Queering the Narrative: Introducing Trans Characters

Introducing Trans Characters

Welcome to Queering the Narrative, a writing blog about how to respectfully utilize LGBTQIA+ characters in your fiction! I’m Josie, a queer trans lady and lifelong author. For my first article, I’m going to touch on something near and dear to my heart: Introducing Trans Characters

I genuinely wish that we lived in a time when subtle references to transgender characters could fly — like a character saying, “Orlando was a formative reading experience,” or, “Whoops almost forgot my hormones”. But really, we just aren’t there yet — implications and after-the-fact attestations don’t cut it. If you have a trans character, you need to be explicit about their identity or it doesn’t count.

As a note, this doesn’t have to happen when you introduce the character — it might not be revealed that a character is trans until the other characters (or the reader) get to know them better. This is perfectly fine, but try to make sure that you introduce their gender identity early enough that readers can understand how it affects the rest of their arc.

So, how do you make that introduction? There are a variety of ways, ranging from subtle to, well, insulting. In this post, I’ll be exploring some of the best and worst methods for introducing trans characters.

The best way to introduce trans characters

When you’re introducing trans characters, there is one extremely important thing that I want you to keep in mind: being transgender is not inherently traumatic.

What I mean by this is that it’s perfectly reasonable for your character to simply come out to another character! This doesn’t have to be a big dramatic scene, or be connected to some sort of distress that your character is facing. It can simply be something they want the other character to know!

In my opinion, the absolute best way to introduce a character’s trans-ness is to let them come out to another character. This lets your trans character retain agency over their identity, as opposed to being outed.

Excerpt from Questionable Content 4187: When it comes up.
An amazing example of a trans character informing a cis character of her identity. Questionable Content #4187: When It Comes Up.

Unless your cis character has an arc in which they learn to respect trans folk, their reaction to your character coming out to them should be neutral. The best reaction is a minimal reaction, like in the Questionable Content strip above.

If your cis character is surprised by the “revelation”, this should almost always be played as a learning opportunity.  If their reaction is something along the lines of “I never would have guessed!”, they should be informed that while that reaction may seem flattering, it’s actually still problematic. It’s also a good chance to point out the whole “you’ve definitely met a trans person before” fact that so many cis folk are unaware of.

They may also be thankful for the trust your trans character has in them, which can either be played as an emotional moment or a learning experience! Overall though, if the book you’re writing doesn’t focus on the “trans experience”, then a completely casual exchange is by far the best approach.

Iffy ways of introducing trans characters 

These can be effective, but that’s most often because a trans person wrote them authentically by drawing on their own experiences. If you want to utilize these but haven’t experienced them yourself, make sure you get a sensitivity reader. 

Being outed

If a person confides in you that they are trans (or any variety of queer), then it is not your place to share that information with anyone. The only way it might be acceptable for a character to do this is if it’s eventually made clear that the person doing the outing was being extremely uncool.

References to variations in “standard routines” (i.e. binding, hormones, etc)

Honestly, this is one of my go-tos for introducing a trans woman, but that’s because I know from my own experiences how my day-to-day life is different from a cis person’s. Note that these will almost always come across as hints — you will eventually have to be explicit about your character’s identity.

This is unfortunately also a favorite of many cis authors who have written subpar books about trans folks. If you’re going to go this route, please do your research. The world doesn’t need more binding-with-ace-bandages narratives.

Physical appearance/“tells”

These things are not necessarily bad ways to introduce a trans character, but they are very risky. It doesn’t take much to stumble into transphobic cliches or tropes. Note that, like the option above, these serve more as hints than confirmation, so you will have to get explicit with your character’s identity later on.

If you want an example of this done well, consider N.K. Jemisin’s character Tonkee in The Fifth Season. After being on the road for a while, the narrator makes the following observation:

“She’s run out of something in the past few days, some biomest potion she keeps in her pack and tries not to let you see her drinking even though you don’t care, and she’s been sprouting beard stubble every few days because of the lack.”

— N.K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season

This scene works well to signal that Tonkee is trans because the narrator doesn’t actually care that Tonkee is trans. This helps it feel like even though the narrator can tell Tonkee is trans, it’s no more important or shocking then any of her other character traits.

References to dysphoria/misgendering

These are experiences that are incredibly difficult to describe if you haven’t endured them, and may even be wrong for the tone of your story. Remember that many trans folks deal with these issues daily — if you’re trying to write a feel-good or escapist book, featuring these things up front may make it difficult for a trans reader to lose themselves in your story.

However, if you’re trying to write a book that showcases the difficulties of the transgender experience, it could be reasonable to introduce your character’s gender in the context of their daily struggles. Just remember that this has been done many times before, and unless you’re bringing a fresh look — by, say, being a trans person — you might want to consider why you feel the need to write this sort of story.

References to deadnames

For many trans folks, deadnames can be an immense source of distress. A reference to a deadname is one of the most common ways in fiction to signal that a character is trans, especially if they aren’t out. These sorts of references to a “past life” can be effective, but are less so if your trans character is already out when your story starts. If their old name has no bearing on the story you’re telling, there are better ways to introduce their gender identity.

Bad ways of introducing trans characters

These are some examples of ways that you probably shouldn’t introduce a trans character. That doesn’t mean they can’t be somehow featured in your story, but if one of these is the only way that you can think to show your character is trans, you may want to reconsider the type of story you’re writing. 

Slurs and transphobia

Depictions of hatred against trans folks can easily make trans readers uncomfortable, especially if it’s how they’re introduced to the character’s gender identity. These can be a harsh reminder of the hatred that they have experienced in their real lives. You shouldn’t reveal that a character is trans by having them get called the t-slur, or getting called a man by some terf. There are far kinder ways to introduce someone’s gender identity, even in grittier stories.

Fixation on genitals and sex

At this point, every cis person should know that it’s rude to ask a trans person about their genitals. In the same vein, it is almost always transphobic to have a trans person be outed by their genital configuration, especially if it comes about as a surprise to a potential sexual partner. This is a tired, transphobic trope, and if the only way you can think to showcase a trans character is something akin to a PornHub subcategory, then you really need to reevaluate.

Similarly, introducing a trans character’s identity through the lens of some cis character freaking out about their attraction to the trans character is also tired and transphobic. The only way this might be okay is if you’re setting up a character to learn how and why this reaction was problematic — but you’re going to have to walk that Gay Panic line extremely carefully.

Note: Technically, the first implication that Tonkee in The Fifth Season is trans comes in the form of the narrator noting that she has a penis. This happens on Tonkee’s terms, is not hyper-sexualized, and the narrator does not fixate on it. I mention it only to point out that though you should approach this with extreme caution, a very talented and respectful writer can use this even if they’re cis. But you’re probably not N.K. Jemisin, so tread cautiously.

Final Thoughts

When introducing trans characters, it’s important to remember the intention of your story, your audience, and what you can authentically represent. Introducing trans characters doesn’t always have to revolve around distress or trauma. If you aren’t writing a book that is meant to examine the struggles of the transgender experience, be sure that the introduction to your character’s gender identity is a kind one. You don’t want the people you’re trying to represent to be turned off from your story at the word go!

If your story is meant to illustrate struggles faced by trans folk, then it might be appropriate to give their identity a slightly more uncomfortable introduction. If you want to go this route, please keep in mind that you are writing about people who really experience these things, and that many of these books have already been written. It would take a very well-written book to convince me that we need to hear more about this from a cis person.

Until next time, Cheers!

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