Today’s post comes as an answer to @philcooper who was wondering if there were any guides to writing trans and non-binary characters, especially not turning them into a token.
Okay, so to understand where we’re going with this, we need to have an understanding of what gender IS. To make this more simple, think of gender like a line here:
We have feminine on one side, and masculine on the other. Think of this line when you’re writing characters that fall in what we call the “gender binary”. Binary meaning two- male or female.
So you might have a character that is one one side or the other. Or you might have a character that is more like this:
Or like this:
Thinking of gender less as a black and white and more like shades of grey is going to be the biggest step that you can take.
Also, we need to understand here that sex is NOT gender. Someone may have a penis but be a woman, or a vagina and be male. Gender is not the body, it is the mind (or spirit, if you will).
When we say “transgender” what we mean is someone who was born a certain sex (male, female, intersex, or other, if we’re writing fantasy) but who does not identify with that binary gender. So, for example, you might have a character that was born with male sex (in the trans community, a term that is often used is “assigned (sex) at birth”) but who is female or feminine.
When writing characters like this, it is very important to understand that transgender people were not, for example, “born a girl but turned into a man”- this person is who they have always been. This is why I like terms like “assigned female/male at birth”- they put it on those around us to have gendered us incorrectly. If a transwoman transitions, she is and always has been a woman- she just needed to adjust her body.
Transition for most individuals is both physical and social. When we speak of transition, it can encompass many things- from taking hormones and undergoing surgery to change the body, to being “out” and expressing correct gender to family, coworkers, and friends, to changing names and legal documents to express correct gender. Some transgender people do all surgery, some only do some. Same take hormones, some never do. Some are only “out” in certain places. It depends on each person.
After transition, some have the goal of living as their gender, without anyone knowing they are any different from a cisgender (that is, someone who agrees with their assigned sex) individual. Some may not acknowledge their birth-assigned gender. Some people, however, remain open about their status as a transgender individual. It is completely up to the individual how they wish to live.
This is where you need to take into account your character’s society. For example, think of a Night Elf from World of Warcraft- they have a matriarchal society that places emphasis on a moon goddess. A transwoman (that is, someone assigned male at birth but whose gender is female), may be accepted by the priesthood and seen as being “chosen” by the goddess, for an example of a scenario where the society is favorable. It really depends on the world that you are writing in.
Okay, but what about growing up?
Think of things like this when writing your character- how did they act as a child? The most basic that we can think of would be a child of one assigned gender liking things of another gender or hanging out with peers of that gender they identify with. Did their parents and society support them?
The scary thing is that many of us transgender people face the fact that we can be disowned by our families for expressing our true genders. Some of us have freedom to be who we know we are, some have to deny their feelings for many years, some have to live fully as their assigned gender in order to survive.
The other fact that is, sometimes people enjoy things their assigned gender is “supposed” to enjoy. A transman might have grown up wearing frilly skirts and playing with dolls, and that’s fine, too. I really want to stress that gender is completely personal and unique to each person. Sure, you’ll fine some transmen that like being extremely masculine, but you’ll also find some that love wearing dresses and makeup.
To truly write a trans character, you have to understand that nothing is inherently feminine or masculine. Society tells us it is, but it doesn’t mean that ONLY girls can like one thing and ONLY boys another.
That’s enough binary for now
It’s very true that even in our world today, plain old Earth, sex is not just defined by the male/female binary. Intersex people also exist- a good basic overview of what intersex is can be found [here].
But not even with just sex, there are non-binary genders. Generally found under the “genderqueer” umbrella, there is where you find people who fall “between” two genders- or maybe they don’t feel they have a gender at all!
Common non-binary genders include:
Queer- a “catch-all” term, can include people who lean toward one area of the binary but don’t feel that it truly defines them
Genderfluid- someone whose gender identity and presentation fluctuate between male and female and neither and both
Bigender- someone who feels both male AND female.
Agender- someone who feels neither!
There are many more than this, and you can find them with q quick Google search.
Something important to note is what when writing a non-binary character, you will need to settle on pronouns to use for this character! A singular “they” is usually the easiest for most people, but you may find other queer pronouns useful.
Putting it together to write/RP
Okay, we have the basics of how this works on Earth, but now let’s look at it from an RP perspective:
The first thing you have to do is develop your character. Please note that on my character questionnaires, gender isn’t considered until you have the groundwork for your character. Yes, it is essential to an individual’s identity and how they fit in society, but starting from that point is, for people inexperienced with writing these characters, a very easy way to sabotage your character and have their entire self be about being transgender.
You have to consider the genders present in the story. Are they binary? Is there a third gender? Only one gender? No genders? I very highly encourage people who are writing fantasy and sci-fi to think outside of the binary that we have on Earth. These are other worlds! Feel free to get creative and think a little about what would fit in with the society present! It may be helpful to look into how different cultures around the world see gender, even starting from as basic as this Wikipedia entry.
But most importantly, let your character have their own motivations. Let them have a full story. Don’t turn them into a stereotype- let them be an individual, and let them be a fully fleshed-out character, instead of one that just hangs in the background. I encourage this because it’s not nearly often enough that people like me get to be the hero. Dare to do something different!
Feel free to ask me any questions, and I hope this helps!