What Pronouns to Use When Writing Trans Characters
Welcome back to Queering the Narrative!
Previously on this blog, I’ve talked somewhat broadly about writing trans and nonbinary characters, and touched specifically on writing with neopronouns. However, there is one aspect of writing trans characters that can be somewhat difficult for cis folx to parse.
The basic question is this: If I’m talking about a trans person before they came out, what pronouns/name/etc should I use for them? This, unfortunately, doesn’t have an easy answer, and so I wanted to get into some of the nuances of it today.
Note that, for simplicity’s sake, I’m going to use the word trans to refer to the entire gender-expansive community. Bear in mind, though, that this label doesn’t apply to everyone for whom this advice might be helpful!
A good rule of thumb is that a trans person has always been their gender identity. You shouldn’t deadname or misgender someone, even if you’re referring to experiences or stories from before they came out.
The only “exception” to this is if the person’s assigned gender is somehow relevant to the story at hand — like if you’re talking about something like a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, or an experience in a gendered locker room However, please bear in mind that telling such a story would out the person in question. In fiction, and in real life, be mindful of this!
If a person uses multiple pronouns, make sure to always use the pronoun most appropriate to the current situation, even when talking about past events. For example, if someone uses “they” among friends but “she” at work, you shouldn’t refer to that character as “she” when they tell their friends a story about work.
Writing Trans Characters
When writing trans characters, the general guidelines above are effective touchstones for respectful representation. However, some situations may actually require that a character be referred to as a different gender than their actual gender identity.
The Character Doesn’t Know Yet
When writing trans characters, you have the luxury of knowing their entire story up front. You probably already know what identity your character will eventually discover, whether they are going to transition or not, what names or pronouns might feel most authentic to them.
But, if your character doesn’t know that yet, it might be appropriate to gender them as they are currently perceived — by themselves and others — until the character determines their own identity.
When a character eventually does realize their identity, though, and starts going by and asking for different names or pronouns, then you should also make that narrative shift.
If you are using a first-person narrative, this isn’t a big deal — first person actually makes gender exploration storylines a lot easier, because the narrative does not have to gender someone at all!
In close-third, utilizing a character’s internal dialogue to show a self-correction might help clue the reader into the shift and avoid confusion. If you’re using a more distant third person POV, you can either just shift the pronouns and trust the reader to figure it out, or do what Virginia Woolf did in Orlando and make a whole big dramatic thing of the changing pronouns.
“His memory — but in future we must, for convention’s sake, say ‘her’ for ‘his’, and ‘she’ for ‘he’ — her memory then, went back through all the events of her past life…”
— Virginia Woolf, Orlando.
In narratives which jump around within a character’s life story or make liberal use of flashbacks, it’s sometimes best to use the most correct gendered language for the time period in question.
For an example of this, look at Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters.
The character Ames, who has detransitioned, is referred to with he/him pronouns within the narration’s present day — because at that point, Ames identifies as a man and masculine gendered language is most relevant to his experiences. The story, however, also contains flashbacks to the character’s life as a trans woman. In these scenes, her name is Amy and she is referred to in the narrative using feminine pronouns and language, because that is the correct and relevant usage for that time in her life.
Notably, another trans woman, Reese, is always referred to as a woman, even in scenes that depict her earlier life.
Also notable is that Reese — who primarily knew Ames as a woman — sometimes refers to Ames using she/her pronouns, but this is not reflected in the narrative text. This illustrates another good point: your dialogue and your narrative do not have to match up perfectly, as your characters do not have to understand your character the same way that you understand them.
Sometimes, you may want to tell a story which features a trans character, in which multiple different first-person or close-third POVs are utilized.
Some of these POVs see the trans person as their gender identity. Others — ideally the bad guys, as misgendering is emerging as an awesome way to code villainy — see them as their assigned gender, sometimes aggressively.
In this case, the pronouns you should use in the narration depends on which character’s head you’re currently inside. If you’re narrating from the POV of a person who sees the trans person correctly — ie, as their gender identity — then you should gender them appropriately. If you’re inside the mind of a less kind person, who insists that the trans person is in fact their assigned gender, then it would be appropriate to have the narration in those segments misgender the trans character. I would advise you do not do this flippantly, however, as it can be difficult for a trans person to have to read.
For a recent example of this, I highly recommend Adrian Tchaikovsky’s The Doors of Eden. One of this novel’s protagonists is Dr. Kay Amal Khan, a transwoman and theoretical physicist. Most of the POV characters correctly gender Kay, while those that don’t, are coded as antagonists.
This is then used as an effective shorthand for who is a villain in the story — when a character respects Kay’s gender, it tells the reader that character is good, precisely because thus far only the shitty people have persistently misgendered her. This can be an effective implement in your narrative toolbox — but, again, be mindful of how you’re using it!
That’s it for this week! I’ll be back next week, but until then stay safe, stay healthy, and keep writing!