Queering the Narrative: Writing Trans Characters

Writing Trans Characters

Welcome to another installment of Queering the Narrative! This week we’ll be having a discussion about writing trans characters.

Transgender characters are immensely uncommon outside of fiction that focuses on issues such as transition, dysphoria, and transphobia. While these are important narratives for the world to see, it can also be tiring to only ever read about people like you being sad or brutalized, even when the narratives have a happy ending.

If you aren’t part of the trans community, I would argue that you shouldn’t write a story that solely focuses on our struggles — you simply can’t understand them the way an #OwnVoices author could, and can easily trip and fall into distressing topics that you aren’t actually equipped to write.

This does NOT, however, mean that you can’t write trans characters! They can exist in your narrative as either main or secondary characters, without their gender identity (or, at least, their struggles therein) being the entire focus of their plot line!

Writing trans characters that are believable, respectful, and authentic can be difficult without a breadth of knowledge about their experiences. We’ll be talking about some important groundwork you’ll need to write happy trans characters that your trans readers will fall in love with!

What does “transgender” mean?

Transgender is generally considered an umbrella term for “a person whose gender identity does not align with the gender they were assigned at birth.” When most people think of trans folks, they think of binary trans folks — trans men and trans women

If you aren’t familiar with the terminology, a trans woman is someone who was assigned male at birth (“amab”) but whose gender identity is woman. A trans man is the reverse, having been assigned female at birth (“afab”) but whose gender identity is man. Sometimes these folx refer to themselves as “Female to Male” (ftm) or “Male to Female” (mtf), but many trans folks don’t think of their identities as directional — they simply feel they are and always have been the gender they identify as.

Importantly, a trans woman is NOT someone who was born a woman and transitioned; this is a common misconception based on sex-first descriptors. I am a trans woman, as I identify as a woman despite being amab.

The term “transgender” can also refer to a whole spectrum of gender expansive identities, including many individuals outside the gender binary — though, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, not all such folx identify as transgender.

What’s it like to be trans?

For generations, trans people have been portrayed as mentally ill, deviant, or otherwise wrong in popular media. This has led to a lot of negative and/or harmful portrayals of trans folx by cisgender people. 

The trans pride symbol atop the trans pride flag.
The transgender symbol over the trans pride flag

For many, the true trans experience is a combination of misalignment and extreme satisfaction once that is resolved, dissonance followed by glorious harmony.

That feeling of wrongness that so many people think of when they hear the word trans is what you often feel before you realize this truth. It doesn’t have to be acute all-encompassing — it can simply be dissatisfaction, or a realization that something feels more right than anything has before. This dissonance exists until you realize your truth, and then it feels like when a song hits that one beautiful chord that rocks your soul.

You then spend time doing what you can to pull the rest of your notes into alignment and discover more and more ways to express your true self until, finally, you are a harmony. The process of finding your inner harmony is your transition, and it can take years.

The trouble is often that, once you acknowledge your dissonance, it becomes even more painful to experience. And, when you do manage to pull yourself into a sort of harmony, someone misgendering you can remind you of what dissonance remains and shift your focus to the pain of that, rather than the satisfaction of alignment.

This is the experience that so much trans fiction focuses on — the distressing middle period, before you’ve found your harmony (or, at least, brought yourself to a point where the dissonance doesn’t really bother you anymore). However, there is so much space in fiction to create trans characters who are at peace with their identities.

External factors can — and will — affect your experience, and your journey toward achieving inner harmony. A lot of trans folks also experience depression and anxiety, which is often related to their dissonance. There are also people who will push against the idea of a trans person’s transition, deny their dissonance, and resist their efforts to resolve it. This can make the process even more painful and drawn out. Many trans folx, however, experience this in their daily lives, and don’t necessarily need to relive it in fiction!

Writing Trans Characters

A transgender character is not just their gender identity. Trans people have varied and nuanced experiences, and can be just as well-rounded and individual as a cis character. When writing trans characters, it’s important to think of them as people first. Though their experience as a trans person will shape them, it should not define them!

Often, people equate being trans to an intense internal distress, a feeling of wrongness. This feeling is called dysphoria, and is an integral part of many — but not all — trans peoples’ experience. I’ve talked about writing dysphoria before, as knowing about that topic is an important part of writing trans characters.

However, being transgender is not inherently traumatic or distressing. Experiences like dysphoria, misgendering, and rejection are common parts of the trans experience, but they don’t have to be your focus when writing trans characters. They can simply exist in the narrative, occasionally experiencing the negative aspects of their identity but keeping their overall arc focused on what they do in the story

You can also just eschew all the negative crap and just have your character be trans and be happy! There’s nothing wrong with using the word trans as a simple descriptive word like blonde or skinny!

Of course, there’s more to writing trans characters than can be covered in a single blog post. This discussion is lacking information about harmful tropes to avoid when writing trans characters — but, as we’re out of space for this week, that’s something that I’ll be addressing next week! Until then, stay safe, stay healthy, and keep writing!

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