Naming Your Trans Characters

I can’t believe I haven’t written about names yet, especially since it’s an important aspect of transitioning for a lot of people. Today I’m gonna go over some different aspects of naming trans characters that you should keep in mind. This should cover both best/worst practices and some different ways trans people usually pick their names!

Before we get started, I want to address something really quickly: there is usually NO reason to mention a character’s deadname. And when there IS a reason, it’s usually because the author is a trans person and has the cultural competency and experience to do so in a way that doesn’t harm readers. In fact, you may want to avoid imagining what it could be altogether. Deadnames aren’t just “previous names,” they’re names that represent who we once were perceived as, and names that may have been used to intentionally harm us after coming out. There are trans people who don’t have any issues with their deadname, but there are enough that have been traumatized by their deadnames by cruel-intending people that it’s best practice to avoid mentioning a character’s deadname.

When another character deadnames your trans character, you can simply say, “X used my deadname,” without also deadnaming the character to your readers. By doing that, you can draw a hard line between your cruel, transphobic, and/or uneducated characters and yourself. Trans readers will naturally look for themselves in trans characters, so by putting your characters through the harm of deadnaming, your trans readers will likewise be harmed by your choices.

For the trans writers out there, as always the choice is yours. You’re speaking from your own experiences. I would, however, like to take this moment to caution you. If you intend to share this work with others, there is a chance that culturally incompetent people or just downright transphobic people will find your work and deadname your characters, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Similar things have happened with how some readers have misgendered characters like Ben in Mason Deaver’s I Wish You All the Best. At the end of the day, this is completely the fault of those readers who misgender the characters, so I’m not saying “do this or you’re at fault.” Rather, I’m saying that this is something to keep in mind as you write, to make informed decisions on the matter, and to prepare yourself should you decide to include the deadname of a trans character in your work.

A lot of cisgender writers and creators give trans characters names that are basically the same as the character’s deadname, but modified to fit their gender identity and/or expression. While that is true for me because I wanted to keep my initials the same and I wanted to still be called Ash as my nickname, that is very much so not the case for many people. Even in my situation, my first name, Leland, only maintains the first letter from my deadname, and I actually prefer being called Ashford now more than Ash (that part might be because I’ve grown up a bit, though). To be completely honest, one of the many reasons I ended up choosing Leland Ashford Lanquist was because I was afraid that the people close to me wouldn’t refer to me by my proper name if it was too distinct from my deadname. Other people may take a completely different approach by coming up with a name that is so different from their deadname to state loud and clear that this is the new them. 

My thoughts on this matter basically boils down to this: I strongly encourage you to not choose a name based off of a character’s deadname, because at the end of the day, you are not your character. When you come up with a character’s chosen name by basing it off of their deadname, you’re not doing so because you’re like me, where you’re worried about the trauma that comes with being deadnamed. Instead, you’re associating the character with what they’re supposed to be in the eyes of a transphobic, gender binary society.

Most of the trans people I’ve interacted with created a completely new name. They might take on a name based on its meaning or sound, like I did. I chose the name Leland Ashford Lanquist because it sounds nice and because the meaning behind each part fits together well into an image I like: The safe ground in the grove of branching ash trees by the river. That said, there are many different kinds of inspiration someone might take. Much like what happens when parents name their children, it’s not unusual to have someone’s name be taken from a character or another person who has had a major influence on their lives.

I even know some folks who have asked people close to them to help them choose a new name. This is a bit less common, since transition is often a very personal thing, and you often need to be very close with someone to let them take part in that. A few people I know asked a parent who was supportive for a name or list of names to choose from. Another person even sold off the right to pick their middle name for a college event, which was fun! 

As well, in various cultures throughout history and the present day, there have been instances of naming ceremonies or traditions where names are granted or chosen later in life. We even maintain one of these today in the US through marriage. In ancient Rome, for another example, those who accomplished major feats were often given an extra name.

In speculative fiction, being given a name is quite common, whether it be through a deity, or even through a quest. This actually is a plot point in R. B. Lemberg’s The Four Profound Weaves, so if you’re interested in getting some ideas, you may want to try reading that!

Some people pick names that many people wouldn’t initially perceive as names. A lot of names have gender baked into them from many centuries of historical gender binarism, and some have become gendered a certain way in the past few decades. The name “Ashley” for instance, was once a masculine name, but now really is only used for women or hoity toity white dudes with a long lineage of Ashleys. For some folks, it’s just better to go with something that until then hadn’t been thought of as a name, like Hex. 

Quite a few trans people have multiple names that they use at different times. Mostly I’ve seen it done by people who want to express their gender as more feminine sometimes and more masculine at other times, which is why I’ve noticed it is particularly common for bigender and genderfluid folks. That said, even I (a fairly binary trans guy) do this to an extent: I go by L. A. here on my blog for the most part, I go by Ash or Ashford among social circles, and I go by Leland in most library and academic settings. A trans person having multiple names doesn’t have to be because of gender, so it might be something you’d like to explore in your writing.

There are also a lot of folks who choose not to change their name from birth for a variety of reasons. Some trans people don’t have any problem with their birth name, so they choose not to change it. This isn’t the most common in my (white, abled, American) experience, but it’s definitely not unheard of! Others choose not to be fully out about their gender identity, so keeping their name is a safety precaution. On top of that, it’s important to keep in mind that many trans people change their names multiple times over the course of their lives. Sometimes this is because they just don’t like what they picked for themselves anymore, but other times it’s because they don’t feel like it fits them anymore.

I’ve said all this, but sometimes people pick a name just because they like it, with no more complicated thought process behind it.

There are a ton of other reasons why someone might choose a name, so it’s best to think of what your character would choose. But really, don’t overthink it: choose their name just like you would for a cisgender character. If that means spending hours looking at name meanings, then so be it. If that means randomly choosing from a hat, that works too!

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