Read anything about character development, and there’s a good chance that you’ll hear the advice “find your character’s voice.” It’s good advice–many well-written characters have a way of talking that is distinct from the other characters and makes them memorable, from Lemony Snicket’s over-explanation to Hodor’s Hodoring. There’s only one problem: Humans in real life don’t have one singular “voice” for every situation. We speak one way to our friends, another way to our family, another way to our teachers, another way to strangers, and more. It’s not that we’re lying or being inauthentic; it’s just that our relationships with different people are inherently different. This phenomenon is called “code-switching,” and it is something trans people often implement as a form of gender expression or gender performance.
The concept of code-switching comes from linguistics, particularly regarding when multilingual people switch between languages even in the middle of a sentence in order to get a certain point across. In recent decades, the framework has been used to explain and defend Black Americans who switch between “standard” English and African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in different contexts. [Check out the film Sorry to Bother You (2018), if you want a more concrete example in the media.] There are biases people have about AAVE which are rooted in America’s long-standing history of racism, so a Black person may have to assimilate by using “standard” English in order to be perceived well by white people. Code-switching is often used as a way of protecting oneself from harm, whether that be microaggressions or physical violence.
How do trans people factor into this? Well, cultural differences have arisen between “masculine” ways of speaking and “feminine” ways of speaking English. Think about the old stereotype of how a gay man speaks, or what a “Valley girl” accent sounds like. Contrast that to the stereotypes of how butch lesbians speak, or how you might imagine a cis guy with a big red truck would sound. We have very specific, culturally-defined ways of speaking, often centering around gender, race, class, location, and more.
For trans people, we often have to “perform” our gender in certain situations, so code-switching is a tool we have on hand to do just that. The easiest way of intentionally code-switching is simply by raising or lowering our voices. When I’m around people who I think aren’t perceiving me as a man, I’ll often lower my voice in order to pass better. On the other hand, when I’m around only trans people, my voice will stay at its normal mid-range. The only time it goes kind of high is when I’m using my “polite voice” on the telephone (which is also fairly gendered if you think about it).
Sometimes, though, we don’t even realize we’re doing it. I’ve caught myself speaking and acting like the stereotypical effeminate gay man around some cis gay men in order to fit in and around certain cis women to fit the mould of the “gay best friend.” It’s an instinctual and culturally-informed act, something that is completely normal.
And yet, code-switching is often associated with being “fake” or a liar. One really good example of this is how media sources sometimes represent code-switching in political officials of color. This is a great article reframing some of Michelle Obama’s comments in her memoir, Becoming, to think about code-switching both concerning herself and for her husband.
This negative reaction to a natural psycho-social phenomenon can put a great strain on marginalized individuals. It can lead to slanderous remarks both in the media and in private circles through rumors. More insidiously, it can make people doubt their own authenticity. This was something I struggled with a lot in high school and undergrad and–to a lesser extent–even today.
So, how can you use this in your writing? Think about how comfortable your trans character feels around a specific person or group. How would they naturally react in order to garner support, safety, or even just basic respect? How about in certain situations, like at a bar versus at work? Now, think about how outsiders might react to those instances of code-switching. Do they understand why? Do they dislike the character because of it? How does your own trans character react to the realization of their own code-switching? Have they already come to terms with their authenticity? Do they intentionally code-switch all the time because of the society they’re in? If so, wouldn’t that be exhausting? If you’re writing a fantasy or sci-fi world, what are some cultural associations with the genders that exist there but not in our world? How might that impact your character’s code-switching?
Finding your character’s “voice” doesn’t have to be a singular way of speaking all the time. In fact, it probably shouldn’t be, if you want to be realistic. It’s fine if you don’t know it all right now, but keep it in mind whenever your character shows up in different settings.
What is this “#AuthorToolboxBlogHop” thing?
I’m glad you asked! I’m a part of this author blog hop where a group of us bloggers write about the same theme (in this case, resources & advice for writers). There are some requirements so other participants can know which posts are for the blog hop and which are not. If you want to learn more, you can check out the details and the list of other participants here!
7 thoughts on “Code-Switching #AuthorToolboxBlogHop”
You’ve got me thinking! This post should honestly be in a big fancy anthology about the craft of writing by a big fancy publisher. Sharing!
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Hahaha, that’s probably because I’ve been reading a lot of academic stuff lately. Glad you liked it!
Fantastic post! I know this was geared more toward writing trans characters but code-switching is so relevant to everyone, this really can be applied to all character writing. This was incredibly informative and super interesting to read. And I’m glad I now know the term ‘code-switching’!
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Yeah, for sure! I’m actually glad this is how you feel because in an ideal world we’d treat all code-switching as a regular occurrence.
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Code-switching is something I would have never thought of. Thanks for the info and I’m putting you on my feedback list. Your insights are priceless. 🙂
Anna from elements of emaginette
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Thank you so much, that’s so sweet! 😊 It’s just something that’s been on my mind lately.
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That was very interesting, not a subject I knew much about. Thank you for your thorough explanation.