Here we’ll cover some common situations where writing respectful non-binary characters can be trickier.
Non-human non-binary characters aren’t inherently disrespectful to non-binary people, but it can easily become negative representation when there are no non-binary humans present, because it implies that those with non-binary genders are less human (and usually more monstrous or more alien) than people with binary genders. You can read more about why this is a problem in this full analysis by Christine Prevas.
There’s a very simple solution to this though: Write some non-binary humans. (Or, in the least, make it explicitly clear that non-binary humans exist, and are just as valid in their identity as anyone else.)
This situation is very similar to the non-binary non-humans, but instead of implying that non-binary people are less human, it implies they are less moral, abnormal, depraved, or insane. Villainous figures in history have often have their villainy connected to or blamed on their non-gender conforming traits. We don’t want to add to that clinging transphobic and homophobic belief with modern fiction.
As with non-binary non-humans, having non-villainous non-binary characters can go a long way in offsetting this, as well as not connecting (or letting characters within the world connnect) the villain’s non-binary aspects with their perceived villainy. Instead of writing a non-binary villain, write a villain who also happens to be non-binary.
(On this note, I would be very cautious about writing villains who are being villainous because they’ve suffered from transphobia.)
This falls into the same category as the previous two sections, but it has just one solution: don’t kill your story’s only non-binary or trans character. Just don’t do it. If that character has to die to make the plot continue, let there be another primary non-binary or trans character in the story somewhere.
Let’s break this into two different types of coming out:
The casual, everyday coming out. This is the kind of coming out a non-binary person has to do every time they need to let new people in their lives know about their gender. If you’re writing non-binary characters, you’ll probably have to write some version of this at some point. It can be as simple as a character introducing themselves with their pronouns, wearing clothing or pins that say their pronouns, mentioning their identity casually, correcting someone’s misuse of their pronouns, making a (respectful) joke involving gendered terminology (e.g. “I’m the king of monopoly today and the queen of monopoly tomorrow, but either way you’re all going to lose!”), or a multitude of other ways.
While writing any setting that you create yourself (whether that’s fantasy, science fiction, alternate history, etc), you can always do yourself a favor and work a method of identity presentation into the world building. Maybe in your fictional culture everyone wears a certain color accessory for certain gender identities or in your fictional boarding school the students all decided to introduce themselves with their pronouns no matter what gender they identity as.
The major, terrifying coming out. Often, this is the traditional coming out scene where the person sits down with family and tells their truth, even though they know things might turn out poorly. It might be the first time they’ve come out to anyone, or it might be that they’ve held off with certain important people in their life because they’re afraid of those people’s response. Be wary of writing out these scenes if you haven’t lived through them yourself, because it’s a very emotional and complex situation which, if represented poorly, can harm non-binary and trans people in real life. Sometimes though, you might want to allude to what happened during this scene because of its effect on the character!
Keep in mind that while there is much prejudice against non-binary (and trans) people in our world, that you don’t have to include that in your stories. It is always the writer’s decision to include transphobia and transphobic characters in what they write, as well as their responsibility to make sure that any transphobic inclusions are framed as the terrible, incorrect biases they are, and do not harm the trans and non-binary community.
Realizing you’re non-binary is often a long, emotional, and extremely personal experience. Unless you have a non-binary (or trans) co-writer or you’ve done an academic level of research, its best to leave these experiences to be written by the people you lived them, because there are many living people who have lived them, who will be effected by these stories on a very real, very personal level.
So, go write non-binary characters, but write them having adventures and falling in love instead.
Because this is a huge topic where new pitfalls might appear at any moment do to the endless ways it can be used, the best thing to do if you’re interested in writing it is to read speculative fiction from trans and non-binary authors and study the nuances of how they portray these societies, and, of course, always avoid the societal version of all the previous no-nos, like having only villainous or non-human non-binary societies.
1. Give a character (or multiple characters!) they/them pronouns.
You don’t have to explain this. The character never needs to come out as non-binary. There doesn’t have to be a focus on whether they’re androgynous or not. You can keep it so simple that their description is just “Parker had brown hair and a hooked nose and when they smiled their eyes lit up,” and there you have a non-binary-coded character without having to do any work or research at all.
2. Have a character refer to their family member with gender neutral terms.
“Those are my sisters, my big brother, and my little sibling. We were on a skiing trip, but our step-parent came down with the flu so our father stayed back at the lodge and let our auntcle take us up the mountain.” Will any of these non-binary characters ever by in the story itself? Perhaps not. But it still shows that the author accepts the existence of non-binary people in their story’s world, and that the character speaking loves and respects the non-binary people in their family enough to refer to them in the ways those family members prefer.
Non-binary people have had a long history of being ignored in Western stories. Having writers attempt to include respectful non-binary representation in their books is more important to us than having all that representation be perfect. So, write non-binary characters, find a few non-binary or trans readers to double check your work, and most importantly, and have fun.
While you’re at it, consider supporting non-binary writers writing ownvoices stories. If you don’t know of any, here’s the wikipedia list of the more famous authors and a little twitter thread with some lesser known voices. You can also purchase my debut novel, Our Bloody Pearl, a fun romp about a disabled, non-binary siren and a freckly pirate captain.
Stick around for a preview of Our Bloody Pearl….
There is one thing I know for certain:
We were right to hate the humans.
HUNGER HAUNTS ME like a bull shark. With every roll of the ship, the gunk inside my stagnant tub sloshes against my waist, stinging anew. The tight wooden room’s stale air burns my lungs.
Steam whistles in the pipes that run along the walls, their copper gleaming in the dim ceiling light. My wrists throb where the metal cuffs locking me to the tub dig into my silver scales. The gill slits along my neck are clamped shut after a year without seawater and my head fins stick to my scalp like barnacles to rock.
I try to anchor myself with the memory of home, of fine sands and vibrant reefs, but I can barely recall the rush of the warm current or the thrill of the hunt. Even a single wrasse sounds like a feast now. Or a few human fingers.
At least I can still smell the sharp brine of the ocean. When the ship rocks, the small, circular window to my left reveals the sea rolling in an endless stretch of deep blue, begging me to return. The silhouette of an approaching vessel forms a blur on its horizon.
I squint at the hazy shape, but Captain Kian’s roar of irritation from an upper deck makes me recoil. My captor’s harsh voice is so loud it seems to shudder its way down my spine.
The new vessel leaves my sight as the ship I’m captive on—the Oyster—turns toward it. The steam stacks clatter to life somewhere beneath me. Fabric and metal wings stretch out from the sides of the Oyster, and the ship bursts forward, riding just above the crests of the waves.
The sudden change in speed shoves me backward, tossing up my putrid water. As the liquid recoils, it grazes my largest tail fin, lying limp over the far edge of the tub. For all the pain I suffer, I nearly forget my tail exists, its iridescent gleam washed away by the filth and grime of the tub. It must still be impaired from the massive, anchor-like weight my captor crushed it beneath when she first locked me here. I can’t bring myself to focus on its lifeless form for long. I wasn’t meant for this.
I need the sea.