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Six tips for writing genderqueer and nonbinary characters
Eris Young's tips for authors writing nonbinary characters
Recently, nonbinary (this will open in a new window)and genderqueer (this will open in a new window)voices are being heard in our media in a way they haven’t before – but what about in our fiction? With some publishers pushing for diversity, I’ve noticed more authors beginning to write characters whose gender identities lie outside the ‘male’ or ‘female’ binary. As a nonbinary writer (and reader!) I find the idea of more characters like me really exciting. As with any group of people, especially those who may be marginalised, though, it’s important to do your research and get it right before you jump in with two feet.
Examine the way you conceptualise gender
We’re raised to think of gender as just Female and Male, but the existence of genderqueer people proves it’s more complex than just one or t’other. How do you think of your own gender? Are you all male or all female? Is there a little wiggle room? Because we don’t fit with society’s concept of gender, nonbinary and genderqueer people are forced to always think about gender, so thinking about it yourself will help you get into your character’s head.
We don’t have to be aliens or faeries!
This is a pattern a lot of fantasy and sci-fi authors fall into: a nonbinary character who is nonbinary because they belong to a species/culture which has a different (or no) concept of gender. This is a perfectly legitimate way to do it; however, it’s important to remember that we’re also real people! If your only nonbinary characters are aliens and faeries, there’s an implication there that normal humans can’t identify outside the binary.
Remember that physical sex, sexuality, gender identity and gender expression are different things
Physical sex refers to a person’s bodily confirmation, i.e. their chromosomes, genitalia and internal sex organs. A person’s sexuality is who they’re attracted to. Your gender identity is how you think of yourself, and your expression of that is how you present yourself to the world. For many people, these characteristics all match, but for many they do not! For example a person can identify as neither male nor female but for social reasons present themself as only male or only female. A person can be born intersex (with irregular or “mismatched” physical sex characteristics) but might identify as only male or only female. These disconnects are really only possible to discuss for a POV character, in close narration, or if your story is about the character, but if you keep this in mind while writing any genderqueer character it’ll round them out nicely.
We don’t always look “androgynous”
There are about a million different ways to present as nonbinary.
This is connected to the previous point: there are about a million different ways to present as nonbinary, so when you’re describing your character, just using the word “androgynous” and moving on isn’t really going to work. What type of body shape does your character have? Do they wear “ambiguously” gendered clothes, or clothes for both men and women, or are they gender-fluid (with a changing gender identity) and present differently on different days?
Our gender is not the only thing about us
This one’s important! It’s really easy to write a gender-variant (trans, genderqueer or otherwise engaging unconventionally with gender) character and have them end up being one-dimensional, completely defined by their gender. While gender is something that most of us think about on a daily basis, remember while you’re writing that it’s not our defining characteristic. Give them other personality traits, interests and motivations and the character will be way more plausible.
Talk to a nonbinary or gender-variant person!
With all the furor lately surrounding sensitivity readers, it’s easy to forget that they’re there to help you write a better story. There are people whose job it is to flag up anything which might upset nonbinary (or any other demographic) readers and cause them to disengage or lose interest in your story. If you can’t afford a sensitivity reader but you’ve got nonbinary friends or acquaintances, try asking one of them for help with specific problems in your story. Obviously it’s not our job to educate you, and your acquaintance might be too busy or uncomfortable speaking for everyone in their group, but if you’re polite and make it clear you’re trying to educate yourself, it can’t hurt to ask!