Transgender Characters, Characters of Color, and Other Things I Am Not
“I’m not a character in a work of fiction. I often wish I was. Characters in fiction (especially my fiction) get days of high adventure, mind-blowing love scenes where no one’s hair is ever unintentionally pulled, and fabulous clothing. Also, no one ever has to pee. Even though I’m not fiction, I can easily invent characters who are just like me: a bisexual, cis, probably white woman. (I say probably because I’ve never dug into my family’s history, but we all have secrets.) I’m also drawn to writing characters who are nearly me: lesbians and straight women, especially if I stay in my fantasy worlds and can invent the societal rules surrounding those characters.
I try to include characters who are not like me, mostly characters of color and gay or straight men. Even though I invent my own societies, I try to keep in mind that different cultures all have one thing in common: they have a rainbow of different personalities. (See what I did there?) Characters of color can be wise and mystical (a common stereotype), and they can also be angry or silly or panicky or love struck. Same goes with people of different sexes and sexualities. As long as I keep in mind the depth and range of human emotion and steer clear of stereotypes, it’s all good.
And then I started writing a trans character. My current work in progress features a transwoman, and being trans is a core part of her character, and I admit, it was hard not to get stuck there. The more I wrote, the more I had to keep in mind that being trans is part of who she is, but it’s not all of who she is. She has hopes and dreams and ambitions, and some of them have nothing to do with being trans. But as a woman living in a time before hormone replacement and surgery, being trans factors into much of what she does as she lives as a woman occupying a male body.
To try and get the depth of those feelings right, I’m reading blogs and nonfiction. I’m researching trans people who’ve generously shared their stories with the world. I’m digging through herbal supplements and trying to deduce what a transwoman could do to make her appearance less male in a fairly primitive society. (Hint: it’s got a lot to do with pregnant mare urine, boiled down, and red clover. Do not try this at home.) I’m doing everything I can to get this character right.
I’ve had to come to grips with the fact that I might miss the mark, but I’m familiar with the feeling. I’ve had it every time I’ve written a man, gay or straight, or a character of color that’s had to deal with racism. I think the right approach is not to tiptoe around such a character or to blunder into her. I try to remember that all my characters are just people at their cores. Their pain should feel real; their joy should be warm. Their bare feet will get chilly on a stone floor.
To all the trans people out there who’ve shared their stories, thank you. I hope to add to the material that makes trans people more visible, and I hope to tell a really good story while doing it.
And my trans character won’t have to pee either. See? In fiction, we’re all the same.
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