Introducing Genderfluid Characters
Welcome back! Last week, we talked about the basics of writing genderfluid characters. This week, we’re going to go a bit deeper and talk about introducing genderfluid characters to your narrative!
Usually, I sort these methods of introductions into Good, Iffy, and Bad, based on a plethora of tropes that have been used over the years to signal a character’s gender identity and sexuality. Even thought these methods of introduction can be harmful, they’re often the only introductions writers have been exposed to, and so don’t scan as bad
Genderfluidity, however, is criminally underrepresented — like most identities under the nonbinary umbrella — and so a lot of the tropes I talk about below haven’t taken on distinctive good/bad roles yet. There’s good, bad, and iffy ways to do almost all the things listed below, so this week I’m going to shake it up a little and talk about the pros and cons of different methods of introducing genderfluid characters.
Like always, the best way of introducing genderfluid characters is by letting them come out.
If you’ve ever read my Art of Introductions posts before, you know the spiel: this method gives your characters the most agency over their own identity and avoids erasure by allowing them to say their identity out loud in the narrative.
When introducing genderfluid characters this could also involve the character explaining their gender identity. This is useful in sci-fi, fantasy, or historical fiction — where the term genderfluid might not fit — but you need to make sure that you have a thorough understanding of genderfluidity before you attempt it. That means reading beyond this blog!
Perhaps the most iconic form of introducing genderfluid characters is through the stock shapeshifter character in fantasy and science fiction.
Historically, this has sort of been de facto representation. The character is not explicitly genderfluid, but they are comfortable inhabiting both male and female forms, and their “default” form is ambiguously gendered, with Double-Trouble from She-Ra being a recent example (although they do explicitly use they/them pronouns).
There are a few potential problems here, though. First, genderfluid people are people. A lot of shapeshifters — like Envy from Full Metal Alchemist — are explicitly inhuman and often antagonistic, and usually portrayed as duplicitous or untrustworthy. Second, this often glosses over how these characters actually identify in favor of vaguely waving in their direction and saying “See! No gender!”
Shapeshifting, of course, also has a lot of positive potential. There is an intrinsic beauty and power in having complete control over your expression that is intriguing to gender expansive — and especially genderfluid — individuals.
The rule of thumb that I’d go by is to frame your character as shapeshifting because they’re genderfluid — not being genderfluid because they can shapeshift. In The Brilliant Death, for example, both the narrator and their companion are intrinsically genderfluid; their magic is simply a way for them to express that fluidity.
In a lot of fiction featuring genderfluid characters, their varying gender expressions are treated as either distinct unrecognizable personas or as disguises, often played as intentional; a spy with the uncanny ability to present as either gender to confound other agents, or a shapeshifter that assumes different forms to sow discord among their enemies. This paints the genderfluid individual as untrustworthy — and, in an environment so sparse for representation, that can be harmful to how people perceive genderfluid people in real life
This, however, is usually a misunderstanding of how genderfluidity works. Even if a genderfluid individual prefers different names and pronouns when they’re expressing as different genders, that genderfluid individual is always intrinsically themself.
It’s possible, of course, that someone in your narrative is simply unaccustomed to seeing someone’s gender presentation change, and so be briefly unable to recognize someone in an unfamiliar setting. Just make sure that you don’t portray the genderfluid character as being sneaky or intentionally duping people, make sure they are recognized at some point, and give them space in the narrative to own their own identity.
Introducing genderfluid characters by shifting around their pronouns can be effective, but it comes with its own set of challenges. English language speakers aren’t generally accustomed to easily swapping pronouns. Most people don’t even think about the pronouns they use (though they should). Because of this, you’ll probably have to explain why you’re using multiple pronoun sets for the same character, and make sure you’re carefully tracking your antecedents.
This isn’t a bad thing, though — it means you’ve got to be explicit with your character’s identity, thereby avoiding erasure! Yay!
If you’re going to utilize shifting pronouns, consider some examples of how you might execute this:
- > Different characters use different pronouns for the genderfluid character, a la The Fool from Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings
- > The character’s pronouns change within the narrative, as with Alex Fierro from Rick Riordan’s Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard
- > The genderfluid character has a set pronoun in the narrative, but other characters shift their pronouns depending on the genderfluid character’s expression
This method of introducing genderfluid characters involves portraying them as having a few distinct genders — usually, in this case, man and woman — which they flip between like one might flip a light switch. Symptoms of Bring Human is a book (written by a cis man and intended originally as a binary trans narrative) which takes this to the extreme, and I’ve never met a genderfluid individual who actually likes this style of representation. Some genderfluid individuals might experience their gender this way, but most of those I’ve talked to experience their gender as more of an ebb and flow.
This is perhaps the only method of introducing genderfluid characters on this list that I would call bad. A character waking up and saying “I’m a boy today” doesn’t quite scan as authentic — it’s how someone with a static gender might understand a fluid identity, only able to conceptualize gender as a yes or no question.
More authentic portrayals of genderfluidity — like A.R. Capetta’s The Brilliant Death — show the way a character’s identity shifts over time.
Not Revealing Assigned Gender
Though Symptoms of Being Human isn’t a great portrayal of a genderfluid individual — in addition to getting a lot of stuff flat-out wrong, the book also includes a lot of trauma — there is one thing it did right: the book never reveals the narrator’s assigned gender.
This isn’t so much a method of introducing genderfluid characters as it is a plug for something you might try to do in your fiction. The gender that a genderfluid individual was assigned at birth doesn’t have to be known. This can be a really cool way to counteract a lot of the essentialist understandings of gender.
That’s it for this week! Introducing genderfluid characters might not have as prolific a foundation as introducing other queer identities, but there’s still a lot of nuance to doing it well. Next week, I’ll be diving into some tropes to avoid when writing genderfluid characters — but until then stay safe, stay healthy, and keep writing!