Don’t Kill Your Trans Characters #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

A photoshopped image of a wooden toolbox which has a notepad, five books, an iphone, a mac keyboard, and three black pens inside of it. On the front of the toolbox is written "#AuthorToolboxBlogHop"

Don’t kill your trans characters. I know that death is an important tool in writing fiction; it can break a reader’s heart or even flip a plot on its head. For many dramatic or horrific tales, death is a necessity. However, so much harm is done by killing off trans characters, that–frankly–it’s best to avoid it altogether.

Early death is somewhat of a constant fear for many trans people. By this I’m referring to being killed, taking one’s own life while trying to survive in a transphobic society, being left to die by medical professionals, and a whole slew of other terrifying things trans people (particularly Black and Indigenous trans women) face. And that’s not considering the fear that this may very well happen to fellow trans friends and family.

Even I–as a white, abled, binary trans person from a wealthy background–feel this fear. A few months ago when my apartment window got shot, my first thought was, “Did they see the trans flag on my wall?” Thankfully, it was some teens dicking around with a BB gun during quarantine, but at the time I was terrified. I thought, “Will they come back?” “Will I be safe going to the store?” [And no, I did not call the police.]

This fear isn’t irrational. Trans people are being murdered at an extremely high rate, especially when you factor in that the overwhelming majority of them are trans women of color. Even in media, we’re faced with depictions of our fictional counterparts experiencing violence and murder. And the frightening thing about fictional trauma porn [which I have written about before] is that sometimes it’s the imaginings of cruel cisgender people, but sometimes it’s based off of real life events, such as is the case for the film Boys Don’t Cry (1999). Everywhere we go, we can’t help but to have trauma shoved in our faces, and it’s exhausting, even for a privileged trans person like me.

Now, let’s think about what you’re telling your readers when you kill off your trans characters. Unless you’ve got a lot of trans characters left, removing them from the story means that your trans readers are no longer represented in the story. More importantly, it relays to those readers that you don’t care about what trauma they may have experienced, and that you certainly don’t care about the fact that you may very well be retraumatizing them by confronting them with the very real fears many trans people experience. Is that what you want to be telling them?

[I want to take this quick second to add that what I just described applies to trans authors writing about trans characters with different marginalities, or even just different trans identities. A white trans guy like me killing off a character who is a Black trans woman is 100% not a good look.]

There are alternative ways to engage with death that don’t rely on killing trans characters. The works Cemetery Boys and The Four Profound Weaves, for instance, make death a major theme without killing trans characters in them. Instead, the trans characters have unique relationships with death that are separate from real life fears of trans death. Another work you might look to for a nuanced understanding of a trans character’s relationship with death is Peter Darling, which I can’t talk much about for fear of spoiling you. This one directly addresses trans death without traumatizing trans readers. It should be noted, however, that all three of these works were written by trans people, so if you’re a cis person, you should still tread carefully even if you take one of them as a model.

So when all other options aren’t available, when is it okay to kill a trans character? 

The first prerequisite that applies to all acceptable trans deaths in media is that there are plenty of other trans characters that the trans representation in the work doesn’t disappear by killing a single character. Do NOT kill off a trans character if you don’t have other trans characters alive and well.

The second is that their death isn’t a result of them being transgender. Old age is a good one, since that implies that they lived a long and healthy life–something many trans people do not get to experience in reality. You can even go for a death that’s a result of their own personal story arc and isn’t about their gender. Maybe you’re writing about a trans knight who sacrifices himself for the sake of protecting the prince (who may also be trans).

The third is that their death isn’t excessively graphic. Many deaths in fiction only serve for the spectacle and gore (a la Game of Thrones). Deaths like this are meant to shock and disturb, in order to give the reader a voyeuristic sense of schadenfreude. However, both voyeurism and schadenfreude require a detachment on the part of the viewer in order to be fulfilling. If the reader/viewer feels deeply connected to such a character by sharing marginalities, it ends up being trauma porn.

Honestly, I’ve gone on long enough telling you all the whys and the hows of trans death in fiction, but I’d rather just pose a simple question. Why the hell are you killing off this trans character in the first place, when so many trans people face the fear of premature and violent death due to being ourselves? If you can’t answer that in a nuanced and considerate way, you shouldn’t be killing them off in the first place.

What is this “#AuthorToolboxBlogHop” thing?

I’m glad you asked! I’m a part of this author blog hop where a group of 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!

9 thoughts on “Don’t Kill Your Trans Characters #AuthorToolboxBlogHop”

  1. Looks like you’re a guest star in this post by another hop participant:) https://wordsliketrees.wordpress.com/2020/10/18/writing-outside-our-own-identities

    My heart skipped when you said your window got shot. Oh my god! I’m so happy you pointed out the rationality of living with this fear. Your post has got me thinking about whether I can think of a story idea/arc where I could rationalize killing a trans person in a nuanced and considerate way, and honestly, at this moment, I can only think of story ideas/arcs that do this that aren’t written by someone like me, a cis person. I feel like there is a need for stories that develop society’s understanding of the non-natural death rate of trans people and in particular Black and Indigenous trans women, but I kind of shudder at the thought of reading one that isn’t written by someone with experience of the identity or identities written in the story. I wonder if memoir is the ideal way to tell these stories, even though for me personally, perhaps naively, I would be interested in reading fiction that accomplishes the goal of informing society about something they really need to be informed about. There’s an overlapping thought I’ve been nudging around since I read Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult, a white author who wrote from the narrative perspective of a Black nurse, white lawyer, and white nationalist, and I struggled writing a review for it, and what I ended up writing is something like, “I don’t know how to write a one-size fits all review for this book.” Because I think in a lot of ways it was important for me as a white person to read the book but it’s because I lack knowledge about what it’s like to interact with a white nationalist as a Black person, and who am I to recommend this book to people with first-hand experience of this dynamic. The author took flack for her narrative choices, and I believe she preemptively wrote a fore- or afterword stating that she wrote the book for people who look like her, because people who look like her need a more nuanced understanding of the book’s theme. So I guess my thought is, maybe a little part of the discussion about writing marginalizations should be about how there’s a contradictory need both for stories of marginalization that don’t harm but also for difficult stories of marginalization that give society the knowledge they need to behave ethically, and so even though we don’t really talk about books this way, maybe sometimes there are trauma stories that should be written just for the readers not of the main character’s marginalization who need knowledge to behave more ethically on issues that affect the main character’s marginalization. I don’t know. I’m happy to be told I’m off base here. Just something I’ve been mulling over.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for letting me know! I don’t know if I would have seen that otherwise!

      And I definitely think you’ve got some good points here. I think one of the best examples of what you’re talking about for me is Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman. Warning, before you go looking for it, its central theme is sex, consent (or really, the lack thereof), and taboos, and it gets EXTREMELY graphic. I had to read this for an class back in undergrad, and we weren’t given any warnings about its content. This is where things get difficult. It is true that more intense books that are intended for education can be useful, and often necessary, but there are no systems in place in publishing right now that guarantee content warnings. Add onto that the question “Who exactly is qualified to write about those traumas?”, and you end up in a pretty big conundrum. I don’t think there are any easy answers right now, unfortunately…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a great post! I would say that I try not to kill off anyone in my stories, but death actually seems to be a recurring theme in my work… However, no one gets killed off for no reason and definitely not because of things like their gender.

    Thank you for this post! It’s definitely one that people need to read.

    Like

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