Tropes to Avoid When Writing Genderfluid Characters
Welcome back to Queering the Narrative! This week, we’re rounding out our discussion on genderfluid characters by talking about some tropes you should be mindful of when writing genderfluid characters!
Many of these tropes might sound familiar — and that’s because there’s a decent amount of overlap between the tropes to avoid for non-binary and binary trans folx, which I’ve written about before. However, there are some versions of these tropes which are unique to writing genderfluid characters, and that’s what I’ll be focusing on today.
If you’re writing genderfluid characters, though, I recommend that you go and check out the tropes to avoid posts for trans and nonbinary people as well. You don’t want to stumble into any of those, either!
Genderfluidity is rarely flipping between two simple options, especially binary options (ie, man and woman). A lot of authors with static or binary genders seem unable to conceptualize this, and so think genderfluidity means “sometimes a boy, sometimes a girl.”
But, as I’ve said previously, genderfluid people usually experience more ebbs and flows with their genders. There aren’t always hard lines or easy delineations between the different genders a genderfluid person might experience! As something which is rarely correct but also seems to pervade a lot of popular portrayals and understanding of genderfluid folx, this is definitely a trope to be avoided when writing genderfluid characters.
Many characters who are explicitly genderfluid — or who are assumed to be based on their abilities or characterization — use their variable expression to confound their adversaries. These shapeshifters or cunning spies can go incognito as whatever gender or persona they’d like, and only the cleverest of characters will recognize them.
This isn’t an inherently negative character trait — the spy or trickster archetype is a popular one, and there are ways to execute this trope which play to the character’s strengths and endear them to the audience (such as with Double Trouble from Netflix’s She-Ra). However, it’s important to bear in mind the message that you’re sending when writing genderfluid characters like this. It’s easy to slip into painting genderfluidity as an identity as duplicitous, which can then lead people to think that genderfluid individuals in real life are trying to deceive them. Gender expansive folx aren’t trying to trick anyone — we’re just trying to live authentically!
Focus on Assigned Gender
This is the “but what are you really?” question, and it’s a bad one. Do not ask it, and do not imply that characters in your narrative are in the right for asking it.
Gender expansive folx do not owe anyone information about the gender they were assigned at birth — and they certainly don’t have to tell people details about their anatomy. This is extremely common in fiction about genderfluid individuals — a driving mystery in their narratives becomes “what’s in their pants,” often so that the male protagonist can wrestle over whether or not it’s gay to want to sleep with them.
This is a bad trope. Don’t do it. And if you’re going to portray it in a negative way to try and demonstrate that it’s bad, know that it can be triggering or traumatic for a genderfluid, nonbinary, or even binary trans person to read. If you yourself are a part of this community, have experience with this in real life, and want to share your story, then by all means go for it. We need your voice and people should hear your experiences. Otherwise, find a different motivation for your character’s gay panic (or, better yet, don’t do that).
Gender is so intrinsic to so many peoples’ personalities that a lot of folx can’t even conceptualize what it would be like for that identity to shift. The only way they’re able to understand this is by having their genderfluid characters have multiple distinct personas which they move between, each with different names, pronouns, personalities, and sometimes even goals or desires.
This isn’t a genderfluid person’s experience. At their core, a genderfluid person is always themself, and their core personality doesn’t change. Experiencing different genders may bring out certain aspects of their personality — on more masc days they might be more assertive, for example — but those traits are always a part of them.
Some genderfluid folx also want to use different names or pronouns depending on the gender they’re experiencing, but this does not mean that they’re a different person. It just means that certain words fit best with their internal experience that day
This trope often plays into the Light Switching and Duplicitousness tropes. It’s also sometimes linked to mental health disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or DID. Don’t imply that any gender identity is caused by some sort of mental health disorder (neurogenders notwithstanding — I’ll get to those in a later post, don’t worry). Gender expansive folx are still facing discrimination based on this idea, and it’s not a cool thing to perpetuate in fiction.
This one’s rare, but it does happen and is again based on a very static understanding of gender. It plays out as a genderfluid character starting out insecure, but by the end of the arc coming to terms with themself… by settling into their “true” identity or persona. This is common in shapeshifter narratives, but can also be a “who are you really?” type story in a spy or coming-of-age narrative.
If you’re writing genderfluid characters, the end result of their storyline should not be that they cease to be genderfluid. That implies that genderfluidity is a negative or temporary character trait that your character needs to grow out of, and that’s not cool! Genderfluid characters should be allowed to embrace their fluidity and the beauty of their variable expression, not be forced into being one “right way” at all times.
That’s it for this week! Once again, this is not an exhaustive list of negative tropes you might stumble into when writing genderfluid characters, just the ones most specific to that identity. I highly recommend you go and read my “Tropes to Avoid” posts about trans and non-binary folx before you dive into writing genderfluid characters, because a lot of those tropes apply to genderfluid people as well!
Until next time stay safe, stay healthy, and keep writing!