Learning to write gender has been quite a journey.
Growing up in the ’80s and early ’90s, heroic transgender characters were few and far between. Almost nonexistent, in fact. There were a lot of villains, with the occasional anti-hero like Dr. Frank-N-Furter
(from Rocky Horror, of course), but I wanted heroes . People who sacrificed and laid down their lives, went on dangerous missions, dealt with messy situations, took names and kicked ass—while also existing between genders.
Welp, I thought to myself, if there are none out there, I’ll make my own.
When I started to write trans characters around 1998, there were no guides on how to do it. How did one deal with pronouns when characters had slippery, inconclusive genders? You can’t really do English without pronouns. What about sexuality? How would people relate to them?
Needless to say, I made all the beginner mistakes. I tried writing without pronouns altogether, then used “it” as a pronoun. For a short time, I attempted the “ze/hir” route. It was… awkward. My mother, squinting at an early manuscript, said, “Why should I care about your characters when they aren’t even human?” The experience was like banging my head against a brick wall.
It wasn’t quite true that no one was writing trans characters—the books were just harder to find. No flashing neon lights, no hoopla. Yet two women were behind me the whole way as I delved into the murky unknown. The first was Ursula K. LeGuin, who brought an anthropological eye and critical wit to “The Left Hand of Darkness,” published in the dark ages of 1969. Though sexually frustrating, at least it explored some of my questions. The other author is the masterful, under-appreciated Lois McMaster Bujold. In her “Miles Vorkosigan” series, Bujold wrote a sympathetic, ass-kicking intersexed character and, later on, an actual female-to-male transsexual. I was in heaven . Things were looking up as other trans characters popped into existence around the turn of the century. “Mission Child” by Maureen F. McHugh is a blistering, prickly example. It turned out I wasn’t alone in my quest. Not completely.
Yet prejudice existed in droves, of course. It still does, though things aren’t as bad as they used to be. I was told by non-fiction authors that their publisher had carved out the trans information from their books. Those chapters wouldn’t help the book sell, they were told. A literary expert, whom I paid to look at my manuscript, told me pointblank that no one would buy a book with a transgender protagonist. The worst part was, he was a gay man whom I’d met in the local LGBT community center. Talk about bad advice!
Luckily, I persisted. I hit the writing guidebooks books and conventions, slowly learning how to sculpt sympathetic characters. Submitting my work repeatedly brought me to a trans-friendly publisher, Fantastic Fiction, of which ForbiddenFiction is an imprint. The final result are “The Flame Cycle” novels, of which “The Artifact of Foex” is only the first.
So how do you write gender? A few tips:
- For non-shapeshifting characters, pronouns follow preferences and perspective, not genitals. If you have someone who is in midtransition—either conventional transition or your world’s version—remember which point-of-view you are writing from. Pronouns are social, after all: it is language used behind your back, usually in conversations outside your hearing. Also, they are not set in concrete. Pronoun usage can change whether you are writing from the trans person’s perspective or in the POV of their Great Aunt Mary, who still sees the trans person as their natal sex (i.e., what they were assigned at birth.)
- With social shapeshifters, like drag queens, pronouns tend to follow the persona. The character “Dave” may be a he, but his alter ego, “Vindictive Pussy,” is a she on the page.
- When it comes to actual shapeshifters, like my Flame characters, make a set of rules and stick to them. I change their pronouns when they shape a different set of genitals. If Flame aren’t in the room—and therefore there is no way of knowing their gender—I decided to use “she” as the ubiquitous pronoun of choice. This was a deliberate choice on my part, both for the sake of feminism and comfort. The masculine gender box is still very strict in our society, though it’s looser than it used to be. Female pronouns are a little awkward with a character like Knife, who is male most of the time, but I had to go one way or another—as the author, I couldn’t ignore the fact that Knife can turn female at any time.
- Finally, never surprise the reader with a gender change. If you’re talking villains or anti-heroes, fine. Go ahead. Shock everyone with page-shredding gender fucking. The readers might forgive you because juicy villains and anti-heroes make for a page turner, as long as there is a steady main character to identify with. You know, someone who’s in the reader’s corner. When it comes to heroes, keep all gender fluctuations up front, where the change can be seen and acknowledged. Readers are your friends—you don’t want to jar them.
I wish you good writing and reading, folks. If you want to learn more about writing trans characters, I recommend the essay “Writing Better Trans Characters” by Cheryl Morgan, which can be found at http://www.strangehorizons.com/2015/20150928/1morgana.shtml. “The Artifact of Foex: A Flame Cycle Novel” can be found at ForbiddenFiction.com starting March 15th, online or in print.
–James L. Wolf
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