Why All SFF Writers Should Consider Trans Characters

You should be thinking about Trans Characters, even if you aren’t writing one!

Welcome back to Queering the Narrative!

This week, I wanted to do something a little bit different than usual and talk specifically about how to introduce queerness into fantasy and science fiction, and more specifically how to do so regarding gender.

Gender is a huge facet of our lives. Whether through magical or mundane means, many authors seek to explore gender and its ramifications. But to do this without considering the queer experience — especially trans and nonbinary experiences — does a disservice to your world-building and to how in-depth and nuanced your analysis can actually be. That means that everyone should be thinking of the role trans characters play in their stories, whether you have one or not!

To start off, I’m going to deconstruct a couple of ideas people have as to why they can’t utilize canonically queer characters in their narrative — either because it wouldn’t be “realistic,” or because there isn’t a “reason.”

Gritty Realism

Game of Thrones fans love to tout the gritty reality of the low-magic fantasy world Martin conceived, often acting as though it was some sort of reprieve from the standard cushy, flowery fantasy worlds out there (these folx usually weren’t very well-read in fantasy). One of their main examples was the brutalization of women throughout the narrative.

Now, in defense of A Song of Ice and Fire (the book series), it does have some interesting portrayals of women throughout the series — like Sansa, Arya, or Brienne — but it doesn’t explore much in the way of trans characters. No commentary on modern gender roles is complete without acknowledgement that trans folx do exist. There will always be someone to break your binary, someone who does not feel it fits them. Brienne of Tarth, for example, is perhaps A Song of Ice and Fire’s most compelling commentary on gender roles for how she defies them.

Rigid gender roles invite individuals to break them, and you should consider what that might look like. Societies have certain gender norms that are fine for people to break — the centering and adulation of masculinity in our society means that many afab people are celebrated (albeit in a tightly controlled way) for assuming certain aspects of masculinity. But other forms, such as amab individuals expressing femininity, are harshly punished.

Consider what gender-bending might actually fly in your world — and then consider how that allowance doesn’t actually work for everyone. Short of a completely permissive system free of true gender roles, no system you create is going to be able to account for every queer, trans, and nonbinary individual.

Image of the cover of the novel The Brilliant Death by AR Capetta

And that’s okay! Part of the gender expansive experience is subversion of norms. It’s something many of us take pride in, and it can be utilized in fiction to test the limits of a culture or character’s permissibility, empathy, and kindness. So, if you do want to hew to some idealized realism and insist upon inflicting gendered brutality on your characters — a very real and valid artistic choice! — just make sure you consider the full breadth of what that system means to trans characters who don’t fit inside it!

A really good example of this is in action is A.R. Capetta’s A Brilliant Death. Binary gender is extremely important to that society, and the differences between men and women is a driving force of the plot. The two main characters, however, do not fit into those boundaries — and the author uses that fact to examine the flaws in such a strict gender system, and by extension illuminate the flaws in our own system.

And, a final and crucial point to remember: your fantasy world is likely to have dragons, magic, zombies, or any other number of fantastical elements. There’s nothing that would render trans (or BIPOC!) characters unrealistic except your own decisions!

Plot Essentialism

There’s an idea among a fair number of cis authors that you can only include trans characters for a specific reason. Alongside arguments made about race or disability, this idea claims that any deviation from the “norm” of cishetero white able-bodied people must be narratively justified.

That, however, is very much not the case.

If you are going to put a trans character in your world, it is best if you understand how they fit in, and how your world may be different to accommodate them (or not). That, however, does not have to directly impact the plot, even if it has an impact on the character.Cover image ofr N.K. Jemisin's "The Fifth Season," featuring a bluish-grey stonework background and a fan of foliage carved from the stone

A great example of this is Tonkee from N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy. Tonkee is a trans woman but there’s very little attention paid to her gender except to mention it, and it isn’t a huge part of her role as half-mad scientist in the story.

However, that does not mean her gender didn’t impact her, or didn’t have implications for the wider culture. The narrator’s blase reaction reveals that this is at least partially accepted by most in the society in the story, but Tonkee’s own history reveals that it is “not done” among the higher castes 

This allows for interesting and inclusive worldbuilding, but does not actually factor all that much into Tonkee’s role or the plot overall — and that’s totally fine! Allowing trans and nonbinary characters to just exist in your narrative will deepen and strengthen your world-building, whether or not their gender is the focus of the plot!

Final Thoughts

Gender is a powerful construct in our daily lives, and one that feels confining or incomplete to many forced to live within it. If you intend to write a world which plays with our gendered system — by taking it to extremes, by subverting it, by critiquing it — it’s important that you consider those who exist outside that system

Even if, in the end, you don’t have trans characters or your character’s gender expansiveness doesn’t factor directly into your story, you’ll have created a deeper and more examined world, and that will come through even in your portrayals of cis characters!

That’s it for this week! Next week I’ll be talking about fantastical transitions, but until then stay safe, stay healthy, and keep writing!

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