Writing Genderfluid Characters
Welcome back to Queering the Narrative!
Previously on this blog, I’ve talked about writing characters outside the gender binary. While that’s a great general guide, it’s also a massive umbrella with dozens of distinct and unique identities beneath it! I’d like to start focusing in on some more specific non-binary gender identities, so today we’ll be discussing writing genderfluid characters!
What does genderfluid mean?
Genderfluid (sometimes spelled gender-fluid) refers to a “gender identity or gender expression that’s not fixed and is capable of changing over time.”
The key point here is that a genderfluid individual’s gender is not static — it can shift or move in response to a whole host of internal or external. A genderfluid person’s gender identity or expression can also shift without any apparent cause — it’s a deeply personal and internally-held feeling, not a scientific principle!
Notably, genderfluid does not necessarily mean that a person vacillates between man and woman. In addition to those two, genderfluid folx might experience any gender identity — they might shift into feeling a neutral gender, no gender, a combination of genders, or a gender outside how we as a society perceive the concept!
When writing genderfluid characters, try not to get too caught up on “what gender is my character today.” Rather, think of their gender like the tide or the phases of the moon. You can’t always see the change happening, and maybe you won’t be able to say exactly when it changed, but something is definitely different now!
What’s it like to be genderfluid?
“I’d often felt I didn’t fit inside the boundaries of the word girl. It reminded me of a country I could happily visit, but the longer I stayed, the more I knew I couldn’t live there all the time.”
— Amy Rose Capetta, The Brilliant Death
Writing genderfluid characters can be daunting to those of use with static gender identities, because nonstatic genders can be hard to conceptualize.
Start off by acknowledging that static gender is the norm in our society — so much so that people are largely still expected to hold onto the gender they were assigned on the day they were born! And, beyond that, there’s a lot of pressure for trans and non-binary individuals to “choose” a gender and settle into it forever. Divest yourself of the notion that all gender is intrinsic and perfectly static, even if that’s true for you. It’s not a universal experience!
Genderfluid folx don’t have set-in-stone perceptions of their own genders. To many genderfluid folx, gender is a thing to be interacted with, like a form of self-expression or a reaction to a given situation. A genderfluid individual’s gender may feel one way if they are alone, another way with their friends, and yet another way with their family.
Gender can also shift and change without any such outside forces. It can move beneath a genderfluid person’s feet, guiding them in a dance they don’t always know the steps to. This can be challenging when someone is first coming to terms with their gender, but eventually they fall into a rhythm and find a certain beautiful resonance with their expression and identity. The melody, of course, can always change, and that can be jarring — but with the proper support and understanding, a genderfluid individual can shift and improvise until they again determine the steps.
No matter what, though, these pieces of someone’s gender are always within them already, even if they haven’t ever manifested before. Though there is no static certainty to a genderfluid person’s identity or expression, there is intrinsic truth and authenticity to what they are experiencing.
When writing genderfluid characters, it’s important to understand that there’s no “correct” way to be genderfluid. Genderfluidity bucks the conception that static gender is intrinsic to the human experience, and writing genderfluid characters requires that you rid yourself of that conception as well.
Writing Genderfluid Characters
Writing genderfluid characters can be a challenge for us static gendered folx, but it certainly isn’t impossible.
Make sure that you aren’t thinking of your character’s gender as a lightswitch — or, really, even as a dimmer switch. Genderfluid folx aren’t confined to a simple sliding scale between man and woman, with neutral tucked comfortably in between, and they certainly don’t just flick back and forth between the two binary genders!
I mean — some might. Like I said, there’s no wrong way to be genderfluid. Most of the genderfluid folx I’ve talked to, though, find this to be a pretty reductive way of writing genderfluid characters.
Also, don’t get too hung up on pronouns. Especially in writing, switching around pronouns for a character can get confusing. That’s not to say it can’t be done — A.R. Capetta did an incredible job of it in The Brilliant Death, but it’s definitely not easy!
My recommendation would be for there to be a particular set of pronouns which your character uses, such as they/them, with the allowance for others to use different pronouns with their permission. This is the approach I tend to take in my own fiction. You could also make it so that different characters know the genderfluid person by different genders — like Robin Hobb did with The Fool in her Realm of the Elderlings series. His biological sex was never revealed, but he was known as a man by one set of characters, as a woman by another, and in later novels moves freely between them.
No matter what route you take, however, you’re probably going to have to have your character explain their gender identity at some point, so that the audience understands why you’ve made the choice to shift pronouns around. Or, alternatively, if you’ve decided to just stick with one gender neutral pronoun and shift around your character’s expression, you’ll need to make sure it’s clear that your character is genderfluid rather than some other vaguely defined non-binary gender identity.
If you’ve got a static gender, writing genderfluid characters requires that you reevaluate how you perceive gender itself. Divest yourself of the idea that gender is inherently static, or that everyone experiences their gender in the same way you do, and you’re already off to a good start!
That’s it for this week! I’ll be back next week to continue this discussion of writing genderfluid characters, but until then stay safe, stay healthy, and keep writing!