[Note: this post is much longer than what you should expect from me in general. I got a bit carried away…]
Respectfully writing characters of any underprivileged group is difficult, especially when there are so many different aspects of someone’s life that can be affected by their identity. You’re creating a whole person–of course that isn’t easy. It takes research and careful thought, concerning both that specific community in your story and how your narrative could be taken in the real world. As a transgender man, I hope to help guide you in the process of building a trans character, whether it be for a novel, a podcast, or even just a Dungeons and Dragons campaign.
Although this piece is predominantly directed at cisgender people, I believe transgender folks can also use some of the questions here to help guide their character creation. No single trans experience is the same, so neither you nor I can expect to write all kinds of transgender characters without putting in work. These questions are ones that I, myself, have gathered in order to develop my own characters–many of whom I do not share a gender with. A few of the topics come from my own personal experiences as a transgender person, but a far greater number are from learning about all sorts of different people (whether in person, from books, or through social media).
I imagine that, over the next few years, I’ll want to update this or create new posts to go into more detail on some of these topics. Our world and its perception of transgender people will evolve (hopefully for the better) and I am sure that trans people, as well, will adapt to the times. If you feel that I have overlooked something or that I need to add a new section to this list, go ahead and add your own questions in the comments or contact me privately on my social media accounts. Feedback, as it is with all writing, is most welcome.
What was your character’s experience with the discovery of their gender?
There is a plethora of names to choose for one’s identity, and for someone who is not a part of the trans community, it can be difficult to navigate at first. Hell, it’s difficult if you’ve only just realized your transness–it sure was for me. Does your character identify as a man, a woman, a little bit of both, or something else entirely? What are their options, anyway? So much of this is dependent on cultural norms, so think about how the society your character lives in conceives of gender. Does society have a binary system of masculine and feminine? Does it have an alternative to this? Does it have no concept of gender difference at all? Once you’ve decided that, you can find a number of people who identify in that way or in a similar way online through Twitter or Instagram or whatever you think is best for you. These people, if they give consent, can be a great resource to you! You can talk to them about their experiences and even ask them to be a sensitivity reader once you’ve finished your project. Make sure not to push, though, not everyone feels comfortable talking about their identity and their experiences with gender.
Also, when did they figure it out? We’ve often seen the narratives of the trans person who has known since childhood and the trans person who realized in their mid-life crisis. Because of a lack of information and a general repression of my gender expression, I didn’t realize that I’m transgender until I was seventeen. I’m not alone, either, there are plenty of transgender folks who don’t figure out until their teenage years or until going to college. Different times of realization lead to vastly different experiences. A kid who realizes they’re transgender may have some sense of relief due to their own recognition, but they may face more bullying or feel forced to hide. A middle-aged person may have been repressed for their entire life and be out of touch with the LGBTQIA+ community, as well as having a lot of complicated personal relationships to deal with. A trans person who realizes their gender in high school may finally feel some recognition of why they have felt uncomfortable with themself (gender dysphoria), but may not feel comfortable coming out. Thinking about this can give your character’s transness a lot more depth, rather than making them just a caricature that is so common in media.
To what degree is your character out?
For some people who have no experience with being LGBTQIA+, this question may be a bit confusing: Doesn’t someone just *come out* or not? How can there be different degrees? Well, I’m about to blow your mind: a person can be out to some people and not out to others. When I came out about being transgender, I came out to my closest family and friends first. I waited many months before coming out publicly because my high school was an “all-girls school” (I kind of broke that descriptor) and I was worried about being asked to leave the school. I was also worried about how colleges would treat me, so I didn’t disclose that information in my applications. A lot of transgender people do that with potential employers, because it could affect their decision in the end. Even if they live in a state where it would be illegal to discriminate against transgender people in the hiring process, it’s incredibly difficult to prove when someone is doing so. What you choose will determine how your character is treated, whether they be closeted, out to everyone except for strangers, out to some people, or completely stealth. Keep in mind, though, that if you choose to have your transgender character be closeted, you may fall into the dangerous trap of the struggle narrative or trauma porn.
How can/do they approach medical transition?
Not everyone feels the need to medically transition, contrary to popular belief and the ideology of truscum. The general reason why trans people often do take steps to change their bodies via hormones or surgery is because of gender dysphoria. This can be incredibly difficult to experience for some people, but–for others–not so much. Sometimes the difference between the individual’s image of themself and the observer’s view is not immense. In other cases, some people have a preternatural strength to deal with being misgendered, though rarely is it healthy for them.
As for me, I have partially medically transitioned–I have taken hormones and had top surgery, but I have chosen not to have bottom surgery because 1) I pass well enough without it, and 2) the medical advancements are not at a point where I feel it would be worth the money and recovery time. There are plenty of people who don’t medically transition at all, or don’t do so until later in life. Sometimes they choose not to because of monetary obstacles (it can be extremely expensive and isn’t covered by all insurance policies), sometimes it’s because of medical issues (for some people it can be unsafe to do so), and sometimes it’s because they don’t feel safe. For many transgender people–particularly for nonbinary folks–it can be unsafe to make changes to their body because they would no longer pass as cisgender and could be targeted by transphobes. All of these are valid reasons not to transition, and your character may feel the same way.
The answer to this question will influence how your character acts, how they look, and how they are treated. I would urge you to have multiple trans characters with different approaches to this, because we already have too many of the same stories about the transgender character (who is usually a woman) who goes and gets “the surgery” later in life after years of repression. Let me remind you of the issues of struggle narrative/trauma porn and repeat that these sorts of generalizations have an impact on how trans people are viewed at large by society. That might scare you, but there’s nothing bad about being wrong in the beginning. That’s why we have these conversations and why we edit. Like I said in the beginning: you can do it if you put in the time and effort.
What things might your character do in order to be gendered appropriately?
Transgender people use all sorts of methods to ensure they are identified appropriately. The most basic form of this is choosing a name and a set of pronouns (she/her, he/him, they/them, ze/zir, etc.) that feel most congruent with our true selves. We also make use of secondary sex characteristics by styling our hair in certain ways, wearing certain kinds of clothing, putting on makeup, binding or stuffing our chests, and wearing packers. You can think of it like any other style choice: we’re showing who we are through our appearance. Maybe in your fictional world, there is some technology or magic that can give your character the illusory appearance of their true self, or maybe there’s a potion that helps make their jawline square or sheds their body hair.
Thinking about the answer to this question can help you figure out what your character looks like, but it can also help you get into their mindset and inform how they act in certain situations. The way a person carries themself is often an important indicator of gender–pressing the pelvis forward and walking in a way that highlights one’s shoulders can give someone a more masculine appearance. When I was younger and did not pass as well, I was incredibly conscious of how I walked, how deeply I spoke, how I held my head, how I sat, and even how I looked at my fingers when I got a hangnail. This is not an uncommon story for trans people. It can become quite the fixation because we have gone for so long worrying about whether or not we will pass–especially because passing can be the deciding point of whether or not we get harassed.
Another aspect of ensuring that we are gendered appropriately is the legal steps we have to take. In some places, it can be very difficult to change your name because of our gender, and it can be impossible to change the gender marker on one’s ID or birth certificate. It can take a lot of time and research and effort to change these legal documents to ensure that, should we go through TSA or get stopped by the police, we won’t be targeted in some way. Legally speaking, what kinds of things would your character need to do in order to be identified properly? Does your world have something like this in place?
How connected is your character to other trans people?
Most trans people fall into one of two groups when it comes to this question: either they have no tangible relationship with a trans person, or they are friends with a great many trans people.
For the first group, they may be stealth or closeted and, thus, have very few ways of connecting with trans people in person. Today, this often happens when a trans person lives in a place that is not kind to trans folk, because hiding can be the only way to stay safe. Older generations have different causes. For those who chose to transition in the early 1900s, there were few out trans people (Christine Jorgensen being the most notable), so it was simply the norm to go stealth. More recently, many trans people who lived through the 1980s died from the AIDs Crisis, so large numbers of the connections that did once exist, were lost. Today, with the rise of social media, trans people have an easier time of connecting with others without putting themselves in jeopardy of being outed.
As for the second group, trans folk flock together for a number of reasons. At the most basic, it’s because we have our transness in common and can relate to one another. There’s also a level of comfort that we have around other transgender people that we do not get when we are around cisgender people: namely, the assurance that they won’t say something insensitive or uninformed. No matter how well-read a cisgender person is, they do not know what our experiences are like, so they inevitably will say something incorrect. That’s not to say that trans people never have cisgender friends–I sure do, it can just be exhausting to teach people about transness all the time. Don’t overthink it though: it’s like any friends you may have. There are some things you just don’t talk about with one friend that you would talk about with another, whether it be philosophy, a hobby, politics, emotions, or family. Another reason why transgender people often make friends with other trans folk is because it can be safer to do so. Some cisgender people are vehement with their hatred of transgender people. That just doesn’t apply to potential friends if they’re transgender.
For your character, consider how they might meet other trans people. Maybe they’re out in most every situation and trans people just migrate towards them. Maybe they’re not out and the only other trans person they’ve met just happened to come out to them without knowing that your character was transgender. Think about how technology can influence this, like social media. To my cisgender readers, I will warn you that if you go for the AIDs Crisis route for the reason why they aren’t connected to trans people, or some other incredibly horrific hypothetical mass-death, you are steering towards trauma porn. Things like that don’t have to happen in your story, so maybe save that for #ownvoices. If you feel it’s imperative to your story, please think about it long and hard, then reach out to MANY trans people and survivors of the AIDs Crisis to ensure you’re not making an ass of yourself.
What are their thoughts on sex and how do they interact with others sexually?
If you’re not planning on writing about sex in your works, that’s fine, you can skip this question. You can use it to develop your character further, though, so I would encourage you to read it regardless.
Transgender people constantly have their sexuality assumed in some way. There are cisgender people who believe that once a person transitions, they have to be straight. This sort of reasoning stems from the deep-set heteronormativity in our society and oftentimes comes from a place of ignorance rather than ill-intent. On the other hand, there are some TERFs who believe that transgender people are just repressed lesbians and gay men who are using transition to come to terms with their sexuality. This comes up with transmen the most. There are also some TERFs within the LGBTQIA+ community who believe that trans women, specifically, are just men in disguise trying to have sex with lesbians. So, on one side, transphobic people believe that we’re all straight, and on the other they assume we’re all gay or faking it. As a transgender man who identifies as pansexual, I can guarantee this is all bullshit. Your character almost certainly has experienced having their sexuality assumed, even if they may not have recognized it in the moment.
Sex for trans people can be very scary, as well, for multiple reasons. First and foremost, there are many instances of trans women being murdered after their sexual partner finds out that they’re transgender. Usually the perpetrators get off without punishment because of the “gay panic” argument. Some transgender people completely forego sex with cisgender people because of this, though such separation out of fear should not be the norm. On top of this, trans people’s gender dysphoria can make sex very uncomfortable, from the words used to describe genitalia, to being naked in front of someone, to certain acts of sex. It’s all a very vulnerable situation. There are methods that trans folk can use to waylay this discomfort, such as using different words to refer to genitalia (junk, parts, stuff, etc.) or even having their partner do the same motion on a realistic dildo and on the vagina. Some trans men avoid vaginal penetration altogether in favor of anal or external clitoral stimulation. Different people, as is the case in all aspects of life, have different preferences and things that make them uncomfortable. Some transgender individuals have few major issues when it comes to sex and their identity, and some feel incredibly anxious about it. Think about where your character would fall amidst all of this. What kind of partners do they choose? Do they have sex regularly? Rarely? Casually? Never?
While you decide what’s right for your character, you may want to seek out some trans people who are open about sex and ask if you can talk to them about it. As I said once before, though, this can be a very sensitive topic, so don’t just go up to any old trans person you know and start asking them if they take dick up the ass.
Please do keep in mind, though, that if you do approach transgender sex in your writing, that you may be fetishizing the character without intending to. Make sure to get a handful of transgender sensitivity readers to ensure that you don’t. If they tell you it’s not good, LISTEN. We already have far too much trans fetish porn. If you want to approach fetishization in your work, you may want to talk about how trans people are often the targets of chasers.
What kinds of discrimination has your character experienced?
Transphobia comes in a lot of forms and has varying levels of consequences. Discrimination can be harassment misgendering, deadnaming, or shouting slurs at the trans person being targeted in person or on social media. It can be preferential treatment for cisgender job applicants. It can be when a trans person is flagged by TSA for not looking like the gender marker on their ID. It can be parents not letting their kids spend time with a trans friend. It can even go so far as being when a trans boy gets called out in a bathroom and told to prove his manhood by showing an authority figure his genitals. Not every trans person gets targeted with each of these methods, but you can bet we’ve all experienced at least one of them, or some other variant. It can change how your character interacts with people, maybe by making them distrust certain kinds of cis people. I, for instance, am still wary when I go through TSA after being patted down every time I wore a binder, even though I haven’t needed any sort of chest binding for a few years.
Has your character ever experienced harassment or violence because of their identity?
I would go so far as to say that all trans people have experienced some form of discrimination, but some may not have experienced violence. I, for instance, have never been attacked by a stranger for my gender identity. The violence that was directed at me was a part of a very long running abusive situation, of which transphobia was only a part. Some people, trans women of color particularly, are often targeted, beaten up, raped, and/or killed because of their transness. Sometimes it goes along with the “gay panic” argument I mentioned before, sometimes it’s corrective rape, and sometimes it’s just sadism. Be wary of creating a character who has experienced great trauma like this by yourself, because it is by far the easiest way of turning a trans narrative into trauma porn. Trans people see enough violence in our daily lives, so why make it a part of a fictional world? Suffering can bring forth powerful narratives, but too often is the struggle narrative all that there is for transgender media. If you are cisgender, you may want to save this for #ownvoices who can bring a level of nuance that you, as a cis person, may not be able to. For newly discovered trans people, this doesn’t apply, but please make sure to do research if you haven’t experienced it yourself.
Are they a part of any other marginalized groups?
Trans people of color have vastly different experiences than white transgender people do. They are much more likely to be the victims of harassment and violence, on top of all of the issues of systemic racism that they face. Disabled trans people, too, experience other forms of discrimination than able bodied trans people. Transness is treated differently in different nations, as well as under different religious practices. Don’t just write one trans character, write many! I know that some stories are limited by page number, so try writing one trans character now and write a different one or handful in a later story. If your story already has multiple trans people in it, don’t assume that just one or two trans people can speak for all of us when you’re doing your research. Make sure to put as much effort into the other facets of their identity as you do with the transgender side. Get sensitivity readers from all different backgrounds and identities to ensure you’re doing it right–whether you’re cis or not. Being part of one marginalized group does not give you a pass saying you can take it easy when it comes to researching and carefully writing other marginalized experiences.
Does your character have a personality outside of being transgender?
If not, rethink your character, seriously.