Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Why I’ve never written a trans character

I am a white, heterosexual, cis male who has been writing stories for twenty-fiveish years.  Back when I started, most of my characters were more-or-less versions of me because that’s what I knew.  When you’re just starting out writing, it’s a lot easier to stick to what you know.  But it wasn’t long before I started writing female characters.  The way I did this was instead of calling my character Dave, I called them Diane.  The reason this worked was that the majority of the stories I wrote back then were only a few hundred words long.  A typical story of mine back then was the main character walks around a corner and bumps into an alien, what’s their immediate reaction.  In these types of stories, there wasn’t need to explore the character’s genitals.

Along the way I also started writing non-white characters.  Although, again this was usually just done with a name, and often usually Asian.  For example, I’d have a thousand or so word story about a multicultural spaceship crew under Captain [Chinese name] coming across an alien spaceship and show their immediate reaction. 

I rarely have stories where I come right out and physically describe the characters, even for skin color.  And there are four reasons for this.  The first is that, I don’t have the numbers for this, but I’d guess that about 80% of the stories I’ve written are under a thousand words.  And probably another 10% are under three thousand words.  There isn’t much space to go into detailed descriptions.  The second reason is the idea that as long as my descriptions are vague enough, the reader will be able to put themselves into the story.  The third reason is that years ago I read a book where every time a new character showed up the author dumped a paragraph of description: height, weight, hair and eye color, shape of nose, their fashion sense, etc.  And I found it annoying, clunking, and generally pointless.

But probably the main reason I don’t give descriptions of characters is that I am terrible with faces.  I’m not face blind, I do recognize people, it’s just I can’t describe them.  When I think of people I don’t see a photo of them in my head, instead I get this ball of memories.  I can remember conversations I’ve had months, even years ago with someone, but I could turn my back to them and if you asked me what color their hair was I’d likely draw a blank.  Details like that just don’t register for me.  So if I describe a character at all, it’s usually just to point out something unique, like an eyepatch or tattoo, or something that is necessary for the story.  Other than that my characters are usually just “Person” you can picture however you want.

Probably about fifteen years ago, when gay marriage was a big issue, I decided to do my small part to help.  The way I did this was to have some gay characters in my stories, and the way I showed them to be gay was to have them in a same sex relationship.  Basically, that multicultural spaceship I mentioned before would consist of Captain [Chinese name], who would probably be a woman, with engineer Jeff with his husband Doug the botanist.  And any interaction between this gay couple would probably be the playful banter one would likely see in any sitcom married couple. 

Recently, as trans rights has become an issue, I figured I should include a trans character in a story.  And that’s when I hit a wall.  Most of my stories are short and only cover maybe an hour, so I can’t really have Chapter 1 Frank become Chapter 21 Francine.  And I’m not just going to have some character introduce someone as, “Oh, this is Mike.  He’s trans,” because that’s – at best – clunky exposition.  Also, my stories don’t really have deep, character introspection, beside the trans experience is not something I really know anything about.  I could make a character be an asshole to someone who is trans, but I don’t do that for any of my gay characters.  The reason being that most of my stories are set in the future where – one can hope – people are better and someone’s sexual preference is as important as their eye color. 

I went through all of that to explain that the reason I haven’t written any openly trans characters is because it’s too complex an issue for my simplistic writing style.  Most of my stories occur over a short time period, don’t involve characters doing soul searching, and are usually set in a world where sexual and gender identity isn’t an issue.  I have yet to figure out how to have a trans character in such a story without them just being a shoehorned-in token character.  I mean, my best idea so far is to have my main character meet someone wearing a T-shirt with a progress bar from Jane to James about two-thirds filled in.  The main character sees that, chuckles, then walks with James around the corner where they bump into an alien.


As a final note, in the off chance that – probably after my death – some of my stories get popular and movies are made of them and a trans actor is cast and some asswipe comes out of the woodwork with, “The author never wrote this character as trans,” well, there’s a high probability that I never explicitly wrote them as cis either.

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