How to Write Trans Characters (Or at Least Some Decent Ideas on the Subject)

Ev holding his memoirFor the most part last week’s Emerging Writer’s Workshop in LA was a love fest of prose writers, faculty, and poets. We sang karaoke together, we gave supportive critiques of each other’s work, we grumbled about dining hall food in an unseasoned bonding moment. If the workshop was in part to help us network, we hit a grand slam of connectedness. There were a couple of struggles, however, and one of them involved talking about how to help cisgender people “write” trans characters. Not surprisingly, several of us got hung up on definitions and the inclusivity of a given category of gender identity (or even gender-related identity). It’s not that we didn’t work through these issues, and everyone did their best to tease out what their questions were exactly and where they were triggered, and so on, but I’d like to suggest some other ways folks can write about trans people without maybe getting too caught up on the differences between changing definitions. And with all due respect to Jacob Hale et al’s list of how to write on transgender issues, that is really a non-fiction list, and as such, not as helpful for the fiction writer (but writers should read it anyway).

Learn about transfolk and the tensions in the trans community—Yes, one should look over definition lists, asking critical questions about the assumptions that inform the definitions. For example, does the definition of “transvestite” include that it is largely viewed as an archaic and derogatory label? Does the definition of “drag king” limit it to cisgender women only, or is it inclusive of trans-identified men? Is there a discussion about the debate between people who see transsexualism as only a medical issue and those who argue all gender is socially constructed? These differences have a real effect on the ways in which trans people walk through the world, how they use language to describe themselves, and how they relate to others. If you are trying to represent them, then your trans characters should have some background (it may not ever be shown directly in the story) on how they understand themselves.

Minimize your defensiveness about being cisgender—This is a recent term, yes, and one that many people haven’t heard or don’t feel mastery at using. It simply marks people who identify with the sex assignment they received at birth, as opposed to those of us who have taken steps to identify somewhere along the spectrum, up to and including the other pole. If the term “cisgender” makes you feel uncomfortable, okay. Sit with that, suggests a loved one of mine. Feel what that is like, to have an infrastructure of gender placed upon you. Trans people feel that all the time (or at least a lot of the time). If you’re feeling defensive about your own label, chances are that will seep into your story.

Be aware of the stereotypes regarding trans people—There are too many moments to mention in popular culture showing trans women as sex workers, dead sex workers, alienated and/or suicidal, and just plain dead. It gives young trans women a terrible message, and frankly, it’s a trope and not real characterization. If you’re writing about a trans woman character, give her agency, connections to other people, a strong voice, layers of interest, and don’t make her just the horrible lifeless body in the room. We’ve seen enough of that. To a lesser extent in contemporary popular culture, trans men have been shown as sexists, as murderers, and as pathological or psychologically broken. We don’t need that, either. Just as conscientious writers should steer clear of stereotypes in their work in general (for one, it’s boring, and for two, it’s so problematic as to have readers back away from your work), so should you avoid trans-specific stereotypes and overused narratives.

Avoid trans as a metaphor, or metaphors for trans narratives that have been overused—As a trans person, I enthusiastically welcome seeing trans lives portrayed in a complex and honest way in fiction, especially fiction, given the audience. What I’m less excited about are story lines that use metamorphosis of some kind in place of a trans character, or that use something like keeping secrets as an alternative to creating a multi-layered trans-identified character in the work. It’s been done. And not only that, but it may be too subtle for trans youth who are desperate to see themselves in a book. I suggest having a main character be trans and through their lens, making their transition a part of the story or a major arc. If anyone wants to write a YA novel about a trans kid in the zombie apocalypse, I will buy it and read it and review it.

Read works by trans authors who tackle the subject, and identify what works about those stories—The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard, from Topside Press, has 28 stories in it that are great demonstrations of the concept of featuring trans characters. It won a Lammy. I’m not suggesting it because I’m in it, but because it cuts across genres. Read Nevada by Imogen Binnie. Read Seasonal Velocities by Ryka Aoki. Or Refuse by Elliot Deline. Or any non-workbook by Kate Bornstein. There are more transgender works out on the market all the time, so identify what makes them successful and as an added bonus, you’ll support those writers.

Remember that trans is not devoid of other intersections of power—What does it mean for a Black female-assigned person to transition to male? Or for a male-assigned person living in poverty, with little to no access to medical transition? There are more than enough stories about transfolk out there that simplify transition to some “standard”  narrative, when in reality, transition (if a trans-identified person selects to go through it) is something that happens in a specific time and place. There are other aspects of a trans person’s life that affect how that transition happens, how people respond to it, and what kinds of possibilities open up or close off during and afterward. There must be thousands of potential stories in those intersections of position, at least.

I will say again that I love reading all kinds of books. I love science fiction and historical fiction. I love magical realism. I love literary stories, and young adult, and cross-genre work. To see trans characters in any or all of these makes the reader in me giddy. To see trans characters depicted with as much nuance and conflict as any cisgender character, well, that may make me faint. Make me faint, writers.

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9 Comments on “How to Write Trans Characters (Or at Least Some Decent Ideas on the Subject)”

  1. Laura
    August 7, 2013 at 12:24 pm #

    This conversation has made me think so much and I’m very appreciative for it. From further conversation after Kyle’s workshop (including with you, Everett), my understanding about the history of the word “biological” became much clearer. However, I’ve heard the word “cisgender” spoken by a couple of transpeople with a tone of disdain (of course, I’m not placing this on all transpeople, but am interested by the commonality of my limited experience). I am all for finding language that is inclusive and have no problem identifying as cisgender or having a gender identity placed on me via language. My concern, though, is that “cisgender” is also developing a history that is not neutral, as its purpose was perhaps intended to be. Or, maybe, it’s not the word that denotes a negative connotation, but the feelings of the person speaking it. Just some thoughts that hopefully will encourage discussion.

  2. October 24, 2013 at 10:10 pm #

    Okay… now I really want to write a zombie apocalypse story about a badass trans girl who has to literally fight hordes of zombies in order to get her meds… and arises victorious… and then saves the world, in an awe-inspiring manner.

    *adds to pile of unwritten novels*

    Anyway, thanks for writing this. I agree that trans and queer kids need stories that give them hope, not stories that reduce them to a trite metaphor or a horrific death. I was on the NaNoWriMo forums earlier, on a thread for people doing YA novels with LGBT characters, and at least a fifth of the people on there were posting stories where queer and trans kids are getting abused by homophobic parents, committing suicide, dying slowly of disease… And the sad thing is I think a lot of straight/cis people think that the only way to accurately depict a trans or queer character is to have the character be helpless and doomed to an early death.

  3. Emily
    October 25, 2013 at 1:49 pm #

    I just have to say… I got the biggest shock reading this. Because I am, in fact, writing a YA novel about a trans* kid in the zombie apocalyse. I was planning to do it for a while now and I was just busy doing some research so as to not come off as a total transphobic douchebag when I saw this (because as a gay women, I know how annoying it is to get excited about finally having some representation… and then having the representation be inaccurate, and boderline offensive).

    • evmaroon
      October 25, 2013 at 2:05 pm #

      Great minds…

  4. May 14, 2014 at 1:46 am #

    Reblogged this on bouncybreezy and commented:
    Food for thought. I’ve always wanted to read a book that had some trans* characters


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