Today’s post is about writing transgender and non-binary characters. While researching this topic, I found that most trans writers and readers say the same thing: Treat trans characters like normal people!

Cheryl Morgan writes,

Quite simply, the most important thing cis people can do for the trans community right now is to accept us as fully human; not as something to be gawped at and whispered over, not as a clever metaphor with which to discuss gender, but as ordinary people just like you.

Constance Augusta Zaber writes,

[The] repetition of the same storyline that focuses on the pain and struggle of coming out allows cis people to ignore the realities of trans lives. By only telling stories about this one moment in our lives we end up erasing trans people who aren’t in the process of coming out and transitioning…Our lives continue after we transition and for most of us our lives continue to be trans lives. After coming out, our lives continue to have joys and struggles that are unique to our lives as trans people.

Katie writes,

What I want is to see trans* people and gender-queer people and asexual people and questioning people in the same sort of books we’re now seeing gay, lesbian and bisexual people in…I guess what I’m saying is I don’t feel like there’s much out there that represents me…it’s as if we don’t exist, and if we do, it’s as if we’re there to be made into victims or just portrayed in manner which involves negativity.

With that in mind, here’s a list of things to avoid when writing trans characters. I’ve taken these pointers from articles written by Ashley Rogers and Cheryl Morgan, so make sure you read their essays in full.

  • Don’t do shock reveals or write plots based around a trans person’s “deception” about their gender. Trans people aren’t trying to deceive anyone, and the idea that they are feeds into a transphobic narrative.
  • Avoid stories that focus on a trans person’s transition.
  • Don’t write trans characters who are victims/ suffering. Trans people lead normal, happy lives, just like everyone else.
  • Don’t require your trans characters at any point in your story to present as their birth gender. Their birth gender is not their “real” gender.

Things you should do:

  • Write trans characters who have complex, full lives that are not defined solely by their gender identity.
  • Reflect the diversity of the trans community. One way to do this is to write more than one trans character. Also, keep in mind that the experiences of trans men can be quite different from the experiences of trans women.
  • If you’re writing a fantasy novel or a story set in a non-Western culture, remember it doesn’t need to be transphobic! Many cultures throughout human history have been much more accepting of gender variance than modern Western society tends to be. (See this infographic published by UCLA.)

The above guidelines are also useful for writing non-binary, gender-fluid, or bi-gender characters, meaning characters who don’t identify as either male or female, who move between the two, or who consider themselves both male and female.

Cecil Wilde suggests writers ask themselves the following questions about their non-binary characters:

  • Are they out? To how many people? How have those people reacted?
  • How supportive are the people around them? Is their gender identity taken seriously? By who, and how many people?
  • Which change rooms and public toilets do they use? Will they risk arrest, assault or public confrontation?
  • What name(s) do they go by and how does this affect other people’s perception of them?
  • Have they transitioned? Socially? Medically? Could they find resources and support to do so? What does ‘transition’ mean to them?
  • What happens when they go to fill in a form that only offers ‘male’ and ‘female’ as options for gender?

Here are some more resources for writing post-binary characters, including options for non-binary pronouns:

Writing Non-Binary Characters: A Primer

Post-Binary Gender in SF Roundtable: Languages of Gender

Genderfluid Support: Pronoun Master List

Call to Action

This assignment is a variation of the last one. Review the gender of the characters in your work-in-progress. Now ask yourself what would happen if one or more of those characters were trans or non-binary. How does this affect the story? What biases does this bring up for you? What changes does it prompt, if any, and why?

In addition, I’d also encourage you to read some stories shared by members of the trans community, like the ones published in the Guardian a few months ago.

Thanks for reading. And please do share your comments!

Previous Posts

Intro: Improving Representation in Literature

January: Understanding Identity and Representation

February: Acknowledging (and Battling) Colonialism, Marginalization, and Erasure

March: Writing Race and Ethnicity

April: Writing Gender