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Writing Non-Binary Characters - A Primer

Updated on January 11, 2014

So, the time has come for you, the writer, to include a non-binary character in your work. That's awesome! You should definitely do that. They'll make your work much more interesting, guaranteed.

But what do you need to know before you dive in? Where are the stumbling blocks you're going to trip over and then flail wildly towards Google to work your way around? Hopefully, they'll mostly be things I manage to cover here.

No promises that I know everything, either, and standard disclaimer - I do not speak for all non-binary trans* people, that would be ridiculous (if maybe kinda cool? I hear hive minds are fun). I speak only for myself, other people may have other opinions on various issues and you should respect them.

So What Do You Mean By Non-Binary?

I think it's probably fair to assume if you've reached the stage where you're looking at how-to guides about writing non-binary characters that you are, at least, aware that some people are cis (that is, they identify as their assigned-at-birth gender - y'know, when the doctor pulled you out and said 'it's a girl' or 'it's a boy' or 'oh my god someone get a priest'), and some are trans* (they do not identify as their assigned-at-birth gender).

You probably also know that the binary I'm talking about is male-and-female. So non-binary, it follows, are people who do not identify as one or the other (but may identify as both). We'll get to terms in a second.

So, this is about characters who are transgender, but identify outside of the gender binary - they are not boys or girls (but again, may be both, perhaps not always at the same time).

A note on scope: there are quite a few cultures in which there are, in fact, more than two recognised genders. I'm not a part of any of them and cannot speak to the way they would like to be written about in the way I can speak of western non-binary trans* folk, of which I actually am one. I'm not going to recycle my own research here, but I do encourage you to look into them, as well.

Common Terms For Non-Binary Identities

Genderqueer: Probably the most common identity, also often acts as an umbrella term for non-binary identities. This is a general term for non-binary trans* folk and is usually used to mean someone who feels they are floating somewhere in the middle of the gender spectrum but does not identify as either male or female.

Genderfluid: Genderfluid people tend to describe themselves as wishing or being able to move between male and female (and sometimes non-binary genders). It's a shifting identity often heavily linked to gender presentation.

Bigender: Usually someone who feels their identity contains within it both male and female, sometimes alternately, sometimes at the same time. Not quite the same thing as genderfluid, but potentially similar in terms of presentation and the importance therein.

Agender: Someone who does not identify strongly with any gender.

There are definitely other terms and different connotations and meanings used by people who use the above terms, this is a general guide, not a religious text.

Non-Binary Pronouns

There are a whole host of non-binary pronouns - while some non-binary people are happy to go by he or she, many go by they, or other, purpose-designed gender-neutral pronouns.

See below for a table of common non-binary pronouns.

Common Non-Binary Pronouns

 
Nominative (subject)
Accusative (object)
Possessive adjective
Possessive pronoun
Reflexive
Elverson
ey laughed
I kissed em
eir head hurts
that is eirs
ey feeds emself
Spivak (original)
e laughed
I kissed em
eir head hurts
that is eirs
e feeds emself
Spivak variants
e / ey laughed
I kissed em / eir
eir head hurts
that is eirs
e / ey feeds emself / eirself
sie and hir
sie laughed
I kissed hir
hir head hurts
that is hirs
sie feeds hirself
s/he and hir
s/he laughed
I kissed hir
hir head hurts
that is hirs
s/he feeds hirself
ze and hir
ze laughed
I kissed hir
hir head hurts
that is hirs
ze feeds hirself
xe
xe laughed
I kissed xem
xyr head hurts
that is xyrs
xe feeds xemself/xyrself
ve
ve laughed
I kissed ver
vis head hurts
that is vis
ve feeds verself
ze and mer
ze laughed
I kissed mer
zer head hurts
that is zers
ze feeds zemself
zie
zie laughed
I kissed zir
zir head hurts
that is zirs
zie feeds zirself
e, em, e's
e laughed
I kissed em
e's head hurts
that is e's
e feeds emself

Source: Wiktionary (see page for full non-binary pronoun list)

Gender Identity vs. Gender Presentation

Gender Identity is, as the term implies, the gender someone identifies with. This can be male, female, both, or neither (as I've been trying to say). It does not necessarily relate even a little bit to their appearance, however (this is true for everyone, not just non-binary people).

Gender Presentation is the appearance part. Your gender presentation is (this will be difficult to grasp hold onto your butts) the gender you present as (told you). Gender presentation is kind of a tricky thing to get into, because what constitutes presenting as, say, a girl? Or a boy? Boys can wear dresses and be boys and mean to be read as boys, for example.

However, it can definitely be said of people that they can and do present as male, female or androgynous (neither). Just be careful about where your assumptions are coming from if you're going to write about it. A non-binary person stating that they are presenting as female today is a significantly different thing from a cis person or an unknown narrator telling the audience that that's what they're doing. When it comes to writing about gender presentation (without making a mess of it) the agency of the person you're writing about is really important.

Points to Think About When Writing Non-Binary Characters

  • Are they out? To how many people? How have those people reacted?
  • How supportive are the people around them? Is their gender identity taken seriously? By who, and how many people?
  • Which change rooms and public toilets do they use? Will they risk arrest, assault or public confrontation?
  • What name(s) do they go by and how does this affect other people's perception of them?
  • Have they transitioned? Socially? Medically? Could they find resources and support to do so? What does 'transition' mean to them?
  • What happens when they go to fill in a form that only offers 'male' and 'female' as options for gender?

You'll think of more as you write, but you need to alter your thinking a little when it comes to non-binary characters. The world is designed with men and women in mind, and for everyone to fit into one of those categories and only one. A lot of smaller issues your character is likely to face in a contemporary setting will come down to society as a whole just not being intended for them (and largely not being interested in being intended for them).

The Most Important Thing About Writing Non-Binary Characters

... is to remember that they're still people. There is no one way to write them because like everyone else, they're all different. This is just a guide to some of the things that are specifically different about non-binary people.

Treat them like you would anyone else, with respect, and you shouldn't go too far wrong.

© 2014 Cecil Wilde

Questions and Comments

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    • profile image

      Zeytoun 8 months ago

      The interweb is pretty bad at conveying tone, so let me start by saying I'm not trying to sound aggressive. But isn't there a bit of a paradox here? "Non-binary" people are just like normal people, yes? Following that, why should their characters' preferred gender be emphasized any more than normal, if it's not the leading theme of the piece?

    • Michaela Osiecki profile image

      Michaela 20 months ago from USA

      The terms demi-girl and demi-boy are also popular, and are typically used to refer to people who identify partly as one gender (male or female) and then something...else. Unidentified maybe.

      I consider myself non-binary and bounce between identifying as female some of the time and agender/alien most of the time. It's very personal for each person, obviously.

    • MJennifer profile image

      Marcy J. Miller 3 years ago from Arizona

      Cecil, this was useful and valuable information not just for writing, but for social interaction in life. Your candor is a beautiful thing! Well done.

      Best -- MJ

    • queerlyobscure profile image
      Author

      Cecil Wilde 3 years ago from Melbourne, Australia

      It is a start, and thank you for sharing it!

    • Everyday Miracles profile image

      Becki Rizzuti 3 years ago from Indiana, USA

      The Tumblr post got 20 notes. Not as much as I'd have liked to see, but it's a good start, and some big RPHs shared it on!

    • queerlyobscure profile image
      Author

      Cecil Wilde 3 years ago from Melbourne, Australia

      Yeah, Tumblr can be like that. People seem to want to be helpful but a lot of them are extremely ill-informed.

      I suppose it's a bit of a microcosm of the internet as a whole in that respect.

      I'd like people to take more advice written not just by people who are whatever kind of person they're trying to write about, but people who are also *educated* about what it means to be that kind of person. It tends to be the ones that are working off their own isolated experience that manage to both get it horribly wrong and get it spread around.

    • beckisgiftguides profile image

      Becki Rizzuti 3 years ago from Indianapolis, Indiana

      I haven't checked the traffic on Tumblr yet, but I know that my own guides tend to get around pretty well once they're posted. It depends on whether or not a big name RPH gets their hands on the article and spreads it, generally. The two guides of mine that have done very well are about Deaf characters and adopted characters.

      The problem with Tumblr is that there's a lot of not-so-great information out there. I wrote the guide to playing a Deaf character because a previous guide had gotten /everything/ about being Deaf so wrong that I had to do something to dispel the mis-information! I got responses from Deaf individuals thanking me for correcting the previous guides mistakes, such as saying that "Hearing Impaired" is a more "correct" term than "Deaf." Nope. "Hearing Impaired" is considered offensive.

      Anyway, my point is that hopefully it gets around, because as long as more people want to play queer characters, it would be nice to see them actually do so successfully and without doing so in a way that's terribly offensive to those in the LGBTQ category.

    • queerlyobscure profile image
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      Cecil Wilde 3 years ago from Melbourne, Australia

      I'm glad you think it's helpful! I wrote it with writers and RPers from the Tumblrsphere in mind, since I know there's a lot of *wanting* to get this kind of thing right. Thank you for spreading it around!

    • beckisgiftguides profile image

      Becki Rizzuti 3 years ago from Indianapolis, Indiana

      Please, please, PLEASE present something like this to the Tumblr role playing community. The RP community on Tumblr /needs more of this/ in the worst way. I was part of a group for a while where the non-binary canon characters were almost as common as the cis-gendered characters. Unfortunately the presentation was very much hidden from view (i.e. the character biographies didn't state that the characters were non-binary or that they were transgendered) and this was making things particularly difficult for the players to understand.

      I've also seen guides that say not to try writing a queer character if you're not queer yourself because you'll get it wrong and so on and so forth. Having spent considerable time with the RP and RPH community on Tumblr, I have to say that this type of information would have been incredibly helpful.

      I'm going to share this on my RPH blog (mostly unused at the moment, but still has some followers) and see if I can't get it going around, but I'll tell you, this could really be useful for some role players (and by extension, serious writers). Thank you so much for writing this!