Thank you so much to Sarah for this piece on writing gender diverse characters (and for being so kind about my own work!)
I love adventure stories (especially adventure stories including ferocious tigers). I love creepy paranormal mysteries. I love romance (especially queer romance). And I love, big, sloppy, loyal dogs.
A.L. Lester’s THE FLOWERS OF TIME has each of these things, which made me a Very Happy Reader. ™ But if you sat me down and said, “Sarah, tell us your most favorite thing about this, the third book in Lester’s LOST IN TIME series?” I would reply, without hesitation, “Jones.”
Jones. The non-binary, dog loving, code-breaking, magic-wielding, one-half of our romantic pair. (The other half being Edie, whom I adored as well, especially for her* stubbornness and petticoats). But. JONES. Jones made me laugh, and Jones made me cry. Because I am a non-binary person, and in Jones’ fear that she might somehow be broken, in Jones’ sometimes unrecognition of her face in a mirror, in Jones’ distress over her menstruation and lack of ‘male parts’—
Well. In Jones I saw myself. And for that I’m grateful.
Although publishing is finally beginning to catch up and catch on, finding well-written stories with well-written gender diverse characters can still be difficult. Many of my favorites I have discovered through word of mouth, rather than Big 5 marketing. This may be because I am super picky about how I connect with gender diverse characters, or it may be because there is still a tendency to rely on tropes when writing about a character whose gender identity lies outside the ‘cultural norm’.
I’m not saying that tropes can’t be fun. Nor am I implying that I haven’t fallen into the trope trap myself. As a fantasy author, I’ve written my share of non-binary faeries.
What I am saying is: let’s hold Jones up as an example and try to do better.
“But Sarah,” you may argue, “writing gender diversity can be hard, and frightening. Even as a gender diverse author. Everyone has a different experience. What if I do it wrong?”
We all get it wrong occasionally (see non-binary faeries) but if we’re too afraid to dip a toe then certainly we’ll never get it right. So, here are three helpful tips to keep in mind going forward:
- Your character’s gender diversity is 100 percent NOT their defining characteristic. Take Jones. She’s an extremely well-rounded and believable character with passions and fears that have absolutely nothing to do with being non-binary. Which is fantastic. Because so do I!
- Gender identity, gender expression, sexuality and physical sex are different things. I didn’t write Jones, so I don’t know all her secrets, so here I’ll use an example from my latest book, EARNEST INK. Hemingway, my MC, is trans masc. He thinks of himself as male (gender identity) he prefers to present himself as male (gender expression) and he’s sexually attracted to any gender (pansexual). He hasn’t yet opted for gender confirming surgery, he is on T, and if you asked him about his physical sex he’d probably punch you in the face because: rude. As a writer, knowing a character’s gender identity, gender expression, sexuality, and physical sex helps to make for more believable, well-rounded character motivation.
- Talk to gender diverse people. Educate yourself about experience. Lean on your gender diverse friends and your sensitivity readers. But do so politely. A good example: “Hey, Sarah, I’m writing a non-binary character, but as a gay cis male with zero non-binary experience, I have questions. You seem to be pretty open about discussing your gender. Would you mind weighing in?” Sure thing. Thanks for asking so nicely. Hit me up any time.
*In 1782 there were no they/them pronoun options, so I will refer to Jones as she does herself.
Today I am at Xtreme Delusions, talking about Jones and Edie’s trip over the mountains.