Describing Nonbinary Characters

Describing Nonbinary People

Welcome back to Queering the Narrative!

Over the past two weeks, I’ve discussed describing both trans women and trans men. Following that theme, this week I’m going to talk about describing nonbinary people!

I’m using “nonbinary” as an umbrella term here, describing basically all gender identities that don’t fall within the standard man/woman binary of Western gender — and that includes a wide variety of extremely disparate identities! Nonbinary is NOT a “third gender” (though there are some who identify with the idea of a “third gender,” and may name that gender “nonbinary”). 

“Nonbinary” is a multi-dimensional spectrum that describes people with all sorts of identities and expressions. This means there’s no one “way” that nonbinary people look (as much as some cis people wish there were). The same, however, could be said of both men and women — but there are still some general rules and guidelines which can help to make sure your descriptions are respectful, kind, and reflect actual reality.

So this week, we’re going to reflect on some general guidelines for describing nonbinary people — with the caveat being, of course, that there is no one single way to describe a nonbinary person. 

Things to Avoid When Describing Nonbinary People

Perhaps the most common thing people get stuck on while describing nonbinary people is the idea of “androgyny,” an intermediate between masculine and feminine presentation which often scans not being able to “tell” what someone’s assigned gender is.

Don’t get me wrong — plenty of nonbinary folx are androgynous, or want to be perceived as such. However, this is FAR from the only nonbinary experience, and many nonbinary folx express their gender in ways that may be explicitely masculine or feminine coded. 

Besides, our concept of “androgyny,” generally requires one to be skinny, white (or white-passing), and able-bodied.  Afab people also tend to have more access to androgyny, and many amab nonbinary folx tend to be perceived as feminine/gender-bending men, or trans women, even when they are reaching for an androgynous look.

Describing nonbinary characters as androgynous, therefore, is not inherently bad — but it is a VERY narrow view on what it means to be nonbinary, and might betray a relatively minimal understanding of the nonbinary community in general.

It’s also important to bear in mind that a nonbinary person’s agab (assigned gender at birth) should NOT play a major role in their description or characterization. This is a general rule of thumb for describing trans folx — aligning a trans person with their agab is rude — but is especially insidious with nonbinary folx.Cover of Yoon Ha Lee's "Phoenix Extravagant," featuring a serpentine Eastern-style dragon mecha made out of bright red metal, against a blue sky, with a faded full moon in the background

We live in a cisnormative, binary society — which means that if you put your nonbinary character’s agab in cannon, your reader’s brain is very likely to latch onto that. This happens to binary and nonbinary readers alike. It doesn’t mean no one should ever mention a nonbinary person’s agab — that could be extremely relevant to plot or characterization. However, that’s best left to nonbinary writers themselves, as they’ll be drawing on lived experience. If you’re a binary writer describing nonbinary people, it’s probably best to leave agab out of it.

Most particularly, don’t focus on genitals and other sexualized body parts. This plays into the general fascination with trans peoples’ sexuality, which is not something you want to perpetuate. You can still do sexy times in a story, but try to avoid explicit mentions of specific body parts — see Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee for some really incredible examples

Another critical thing to avoid — as I’ve talked about in multiple Tropes to Avoid posts — is depicting nonbinary people as inhuman, or otherwise aberrant by human standards. I go into this in more detail in the Tropes post linked above, but it bears repeating here. Make sure there are human nonbinary characters in your story too, and make sure you aren’t implying that those humans have more in common with aliens or robots or whatever because of their gender identity. Nonbinary people are people!

Describing Nonbinary People Well

My biggest, most overarching piece of advice for describing nonbinary people is to focus on features which are not inherently gendered. Eye and hair color, skin tone, tattoos and other body modifications, and even the length and texture of one’s hair are not inherently gendered, and can be used to paint a rich portrait of a character without focusing on gender markers

You can also do this with careful depictions of facial structure, build, and markers of work or lifestyle. Your character might have the soft touch of a poet, the rough calluses of a farmer, the intricate scars of a fighter. None of these are inherently gendered, but still do a lot to describe and characterize the person in question.

Be cautious of making direct references to a character’s chest, even ambiguously.  Facial hair can be tricky too, as it can theoretically reveal a character’s agab (or a reader might think it does). That’s not a hard and fast rule, though — plenty of nonbinary folx have facial hair!

If you’re working in a fantastical or futuristic world of your own design, you could also invent gender markers that designate a nonbinary gender — Yoon Ha Lee also does this in Phoenix Extravagant, and it’s a strategy I utilized in one of my own books. 

In the real world, a lot of nonbinary folx like to explore punkish or otherwise non-standard forms of self-expression. This isn’t universal, but it is a way that someone might be “clocked” as nonbinary — a lot of people in the LGBTQIA+ community will default to gender-neutral pronouns for such individuals until told otherwise, so describing nonbinary people this way can work.

Examples of this are copious piercings, especially facial piercings like brows and septums; bright, non-natural hair colors, especially in pride-flag colors; mix-and-match fashion sense, especially thrifted, from multiple modes of gender expression; and tattoos, especially patchwork, stick-and-poke, and simple hand tattoos.

Bear in mind that binary people express themselves this way too — so you don’t get any nonbinary brownie points just for describing a character like this. Be explicit with your representation!

Conclusion

Folx outside the binary are not a monolith, and so there’s not one stock-standard way of describing nonbinary folx. The things to avoid in this post are probably the most important — just make sure you’re handling your character in a respectful way, and you should be good!

That’s it for this week! I’ll be back next week with another post but until then stay safe, stay healthy, and keep writing!

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