Writing Non-Binary/Genderqueer Characters
Updated: Feb 4, 2022
Written by Charlie Beauvoir
Jan 1st 2022
Recently, a wonderful author friend of mine had the courage to ask me how to write a non-binary (enby) character. I was happy they felt comfortable asking, and I hope that more people reach out for help.
My friend mentioned that thinking about respecting pronouns kept halting the flow. It makes a lot of sense that this would be happening. When we try new things, the going is slow at first. But as we practice, the pause is briefer and less frequent.
The first important thing to realize is that we use gender-neutral pronouns all the time. When we don't know what the gender of someone's friend "Jamie" is, we say "hey when am I going to meet them?" It's not that challenging if you think of your character in a truly gender-neutral way. One way to get tripped up is thinking about your character as an assigned female at birth (afab) or assigned male at birth (amab) who identifies as enby. If you were to consider that you don't know their gender, writing pronouns get easier.
When you assign a gender, to begin with, a cognitive stumbling block gets added. I recall an old episode of Bones. Dr. Haru Tanaka had no identifiable gender markers and was walking around confusing everyone. When we picture our character in this manner, it can simplify things.
I suggested my friend spend time practicing writing in they/them. For instance, when I write a review for a co-worker, I always remove the gender in an attempt to hinder bias. When we write about characters of the same gender in a scene, we have to stop and consider. How do you differentiate between the two? I find that using names helps a lot.
Example... Charlie and Sam sat in the blazing sun. Charlie turned to Sam, brows furrowed, and asked them when they planned to come out to their parents. Sam shrugged, it had been a long time since they'd spoken with their folks.
So, once the flow is worked out, how do you describe them? Do you focus on gender markers? Is it truly authentic to do so? It's important to also understand that enby folks don't always try to neutralize their gender expression. Meaning a female-bodied person who wears dresses and heals, is still enby. In fact, it can take a long time for enby's to realize they don't owe gender-neutral expression to the public. This is one of the many differences and challenges this population encounters in their daily lives.
Writing enby characters requires an understanding of the lives they lead. So... what is the life of an enby? The most challenging aspect of being genderqueer, in my experience, is the political backlash. I never expected that challenging my own gender would make so many people angry. The reality of pissing people off, makes most gender minority folks withdraw.
Every time I am misgendered, I feel it deeply, I cringe, I sweat. But, I try to shrug it off and make others feel comfortable. I wave my hand and say, "Oh, well, it doesn't really matter, whatever you feel comfortable with.".
Every time gender comes up, I not only feel fear, but I have an inner battle... Do I correct them? Do I say anything at all? Do I let it go? When someone gets it right though...the thrill is indescribable. I feel loved, seen... and a little embarrassed.
This is just when my exterior fits convention, When I began queering my dress, things changed. First dressing "butch", "masc", caused two things. People were cautious. I could tell they didn't want to offend me. I knew they didn't know what my pronouns were, was I a trans man, cis, non-binary? It made them uncomfortable. But for the first time, I felt authentic. And, marking with how I dress, made it more likely I'd be correctly identified. The practice of asking for pronouns is one that can put others at ease, so they know they won't fuck it up. I never mind the question.
Second, the anger and aggression that arise from pronouns are quadrupled when there is visible evidence of it. Something as mild as a scoff, or as intense and being cornered and threatened has happened. And I know I have it easier than my amab counterparts. In our society, a woman who dresses masc is seen as reaching up socially. A man, however, dressing femme is seen as reaching down. Essentially, being genderqueer/enby means there is a war inside and out.
Another notable challenge that these folks run into is, when it comes to being a gender minority, there is a lot of educating these individuals are pressed to do. Correcting medical professionals, or explaining what it means, and how it impacts us can be exhausting. Most medical professionals assume I'm trans.
It can be challenging explaining that I am genderqueer and then explaining what it means. My counterparts who want a more gender-neutral appearance hit major barriers to getting micro doses of hormones, or even gender-affirming surgeries. Often, they have to claim they are trans in order to get these things, and they risk swinging too far the other way.
In the end, I applaud anyone who challenges the patriarchy, and I admire those who choose to take an active stab at incorporating this topic into their writing. I hope this helps some and please feel free to ask me any questions you might have, leave a comment, or go to charliebeauvoir.org for contact info.