Sci-Fi · Writing

On Representation, Authorial Discretion, and Transgender Characters in Science Fiction

I’ve been thinking about diversity in my science fiction novel project for a while. I always get nervous doing that, because I don’t want to hurt anybody by mis-writing a perspective I don’t have. I’m female and bi (or pan), but that’s basically it. I can’t speak for everyone who’s female or bisexual, certainly, but at least I can speak from my own experience and that much will be accurate. It’s not just about not offending people — inaccurate and ill-advised minority representations can be literally harmful in the grand scheme of things. I want to help with representation, not make it worse.

The basic milieu for my novel is already in place, but I have some wiggle room, specifically with one character, Sky Marshal Rene Denman. I have a good handle on his character, but not a lot on his background or the details of what he’ll do, just the overall picture, so he’s a good candidate for diversification. I know he’s got a wife and two kids, and he’s a pretty stable and emotionally healthy individual, although he has some tendencies toward revenge.

Here are the options I’ve considered. None of them are mutually exclusive:

  • At first I was thinking of making him female, because there is a slight gender imbalance, but I feel like that’s basically fixed now since I improved the existing female roles, and I randomly assign genders to the incidental characters so there are a number of interesting women elsewhere. One of the major characters is a plant-based alien who’s both male and female depending on the life cycle stage, but aliens don’t always count for representation purposes.
  • Basically everyone in this future is thought of culturally as bisexual, although they tend to know their own personal orientations. (It’s complicated, I’ll explain later if there’s a demand). I already have gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters so there’s no real need to mess with Denman’s any of those ways, even if it would work with his personality to do so. I don’t have any characters who are asexual that I know of though…
  • There are various races/ethnicities in the What Dreams universe but it’s a big hodgepodge. Characters have different skin tones and ethnic/planetary backgrounds, but on the high-traffic planets where the book is set, it’s not really an issue. (It’s mentioned in descriptions, but not of plot relevance). I kind of like it that way, because I like to think we’ll get over racism in the future the same way we’ll get over homophobia, but Denman could certainly be described as a different ethnicity (other than just sort of generically whitish) for representational purposes.
  • The idea of representation for people with disabilities is pretty new on my radar, and honestly I’m never quite sure what counts as a disability and what doesn’t, but that’s an option. I have an important character with a developmental disorder who plays a big role, and then later on I’ll have war-related injuries and whatnot, but those won’t be in this book. Still considering this.

Just a few weeks ago, I started wondering about Denman being transgender. I don’t have any other transgender characters. I kind of like the idea because it wouldn’t change a damn thing, I’d write him exactly the same way I would have before. At the same time, it presents a problem. Rose mentioned in this post that Mercedes Lackey doesn’t think she’ll write transgender characters because she writes pre-industrial fantasy and a trans person would have a problem that wouldn’t be solvable with the medicine of that time. This would be the opposite problem — he wouldn’t have had any medical difficulty transitioning and the culture wouldn’t care either. Maybe instead of an unsolvable problem, it’s a problem that’s too easily solved to be relatable, or it would be making light of the real-world issues people face. On the other hand, I like Star Trek and Doctor Who because I like seeing futures where some problems have just been solved.

So, here’s the question I’ve been coming around to this whole time: How would it be if I changed Denman to a trans man by just mentioning once or twice that he had been assigned female? How do you write about post-transition characters in a future world where transitioning is easy and people are totally open about gender? Having him be from a “conservative planet” would be an obvious cop-out and just a way to graft in moralizations that don’t actually belong in this future, and I don’t want to do that. My current idea is that the Sky Marshal service provided his transition, so some people think he joined the service for free medical care and that pisses him off, providing a reason for him to be thinking about it at all. That would be natural for him, he loves the service and takes it extremely seriously, and that explanation would fit naturally into a scene or two without being a Very Special Episode kind of scene.

My Googling has mostly revealed lists of really bizarre novels from the 60s-80s that have characters who are sort of transgender for various reasons, but none of them were held up as shining examples. It mostly just seemed like authors wanted to include something controversial and shocking, so they made it as weird as possible, and that’s really not the point.

Like I said up top, I don’t really know much about this. I have some acquaintances, and I’ve done some reading on the internet, but I don’t know what I’d like to see in a trans character if I was trans. In fact, for most of the above-mentioned options, I know that representation is lacking in the sci-fi genre as in others but I don’t know exactly what should be there instead. So, I’m throwing it open to the internet for input.

This has mostly been an example. I might incorporate any combination of the above ideas for Denman, or I might use other ideas I haven’t come up with yet, and it’s all contingent on relevance because I’m not going to spend pages and pages describing why a character is diverse if it doesn’t relate to anything else in the story.

Still, in a wider sense, do you think authors should “write what they know” when it regards real issues? I don’t think authors should just write what they know, one of the great things about fiction is stepping outside yourself and embracing other viewpoints, but are there special cases? Discuss.

Unkind comments will be deleted. (And if I’ve said anything that sounded jerkish, please correct me, it was unintentional).

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23 thoughts on “On Representation, Authorial Discretion, and Transgender Characters in Science Fiction

  1. Well, I am a transgender person, and I’ll tell you this… Even if all of society became open to gender (as a general whole), there are still going to be people who aren’t (perhaps even entire planets, societies of such people). So the “I can’t add a conservative origin” is really more of a trope, than an potentially debilitating story “head nod”. You can totally get away with it, but you have to explain why you can get away with it (thusly, it’d have to be an integral part of your story). A kind of (what if you could “Wear” a gender, and take it off as if it were mere clothing) thing. I’m a writer myself, and I’m writing about a main character who is a trans-woman and a lesbian, as well as an atheist and something of a super-powered heroine. I myself am a transgender woman. So let me pitch you a thought about this. Perhaps, he is a transman outwardly, and presents male 95% of the time but perhaps he is gender fluid inwardly, and sometimes cross-dresses (or even controls a cyber body which is entirely anatomically female sometimes). Essentially, he’d be a gender fluid transman, who sometimes still presents himself as female because he feels that way. And as for the conservative origins, a future society is liable to have a variety of governing systems catered to the populations of various regions. Something from neo-modern city states, to Extranational/International or even Extra-Terran Governments.

    I feel a future with a “utopian” outlook on gender is more than 200 – 500 *(if not even farther) years in our future, because there will always been people who go to isolated places and use the “Darkness under the Rock” or perpetuate their beliefs. I’d personally find a universe without pockets of ultra-puritanical human beings less believable than one with them. This isn’t to say that your main character has to struggle for people to relate to him. As for the puritanical effect (the effect of holdouts from bygone eras), they exist to this very day (fundamentalist religions compounds/nations, tribes who live as all humans once did, et cetera). It’s only realistic to believe they exist in the future, even distant future. Once it becomes possible to change genders completely, or even to do so in an anatomically exact way, there are still going to be people who don’t like that. The same thing will become true when bio-modification, and cybernetics becomes a reality. Purists who resist the progress of society will become the new Taliban/Al Qaeda/and fundamentalist fanatics of the future. People who see cybernetics, and even gender transition as “Unnatural” and “Abominations”.

    In fact, I’d say it’s likely, that assuming social change comes, that it’ll take more than 1 million years to breed most of those propensities out of the human race (or for those groups to actually branch off into human species that aren’t even the same species anymore). What I’m saying is this… The propensities that make people bigoted and prejudicial are still alive and well in our race, and evolution is a very slow, very long process. If I accept that, I don’t think I could write about a “human future” at anything other than transevolutionary (humans speciation into post-humans) boundaries of time without them. As for the accuracy of trans characters in fictional futures you have to understand one thing, as a fairly fundamental element… Even if we lived in a gender homogenous society, we’d still transition. It’s really about our body’s configuration, and not the social structures around gender that is the issue. This person could have felt more than dysphoric enough with their female sex that they transition, but still lingered into times where if they could be “completely female” again (even if only 1 day out of the month), that they would.

    As a transgender person, I do experience gender fluidity. In a more “gender accepting future”, there would likely also be means for gender transitioners to still enjoy their former gender, when the mood hit them. I consider myself to be more than sufficiently dysphoric with my sex assigned at birth to surgically transition, but there are days when I’m fine being “In between”. My gender expression doesn’t have to reflect how I want my body to look all the time. Hell, half the time I dress androgynous, rather than femme. But the reality is I still need/ed and will always need that step as a part of my transition. And this persons family could have strong objections to not only his transition, but to his use of cybernetics to allow him to feel comfortable in his gender fluidity. And in fact, this gender accepting society could very well still have issues with gender fluidity, having an expectation that people “Remain Binary”, while being totally endorsing of transition on that level.

    Something I’ve discovered since I’ve transitioned is that frequently, normal cisgender people experience gender fluidity, where for one moment they want to be the other gender. And this has always been wrote off as “We all wonder how the other half lives”, but from my experience this just doesn’t ring true. If a person born and assigned at birth as a male (not intersexed) can experience the emotional intensity and spectrum that all women know by heart, and vise versa (as well as transition through states of both) then this makes sense that people may experience and explore this. A likely method to accomplish this could be “Neurologically Controlled Surrogate bodies”, or even through neuro/cybernetic suits, where you wore (an extra skin) that transmitted sensory data to your real skin, making it as if you weren’t wearing it at all. Hell, you could even make the shit (printed on). Regardless of what device/s you use for your transgender character, keep in mind that it’s the body, not the outward gender (per se) that troubles us. Note: This differs a bit from transvestism, where in it’s an enjoyment of presenting as the other gender.

    You have to be sensitive to the fact that as, and after we transition we feel a variety of ways about our bodies, or we can (not that it’s a norm, but that it could be common). This is just my experience. If I were in an ideal gender accepting future, I’d retain the option to have a functional, sensate penis to use during intercourse (even fully post-op), should I the mood hit me. Imagine how many FAABs (Female Assigned at Birth People) who were bisexual, lesbian or gender fluid wouldn’t mind having a dick sometimes, or vise versa. If gender was truly a technologically freed, that would be a potential option (though it would likely require cybernetics to actually function in a satisfactory way. I think, to a degree, your difficulty with this potential character development comes from the fact that you are still thinking of gender within the confines of the modern gender construct (to a degree). So long as you think that way, you won’t be able to adequately imagine a gender accepting future, nor a transgender character in that future, much less so a gender fluid (or many gender fluid) characters.

    (As a final thought: The Gender/Sex as Clothing concept could be an interesting one to play with, especially for a character who is in law enforcement.)

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    1. Thank you for such an in-depth comment, and also for bringing up gender fluidity. It’s something I’ve come across while researching LGBT+ issues in general, but as you say, not something I automatically think about.

      This universe is about 300 years in the future. There certainly are those conservative planets and conservative pockets (for instance, planets colonized by separatist religious groups). They just really have no bearing on this story because they are so separatist. They get a few mentions as examples, but I don’t want to write about anyone going there because that would make me miserable! 🙂

      It’s important that Denman was born and raised on Earth, and as I was mostly thinking of including something in his own stream of consciousness rather than as a scene with conflict, I really didn’t want to write a sermon or have it come across like he was always obsessed with or bitter about the fact that he’d met bigoted people in the past. I’m seeing that he could still have some really interesting thoughts on gender and on himself without me making it about other people’s bad reactions.

      As I mentioned in another comment, I had been considering Denman being female for a while, and I think in my head that’s already allowed him to have some mental flexibility as far as gender is concerned. I actually really like that last idea about him using some kind of female “skin” as a law enforcement officer. That could be an interesting component and also allow for some organic discussion of gender expression and how different officers might feel about wearing it. I think that technology would still be beyond much of the WD universe, but it’s already established that law enforcement and some other little scientific pockets have much more advanced technology. (The main character is a scientist, so the story interacts more with those pockets than the conservative pockets, but it doesn’t matter either way since Denman is already in law enforcement.) I’ll have to consider it some more, see what the ramifications might be.

      Thanks again for the input and all the food for thought!

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      1. I don’t know about that. We’re already attaching computer chips to peoples nerves and allowing them to see, and there is circuitry that can already be printed on paper, and yes, on skin. It’s not as far fetched as it may seem. Their are already cyborgs in our society, just few and far between, some with limbs that literally allow them to feel what they are holding. Graphene is already promising us the mircotech, and processing potency of future generations of CPUs many fold. We’ll have even more advanced versions of this technology in just 50 years, not 300. I’m assuming this of the current rates of change in technology. I feel you’re really underestimating the pace of technology, unless of course this universe experienced a “Dark Age” before reaching current times, which is also plausible. My cell phone is 10 times more powerful than my first PC just over 10 years ago. Consider that, I guess. Just food for thought. And even if the gender fluidity just came in the element of printable disguises or control of opposite gendered cyborg bodies that feel like your real body, that would be a fascinating element that can help people connect to the “trans*/gender fluid experience” a bit if done right. I want to write a story myself about a future where such an innovation is possible.

        To add… This is what I pictured in my head, thinking about the plot device. “Denman is running down the street in Female Appearence chasing a criminal who is also wearing a gendered disguise/cyber surrogate. As the chase drags on, the disguise gets more and more damaged, revealing what is underneath as they bump into environmental obstacles while in pursuit. It’s like a busy Singaporean style market, with lots of neon, and it’s raining, with occasional lightning. Unlike the suspect, Denman is not taking on damage, due to skill and physical aptitude. Eventually he runs into a dead end, and he catches the suspect completely striped of the disguise trying to hide his nakedness under a potato sack.”

        As for the gender struggle, there is always elements where you can highlight his transition without it being a particularly sad or angsty occasion as well. Also, even in the most ideal situations, people with intense gender dysphoria still experience a struggle with it. Therapy isn’t fast enough, the changes aren’t quick enough, as well as seeing aspects of our old selves in the mirror and fighting with that nagging feeling in your gut.

        Gender Identity isn’t such a neat thing that you can just “Wham Bam” change genders and everything is okay in all cases. I mean, if it was so easy, it would work that way for some. But for gender fluid or non-binary people, especially low income gender fluid and non-binary people, it’s a totally different ball of wax. The success or difficulty of gender transition depends on how social archetype works, as well as how easy to access care it is, and how well suited that care is to the needs of the trans* person, et cetera. And even after transition, it takes you years to adjust to the changes, especially in a society with such gendered language (and thusly gendered thought). Also, as a final thought, people have difficulty connecting with characters that don’t have struggles, or contrasting experience, because the character will potentially feel like it has no depth.

        For the sake of the anecdote, I’ll call it the “Romney Effect”, wherein the character seems disconnected from normal human experience, and thusly seems shallow and fake. There are other ways that character can be built, other than through suffering, but it’s a pretty unavoidable aspect of life. Sadly, this is especially true of people who require medical intervention to have a normal, happy life (even when access, and acceptance is ideal). Also, the contrasting aspects of the character can be totally unrelated to gender as well. I will say this though, if his transition experience is overly idealized, it’s not going to be relatable to trans people, and likely misleading to cis people, perhaps even feel fake. The relatability of a character is driven very, very strongly based on modern perceptions and experiences. You must simultaneously avoid harmful trans* tropes or caricatures, as well as avoid making it feel too artificial. An immaculate journey from female to male is going to put people off, and make people unable to connect to the character, perhaps even feel disingenuous. Some people may even find his journey a “departure from reality”, and thusly offensive. This isn’t to say that such a rosy future isn’t possible, only that such a future may feel too “abstract” or unrelatable. Surrealistic = Good / Unrealistic = Bad (at least with regards to science fiction).

        This is the innate difficulty of writing relatable transgender characters at this point in human history. And unless you’re going to add a contrasting character, (a Trans person who was not so lucky as Denman with regards to transition, perhaps even a love interest), it’s going to cause issues for reader connection. Essentially, to write about a trans character, you have to be mentally and emotionally prepared to romp through the emotional mud a bit. This isn’t to say that happy narratives for trans people are bad (or that they don’t exist), but it’s just not as representative of the struggles of trans experience. And it’s not the journey that is the issue in this case, it’s the authenticity of the journey, as well as the positiveness or negativity of the ending of that journey. Essentially, with trans characters, there is this tendency/trope to write them as pathetic, or pitiable, or to have their narratives end in sadness, loss or tragedy (same goes for all GLBT characters in pop lit). Suffering doesn’t not have to make a character pitiable or pathetic, and a portrayal with a happy ending for that character breaks that “Pathetic Transsexual” trope (or GLBT characters in general).

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        1. Yes, the technology is a little different there, it’s not a direct future. It verges onto science fantasy, and it’s also supposed to come off reminiscent of retro space opera type stuff.

          I hear what you’re saying. Right now it’s not Denman’s story. He’s kind of mid-level, not an incidental character but also not the main character, and not often the POV character. Honestly I wouldn’t be comfortable writing about his journey in detail for the reasons I’ve already mentioned and that you touched on — I don’t want to get it wrong and hurt instead of help, and I’m not really sure I have the right to appropriate that experience. I’m confident I can learn enough to include it well, but it’ll take years for me to get to where I could write a whole character arc about it, if I ever do. I’d rather have a small bit that’s helpful than a huge narrative that’s hurtful.

          It’s also worth noting that Denman is in his 60s or 70s by the time the novel takes place, and they live longer in the future, but he’s still pretty settled. It’s important that he’s kind of an emotionally stable character in comparison to all the others. So, I’d like to include some mention of his struggle or his experience and have it be relatable to people in the present, but I’m not conveying an arc at this time, I’m mainly thinking it would be his memories or mentions of his interactions with fellow Sky Marshals, etc.

          Depending on the success of the novel (traditional publication, self- or e-publishing, free on the internet, whatever) I have a running list of characters and ideas I’d like to explore further, and Denman’s history is one of those. Either way, writing some short stories about him will probably be a component of my learning about transgender experiences, because that’s how I process the world, but right now I’m mostly concerned about inclusion.

          Either way, thanks again for your comments, and I’ll keep them in mind as I work out Denman’s history. It helps me to know more about it, and him, even if it ends up a very short mention in this particular finished product. (At this point I do think I’m going with the trans option, it makes a lot of sense for him).

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  2. I would suggest that even if it isn’t a cultural issue, it’s still an issue to the character. Like, even if he has fully transitioned, he might still feel exposed, or still feel that he doesn’t pass. Even if he does pass, he might still have that psychological stumbling block. After all, people who surround themselves with accepting communities can still get mis gendered, and even the best “allies” probably won’t completely understand the issue. Therefore, even if there isn’t an outside threat to him as a trans character, it would still be relevant to his daily life for personal reasons. A struggle of man vs self if you will.

    Also, representation matters, even if the circumstances don’t necessarily mirror our everyday life. In fact, In some ways I would argue that representation is even more of a relevant issue in Sci-Fi and fantasy works because too often writers hide behind using Sci-Fi plots as *metaphors* for issues of marginialization, all the while telling stories about straight, white, cisgendered, neurotypical people. It can be reassuring to know that those storylines aren’t mutually exclusive from representation.

    That said, I also liked the idea of a disabled character, but neurodivergent characters are the blood that flows through my veins, so that’s no surprise.

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    1. That’s helpful, thank you for your input!

      And hey, message me on FB or something if you wanna talk about neurodivergent characters… I have that other character with the developmental thing. He’s another alien, so it’s not meant to be an existing human condition, but he’s also human (it’s complicated).

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  3. I really think that “write what you know” just means USE what you know and your real life experiences to color your stories and give them a sense of grounding. It doesn’t mean that you can’t ever write something that you don’t have personal experience with, as long as you’re comfortable that you have the resources to do it. There are lots of things in my stories that I don’t have personal experience with. (I don’t KNOW what it feels like to be blind, but I have blind characters. I don’t know what it feels like to have grandchildren, but I have grandparents as characters and some of them are raising their grandchildren. I don’t know what it feels like to be a unicorn in love with a human, but I have those. I don’t know what it’s like to be a man, but I write those, and if I have a question, I find a man to ask.)

    I’ve never really been comfortable just changing a character from one gender to another in the sense of just “decreeing” that the person is now a different gender. For example, someone once suggested to me that I “make Maurin male” because that would pre-clude a romance between her and Cort. Well, in the first place it wouldn’t, but in the second place, she was a fully formed character and changing her gender would’ve made her a different character.

    If I was going to just “make Denman a girl,” it would depend on how fully formed the character was to start with. I’d basically be scrapping the male character concept and putting a female in his place.

    If you’re talking about just mentioning gender reassignment surgery and not having it be a huge deal, I actually think that’s cool. It’s like the same way people in Synn just HAVE polyamorous relationships and no one cares or how there’s a cultural pansexuality similar to what you have in your story. For me, it doesn’t make the representation of same-sex relationships less significant or meaningful. I’m not trans, so I don’t want to speak to someone else’s experiences, but for me it’s more important to see normalization and acceptance than it is to see stories where the “issue” is a huge part of the story.

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    1. Also, even if the culture doesn’t care, gender-reassignment is probably going to matter in some way on a personal level to the character–like Luke losing a hand should matter to Luke on a personal level even if his culture doesn’t care and there’s no medical problem with him getting replacement parts. It just depends on what you want to do with it. You could leave it at a mention in WD and do something else with Denman later if you wanted to.

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      1. This is basically the nub of the question for me. I get really sick of “coming out” stories and “struggling with _____” stories, but in a universe where Denman just -is- male and it’s never been a problem, I have no idea what relevance it might have to daily life. I’m sure it would -matter- to him, I’m not disputing that at all, I just don’t know when it would be relevant to his interactions with other people unless he’s forced to interact with an old-fashioned planet or one of those colony ships, and there again I’m stuck with a morality play.

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    2. I’m writing sci-fi, so there’s no way I could only write what I know, and I really think the narrow sense of the expression kind of defeats the purpose of writing. I’m just not sure how much of a difference it makes when it’s such a hot-button issue in the real world. I mean, I can put myself in the position of a superhero and write about that, but there’s no group of people it’ll hurt if I get it wrong, or who’ll say “You’re not actually a superhero and that’s probably why you wrote this superhero in a way that makes it look like blah blah blah when in fact that’s the opposite of what superheroics are like.” It’s the same sort of issue I had trying to write a political science paper instead of a history paper.

      And yeah, the only reason it would work with Denman is that I don’t know him that well on a personal basis. I know what he’s like with Skuyler, I have no idea what he’s like working on his own or having dinner with his wife or chilling on the beach, or what motivates him in any other investigations. It’s all wide open as long as it matches with the one slice I’ve already seen. (As far as making him female, I’ve had that possibility in my head for a long time, so I’ve always had an image of what that might be like, and again it would work because I don’t know much about him yet.)

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      1. Well, like I said, I don’t know what it’s like to be blind. Nor do I know what it’s like to be male, or any number of other things that I PUT in stories that are actually issues in the real world. If I’m concerned that I need input from a person who has personal experience, I find people to ask and make sure I’m comfortable with what I’m doing. Any time you put ANY marginalized group of any kind in the story, you run the risk of displeasing someone. That doesn’t mean you need to apologize for trying.

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  4. Very interesting post! Thank you for the link as well! I think that embracing other viewpoints as an author can be a great thing and a very enriching process. It can encompass diversity in many aspects (gender, ethnicity, professional background and many other experiences that might be different from your own). I never wrote a transgender character, but I have stretched myself mostly through my roleplaying characters (which will later having an influence when I return to original fiction).

    It is hard to pick one of your possible options from your post, as I think that they can all work. In the end, I think it really depends on what you think suits your world best in the end. 🙂

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    1. Thanks and you’re welcome. 🙂

      My trouble is always that many different options would work in different ways, so as I go along I end up confused about what options I actually chose!

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