Narrative versus non-Narrative Traits

Jennifer R. Povey
4 min readJan 2, 2020
Photo by Trent Erwin on Unsplash

“But why is he gay?” is a question that far too many readers ask, never asking the converse of “Why is he straight?”

One of the issues with diversity is that historically, characters have often only been something other than a cis, straight, white, able-bodied man (or man equivalent) when there was some story reason for them to be so. Buffy is a woman because people don’t take cheerleaders seriously (more so in the movie). A character is gay because it’s a romance. A character is Black so they can be from the hood (ignoring the Black people who aren’t from the hood and the white people who are). Or the only Black characters are from Africa, I’m looking at you Marvel (not true any more, but there was a point…)

So, I wanted to talk a bit about a concept that I’ve been working on: Narrative versus non-narrative traits.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

What is a Narrative Trait?

A narrative trait is a character trait without which the story would not work. For example, if you need a character to have a child they don’t know about, they need to be a man who at least somewhat prefers women. Or at least have a penis. It’s rather hard to be pregnant and give birth without knowing. The first part sure, happens all the time.

Another example is obviously gay and lesbian romance. The narrative trait is essential to the story and there’s a quick answer to that initial question of “why.” Alternatively, a narrative trait may be essential to a point the author is making. “Girls can do this too.”

What is a non-Narrative Trait?

A non-narrative trait is one which does not have any impact on the story. A character is gay but they are never seen with a romantic relationship. A character is disabled, but it doesn’t have any effect on what they have to do in the story. The basic answer to “why” is “because I felt like it.”

In short, a narrative trait is a plot choice. A non-narrative trait is an aesthetic choice.

Jennifer R. Povey

I write about fantasy, science fiction and horror, LGBT issues, travel, and social issues.