Writing Trans Characters: Fantastical Transitions
Welcome back to Queering the Narrative!
Last week, I talked about why everyone should take trans characters into consideration while building their fantasy worlds. This week, I wanted to shift gears a bit and talk about a topic specific to writing trans characters in fantasy and science fiction, and specifically about the merits of various types of fantastical transitions
What’s a transition?
First off — in this context, a transition would be any steps trans characters might take to be externally perceived as their internal gender identity
In the real world, this looks like changing names and pronouns, dressing and styling themselves differently, and pursuing medical transition steps like hormones or surgeries. In a fantastical or futuristic world, though, trans characters might have a whole breadth of other options available to them!
Note that, if you’ve built a world that takes trans people into consideration, it’s possible they don’t need much beyond what we’ve already got going for us — Jemisin’s Tonkee in The Broken Earth uses a “biomest potion,” which is basically just that world’s language for HRT. But when magic or extremely advanced medicine are involved, there’s little limit to the things your characters might do!
Sudden and Complete Transformations
Many trans folx in real life dream of waking up in a body that is simply their own, idealized self. For binary trans folx, this often means waking up in the “right” body — that a trans woman had simply been born a cis woman, or a trans man born a cis man. For non-binary folx, this might look like a desire for specific traits that feel inaccessible, or wishes for more inherent mutability in their expression
Because of this, it’s no surprise that a common trope in trans media is the idea of a sudden, magical transformation. You can see examples of this throughout trans narratives — Woolf’s Orlando is transformed in the course of a single magical night; Daniels’ Dreadnought sees the main character seized by a supernatural force and transformed into her own ideal feminine form; Capetta’s protagonist in The Brilliant Death can shift between the physical forms of man and woman on command.
The unifying theme in these narratives is that they are not just immediate, but idealized. Sometimes, the transformation gets some getting used to or the mechanics are a bit finicky, but these models of fantastical transition allow trans characters to simply assume their most ideal forms (or, in the case of some non-binary and genderfluid characters, myriad of forms) without having to go through the painful imprecision of our modern medical science.
In this, such transformations are escapist fantasies for many trans individuals. They imagine a world in which we could one day simply become our idealized, internalized selves. They are why shape-shifter narratives resonate so deeply with so many trans folx, why so many of us are fascinated with systems of magic or technology that could swiftly and fundamentally change how we are perceived.
And that’s fun! Escapist fantasies are valuable, and trans folx deserve to have fun when they read fiction.
I do think there is a slight danger here, though. For many trans people — including gender-nonconforming, non-binary, and/or BIPOC trans folx — Western standards of femininity and masculinity are simply inaccessible. This complicates what such an idealized sudden transformation would even look like for them, or if that’s something they might desire.
It’s especially insidious when you consider the ways that misogyny, toxic masculinity, anti-Blackness, and anti-Indigeneity creep into popular conceptions of gender roles and gender norms. These can make stories that scan as escapist fantasies for some into harsh reminders of oppression for others.
Gradual, Intermediate, and Incomplete Transformations
These instances are far less common, and don’t always feel as affirming to those trans folx who are reading them. However, examples do exist, and are more common in sci-fi. The Gethenians in LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness are a great example of this, as is Iain M. Banks’ Culture series, in which humans can freely change their biological sex.
In Culture, however, it is made clear that the process is a gradual one, with everyone spending quite a bit of time in intermediate states when they shift and some preferring to inhabit such states permanently. (It’s helpful too that people in the Culture can freely change any aspect of their physical bodies — morphological autonomy for the win!)
As a trans woman who often likes to sport beards and is proud of my relatively deep voice, these sorts of stories resonate with me. Trans people aren’t cis — our experiences, appearances, and bodies are distinctive and different in beautiful, compelling ways that deserve to be explored in art and literature.
These narratives, and these types of transitions, illustrate that trans characters should not be required to “pass.” They show the beauty and worth in the ways our bodies manifest differently from cis (and/or white, though I personally am white) bodies. And they visibility to people who do not, can not, will not, or don’t want to pass someone that looks like them (and isn’t the butt of a joke).
Again, these are not universally beloved. A lot of binary trans folx really love the escapism of sudden, complete transitions — and that’s valid! But that love is also not universal, and so respectfully writing trans characters that celebrate the intermediate or incomplete transitions could really resonate with a lot of folx!
Which is Best?
Really, there’s no right answer to this question — we just need more of both.
Sudden magical transitions are fun, exciting, and escapist — and can also be handled in such a way as to be inclusive to folx who might not actually want to fit the binary, but still would like some things to be fundamentally different about their bodies. They allow for a simple, easy source of trans joy, and that in and of itself is beautiful and worthwhile.
Gradual transformations and imperfect transitions, however, can resonate deeply with the true lived experience of many trans folx. They can also illustrate the inherent beauty, complexity, and wonder of inhabiting a trans body.
That’s it for this week! I’m going to be taking next week off while I finish off my vacation, so until I get back stay safe, stay healthy, and keep writing!