Writing Agender Characters
Welcome back to Queering the Narrative! This week, we’re getting back into our deep-dives into particular identities and talking about writing agender characters!
Agender is another identity which often falls under the trans and non-binary umbrellas, and so reading my posts on those two general categories can also be helpful for writing agender characters. However, agender is a distinct identity, and so there are certain things to keep in mind when writing agender characters!
What Does Agender Mean?
Agender can be understood as literally “without gender,” and generally refers to someone who does not experience a feeling of gender. However, there is no “right” way to be agender, and the label can mean different things to different people.
Some agender folx do not feel an intrinsic sense of gender, or else feel a distinct lack of a gender (sometimes a separate identity called nullgender). Others might simply feel that gender is not an important facet of their identity — they either don’t have an interest in defining it or would rather be defined by some other aspect of their personality. Folx also sometimes use the agender label to refer a neutral gender, but this is increasingly falling more under the 3rd-gender umbrella.
Agender folx can also exist along a spectrum. Some people feel only a partial connection to a particular gender identity, and may or may not feel that partial connection is an important aspect of their identity. This is usually referred to as demigender, with specific examples like demiboy and demigirl meaning someone who identifies partially as a man or woman, respectively.
Though demi folx can also identify as partially another gender, many feel that they have only a “partial” gender overall and therefore identify with aspects of the agender label as well.
What’s It Like to Be Agender?
For many of us, gender is an essential part of our understanding of ourselves. We use it to define our place in society and to inform others of how we want to be perceived and addressed.
Agender folx, however, don’t feel that sort of connection — or, at least, they don’t give it the same weight that gendered folx do. An agender person might feel that their gender is the least interesting thing about them, that they would rather be primarily defined as a person than as a particular gender. They may also just not experience that aspect of identity, because gender simply does not exist within them.
Gendered folx often have trouble conceptualizing this, since our gender is so essential to our perception of ourselves. It’s important to recognize that this experience is not a universal one. Not everyone has a gender — or at least, not one they consider particularly important!
Note, however, that this does not mean that an agender person doesn’t care about how they are perceived. An agender person may well care deeply about not being perceived as a particular gender, and feel invalidated if that aspect of their identity is not recognized by those around them. Alternatively, an agender individual who considers their gender unimportant might feel frustrated or misunderstood if those around them insist on using gendered language for them.
Writing Agender Characters
When writing agender characters, it’s important to understand that there are many different ways for folx to identify as agender. It’s also important to know that, even if they don’t have a gender or don’t feel that a gender is the most important thing about them, that aspect of their identity is incredibly important, and should be treated with respect.
Many agender folx use gender-neutral pronouns to better illustrate their gender identity. Some use they/them, the current standardized gender-neutral pronoun. Others might use neopronouns like xe/xem, or nounself pronouns to illustrate a part of their identity they feel is more important than gender (if you want more info on writing about these, check out my Writing With Neopronouns post!)
Others still may actually prefer no pronouns. Sometimes referred to as “null” or “nameself” pronouns, this means that no pronouns — including they/them or a neopronoun — are actually correct for the character. Note that this refers to third person personal pronouns. Your character will still be fine with such pronouns as I, you, we, and even they so long as the last one is being used to refer to the character in a group. In a first- or second-person narrative, therefore, it wouldn’t be hard to avoid using pronouns at all for a POV character. There are some grammatical hurdles to jump in third-person narratives, but if your character is agender and utilizes nameself pronouns, make sure that you’re careful about the pronouns you’re using!
Another thing to consider when writing agender characters is that gender is not a simple matter of pronouns or calling someone a man or a woman — our society is immensely gendered in ways that include dress, expectations, compliments, insults, and more. Bear this in mind when writing agender characters. It’s not enough to simply proclaim your character has no gender and use gender-neutral pronouns for them. Your agender character is likely to be aware of a myriad of situations in which they are being gendered — which means that you as a writer must be aware of them as well.
Even if an agender character does not consider their gender a particularly important part of their identity, they are likely to consider that fact important, and so feel unseen or disrespected when those around them insist on using gendered language for them. It’s important to be aware of not only how your agender character thinks about themself and their gender, but also how those around your character think of their gender, and how that affects your character.
Though they have some things in common with trans and non-binary characters, writing agender characters requires some specific knowledge and forethought. Remember that being “without gender” doesn’t always mean a neutral gender, and that even if an agender character doesn’t find gender to be all that important, they’re likely to feel disrespected if someone insists on making gender important for them.
That’s it for this week! I’ll be back next week to delve into some negative tropes about agender characters, but until then stay safe, stay healthy, and keep writing!