How to Write Non-binary Characters: Part II.

Visit PART ONE: the basics first!

PART TWO: the nitty gritty.

Non-binary in relation to Presentation.

What are we talking about here when we say presentation?

Presentation in relation to gender is how a person chooses to look, dress, and act in relation to their culture’s gender norms. A person who wears dresses and makeup, speaks in a higher pitch, and daintily crosses their ankles is presenting in a feminine manner in most Western cultures because these are traits labeled as feminine in these particular cultures.

As mentioned in part I, non-binary people may choose to present themselves in many different ways.

Androgynous. The androgynous presentation (i.e. a presentation that is between masculine and feminine, presenting with traits ascribed to both) is commonly associated with non-binary people. Some non-binary people present as androgynous because it feels most natural to them, while others present as androgynous because it helps to inform the rest of the world of their gender.

Masculine or Feminine. Many non-binary people present as masculine or feminine despite being non-binary. They may present this way because they enjoy it and it feels natural, or because they grew up presenting that way and don’t have the time or means or desire to adjust, or because their best efforts would not allow them to present as androgynous without extreme measures they don’t feel the desire to undergo. But whatever the case, non-binary people who present as masculine or feminine are just as non-binary as those who present as androgynous!

A mix of presentations. Some non-binary people will mix up their presentation, either based on their mood, or on how they feel about their gender at that moment, or to keep their presentation similar around a specific group of people (such as work vs friends). This can mean presenting as masculine sometimes and feminine other times, or as androgynous sometimes and masculine or feminine others, or a mix of all three. This switch may happen in relatively even amounts, or the person may wish to usually present one way and on rare occasions another, or anything in between.

A word on gender dysphoria: non-binary people may or may not experience gender dysphoria (i.e. a feeling of unease or distress because their body does not match their gender identity). For non-binary people, this generally takes the form of wanting to be more androgynous. Whether or not a non-binary person experiences any dysphoria does not make them “more” or “less” non-binary. It is not in any way a qualification of non-binary-ness.

A word on gender nonconformity: Just because someone is gender nonconforming does not necissarily mean they are non-binary. Many binary queer people choose to present in ways that don’t conform to gender norms, and they have every right to do so. Sometimes gender nonconforming people are trying to decide whether they are truly binary or not. Whether they decide that they are binary, or non-binary, or trans, or make no decision at all, this is a perfectly respectable way to explore one’s gender.   

Non-binary in relation to Pronouns.

Pronouns are often used as a linguistic form of gender presentation and designation. Most people relate singular they/them pronouns to non-binary people—and often non-binary people do use they/them exclusively—but there are many combinations and ranges of pronouns non-binary people choose. Let’s go over some common options:

They/them, exclusively. They/them have been used as singular pronouns since the 14th century, and are already a popular way to refer to a person of unknown gender. They/them is often used by agender and bigender people, but as with all pronouns, may be claimed my anyone of any gender, including binary people who feel they/them if the best portrayal of their gender identity.

He sometimes, she other times. Transitioning between two or more different pronouns based on how someone is living their gender in the moment is very common for gender-fluid people. Just like with presentation, this exchange may be equal or it may be weighted heavily to one pronoun over another, or anything in between.

Binary pronouns, exclusively. Some non-binary people never feel the need to switch from the pronouns they were asigned at birth, while others feel they fit the binary pronoun opposite the one asigned them at birth. Some also choose to keep their original pronouns in order to avoid coming out to transphobic people. This is no way makes these people less non-binary than non-binary people who choose any other set of pronouns!

Multiple pronouns. People from all non-binary identities will commonly choose to go by multiple pronouns simultaneously. This can be because they feel close to all those sets of pronouns, because they have no desire to choose a specific set, or because they don’t feel the need to give up the pronouns they were assigned at birth in order to take on new pronouns.

Note that this is the one situation in which people might have preferred pronouns. (If someone chooses a single set of pronouns, those are their pronouns! It’s not a preference—it’s a part of who they are.) But people who have chosen to go by multiple pronoun sets might have one they prefer to be called, especially in a particular setting. For example, a non-binary person might say “I prefer to go by they pronouns at work, but I also identify with and accept she pronouns, so I won’t be offended if customers routinely use those for me.”

New pronouns. Now that the non-binary community in western culture is finally coming together, there are new sets of pronouns being created specifically for non-binary people to use. There are infinite options here, one of the most popular being xe/xir, but they’re still the least claimed pronouns due to most of society not being familiar with them.

It/its pronouns. While some people have claimed it/its pronouns and there are situations where it/its pronouns might accurately fit a character, its best to leave those stories to non-binary and trans writers, due to the long history of it/its being used to dehumanize trans people.

A word on gendered terms: the non-binary community interacts with gendered termanology (such as Mrs., brother, dude, gal, queen, gentlemen, sir, etc) in the same way as they do pronouns. Many non-binary people have certain gendered terms they accept, while some accept all and others accept only genderless terms. These accepted terms may match with their pronouns (e.g. someone who uses he pronouns also using masculine terminology, like mister, sir, brother, dude, etc) or may not.

Now that we have all these cool pronouns, how do we relay this information in our writing?

There are a few common techniques to help relay character pronouns in writing…

The Mind Reader’s Way. Let your point of view characters just happily know what everyone else’s correct pronouns are all the time so you can move on with the story and not have to sit down for awkward conversations. It may be unrealistic, but should not break suspension of disbelief for anyone who genuinely wants to read about characters from non-binary genders going on fun adventures. Keep in mind that this works best in societies where characters only use one pronoun set.

The Introduction Path. Have it be customary for characters to introduce themselves by stating their pronouns, and call all characters by they/them pronouns until they do so. This lets the story move forward quickly, but can be awkward if you have primary characters (such as villains) who never introduce themselves to the point of view character.

The Everyone’s Friends Route. Have there conveniently always be someone else who knows that character’s pronouns and can slip them into conversation.

The Pronoun Pin Road. Much like pronoun pins, include a piece of world building into your setting that culturally requires people to wear something particular relaying their pronouns. This works best either in a modern or futuristic setting where characters can wear actual pins/shirts/etc, or a secondary world where you can control all aspects of the culture.

The Coming Out Highway. The most awkward but most realistic option is to force your characters to explain their pronouns if they don’t fit society’s strict gender norms. This can be as simple as one character asking “sorry, I don’t mean to bug you, but what pronouns do you go by?” or another character arriving to the second day of class in masculine clothes and announcing “I go by he/him pronouns today.”

Whatever route you choose, make sure to be consistent throughout the story. 

Check back next week for Part Three: Common Pitfalls and Easy Fixes.

2 Comments on “How to Write Non-binary Characters: Part II.

  1. Pingback: How to Write Non-binary Characters: Part III. – D.N. Bryn

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