over-represented in comics. The truth is that they are, finally, being represented in realistic numbers.
There is also an undercurrent of implication here that some of the newer comics are poor precisely because they are written with LGBTQIA+ characters, which is hogwash of the most insulting variety. Correlation does not imply causation.
What are some tips and advice you have for not coming off as pandering when incorporating LGBT characters in your stories?
Another false premise; you're assuming someone's sexuality is innately coupled to the story you choose to tell, and the vast majority of the time that isn't the case, so why even bother mentioning said sexuality? Do you habitually mention other irrelevant details as part and parcel of your writing?
Really, this question is silly, and that can be trivially demonstrated by rewording it to:
What are some tips and advice you have for not coming off as pandering when incorporating cisgendered characters in your stories?
The answer is exactly the same as what I wrote above.
Now, if you need to build a more complex character whose sexuality is critical to their place in your story, then of course the issue becomes of how to appropriately treat that. And the answer, as with all things regarding human beings, is to treat that character as a human being: they have hopes and dreams, they have fears and sorrows, those are the most important things about them, and sometimes those are indeed related to their sexuality regardless of what that sexuality is. You can as easily create a gay character who has had a decent upbringing and is thus extremely comfortable with sex in general, as you can create a cisgendered character who is uncomfortable with sex as a whole because they were abused when growing up.
So really, the question is "how can I create meaningful and relatable characters in my stories?", and the answer is "empathy". If you have sufficient empathy, and you use it sufficiently, you will create characters that anyone can empathise with regardless of their age, sex, gender, intentions, whatever - because those characters go through the same highs and lows of life that a reader has or will.
Simple: Don't. At least, do not do it for its own sake. The same way you wouldn't have men or white people in your story unless the story you want to tell includes men and white people. It is also possible that the skin color, gender and sexual orientation of the characters are unimportant to the story: In that case, they are left unknown.
So per your question, a lot of DC (and Marvel. The distinguished competition has been accused of this too) characters's that have come out as gay are characters with a long history of not being gay or LGBT. For example, there is/was an ongoing effort to say Superman is bi, which ignores nearly a century of lore that his better half is Lois Lane. I'll admit I'm not up on current comic book storylines, and the "bi Superman" might not be Clark Kent, but I just don't know. But if that's true, it doesn't help because they were advertising the "Bi Superman" hoping to shock the casual audiences by hiding the fact that this is a new character and not Clark Kent. It's using sexuality for the sake of shock value, despite the fact that loads of gay couples have existed in comics have existed and for a long time. Consider Marvel's Young Avenger's title, where two of the team's debut members were (Hulkling and Wiccan) were gay and were quite popular with the fans, or Runaways, another team that featured a Lesbian/Non-Binary couple both of whom were quite popular (though Xavin, the non-binary one, is an odd one as he started with a masculine identity but was betrothed to the Lesbian and was from a race of shapeshifters who view gender fluidity as acceptable). In the former situation, the author wanted to have a more dramatic outing of Hulkling and Wiccan, so he only left some subtle hints that they were more than teammates and was actually shocked that fans guessed correctly. The big coming out story was scrapped for a passing mention that they were a couple in the last issue in the debut storyline. Both of these titles were introduced in the mid-2000s and were beloved because they relationships were well written and the characters were new, and in the case of Young Avengers, were not partnered with their namesake heroes (The gimmick was they were all legacy heroes that spun off from mainstream heroes, but not the obvious ones they built their identity around). Additionally, at the time, Dumbledore's sexuality had very little to do with the conflict of the book so Rowling saw no need to touch on the subject. Dumbledore was the wise and good mentor to the hero, who was surprisingly flawed. And discussing the flaws was hard for him or the people who respected him. But he was a good person despite the flaws... but during that time, who he loved was not a subject that the story needed.
In the case of Dumbledore, the initial announcement came after all the books were released and the initial controversy wasn't that Dumbledore was gay, but the way he was outed was such that it felt like Rowling was trying to draw some media attention to a franchise that the public saw as concluded by doing so. It died down a bit when it came out that Rowling had, on a few occasions, outed Dumbledore in quieter ways (The fourth or fifth film, which was released on DVD by this point) was going to have Dumbledore muse fondly about a girl he loved when he was a school boy, only for Rowling to veto the scene, telling the director Dumbledore is gay).
More recently, the Disney TV Show Owlhouse had a lesbian relationship between two main characters, but the show didn't open with the characters having any feelings towards each other and let the relationship bloom organically, and most of the story doesn't revolve around the characters being gay, as the world building and main conflict are always the center stage of the narrative.
It seems then that the most common denominator for acceptance is originality and organic nature of the LGBT characters. Don't have a gay character to have a token character... have the character exist to serve the story (Unless this is in the Romance genre, where the story is all about a relationship)... and being gay just happens to be part of who they are, not the selling feature.
The problem is that homosexuality is not a widespread aspect of society, since society is normally multigenerational, which requires predominantly heterosexual couples. So, a homosexual character is highly atypical, and consequently a story that features homosexual characters has to be doing so purposefully, it cannot be a part of the standard social milieu the story takes place within. That's why a homosexual story line will always come off as being created for its own sake and "pandering" rather than as part of the fabric of the story universe.
In order to make homosexuality come across as typical, the universe needs to be recreated where homosexuality can be typical, such as populated by immortal beings or asexual generation of beings. However, then the problem gets pushed up a level and becomes even more pronounced, because the entirety of reality now needs to diverge from everyday reality just for the sake of a homosexual story line, which is definitely not organic. Plus, if sexuality is no longer necessary for the creation of beings, it raises the question why sexuality even exists in the universe.