A question I’m commonly asked is: how does one write a trans character? I also get asked this question in regards to writing gay, lesbian, or bisexual characters, and/or how to write a person of color. There is a lot of overlap in these questions since a person can have a variety of skin colors, and that same person can also be trans or cisgender as well as gay, lesbian, bi, asexual, or straight; therefore, some of the articles I will link offer excellent advice on writing people of different skin tones and ethnicity as well as different genders and sexualities.
In this primer, I will focus primarily on gender identity. I will provide some common definitions, how to worldbuild with trans characters in mind, things to keep in mind when designing a trans character, and steps you can follow when writing trans characters’ stories. I will also have a list of resources at the end of this article for further reading.
How to use the guide
Think about the setting of your story and the characters you wish to create. For writers whose settings are real locations in current or historical time periods of Earth, you may not need to go through the worldbuild section. Instead, you can research how gender is perceived and how people are treated within your chosen location and time period, then go straight to the Designing Your Character section. For example, if your setting is 1800s Ireland, then do some research to see what it was like for men and women in that time period, then go straight to the Designing Your Character section of this primer. If you are writing an alternate Earth history, then you may find the content of the worldbuild section helpful. If you are creating your own science fiction or fantasy universe, I highly recommend going through the entire primer and not skipping any section in order to assist you in deepening your understanding of your world and characters.
Important Things to Keep in Mind
Trans people are a diverse group, so I will cover a few of the most common gender identities. Trans women were assigned male at birth but are women. Trans men were assigned female at birth but are men. There are also non-binary people, who could be assigned either male or female at birth and may use various identifiers such as genderqueer, neutrois, agender, and others. Although some intersex people are trans, not all trans people are intersex. You can view the transgender language primer link I provided in the definitions section to read more about the various terms and identities.
The gender identity of a trans person is real, and it is important to respect their pronouns, to use their chosen name, and to not out them without their permission. When talking about transgender people before they transition, it is important to use their current pronouns unless specified otherwise by that individual; do not use the sex assigned at birth pronouns. Also, avoid the use of their “deadname,” which is the name they were given at birth but is not their chosen name. Even if discussing their life before transition, it is still better to not use their deadname unless they give permission. When writing the character’s story, seriously consider whether it is even necessary to provide the dead name ever. In most cases, it will not be relevant to the plot.
Why is this important? Because trans people exist, and representation really does matter. In this essay by a transgender woman, she discusses the power of representation and the tragic tropes people often use when writing transgender characters. Negative portrayals that show us as comedic relief or as a villain only serve to perpetuate the stereotype that we are not serious (or real) or that we are dangerous, which can also cause tremendous harm — trans people, due to discrimination and rejection of who they are by today’s society and sometimes their family and friends, already have high suicide rates and rates of being murdered for who they are. Negative portrayals can aggravate those rates by perpetuating harmful myths, which can lead to increased harassment, lack of acceptance, and other harmful behaviors perpetuated against trans people.
Tragic portrayals done respectfully can be important in showing how society treats trans people today and gather sympathy for trans people. However, in our current culture (in America where I live), most of the stories I see of trans folks are tragic portrayals. Having an overabundance of tragic portrayals is exhausting to a trans person, who already faces discrimination and injustice and makes it hard to hold out hope for positive change in society’s treatment of us. At this point, I am desperate to read anything but a tragic and/or negative portrayal, so that I can enjoy seeing a trans person flourish and thrive rather than wither and die.
Positive portrayals provide hope for the future and shows people that trans people can do awesome things too, where trans people are shown as human beings just like everyone else and that we are just as worthy of rights and respect as a cisgender person. It’s important to think about how we portray characters, especially if you wish to write a trans character respectfully. We often underestimate the influence literature, video games, movies, TV shows, and other media can have on our perceptions of others and ourselves.
This isn’t to say you can’t have trans people as villains, comedic relief, or have them experience great tragedy and/or death. But if that is the only portrayal of trans people you have in your stories, then there is a problem. Trans people can be heroes as well — diversity in representation such as providing balanced portrayals is also important. Let trans people be heroes, and let them experience interesting story lines that aren’t only about their gender identity. Think about all the diverse portrayals of straight, cisgender people, then consider how, with some alterations here and there, you could give a trans person similar diverse roles in stories.
Diversity can help to deepen your worlds and stories. Diversity can also provide you with more opportunities for conflict, character growth, and societal change, which can give you even more ideas for future stories. Writing diverse characters and diverse story arcs also challenges us to learn more about people not like us; this can increase our ability to emphasize with others, helps us reconcile diverse worldviews, become more accepting of other people, and pushes us to challenge any biases we have that may be holding us back as writers and as people. Writing diverse characters can be a fun and interesting journey, but it will require you to do some research, but then as writers, we should all be used to research by now!
In order to start our journey, it is important to understand the terms we will be using. I have provided a short list of terms, but I included a resource for a more comprehensive list of terms that you may encounter as you research and explore the transgender community.
Definitions of Terms
Gender identity means a person’s internal sense of what their gender is. Some describe it as their brain’s gender. The person’s gender identity may or may not align with the sex assigned at birth.
Sexual orientation denotes who a person is attracted to. Gender identity and sexual orientation are not the same thing. A trans person can be any sexuality.
Sex assigned at birth means that at birth the doctor looked at the baby’s genitalia and labeled them as either male or female (rarely if ever is any other test used to determine sex). (Note: if the genitalia is ambiguous due to various Intersex conditions, the doctor may do surgery without permission to force the baby into either male or female. This is a common practice in America.)
Cisgender means people whose gender aligns with the sex assigned at birth, i.e., they are not trans.
Transgender means people whose gender does not align with the sex assigned at birth. This is often shortened to simply trans. A transgender person can be a woman, man, neither, or an third gender altogether. Trans people may or may not experience gender dysphoria, and they may or may not decide to physically and socially transition. Again, there is a lot of diversity within the trans community.
Non-binary denotes a person who does not identify within the male/female binary. Non-binary people fall under the transgender umbrella, although not all may identify with the term trans. See the Transgender Language Primer for definitions of various non-binary identities.
Gender Expression denotes the external appearance of one’s gender identity, usually expressed through behavior, clothing, haircut or voice. A person’s gender expression may or may not conform to society’s gender norms.
Transition denotes the process a person may undergo in order to align their body and/or their gender expression with their gender identity. Physical transition may or may not involve hormone therapy, various surgeries, and voice training. Social transition involves changing how a person expresses their gender and may or may not include changing their behavior, clothing, haircut, or voice.
Gender Norms denotes society’s rules, expectations, and roles that define for each gender a set of behaviors, gender expressions, characteristics, and roles. Norms often include how society enforces these roles, expectations, and rules.
Gender Roles denotes society’s expectations for each gender in regards to the familial, workplace, and social positions within society as well as the characteristics and traits society associates with each gender.
Socialization is a sociological term that refers “to the lifelong process of inheriting and disseminating norms, customs, values and ideologies, providing an individual with the skills and habits necessary for participating within their own society.” (Definition from wikipedia).
For a comprehensive list of terms and definitions, please see this lovely list: Transgender Language Primer
I have an extensive list of resources and articles I have written regarding worldbuilding. You can view that here. In this section, I will explore how gender can influence society (such as the culture of your country and/or planet). When you engage in worldbuilding and/or designing your characters, many different influences from society, language, and history can increase the complexity of your character’s journey, of how characters interact with each other, and of your plot lines. I have provided some questions for writers to consider:
- How many genders does your society and/or country have? Some cultures on Earth have up to five genders. In fact, biology is showing more and more that even humanity is not as simplistic as having just two sexes. Think of gender as your identity that is within your brain. Your sex is related to your biological make-up such as secondary sex characteristics or chromosomes; however, studies show that using sex to determine gender is not always reliable. Also, there is some evidence that one person could technically have cells with very different chromosomes. The point here is to show that even gender can be incredibly diverse.
- Is gender neutral pronouns common in your society? What types of pronouns does your society’s language have?
- As a side note: In American society, gender neutral pronouns are rare, but people are slowing changing the language over time by using gender neutral pronouns within written and spoken works/discussion. There are many languages in the world where there is multiple gender neutral pronouns or the language may not have any gendered pronouns at all. (Finnish is an example of a language that doesn’t have gendered pronouns (or nouns) like what we see in English.) Remember language also affects how people perceive others, and languages are not static. If a language doesn’t have gender neutral pronouns, this can change if enough people use gender-neutral pronouns, which is how languages evolve — folks changing how words are used over time.
- How does your society treat each gender? Is one considered “better” or “stronger” or “more intelligent” or “more simplistic” than the other? How is gender perceived and experienced within your culture? What are the gender roles? This leads into my next question about gender norms (rules or expectations enforced by society).
- Has the treatment of each gender changed over time? Was some genders treated differently in the past? How did that change over time?
- What rules and/or expectations does your society enforce for various genders? This can manifest in various ways (this list is just to get you started):
- What types of employment are accessible to what genders?
- In what ways are people of each gender typically presented in the media/entertainment, educational, and/or political discussions?
- How do people view the body (as in are there specific body parts that society labels is for one gender only?)
- How people view sex (as in how is consent taught? Is specific sex acts considered belonging to one gender only? Is one gender presented as more dominant in sex than the other genders?)
- What clothing is taboo (or allowed) for each gender?
- What types of physical or psychological characteristics are associated with each gender?
- How are people of certain genders treated in public?
- What actions a person of a specific is allowed to do in public and what is considered taboo?
- Is one gender considered better than another gender and how this power differential is enforced?
- If people transgress the gender norms, how does society punish them (if society punishes them at all)?
- (For example, in America, if a man (cisgender or trans) acts too feminine, other guys may beat him up, insult him, abuse him, and/or demote him until he acts the way society states a “man” should act. In some extreme cases, the man could be killed. Or if a woman (cisgender or trans) acts too manly in America, she can be dehumanized, abused, raped, verbally harassed, insulted, and/or demoted until she acts the way society states a “woman” should act. Again, in extreme cases, the woman could be killed. Also, note that this enforcement is even more harsh for trans people in America, especially if they do not “pass” as a cisgender person. Many trans people, especially non-passing and non-binary people, are often seen as “transgressing” the gender norms, and so they experience harassment, abuse, destruction of their property, loss of jobs or denied jobs, loss of or denied housing, loss of rights, unable to access public services, etc. In some cases, they may be driven to suicide or are murdered.)
When you think about gender norms and their enforcement, think about socialization. This can be a complex topic, so reading sociological theory on socialization may be useful. How we are socialized by society today may not be how people in the past were socialized, as socialization of norms is changeable over time. Think of it this way. You know how we are socialized to think pink is feminine and blue is masculine? At the end of the 1800s and early 1900s, blue was actually considered feminine. Things like this can change depending on time period and culture.
For example, in American culture, guys are supposed to be tough and show little emotion, and masculinity is associated with power, sexual prowess, and violence. Femininity in America is often associated with being overly emotional, not smart enough, weak, or bossy. However, in some societies on Earth, the masculine person is expected to show more emotion than the feminine person and their gender roles are polar opposite of how gender roles are perceived in America. These socialized perceptions and gender norms have an impact on how people are perceived and treated. And all of what I’ve discussed thus far? That’s all learned behaviors and perceptions. I bring this up because I want writers to think outside the box. To avoid having these biases and/or socialized perceptions color your world-building.
The Sociological Images page does a good job of breaking down how a society enforces and perpetuates its norms. Also see their “for instructors page” as it has a lot of good resources for learning more about sociology and societal norms.
Designing Your Characters
Now that you understand the backdrop of your world in regards to gender, think about your character and how they inhabit that space. By understanding the environment, space, history, and personality of your character, you can develop intriguing story lines that move beyond stereotypes. Although there is a time and place for stories about the act of transitioning, there’s also much to be said about giving your trans character different types of story-arcs. You don’t have to make their entire plot line about them being trans or about their transition. Remember, trans people are very diverse, exist in all sorts of professions, and there’s more to them than just their gender identity. Their gender identity is only one facet of who they are. Also, recognize that a trans person can be any sexuality — gender identity and a person’s sexuality are not the same thing, so a trans person can be straight, bisexual, gay, lesbian, asexual, or pansexual.
The following questions can help you better understand your character and the space around them, so when you write, you can include little details that add depth to their story-arcs and their interactions with other characters and societal systems.
- How does the character navigate their society? (Is there roadblocks that prevent them from accessing certain opportunities or areas of society? Are their laws that prohibit their movement or restrict their rights? Do they have laws that guarantee their rights? Is society accepting of them or not? How do they react to these things? What is their opinion on the state of society?)
- How does the character get through a day? (As in how to people respond to the character’s existence? Is it positive, negative, and/or neutral? Do they feel safe going about their day?)
- Does the character encounter discrimination? How do they deal with discrimination? (Is there legal recourse for them? Programs or resources to help them access healthcare, employment, education, basic needs requirements, etc…)
- What sort of movements exist that challenge the society’s gender norms? Or is your society accepting enough that there is no need for such movements? Is your character connected with such movements and what do they think of them?
- How does your character experience gender? Do they have dysphoria? Will they transition physically or socially? Or are there roadblocks that prevent their transition? How do they react to society’s view of people like them?
- What does your character like to do? Hobbies? Work?
- What is your character’s spirituality or belief system? How does that influence their behaviors and thoughts?
- What is your character’s worldview — how do they perceive their place in society? What do they feel about some of society’s laws or expectations? What sort of political theory to they adhere to?
- Where did your character grow up and what was their childhood like? How does events from their childhood influence them today? What lessons did they learn during their childhood in regards to life, society, and their view of themselves?
- What is their family like? How many siblings do they have? What are their parents like? Does their family accept their gender identity?
- What is your character’s sexuality? Have they dated anyone in the past, and if so, why did the relationship end? Are they interested in dating anyone? Are they in a relationship?
- If in a relationship, did your character marry the person or not? Why? Do they have kids? What are their kids like? Do they have any pets?
- Who are your character’s friends? Why did they choose those friends? How did they meet? How deep are the friendships?
- Is there anyone your character really dislikes? Why do they dislike them?
- What was their education like? What did they study? Why did they decide to study that particular subject(s)?
- What type of employment does the character have? Why did they choose to apply for that job? Or were they forced into that job due to societal norms or family pressure?
- What is a typical day in the life of your character? (Think of a day before the big events of your story changes their life forever.)
For a longer list of character questions, see this thread on Legendfire Writing Forums.
Do not be afraid to use gender-neutral pronouns if there are characters who are of a third or fourth gender (or no gender). You can even meld the gender neutral pronouns into the society of your character’s world by making it a commonplace and/or important to the culture. When integrated into the setting (world) and characters, gender neutral pronouns will seem essential and not jarring to readers. For example, in science fiction, writers will use a variety of techniques to denote people (or aliens) of genders outside of the male/female binary:
- Writers may use actual gender neutral pronouns such as ve/vir/vis (Alastair Reynolds has a character who uses these pronouns in one of his novels).
- Or they may use a pronoun native to the language of the character (common with stories that have aliens in it like the Xenogenesis trilogy, where the aliens denote their third gender as just ooloi, or in Julie Czerneda’s works where it is a word native to the alien language).
- Another approach involves writers using humanity’s tendency to stereotype and denote things by human’s norms. In this case, humans may decide to use only one pronoun for the entire alien species. (The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin does this, where the human observer denotes all of the people on Winter as “he.” Ann Leckie does this in Ancillary Justice, where humans denote everyone within the alien species as “she.”) As a caveat: this particular approach may be useful for aliens and human stories, but I find this approach to be limiting and somewhat troublesome when used for non-binary characters (human or not).
Writing the story
Writing the story can often seem daunting, especially to people who are uncertain if they can portray trans characters well. I’ll tackle the steps to take in a bit, but first let’s discuss ways of writing the story your characters inhabit.
Once you have designed your characters, be willing to place them in diverse roles within your stories. You can make them the hero, the antagonist, an important side character, or peripheral characters that influence the plot in minor ways. It only takes a sentence or two to establish that they are trans. This can be done through a conversation the characters have, how other people interact or react to your character (such as microaggressions), the character’s inner thoughts about society and what they experience, or through well-worded descriptive details. The best way to explore how to do this is by reading books that feature trans people. Or think about how trans people may discuss being trans to other people — sometimes it comes up naturally in conversation. I will include a list of books to try at the end of this primer for you to explore how others have written trans characters.
For an example, I will use myself. A few days ago, some friends were sharing experiences of harassment (namely cat-callers). As a trans person who was assigned female at birth, I have experiences with this from when I was not yet out and was still perceived as a woman by nearly everyone. Since I was with friends, I joined the conversation by saying, “I get that. Before I came out or even considered transition, I experienced that too. I remember this one time…” Another example was when I was with friends on a hot day. I made the comment: “Ugh, I hate that feeling of sweat inside the binder. I’m totally going to take a nice shower when I get home.” My friends then shared their own discomfort with the heat, we laughed about it, and the topic changed to something else. In both these instances, my sharing of my trans part of my identity was brief and not the focus, but in both instances I felt comfortable and safe enough to share my experience.
By reading and listening to trans people’s stories and experiences, you can compile all sorts of ways to slip in details that the character is trans, where it may or may not be crucial to the plot but it is another interesting detail that develops the character further.
Here is a wonderful example of a writer doing a good job in creating a trans character. In Dragon Age Inquistion, there is a character who is trans, and the main indicator is some dialogue where the character mentions that they bind. Here is a blog post of how the writers and developers of Dragon Age Inquistion researched the subject and implemented the character in a respectful way: Building a Character: Cremisius “Krem” Aclassi. This article also shows the steps involved in writing a trans character well:
- Research and lots of it. Best way to do this is to listen to the stories of trans people. Read about their lives and read stories by them. Read up on definitions and concepts pertaining to trans people and the issues they face.
- Look for roles trans people can have in your stories — try for diverse roles in a variety of professions, and try to avoid making their story-arc just about the fact they are trans. Trans people are just as interesting and complex as cisgender people. Trans people can be any profession, any sexuality, any ethnicity or race, any socioeconomic position. Diversify!
- After you write your story, look for beta readers who are trans, and ask for their critiques. Listen to their constructive feedback on how to improve, and don’t feel defeated or sad if their reaction is less than stellar. Learn from your mistakes, fix any errors, and keep doing your best to diversify your characters. The best way to write diverse characters is by trying, learning from the experience, and trying again when you mess up.
- Understand that no matter how hard you try, some folks will love what you write and other people may not. As long as you do your best to write trans characters respectfully, that’s what’s important.
Remember, you don’t have to be a trans person in order to include trans characters! Writing trans characters may seem hard at first, but I challenge you to try anyway. Realize that trans people are just like you, and by writing about them, you can not only better understand trans people but also grow as a person and a writer. If you have any questions or want to see certain sections covered in further detail, feel free to drop me a note, and I’ll see what I can do.
The Gender Book is a good 101 primer about trans people and issues they face. I highly recommend starting here.
An article published on SFWA that provides tips on writing characters of different races and/or ethnicities. A lot of the advice is applicable to trans characters as well.
Kat Blaque’s Advice on How to Write Transgender Characters (a YouTube video):
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D3fbvOX8Zh4 (I highly recommend this resource. Kat Blaque is a trans woman, who does a wonderful job offering tips on writing trans characters well.)
Lists of books with a trans protagonist:
- Young Adult Books: http://www.yalsa.ala.org/yals/trans-titles-for-young-adults-summer-2013/
- Top 10 Transgender authors with trans characters: http://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2016/feb/01/top-10-books-transgender-authors-trans-characters
- Young adult books with trans characters: http://diversityinya.tumblr.com/post/52791887670/ya-books-about-transgender-characters-there
- Young Adult books by trans people about trans people: http://www.malindalo.com/2013/10/ya-friendly-books-by-and-about-transgender-people/
- List of books from all sorts of genres that feature trans people or gender-bending characters: https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/1907.Best_Gender_Bending_Books
- List of science fiction and other speculative fiction featuring trans characters: https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/33634.Trans_Characters_in_Science_Fiction
- List of Science Fiction and Fantasy trans authors featuring trans characters: https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/93731.Trans_SFF_by_Trans_Authors_ownvoices