Writing Trans* Characters 101: Pronouns

Posted: August 23, 2015 in Uncategorized
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Let’s get to the good stuff.


I am majorly passionate about getting more transgender characters out there — be they FtM, MtF, non-binary, genderqueer, agender, bigender, and any other non-cisgender identity you could possibly think of. And if that’s going to happen, then cisgender authors are going to have to join in. There simply aren’t enough trans* people — never mind trans* authors — to make that change on our own.


Good news is that authors have been writing about people who aren’t like them for centuries.


That’s actually something really important that everyone needs to remember. Most crime novels are about murder, but most crime novelists are not murderers. Most aren’t even police officers. Most writers of gay romance are straight women. Most writers of children’s books are not children. And so on and so forth. So really, saying ‘I [or they] can’t write a book about a transgender character because I’m [or they’re] not transgender!’ is…really fucking stupid.


Seriously, we need to bin that argument. It’s dumb.


But like anyone writing about something outside their experience zone, authors need to do their research. So here’s step one, and a hang-up that gets a lot of new-to-the-field people confused: language.


More specifically, pronouns.


Most transgender people will still use he or she — it just might not be obvious to you which one. Some use ‘they’ as a singular gender-neutral, e.g. ‘This is Jude, they work in Harry’s team.’ [Note for editors: yes, it’s clunky, but it’s also what real people use.] And then finally there are the gender-neutral pronouns, ones specifically created by the non-binary community to describe themselves.


I’m going to mostly stick with he, she and they for this post, given that it’s what most people use and the gender-neutral ones that have been created in recent years deserve their own dedicated post.


If you are writing a book wherein the transgender character is not going to transition, or has already transitioned:


Use the pronoun that character wants you to. Use the one that the other characters who like that character will use. Use the one that comes naturally.


It sounds dumb, right? You’re going ‘duh, no shit, Matt.’ Well, yeah, it is obvious — and yet loads of people ask about it on writing groups. “I have this character, Kevin, and he’s trans, he used to be a woman, but do I use he or she???” Well, which one did you just use?


If the character either isn’t going to transition, or has already transitioned, then the character likely comes with a pronoun, the same way characters often come with their names, or specific things about the way they look and talk, and so on. And for FtM or MtF characters, their preferred name is usually a pretty big hint. If the first names that come to mind for your character are Joshua and Robert, odds are your character is going to be using ‘he.’


If you are writing a book in which the character is in the process of transitioning:


This is trickier.


It depends partly on what stage the character is at. In Ink and Images, my first adult transgender novel, the transgender character has completely socially transitioned, but not medically. This means that he is he, even though he’s not kitted out with all the blokey bits yet. This is the same in Girls Will Be Boys, an incompleted manuscript of mine in which Anton has just set out being Anton instead of being Natasha. In both books, ‘he’ is the correct pronoun because the characters have socially transitioned.


However, in another incomplete one, Letters to a Boy Who wasn’t Me, main character Jamie is a work in progress. In the course of the book, he works out that he’s transgender and that his gender identity is female. For the first part of the book, ‘he’ is perfectly correct because Jamie is himself unaware of what he is.


This is both perfectly normal, and perfectly fine. Many transgender people don’t know when they’re very young that they are transgender. I didn’t, for one. So to say ‘he’ until that realisation occurs is perfectly fine.


It gets messier, though, once the character realises and begins to socially or medically transition. At some point, especially for MtF or FtM characters, they are highly likely to change their pronoun. [Note that non-binary characters may not.] And at what point do you do it?


My advice is this:

  • Transgender people commonly switch what they call themselves before telling other people about it. I changed all my online accounts and was practising my new signature before anybody else had the first clue. Having the character switch internally before they tell other people is just fine.
  • As is having them ‘test out’ the new pronoun: muttering it to yourselves, gaming with a username typical of your preferred gender and seeing if you like it when other users say your assumed pronoun, etc. etc. are all common test methods. I was mistaken for a man in a pub early in my social transition, and got a warm little glow from it. Similarly, many non-binary people have realised they are non-binary by not liking just swapping he for she or vice-versa.
  • Many people ask for others to switch pronouns at the same time as adopting a new name.
  • Some will do a ‘three for the price of one’ and come out, offer a new name, and ask for new pronouns, all at the same time.


Consistency is your key for when you as the author should use the new pronouns. Once the character decides to change pronoun, both they and the narrative should stick to those guns. Every other character in the novel will — realistically — slip up now and then, but you shouldn’t.


Which is another point.


It’s okay for other characters to be inconsistent. Take it from me, even your closest, most supportive friends will slip up now and then. A friend at work just today went, “Oi! [My name]! He’s not listening to me. Oi! Holy shit, is she deaf or what?” In the space of three seconds, she switched from one to the other and slipped up. It happens, and it’s totally okay for other people to do that in the story. If transition has been pretty recent, it’s even expected.


Those slip-ups will also happen more commonly if the name is gender-neutral, e.g. Alex or Sam, and happen to gender-specific words too. It’s common enough to get a parent used to saying ‘she’ but then still slip up and say ‘my son’s not home yet.’


Other characters


When and how other characters switch over is largely down to the character, and how they relate to the transgender one.


In general, parents change slowest. They also tend to have the biggest hesitations, because they’ve typically known the person longest. By contrast, co-workers tend to switch pretty fast, as they’ve typically not known the person long and there’s often a certain amount of pressure not to be ‘that guy’ in the office.


But these are generalisations. Your massively transphobic boss is not going to switch for love nor money. Your PFLAG-chapter-running mom is going to switch like the birth gender never happened. And there’s a whole range of behaviours right down the middle.


You have to be clever as a writer, though: people do not change overnight. We say pronouns and gender-specific words more than we realise. (Just try writing a whole blog post about hypothetical people without saying he or she!) And gradually is the key here, as opposed to consistency before. “He — sorry, she–” is going to be common at first. Names tend to do this weird “I can’t remember their new name but goddamnit I will not use the old one!” stutter where your own neighbour will go, “Hi — er — er — how’re you — Julie!” like you’ve never met before. Parents with multiple children will often early on go, “Oh I have one son — no, two sons!” and look totally nuts to strangers, who will be no doubt wondering why this idiot doesn’t know how many sons he has.


As a rule of thumb, people friendly to the transgender character will take a little while to switch, but will try. People who aren’t, won’t switch at all.


When referring in marketing and so on to the transgender character, use the post-transition pronouns.


TL;DR — it’s all about consistency for the transgender character and the narrative, and gradual handover for everyone else.


And pronouns are not as complicated as they look. It only gets worse from here…







(Scheduled post, as I am away this weekend.)


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