Posts Tagged ‘writing tips’

If you want to write transgender characters well, it’s ironically the little things that will help you the most.

 

It doesn’t take a lot to convince me you googled folks like me. You know what top and bottom surgery mean. You know about shots and gel. You know about those first terrifying forays into the right sections of the clothing stores. Good for you: you can Google. You had Trans 101, probably in a single conversation. Awesome.

 

But let’s face it, it’s the little things that make anyone believe a character.

 

Let’s take crime novels. I work in law enforcement in real life. And I enjoy crime dramas and crime novels…but ninety-nine percent of them don’t actually convince me. Why? Because nobody says, “Clear left!” when they’re the passenger in a car.

 

No, seriously. Every single one of my RL colleagues (and me) does it. Across three forces. Say this to a new colleague who started last week, and they look at you like you’re batshit insane. It’s a very…well, cop thing to do. And without it? I don’t believe the characters are real cops.

 

Writing trans characters is exactly the same. I’m not going to be overly impressed when you know about binders. (And yes, actually, many people in the genre do expect you to be impressed when they know what a packer is.) I am waiting for the inevitable trying-on-make-up scene if your character is a transwoman. I know it’s coming, let’s just get it over with.

 

Or, preferably, let’s get some authenticity up in here. Let’s get some variance. Let’s get some reality.

 

Like how taste can change. I have loathed yoghurt for twenty-five years. Even as a toddler, I had to be MAJORLY bribed. Now, I’m chugging the stuff. I fucking love it. And it’s weird as fuck, because my brain is still not convinced on this. It knows it shouldn’t like it. But my mouth is overriding it, and going mad.

 

Like how you keep some things from your past life, because fuck it, they’re good. Most visitors to my house believe I have a girlfriend who stays regularly, because there’s flowery bubble bath and two scented candles on my bathtub. Because yeah, I go mountain biking at weekends, I do kickboxing, and I am found six evenings a week doing weights in the gym–but fuck you, them candles smell good.

 

Or like the joys of gardening topless. Not because it’s manly, or gender-affirming. But because it’s fucking July and roasting hot and I have to dig up the lawn, damn it. Not every happy moment with our bodies is a trans thing. And let’s be cynical here, some of the changes are good or bad for totally self-serving, not-to-do-with-gender things.

 

Like the one thing I mourn about having my top surgery? I can no longer get instantly served in bars just by existing. I have to wait in line now. Kinda sucks.

 

Like how being trans doesn’t mean being totally in love with everything about your acquired gender, or hating everything about your assigned one. Being a transman doesn’t mean you have to hate your boobs. Being a transwoman doesn’t mean you must have a serious thing for make-up. Some transmen still have wedding-dress dreams; some transwomen still love nothing more than slumming it in crotch-to-the-knees sweatpants and hoodies on a Sunday afternoon.

 

So write them too. See them. Show them. Know them.

 

It’s not all about binders and packers and surgeries and hormones.

 

It’s about that one patch of hair that’s coming in under your nipple when the rest of your chest is as bare as a baby’s arse.

 

It’s about not being into false nails, no matter how many colours they come in.

 

It’s about the little things. And those are the things that make a character believable. And make our lives real.

So let’s talk about something that allies and writers tend not to notice very much.

Endearments are very often gendered, but…pretty subtly. So what even a stranger calls you in a friendly, informal setting can often reveal what gender they think you are.

I don’t know about America too well, but in Britain, loads of random endearments are gendered, but not necessarily all the same way. ‘Love’ is typically something everyone calls women, but can also be something older women call men. ‘Mate’ and ‘pal’ typically refer to men, and is used that way by both sexes, but ‘pet’ changes from bloody estate to estate in Newcastle, and ‘duck’ seems to refer to anyone on the planet whose name I may or may not know.

Very often, you’re reliant on knowing the area to know whether or not someone just effectively called you a man or a woman.

But sometimes, they give themselves away.

I’ve just returned from a long weekend visiting friends in Gloucestershire. On Sunday, my lovely host and I went for a roast dinner at a Toby Carvery. For those of you who don’t know, this is a chain carvery where you basically go and get your meat carved by a bloke in a hat, then wander off to the buffet table to pile the rest of the food on, then eat yourself to death at your table.

When I got to the counter, having not been speaking to my friend loudly enough for the chef to hear, he said, “What’ll it be, pallove?”

That was how fast he changed his mind. Pallove. He started to say ‘pal’, a term in that area only really applied to men, then twigged I might not actually be a man halfway through and tried to change it to ‘love’, a term that when it’s used by men is almost always going to be referring to a woman.

The result was pallove.

My friend started smirking. I struggled to keep a straight face, and just asked for the turkey. When we got back to our table with our soon-to-be-food-comas, we both started sniggering.

But just look at how gendering crept into even having dinner. I was gendered by the chef serving me food. We went shopping the next day, and a sales assistant asked if he could help ‘you ladies.’ In the next shop, I got ‘palled’ again and nobody seemed puzzled by us wandering into the menswear section; in the one after that, I got a distinctly funny look for looking through the men’s swimming trunks on the sales rack.

I would say that someone effectively remarks on my gender, via casual endearments, every time I leave my house. I get ‘mate’ a lot in my town. One of my colleagues has a tendency to ask me to ‘be a gent and make us a cuppa.’ I got ‘pallove’ at dinner, and ‘what can I get you ladies’ at the bar.

Does it bother me? No, not really. My dysphoria is well over 90% physical, rather than social. Does it bother others? Yeah, sometimes. An agender friend can get very upset if we both get ‘how can I help you, sirs?’ in a public place. I heard of a trans guy recently who blew his lid when a waitress called him ‘miss.’ Hell, when I’m grumpy or low, even I pull a face at the confused, ‘Um, and…what’s your date of birth?’ when I’m ringing my doctor’s surgery to try and get an appointment, because the idea of a female voice belonging to a patient recorded as Mr. blows the receptionist’s mind.

But whether or not it bothers us, it’s something to bear in mind when writing transgender characters.

Because whether they mind or not, there’s just about no way they haven’t noticed.

So I had a rant a couple of weeks ago, but looks like it’s time for Mark II.

Over the last 24 hours, I’ve had an exchange with another author on why there aren’t more transmen in m/m fiction. (I will not be identifying this author, as I don’t believe in any of that name-and-shame shit that stalks the LGBT fiction genre like a seriously bad smell.) Anyway, I shared a picture of some trans people who are passing like fuck, y’all, and said this was another reason why that absence of transmen in m/m fiction is confusing to me.

Because not being funny, a lot of m/m fiction is about two hot guys, probably both alpha male types, getting together with [insert plot]. And that in itself is a whole different discussion, but my point is, if there are transmen who look 100% male and alpha type-y then…why aren’t they featuring too?

The response?

“Because it’s harder.”

Seriously, that was it. It’s harder.

Well, why? Literally the only thing I said was trans character, so…what, trans characters are de facto harder to write than gay ones?

Yeah, that’s about the point at which I blew my lid.

You know why they’re supposedly harder? You know why they’re so scary and so intimidating? Because you’re not looking past the word ‘trans’ to the word ‘person’ or ‘man’ or ‘woman’ that follows. Can you write women? Then you can write trans women. Can you write men? Then you can write trans men.

This author continued to explain that, obviously, this is because trans people are new. They confessed to waiting decades to publish about gay men in case they got it wrong, and as trans people and the trans community are new, authors need to be made more comfortable.

(I’m not even going to address the stupidity of demanding that the minority make the majority feel ‘comfortable enough’ to accept them.)

Even without addressing that, it’s still ridiculous.

Movements and groups progress and gain visiblity largely through the media. And what does it say about us as a genre when bloody EastEnders is showing trans characters — played by trans actors, no less! — and we’re still trotting out this pathetic ‘ahhhh, they’re haaaaaaaard!’ every time the issue is raised.

Transgender people have been around for as long as human beings have been. They were at the 1969 Stonewall Riots. In 1979, the WPATH Standards of Care for transgender patients were first set up. Are they more visible now than ever? Yes…largely due to the media. Writers should be ahead of the game on this one, and to wail that trans people are new and scary is just another example of prejudice and ignorance, especially now in the face of their increasing visibility.

This author said they had waited decades to publish about gay men, for fear of getting it wrong. Can I assume, then, an explosion in trans literature in 2056, also decades after it was so desperately needed? It is needed now. The explosion should be now. But too many writers are still trotting out the excuse that it’s somehow hard. They don’t know enough about trans people to write them!

And why are so many writers ignorant?

Because they choose to be. All of that information is out there. I could delete this whole blog right now and I wouldn’t have added anything to the information already in existence, already accessible. Writers somehow are fine with intensive research on places they’ve never been, jobs they’ve never worked, languages they don’t speak…but to write a trans man trying to decide between the cute guy next door and the hot but dangerous boss, that’s far too difficult and requires far too much research. Obviously.

Well, not to be sarcastic, but how the fresh hell do you suppose trans people find out about how to get treatment, about all the tricky little issues you’re too scared to address? We’re not born with an inherent knowledge of binders, packers, and the order in which treatments should be taken.

Google.

Stop hiding behind this excuse that it’s too hard. Writing about a specific trans issue is hard. Writing about trans people is not. You know why? We’re human. If you can write about other humans, you can write about us. So either stop making your excuses, or at least have the common decency to recognise them for what they are: excuses.

Not once have I said, “I’d like to see more books about trans issues.”

What I have said, frequently, is, “I’d like to see more trans characters.”

Do you get the difference?

Do you really?

If I had a pound for every time I said ‘I’d like to see more trans characters’ and was told by various authors and would-be authors, “Oh, me too, but I couldn’t do it, I don’t know enough about trans people,” then I’d be sailing around the Seychelles in my yacht right about now.

And if that’s you, that’s said that, then guess what. You’re prejudiced.

No, seriously, you are. You’re either prejudiced, or you need to open your ears more. Pick whichever one offends you the least. Or most, I don’t really care right now.

If I asked someone, “Why don’t you write more black characters in your books?” and they responded with, “I don’t know enough about black people,” guess what my conclusion would be. That this person thinks that black people are somehow fundamentally different from them. That somehow being black overrides everything else that makes up a human being, and you must have in-depth knowledge of that magical thing before you can write a character with that trait.

Piss. Off.

There is a difference between being trans, and trans people.

Let’s take the black example again. Being black is a thing that has specific concerns in, say, 1880s Arkansas, or parts of Chicago, or all of South Africa. There are specific issues that apply to black people in certain scenarios that do not apply to white people. That is about being black. But there is no goddamn possible difference, unless you put it there, for your space adventure story around Saturn’s rings in 4452. No fucker cares. In that example, you are just a bigot if you claim you can’t put a black character in your space adventure because you ‘don’t know enough about black people.’ You don’t know shit about white people in 4452 either, so what?

Trans characters are exactly the same. What you need to know depends purely and simply on what you are wanting to talk about. And unless you are talking about the things that only affect trans people, then you already know more than enough to write a trans character.

If you want to write a book about Abby becoming Stephen, then you need to know a lot about being trans.

If you want to write a book about a hotshot lawyer trying to get a scumbag sent down for murder who’s using the trans panic defense, you need to know a lot about being trans.

If you want to write a book about Jamie’s hot as fuck boss and how totally wrong but totally right it is to be shagging your executive director after hours, you do not need to know the first goddamn thing about being trans.

If you could replace the trans character with a cis one and it wouldn’t change the plot, then you don’t need to know jack!

Because guess what, there is a ridiculous amount more to any trans person ever than their gender identity!

I am trans. But if you put me in a book, you’d need to know a lot more about my swearing, my upbringing, my politics, my day job, my messiness, my total inability to recognise people on the street if I have my headphones on, my habit of waving my hands around and talking a mile a minute when I’m excited or nervous — what the fuck does any of that have to do with my being trans?

I’m working on a new adult novel at the moment, called Mad. One of the male characters decided to inform me he was trans in the middle of a fucking sex scene. Right. So I just put a bit in the next morning of him telling his best friend that the cute guy he pulled at the club wasn’t bothered by his lack of meat and two veg. That’s it. That’s all. Done. He is a trans character, and that is quite probably going to be the only explicit reference. Because it’s more goddamn important that he’s a flirty, sex-mad, vain and slightly shallow guy who actually figures out love doesn’t conform to what he wants all of the freaking time. That’s who he is. That’s what the character needs to be. Turns out he’s trans too, big fucking deal, I don’t need a PhD in queer studies to write him, any more than any woman writing gay romance (which is most of you!) needs to know what a dick up her arse feels like to write anal. You have a brain, you have an imagination, use them.

The minute you say, “Oh, I don’t know enough about trans people,” all you are doing is saying, “Trans people are fundamentally different to me.”

No. We’re not. Transitioning is fundamentally different to anything you as a cis person will ever go through. But trans people? Apart from puberty sucks (which is not a special trans area), dating’s hard (ditto) and transitioning itself (if we choose to do it), we are just like you.

Time some people got their heads out of their arses and realised that.

 

 

 

 

(I wrote this while I was in a trans chatroom. One of the remarks that went scrolling by as I vented was this: “You know what’s so great about living in a modern world? Having fresh canteloupe in January.” See? We’re normal people too.)

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.)