How to Write Non-binary Characters: A Three Part Guide for Writing Characters with Non-binary Genders.
PART ONE: the basics.
Disclaimer: While this guide is written by a non-binary person in collaboration with many other non-binary writers and readers, it does not necessarily cover the views of all people within the non-binary community.
First off, what is this thing you call non-binary?
Non-binary genders are any gender identity that isn’t covered in the Western idea of woman (girl) and man (boy). This identity has nothing to do with which chromosomes or sexual organs a person has. Some non-binary people also identify as being trans (which is technically an umbrella term containing non-binary), while others only identify as being non-binary. Some commonly use the slang term enbie (which comes from the pronunciation of the initials for non-binary, aka N.B.) while others don’t. Some break down their gender further than simply non-binary, while others choose not to.
Some terms for common non-binary genders:
Agender: having no gender.
Bigender: having both binary genders, or aspects of two different genders, usually simultaneously. (Much like the bi in bisexual, non-binary people may also claim this term if they have any number of genders, especially if they can’t quite tell where one ends and the other begins, or they may claim the term pangender instead.)
Demi-(boy/girl/man/woman): being partially (but not wholly) binary.
Gender-fluid: transitioning between genders, which may include both binary and non-binary genders.
Gender-queer (or just queer): not of a binary gender. May be used when someone does not feel that any other terms fit them quite right, when they’re still trying to determine their gender and don’t yet wish to choose a term, or simply because the person finds it to fit them best.
There are also genders similar to what Western cultures call non-binary in many non-Western cultures, which are wonderfully diverse and all incerdibly valid, but as someone from an exclusively Western cultural heratage, I don’t feel I have the right or the knoweldge to talk about them.
So then, who are these non-binary people in real life?
The only thing that differentiates a non-binary person from a binary person is that they don’t identify as having a binary gender.
Their non-binary-ness could influence their lives in an infinite number of ways:
- It could be subtle or life changing.
- They could use fashion and vocal training and actions to present themselves in ways outside their society’s binary gender norms, or they could never even mention they’re non-binary to another living soul.
- They could change their pronouns, or their name, or keep one or both the same.
- They could spend years re-figuring out who they are and what it means to be non-binary or they could realize it once and never feel the need to dwell on it again.
- They could identity as one of the numerous non-binary labels, or they could decide they’re just not binary and don’t care to dig further than that.
- They could accept all gendered terms, or certain gendered terms, or no gendered terms at all.
- People assuming they’re binary could frustrate them or sadden them or anger them, or they could not care in the slightest.
- They may feel they exhibit (or wish to exhibit) many of the traits their society designates to a certain binary gender, or they many not.
- They could feel the same way about their identity all the time, or differently every day.
Each non-binary person (and character) is unique, and their non-binary-ness is just one tiny part of who they are.
The basic do’s and don’ts for writing non-binary characters respectfully if you’re a binary person.
- Do write non-binary characters. Not labels or brownie point grabbers, but characters. They should be diverse. They should not be defined by their identities.
- Do write non-binary characters whose identities, presentations, and pronouns vary. Write they/them non-binary characters and gendered pronoun non-binary characters and multi-pronoun non-binary characters. Write them fat and thin and muscly, masculine and feminine and androgynous, wearing dresses and suits and t-shirts.
- Do listen to non-binary and trans people talk. Listen to how we feel and what we want to see in literature and what tropes hurt us.
- Do get non-binary and trans beta readers. There’s an overwhelming number in nearly all writing communities online who are more than happy to help.
- Don’t imply your non-binary characters are less human or natural for being non-binary. Just because Western societies have had a tendency to ignore non-binary people does not mean that they haven’t been prevalent throughout history and the globe. They aren’t new or unnatural or any less human than people who identity as men and women.
- Don’t have the genital discussion. I.e. don’t have your non-binary character’s genitalia “revealed” and discussed, especially for shock value. If your non-binary character is in a situation where their genitals would naturally be mentioned, do so as though that body part is completely natural for a non-binary person to have, because it fucking is.
- Don’t write stories about how your non-binary characters discovered they were non-binary or their complex emotions regarding their identity. (Unless you have a non-binary co-writer or a wealth of experience and knowledge regarding the subject.) More on this will appear in a later part of the guide.
And do have fun! You should love writing the characters you write, so let them be wild and interesting and don’t fret too much in the rough draft stages!
Check back next week for Part Two: The Nitty Gritty.