Introducing Nonbinary Characters
It’s time for another Queering the Narrative! This week’s discussion will focus on introducing nonbinary characters
It’s important to note that while Nonbinary is an umbrella term that falls partially under the “transgender” umbrella, and they are seen publicly and in media as another branch of the trans community, not all nonbinary people identify as trans. Introducing nonbinary characters is, in fact, distinct from introducing trans characters. You can certainly utilize my post on Introducing Trans Characters for SOME nonbinary folks, but these things are not universal!
For this post, I will be using “nonbinary” to refer to the entire umbrella outside the binary. Later on I’ll likely come back to discuss more specific identities.
Bad Ways of Introducing Nonbinary Characters
Want to introduce a nonbinary character in your story but not sure how? These are the tropes to definitely avoid!
A robot expresses puzzlement at gender. A celestial being proclaims it is above the pettiness of the binary. A demon flaunts gender roles in favor of hedonism.
The unifying factor for these creatures is that they are inhuman, not that they are nonbinary — in fact, their “unusual” take on gender (or lack thereof) is precisely what is used to illustrate their inhumanity!
It feels weird to have to say that nonbinary folks are human, but sometimes people need reminding. The binary genders feel so integral to our lives that many people forget that real humans identify outside of them.
If you REALLY want to use an other-worldly being, and think it makes sense for them to be baffled by gender as a concept, be cautious. Make some other factor the primary illustration of their difference from humanity. And, just to be safe, make sure that you have another nonbinary character to contrast with that creature — that way it’s easier to illustrate that the creature’s gender isn’t what makes it strange!
See my post on introducing trans characters. Avoid making your nonbinary character’s genitals the focus of their identity. It’s extremely far outside the point and, frankly, rude.
Iffy ways of introducing nonbinary characters
Introducing nonbinary characters using these methods works best if you yourself are nonbinary, and therefore can draw on your lived experience. Otherwise, please use a sensitivity reader.
As, you know, people, queer folks love jokes. Memes like the one above are popular among nonbinary communities, especially those that do not consider themselves a particular gender.
If you’re nonbinary and want to use the your character’s introduction to poke fun at the general confusion binary people have with your identity, great! If you’d like to do the same thing as a binary person, though, check with a sensitivity reader. What you may think is just a joke could actually be playing into a harmful trope.
IMPORTANT NOTE: “So there’s more than one Sam?” Is a problematic joke that binary people make about folks that use they/them, which is common both in media and in real life. Please avoid it, or be sure someone (preferably not the nonbinary character) explains why it is harmful.
See my post on introducing trans characters — with the caveat that this does not apply to all nonbinary people! Not all nonbinary people experience dysphoria or use nonbinary pronouns, and so don’t have this experience. Do your research!
Not every nonbinary person can be the perfect androgynous shapeshifter that the media wants nonbinary people to be. Things that you think signal that someone is nonbinary may actually just be tropes/stereotypes of how society wants nonbinary people to be. These may not be actively harmful, but be aware that (like everyone else), nonbinary folks come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. There is no “one size fits all” that will signal to your reader that, yes, this character is nonbinary.
Good ways of introducing nonbinary characters
These are ways that your can introduce a nonbinary character’s identity almost every time without having to worry too much. Yay!
Just let your characters come out to each other! This gives your characters agency over their identities! It’s good! This can be a casual moment (as I’ve mentioned in previous posts) or a more emotionally involved one.
If you’ve never come out (or considered coming out) as nonbinary, then I would tread cautiously with this, especially if you want it to be more emotional. In the future I plan to write about how to write coming out scenes, but even if you consult those and other sources, you should use a sensitivity reader.
Using nonbinary pronouns
When introducing nonbinary characters, perhaps the easiest method is to utilize a nonbinary pronoun such as they/them, ze/zim, or ae/aer. As you should always be gendering your characters correctly in your narrative anyway, this is an effective up-front way to show your reader that your character is nonbinary.
Note that they/them can be challenging to write with, as the pronoun’s antecedent can be lost in larger group scenes and lead to confusion for your reader. Similarly, neopronouns such as ze/zim and ae/aer, are not widely recognizable which can make it difficult to pin down their correct conjugations. Also, not all nonbinary people use nonbinary pronouns. Many nonbinary folks use the pronouns that they were assigned at birth, or are comfortable with a variety of pronouns.
Keeping these limitations in mind is important, but hardly mean that you shouldn’t utilize nonbinary pronouns. Even if it can be difficult, the only way that they’re going to get normalized is if they’re used. You should be putting in the legwork to understand the ins and outs of these pronouns and using them, to lay the groundwork for it to become easier in the future!
The Friend Defense
Unfortunately, we still live in an age when nonbinary gender identities are poorly understood in society. This means that sometimes, a nonbinary person’s ally must come to their friend’s defense.
The Paranatural comic strip above is a good example of this situation played out well. The character that misgendered RJ apologized when RJ’s friend corrected him for using the wrong pronoun. RJ’s friend then took on the burden of actually explaining what that meant.
The primary thing here is to make sure that the burden of explaining themself does not fall on the queer person. As the author, it’s your responsibility to understand the character’s identity well enough to both explain their identity respectfully AND protect and love all our nonbinary friends. Do your research!
When introducing nonbinary characters, just treat them with all the respect and love that you would any other character. If you do that and do your research, then your reader’s introduction to your character’s nonbinary identity will be both authentic and respectful!