Before you read today’s post, please note: This can be a sensitive topic. It’s one in which someone may find offense, so please, please know that everything herein is from my own personal search. I offer my words with the utmost regard for individuals and groups involved, and with genuine curiosity about how to portray characters outside my own experience with respect, realism and authenticity. If I give offense, I promise it is unintentional. I offer apologies, and ask that you help me to recognize and correct my mistakes by pointing them out (nicely, please!).
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A few months ago, I began to toy with a short-story idea about a transgender character. As the concept took shape in my head, it occurred to me that I know nothing about how to portray a believable trans person. Do they think about things the same way I do? Where are our relationships similar? Where are they different? How do they interact with society? Do we love the same way? Get angry? Grumble about our work? How are we the same? Where do we diverge?
Now before you mumble something about stupid questions, hear me out. As a cisgender female, clearly there are some differences between myself and a transgender individual, but I suspect those variations go deeper than the obvious. Different lifestyles usually forge different cultures. For example, my beautiful, loving cisgender sister-in-law is Christian. I am not. While we love each other and share many things, a common culture is not among them. We think in completely different ways, but since I was raised in a Christian church, I understand that culture. I know (for the most part) how it works. I know what to expect from it. I could write a believable Christian character with little effort above and beyond the challenge inherent in writing any interesting character.
I’ve never been transgender. I’ve also never been Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu, African American, Columbian or Japanese. I’ve never been a man, or emigrated to another country, or lived in a mansion. I’ve never been paralyzed or epileptic. I’ve never been pregnant. Characters written for each of these circumstances or backgrounds would embrace quite different worldviews and necessities of daily life. Some of these groups of people couldn’t care less if I write about them. Others might, unless I do it very, very well. So if I want to write a character who is or has been any of these things, I will need to do some intense research—much more than a search on Google or Wikipedia, though I might start with those.
For instance, if I want to write a transgender character, I need to enlist the assistance of transgender people, as many as I can manage. I must ask them those stupid questions I listed above, as well as others. I must ask them to read what I’ve written and provide feedback as to authenticity and sensitivity. Without their input, my story and my character will never go deep enough to feel real. However, approaching people from these cultural groups may be awkward.
I read several blog posts on writing transgender characters when I first began to ask these questions. One blogger said trans people are tired of being poked and prodded in this way, as if they are aliens or some newly discovered species. I can understand that, and will absolutely respect a trans friend who says “bug off” when I ask for their input.
In a workshop on this very topic led by Erin Beaty at the Hampton Roads Writers Conference this year, someone in the discussion pointed out that in movies, it might be difficult to find trans actors to play trans roles, because the pool from which to draw is still very, very small by comparison with the cisgender pool. I hope it won’t always be that way, for actors or for writers. In the meantime, the same blogger (above) said that trans people are tired of being portrayed in victim roles, that they want to be shown as regular, everyday people because they are. The more they are depicted this way, the less “foreign” the idea will seem to people who resist their presence in the larger social setting.
I was fortunate to find one transgender ally so far who agreed to read any story I wrote and provide feedback, which I appreciate. They said, though, that they would not normally read such a story in a magazine unless it was written by a trans writer. I sympathize with this sentiment, but it makes me wonder—must we wait for trans writers to provide us with trans protagonists? And if so, does that apply across the board to all cultural groups? How will any of us write a character whose life we haven’t lived?
As I said, this is a very touchy subject. At the conference, I mentioned to a fellow attendee that I was headed to the Diversity workshop. Her reaction, one of anger and disgust, caught me completely off-guard. Why would you want to take that class? Why would you even want to write a trans character? Her emotions stemmed, she said, from her belief that diversity has become such a “huge deal” that the molehill has become a mountain, and it’s getting in the way of writers’ creativity because they feel they need to be inclusive, when they should just write and let the rest take care of itself. I don’t agree, but to each their own.
For the record, this post isn’t just about writing trans characters. I’d been contemplating the subject of writing outside my own paradigm for quite some time. Some folks say “write what you know.” I say the heck with that! There’s a whole world full of things and people and places I don’t know – far more than what I do – and why should I avoid writing all those wonderful, heartening, inspirational stories simply because they require research? What better way to learn and grow and understand than to reach beyond the narrow confines of my own experience? As long as I tell a great story with respect and dignity for the characters and communities I intend to represent, perhaps my own learning can be shared through my words.
There is so much to say on this subject, and I am only one in a long line of people to join the discussion. A simple Google search on “writing diverse characters” brought up a long list of articles; check out some for yourself, and know that just like any subject on how to write, opinions run the gamut. Take what works for you. Leave the rest.
But I still say this: Ask. Research. Get input from the community you want to represent. And treat those communities with honor, with dignity, and with respect.
One last note: I would love to read a story about a trans character written by a trans writer. If you have a great one to suggest, please share the title and where it can be found below. Thanks!