Note: This post has grown significantly in the last eleven
past few days weeks months, so there are more than ten. If you want the short and sweet version, read the orange and bold-italic sections. That’ll give you the gist. However, if you’ve never written a non-binary character I strongly suggest you read the entire post.
So I’ve been reading, a dangerous thing these days, I know, especially for an author. But really, I have been reading, and beta-reading too, and I’ve come across several problems that I believe need to be addressed concerning non-binary characters.
Authors, if you add a non-binary character into your story, please take the following into consideration:
- Non-binary characters shouldn’t have their assigned at birth gender revealed early in a story, if at all, and only if it’s necessary. If the character still goes by their assigned-at-birth pronouns, fine, but if the character goes by they/them or any other non-binary pronoun choice then an author should respect this. Negating the non-binary by revealing the birth gender is unacceptable unless it is a situation like a courtroom (most states in the U.S. don’t recognize the non-binary) or the bedroom (where there should be frank discussion IMO before anything happens) and then the author should tread lightly, more so if the author isn’t non-binary (#ownvoices).
I’m often seeing just the opposite, and I actually just double-checked the novel I finished yesterday to be certain I was correct and, yep, the main character’s assigned birth gender is revealed in the first two chapters by talking about their binder not working so well since they’ve gained weight. (Note: I’m not going to reveal the book information because I’m not trying to blast the author. Rather, I’m highlighting a problem.) This sudden reveal so early on and not for a strong reason threw me out of the story, and I only came grudgingly back because the protagonist was non-binary.
In the other recent read, the author gave away the non-binary character’s assigned birth gender almost the second they arrived in the story.
I don’t know if authors believe this will help readers better associate and sympathize with the non-binary character or… Sigh. Again, if it isn’t important to the plot, please don’t give away an enby’s assigned birth identity.
Note: Some authors, including nonbinary authors, don’t agree with this point, and that’s fine. To each his/her/their own. It’s all good; I’m just happy to see positive rep.
2. Non-binary doesn’t equate to mental illness. I’m very, very tired of seeing this appearing in stories with supposed positive non-binary representation. Can a character who is non-binary have a mental illness? Sure. Is it the reason the character is non-binary? It should never-ever be depicted that way. Period. If you write your non-binary character as having a mental illness that is in any way, shape, or form, connected to their identity, aside from coming to terms with family rejection or addressing gender dysphoria in a positive manner, then you’re sending the message that this is a phase, that this will pass, that it’s an illness. (speaks louder so those in the back can hear) Being non-binary is not, I repeat, NOT a mental illness.
3. Non-binary characters don’t identify as non-binary because of sexual assault. Are non-binary people assaulted more than the average person? Of course. That, unfortunately, comes with being part of the LGBTQIA+ community, but it has absolutely no bearing on our gender-identity. It simply does not. Being non-binary isn’t a mask or a veil we wear so people will keep their hands off us. It’s simply who we are. And I’m saying this as a non-binary person who is a sexual assault survivor. Boundaries are boundaries, however, so ask first just as you should with anyone else.
4. Non-binary characters are not cis people in hiding. We’re not, so quit writing us like we are. This is a common confusion of sexuality versus gender identity. We exist all across the attraction spectrum. I’m pansexual, meaning I’m attracted to people no matter their gender. My spouse is attracted only to AFAB (assigned female at birth) people. Am I revealing my birth gender here? Yes, I am, but only because I choose to and because I still go by she/her in many circumstances (it’s in my profile on numerous social media sites). I know non-binary AFAB people married to cis-het (cisgendered heterosexual) men. I know lesbians married to transgender men. I know a cis-woman married to a closeted transwoman. I know non-binary ace people dating other non-binary aces. Stop writing us like we’re all femme gay men or butch lesbians. (HINT: genderfluid is part of the non-binary identity)
5. Non-binary people do not have to follow their assigned at birth gender roles. Seriously, who does these days? Never mind, don’t answer. Too many people follow traditional roles solely because they feel they’re required to, and that’s sad. Don’t expect an AFAB non-binary person to act in traditionally female ways. Same goes for an AMAB (assigned male at birth) non-binary person. Put your preconceived gender roles aside where non-binary people are concerned, and let your character be who they are.
6. Non-binary people are not automatic tragic characters. We’re not sacrificial lambs any more than any other LGBTQIA+ fictional character. Killing us off, red-shirting us because we’re token characters, is as bad as needlessly sacrificing any other minority character, so stop. Please. We’re tired of it. And, actually, we like to see ourselves kick butt every now and then.
7. The non-binary identity is not a lesbian or gay “gateway” nor does it mean someone is necessarily going to transition. We’re part of the Q, as in queer. Non-binary people are sometimes a stop along the way to transgender (the T in LGBTQIA+), and we’re sometimes considered as under the trans-identity umbrella, but we don’t all transition. In fact, every non-binary person I know, including myself, see themselves somewhere along the spectrum, including genderfluid, but none of us identify as trans. If your character begins as non-binary then later identifies as trans, that’s perfectly fine but know we don’t all follow that route.
Confused? Let’s separate gender identity (where someone falls on the spectrum of either male, female, or somewhere between – not biologically, but rather in their self-identity) from sexual preference (who they prefer to sleep with). Those are two different issues. Your character can be a non-binary person only attracted to cis women (or men). They can be a non-binary person who’s only attracted to genderfluid gay (or heterosexual) males. It’s all about what works for your character and their significant other(s). This is where those frank discussions I talked about in #1 come in handy.
8. Non-binary people are not all alone or lonely. Most of us have families of blood, choice, or a combination thereof, and they love us. Yes, we have a higher rate of homelessness, especially among teens because some people… I refuse to step onto a soapbox about this issue. Seriously, write us as parents, as married, as being in long-term relationships, as having careers and productive lives. We’re rather over this “look at the poor lost and lonely non-binary character” trend.
9. Non-binary people don’t all go by non-binary pronouns. Some of us go by our birth-assigned ones because we feel it’s not worth fighting over, some go by a combination (like myself) and others really don’t care (that’s called pronoun indifference). If your character is someone like this, fine. Show their non-binary-ness through some other acceptable means like a simple conversation and don’t make a big deal of it. That said, if your other characters, no matter their identity or sexuality, call your non-binary character anything other than their requested pronoun, it’s disrespectful; it’s a phobic insult. There is no negotiation to be had here. If the character refuses, write them out (red-shirting is a good thing here) and be done with them. If you keep or any way justify this character’s behavior then it says a whole lot about your own biases.
Oh, and while we’re at it, use those pronouns consistently when you write us. Don’t call us they/them then ze/zir then sie/ser… you get the point. Nonbinary pronouns are not interchangeable.
10. Non-binary people are not attention seeking or riding a fad. We’ve been around since, well, humanity began. Doubt me? Do some good research. Here’s a start point: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_gender#History There are well over 100 references at the bottom of this article.
11. This one admittedly came on a bit later, but I’m not changing the title of this article because of it. Non-binary people aren’t all skinny, AFAB, white teens. Period. We’re not. We’re all shapes, ages, sizes, ethnicities, faiths… non-binary people are as diverse as the rest of the planet, so stop writing us cookie-cutter style.
I’m flagging myself on that last one. Brinn, a non-binary secondary character in my novel Keeping House is young, skinny, and white. The birth assignment is none of your business, though it does come up twice. The first time is when another non-binary character is correcting someone for accidentally revealing Brinn’s birth assignment and the other is in a courtroom (the binary is widely strict there). As far as Brinn being young, well, they are, and being white? Brinn’s from a rural, predominantly white county (I know because I grew up one county over), and I write diverse fiction in general so that’s okay. I’m letting Brinn be Brinn, and writing them as something other than this would have been unrealistic.
12. Provided by fellow writer A. M. Leibowitz, “(S)top writing AMAB non-binary characters as sex workers and drag queens who don’t take their makeup off (or both). AMAB non-binary people have just as much range as AFAB non-binary folks, but you wouldn’t think any of us do based on how often these stereotypes show up about us. Also, even when they aren’t sex workers, they tend to be hyper sexualized.” The key word here is range. AFAB, AMAB… make your non-binary character an individual. Again, no cookie-cutters, please.
13. New as of 5/21/19: Being nonbinary should not be a character’s singular focus or their entire arc. If all you have for your character is that they’re nonbinary, your character is going to come across flat. Give them a profession, a pet, a lover, give them a backstory and life goals just like you would any other well-rounded character. In Debbie McGowan’s Of the Bauble (YA fantasy) the genie is nonbinary/nongendered… but they’re a GENIE, how cool is that? In A. M. Leibowitz’s Faithfully Yours series, the character Cat isn’t just genderqueer, he’s also loving, a devoted Christian, and chronically ill. In Sarah Codair’s Power Surge (NA Fantasy and a book I admittedly have a love-hate relationship with) the protagonist has ADHD, lives with mental illness and is… eh, that’d be a spoiler, but the protagonist is complex, yes, complex). My point here is, avoid enby cardboard cutouts.
14. New as of 5/21/19: This was originally the PS attached to this article, but I’m moving it onto the list because it’s important. If you do add a non-binary character to your story, no matter how small their role, let a non-binary person sensitivity read for problems. It’ll possibly save you a whole lot of criticism and backtracking later.
There you go,
ten eleven twelve thirteen fourteen and counting things to think about before you write a non-binary character into your story. Use them all or in part but ignoring them entirely will certainly keep you off non-binary book lists, including my own.