Q&A

How Do I Show That a Character Is Trans?

questions and answer talk bubbles

In a book I am currently writing, the fictional society has moved beyond any kind of transphobia, so being transgender is not treated as being anything out of the ordinary. Given this, I am wondering how to show that a character is transgender if it is not something that anyone would comment on or care about in-universe?

– Juliette

Hi Juliette,

Good for you! This is a great thing to take on.

It probably won’t be much harder to specify that a character is trans in your world. Marginalized groups aren’t just defined by the oppression against them; they have inherently different experiences that will matter to them. However, the experiences of trans people may depend on some of the details of your world: How does society perceive gender? Does the world have technology or magic for easily changing the body? (Keep in mind that while many trans people would want to change their bodies, some don’t have body dysphoria and would not choose to change anything.)

Regardless, to specify that a character is trans, you’ll be looking for the small differences in the experiences and lifestyles of trans and cis people. Here are some possibilities:

  • A man might think of/mention the possibility of giving birth or becoming pregnant, or a woman might mention getting someone else pregnant.
  • A character might casually mention taking testosterone or estrogen.
  • Getting dressed could be different – a trans man may wear a chest binder.
  • A trans woman might need to look for high heels at extra-large sizes.
  • A character might discuss how they chose their own name, or they might still be testing out a potential new name that may not be their final one.
  • Pictures or stories from the past might reveal a character used to present as a different gender. (If assigned genders at birth are not a thing in your world, this person could also be gender fluid.)
  • Even in an accepting world, it might take some time for people to adjust to using different pronouns for the same person. I don’t recommend actually showing people using the wrong pronoun for your trans characters, but your trans character might mention experiences with having the wrong pronoun used or having to correct or remind people what their pronoun is.

If you’re cis and haven’t had these experiences yourself, you’ll want to stay away from the more sensitive parts of a trans person’s transition. That includes changes to the body, coming to a realization about their gender, and trying a different gender presentation for the first time. While these things will be less sensitive in a world without oppression, they’ll still be sensitive for your trans readers. Generally, it’s easier to avoid things that are too sensitive if your character is post-transition.

When communicating a character is trans, there’s a balance between being so subtle that people won’t catch on and making too big a deal out of it. It’s generally something that should be present but should not be the center of attention. If you use more subtle cues, you’ll want more than one. And having multiple signs over the course of the story will help your trans character feel like a trans character and not like a cis character that’s just been labeled as trans.

Happy writing!

Chris

Keep the answer engine fueled by becoming a patron today. Want to ask something? Submit your question here.

Read more about ,

 

Comments

  1. Sam Victors

    I have created a Trans character before, but I thank you for this as this helps me (and other writers even more).

    • Sam Victors

      My Trans Character is a Virginian, Romani Transwoman in a somewhat post-apocalyptic setting (only this PA world is mostly a world where most of humanity suffers a Sleeping Beauty like situation where everyone is asleep, due to a supernatural appearance and a battle between two polar opposite old women).

      There’s also a TERF character in the story, opposing the Trans character, and she’s on the antagonistic side of the supernatural battle.

      To explain things better, the story is similar to Stephen King’s The Stand, but mixed with mythological, archetypal elements; two powerful polar opposite women representing the Life-Death-Rebirth cycle.

  2. Kalani

    As a trans woman, this is very well written! I would write it similar. I recommend mentioning a binder or how supportive family members have been.

  3. Bubbles

    Thanks for the guidance! I was wondering about this too. Just to note: if you’re creating fictional cultures and languages, they don’t necessarily need to have gendered pronouns or names at all, depending on their development and environment. (This also applies if you’re writing about a real-life culture or language without those things). To make it clear: I am not advocating for censorship, and you should be entirely free to include gendered pronouns and names in your fictional creations if it makes sense that they would be there. I am just pointing out that it is not the only option.

    • Juliette

      Thanks for your input! I don’t know why you were worried about advocating for censorship; your comment gave MORE ideas; it wasn’t restricting them. The idea of non-gendered names is actually a good idea; I’ll try it out.

  4. Rivers

    As a nonbinary trans person I very much appreciate this. I’m trying to do a similarish thing in my WIP. It’s also good if you are looking into personal experiences of trans people for research purposes to make sure you get somewhat of a variety. People handle things in different ways and gender dysphoria/euphoria looks different to different people. Sensitivity readers might also be nice.

  5. Martin Perry

    What you shouldn’t do is describe a character as broadly male for a while, then broadly female for a while after a time apart from them (or vice versa) so the audience understands the character isn’t 100% cisgendered, then subtly mention mysterious nutritional supplements the character has to take to imply hormone therapy…
    …and then suddenly ram it down the audience’s throat by making up an excuse to see the supposedly female character naked and describe seeing a tiny penis amongst the bush of pubic hair. Ok, Ok, we get it, the character is trans. Did you need to describe the tiny penis to get your point across?

  6. Juliette

    Thank you so much, Chris! This is quite helpful!

  7. Leon

    Since gender is purely an invention. How would you write a trans character in a setting with no gender roles?

    • Stephen Coffey

      If gender is purely an invention, a setting without said invention would have no trans characters. But that’s a controversial statement that a lot of trans people would disagree with.

      One common position is that gender roles are an invention, but gender itself is a neurological part of sexual dimorphism – it fits the scientific evidence as well as the personal experiences of trans individuals who feel their gender as something that comes from within.

  8. Hannah Mohammed

    Thanks so much for the advice!
    I was thinking of writing a trans man in a world where being trans is not really discriminated against. I know a name change is vital in many people’s transitions, but I was thinking of writing a character who keeps their birth name, which is usually (not always, but definitely mostly) used as a “girl’s name”.
    I actually know a trans man who has done this, but I was wondering how something like this could come across within the bounds of a story, and whether there would be any tropes or sensitive topics I would have to be careful about. I don’t want to make light of name changes or write an unrealistic trans character/caricature or anything like that.

    • Chris Winkle

      The most important thing is that you affirm his gender. Affirming the gender of a trans man using his birth name could be a really good thing, but it also might make your depiction feel less affirming. I would ask several trans people for their opinions on this one. This is a tricky topic, and using specifics from one person you know doesn’t always have good results. Because representation is scarce, marginalized characters have the extra burden of representing a whole group.

    • Bellis

      I think this depends in part on how the name is read with your target audience, do they read it as definitely female or as ambigous, even if leaning?

      And also how it and names in general are treated and viewed in your setting and story. If names are not strictly gendered and other characters have names that aren’t 100% associated with their gender, it would just be a normal thing in that world. But it might be weird if the trans character is the only one who’s name is “weird” that way. If name and gender aren’t as strongly correlated in your story as they are in many real-world cultures, that would actually be great in my (trans) opinion!

      It also might be a good idea to consider other reasons for wanting to change one’s name, like needing to distance himself from his past or his family. But if his parents are supportive in trans and other matters and he has nothing to run away from or otherwise become a totally different person (be it due to trauma or changing his values or outlook on life or behaviour) it makes sense to keep the name, especially in a setting where said name would not get him constantly misgendered (which seems to be the case from what you say).
      That’s actually really nice and refreshing, because irl a lot of trans people need to get rid of their old name in part due to family trauma (parents who misgender and try to make them stop being trans etc) and sometimes other reasons on top of gender dysphoria, as well as being discriminated against if we have weird names or ones that don’t get read as corresponding to our genders by society at large.

      • Bellis

        On a more general but related note:

        One thing to avoid is giving your trans character a weird version of their deadname with just the ending changed to make it seem feminine/masculine, like “I used to be Christopher but now I’m Christopherina” which is obviously laughable but even subtle versions of this like Martin/Martina are something I’d avoid because most trans people don’t go off their deadname when deciding on their name, in fact a lot of us explicitly chose really different names if we can. This is something that can happen and does happen in real life, but I’d advise against using it in stories, and definitely don’t construct weird or unusual names even if they technically exist in that form (for example if the changed name is no longer common for that age group or is more associated with another language/culture).

        Usually I’d just give them a name that has nothing to do with their deadname, but fits them and is something they would chose. But of course there are exceptions and it depends on the specifics, like feeling attached to the birth name because you have actually supportive loving parents whose gift of a name you cherish (???? apparently this happens for some trans people??? But I don’t know anyone like that personally).

  9. Kit

    How well this is received will come down to individual taste, but I think you’ll ostracise a lot of people unnecessarily if you continue down this road. Why don’t you want him to have a male name? Trace that logic – just ‘having a friend who didn’t’ isn’t enough. I’d be highly uncomfortable reading this, personally. If there are no cis men with feminine names and he’s singled out, that’s so much worse, but either way it feels real sketchy. What are readers going to take from this? That trans men are still somewhat women, or should be considered as such? That those who care about their chosen name being respected are too touchy? And what’s your thought process in writing it? I just don’t think it’s fair. Trans men already tend to get portrayed more femininely than cis men in fiction. We don’t ever get to just be average men, do we? It’s frustrating. It’d be progressive just to see a masculine trans man, or even just one who isn’t constantly undercut by feminine characteristics the rest of the male cast don’t share. I feel like a better option would be to make a nonbinary character if you’re wanting someone to blend typical gendered characteristics. He could still go by ‘he’, but be transmasculine and nonbinary as opposed to a binary trans man. Otherwise, I’d just change his name.

    (To Bellis: I think you made really good points, especially the last one! Personally, though, I don’t care if an author says ‘oh, names aren’t as strictly gendered in my world’ – if you call a trans dude Ellie, well, that name still has associations in our world! Especially if cis guys still get to be called David or Sam or whatever. Every binary trans people I know changed their names, and most nonbinary people. Two of them already had gender-neutral names and still changed their names because they associated it with their prior presentation as the wrong gender. Most people don’t change their names out of trauma, or else we’d see a lot more cis trauma victims do the same – and I changed my name even having a ton of support because it wasn’t so much shedding an identity as it was stepping into one. I’d feel differently if this came from a trans author, but I don’t think a cis author can reclaim what would usually be our deadnames on our behalf, especially when so many of us do not want them reclaimed at all in the first place.)

    • Kit

      Ack – meant this as a reply to Hannah Mohammed, sorry!

  10. Kiara

    Hey! I’m trying to write a trans male character for my story, but I don’t know wether or not to put that he’s trans in the description. Also, how am I able to write a good transgender character? I don’t have any trans friends, so it’s a little difficult for me. Sorry if this sounds weird..

    • HMJ

      Hi, Kiara, love your name.

      It is my unpublished opinion that a description of a character show off the POV character’s own thoughts, whether flawed or not. If they knew X before X was a man, there’s every opportunity to highlight how seeing them again can be jarring in a good or bad way. That can be the unexpected beard they acquired since last time, or finding androgynous features attractive. If you want something more subtle, you can reward a character with internal thought after using the correct pronoun, or mentally checking that they did in fact get it right. (Everyone stumbles with pronouns now and then, no one brings out their revolver in response. Today the courteous thing is to correct yourself straight away if you notice a slip.)

      I think you do need to make contact with some ftm trans people if you wish to allude to or use their experiences in a meaningful way. I can only suggest Reddit or that some drop their number here for you. Experiences are wildly different between individuals, and unfortunately we tend to focus on the negatives. They may embrace a new gender role, or have sought to shun the old confines. Impostor syndrome remains a factor for the rest of many peoples’ lives, and the threat of public speaking can be the next thing to absolute murder if they’re not practised and feel well about their voice. Uneasiness when encountering people who knew them pre-transition can also show in your story, as can the search for the unisex/handicap bathroom stall.

      Focusing on these negatives may not be bad if you want to foster attachment by making your character aware of and responsive to trans peoples’ issues. But if those negatives take up too much space and defines them in your story, it won’t feel very good to anyone reading it. Maybe leave those for little quirky door-ajar moments, little glances into their personality that your POV either understands or wonders about. I think anyone who is trans/trans-adjacent reading a story will be happy to learn you’ve put someone trans in, but unless it’s plot related it can also be left at that. Simple affirmations like “Love your hair” are a rarity for MTF people since they grew up without that being commonplace. For FTM, compliments become much rarer as men don’t really compliment each other, but their inclusion can still be marked by participation in the culture of machismo — not always toxic in its displays, but often physically apart from what ‘the women’ are doing.

      The 21st century experience of transitioning leaves its marks in a number of ways. Whether you are indeed writing in the 21st century (as opposed to utopian 131st century scifi á la Ian M Banks’ I’m-between-sexes-right-now) can be important, as can the culture that surrounds you/the character. The family, the community, the country, the health services — these things make all the difference in many ways.

Leave a Comment

Please see our comments policy (updated 03/28/20) and our privacy policy for details on how we moderate comments and who receives your information.