Blogathon: 22nd Hour


Goddamnit. I just smoked my last cigarette.

Everything is about to become horrible.

Well, I mean, the state I’m already in is well beyond horrible already, but, you know, like… EXTRA horrible!

By the way, I think I totally need to draw a comic called Spiroman vs. Doctor Testostopus.

Anyway… I have some requests!

It seems people would like to know how someone writing a trans character in work of fiction can do so without totally fucking it up.

Well…

I suppose one of the first things to do is to think of the character as a person, a human being with their own thoughts and attitudes and perspectives and ambitions and fears and quirks and things. Not just as some symbol or function of the story. Well-written characters are three-dimensional. Every aspect of their identities and interior lives exist. They have a gender, a background to that gender, a history, a sexuality, motivations, flaws, strengths, idiosyncracies and so on.

Remember that no one is ever JUST trans. Everyone is trans in an individual way. Our transitions are individual, what brought us to transition is individual, our “tells” are individual, our fears are individual, our shame is individual, our narratives our individual. There is no generic or average trans experience. Know what the character has been through. Know how they differ from other trans people. Know how they feel about that. Were their family and friends supportive? How did they respond to HRT? Have they had SRS? Why or why not? How do they feel about that? When did they come out? How old were they when they began medical transition? What happened that made them make that decision? Is there anything their ashamed of that they don’t tell other people? What doubts did they have? What did they tell themselves when they, if ever, were in denial? If they didn’t transition early in life, but also weren’t ever in denial, what produced the delay? How did they earn the money for whatever treatments they’ve had? Have they ever been attacked? Harassed? Sexually assaulted? How did they cope? What scars linger? What scars are lingering from the transition itself? Are they confident? Are they scared? What lessons have they learned from being trans? How do they feel about other trans people? Do they have trans friends? If so, who, and what motivates the friendship?

These are just a tiny range of the kinds of questions you can ask to make sure your character is more than just a “trans character”.

Remember that self-perception is often very, very different from external perception. Trans people don’t, for instance, walk around thinking of ourselves as “the trans person” all the time. We may be intensely self-conscious of being trans, yes, but it isn’t who we are and there are depths to us, even depths to our identities as trans, that go far beyond simply the external, presented identity. Perhaps most importantly in this regard, remember that what being trans means TO US is something quite different from what our being trans means to other people, or to you, or to your story.

It’s also worth thinking about how other people see this character. Do they conform to stereotypes or deviate from them? If so, how does that effect other people’s perceptions of them? And in turn, how do they respond to those perceptions?

What is their gender expression like, and why? What are they trying to convey about themselves? What do they end up ACTUALLY conveying about themselves?

And of course, there’s immense amounts of any trans person that have absolutely nothing to do with being trans. Those should be richly defined as well. What OTHER interests do they have? Certainly they don’t just walk around all day thinking about nothing but hormones, surgery, gender expressions and the latest act of grue insensitivity. There MUST be more to them than that.

And read other works of fiction featuring trans characters that have been received positively. Read Doom Patrol and Deathwish and Game Of You (but DON’T uncritically accept that final scene with Death) and Demon Knights. Read Luna and Almost Perfect. And watch documentaries about real trans people too, especially ones where we were able to present our OWN narratives, and frame them in our OWN terms, such as She’s A Boy I Knew. Read trans blogs. Make trans friends. Listen to their stories. Ask them questions. Let them tell you which questions they think are important to ask in order to understand who they are, deep down, and then ask those questions of your character. Know what trans people are really like as opposed to what trans people are like only in fiction and the imaginations of cis people. Learn to understand us as human beings, exactly as complex and fucked up as all the rest of us.

Don’t make it easy on yourself. Don’t make it easy on the reader. And don’t place “not pissing anyone off” as your top priority. Place writing a compelling, believable, three-dimensional, human character as your top priority. No matter WHAT you do, or HOW you write your trans character, some trans person somewhere is going to find it flawed and hurtful and be angry with you. That’s not important. What’s important is that for some reader, somewhere, some perfect trans reader who you want to reach, it feels true and real and meaningful, that they feel understood and see themselves reflected in your work. THAT’S what counts.

I hope this helps.

Comments

  1. Jason B says

    This post can be few helpful in a few ways, good reading suggestions, and also some tips on approaching trans subjects and people in general, thanks.
    I have Game Of You on order from my library and am eagerly awaiting it. I have been reading the Sandman series based on your recommendation of that book but figured i should start at the beginning.
    Only a few hours to go! on the bright side the weather is going to be nicer today…. not that you’ll know, you will be sleeping.

  2. says

    I read a book last year that had a well-illustrated trans woman in it, who was a secondary character. The portrayal was sensitive and obviously researched, was did not discuss her life and choices as a trans woman at length, but only as much as was needed to explain who she was to the main character/narrator; but the BIG thing the book did right was to EMPOWER her.

    She was not a tragic figure, she was not killed off,
    and as you suggested she had SKILLS that had nothing to do with being trans. And she USED them in the book, being key to the advancement of the plot a couple times and saving part of the day. And she was NOT stupid or confused–no perfect magical oracle, but smart.

    I don’t think I can stress hard enough how important this is. It goes for lesbian characters too–there’s a well-known “kill the tragic lesbian” trope–but seriously, writers, make your trans characters not only 3D but also full of agency, and that will go a long way towards making it not important if you misunderstand something about what it is to be a trans person.

    Er, in my opinion anyway. I feel pretty strongly about this but I could be wrong…

    • says

      Yeah, I hope I didn’t come across as suggesting that because the writer should know the answers to all those questions that the reader needs to.

      The point is getting to the point where you can’t help but write your character as an individual human being, with individual strengths and flaws, and individual agency.

      • says

        I thought you meant “have a full backstory” (didn’t mean to imply that I thought the brevity of discussion was necessarily bad either), but am glad you said so outright.

    • says

      Seconding the request for the name of the book! There’s little enough representation of us that allow us to live to the end, let alone be people that I would like to signal boost anything that should be emulated. :)

  3. says

    “I suppose one of the first things to do is to think of the character as a person, a human being with their own thoughts and attitudes and perspectives and ambitions and fears and quirks and things. Not just as some symbol or function of the story.”

    I find that right there is the perfect advice for writing any character. Don’t think about trying to create a “blank” character, just create a good character who happens to be “blank”, and go from there.

    • says

      Yes and no. The thing is that the “blank” can still matter a lot. And being trans would certainly matter to the character, since being trans is always a big part of someone’s life. For most of us, over time, it eventually fades into the background of our lives a bit, but it ALWAYS has meaningful consequences and does, to at least some significant degree, define a part of who we are and what we’ve been through.

      So while I agree that it’s a mistake when people obsessively think of their characters in terms of one particular salient trait, and think of them as “the trans character”, “the black character”, “the latina character” or whatever first rather than first as who that character IS, as an individual, I think it can also be a mistake to end up treating something like as purely incidental, or like it doesn’t matter. That ends up feeling dismissive and patronizing. Instead, I think these kinds of things should relate to who the character is more or less the same way it relates to who real people are. It doesn’t DEFINE us, or dictate our destiny and role in life, or either determine or trump every single other aspect of who we are, but it DOES influence us, and have an effect on who we are, and mean something to us.

      So it’s a bit of a middle-ground I think. You definitely don’t want your character to just be “the trans character”, but I think it’s also a problem when treated as “Characterina, who just completely incidentally happens to be trans, which is a detail included for apparently no reason, and which has apparently no impact on her life or the story or how people perceive her or anything at all”.

      Do you know what I mean?

      I don’t disagree with you, I just think there’s a second dimension worth considering too, which is that the “just happens to be X” approach can also be handled very clumsily and also has potential to read as offensive, patronizing and/or dismissive / belittling.

      • says

        Yes, I know what you mean, and I think it depends on what type of story you’re actually trying to tell. And that’s why I added “and then go from there”, because I was just speaking with the initial creation of said character.

        The problem is when people, even well-meaning people, who are not “blank”, focus all their energy on making a “blank” character, then it often tends to become more of a stereotype. That’s why, for example, so many of the early Black superheroes all came from poor neighborhoods and/or had criminal backgrounds (either they were criminals, or they were framed by evil racist cops), because that’s what the White creators saw as “realistic.”

        The same thing can happen with with the creation of GBLT characters, if that’s the primary concern. So I’m saying the focus should be on the character first, creating him or her as a 3-dimensional character and *then* thinking how will the character’s life be impacted by being gay, or bi, or trans?

        • says

          Yeah, but things like being gay or bi or trans usually have such an impact on someone’s life that it’s sort of hard to flesh a character out as fully three-dimensional WITHOUT addressing what it means to them.

Trackbacks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>