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Things A Scene Needs
Each character in a scene needs a goal. Obviously the main character’s goal is the most important, but every character should be aiming for something, and those goals should be acted on and in doing so affect one another.
This doesn’t just refer to the protagonist/antagonist relationship, it should be true of all characters in a scene.
“We would be worse than we are without the good books we have read, more conformist, not as restless, more submissive, and the critical spirit, the engine of progress, would not even exist. Like writing, reading is a protest against the insufficiencies of life. When we look in fiction for what is missing in life, we are saying, with no need to say it or even to know it, that life as it is does not satisfy our thirst for the absolute – the foundation of the human condition – and should be better. We invent fictions in order to live somehow the many lives we would like to lead when we barely have one at our disposal.”—Mario Vargas Llosa
A long time ago, long before even your great-grandmother’s great grandmother was born, before time was born or history was made, a beautiful girl walked the earth who was the Sun’s only child. The Sun looked down on her always, jealously protective of his beautiful offspring. No one, he was convinced, would ever be good enough for his bright girl.
He tried to keep an eye on her, but being the Sun, he couldn’t watch the girl all the time, and the girl, well — as it turned out, she was a bit of a night owl. And so it was that one night she met a man who made her the happiest girl in the world; so happy, in fact, she shone — well, brighter than her father. At first the Sun was happy that she was so happy, as she danced about enjoying things she’d always hated before and seemed so thrilled to be alive. But after awhile he began to get suspicious, and wondered what could possibly be affecting his girl in this way. The Sun tried to keep a closer watch on his daughter, and although she made every effort to keep their love a secret, the two of them were too bright together. Their love for each other was too strong to ever be hidden for very long.
As I’m sure you’ve predicted, when the Sun discovered the two of them he was so furious he burned with the light of a thousand … well, he burned. No matter what he tried to keep the two apart, they always managed to find their way back together. At his wits’ end, he struck at the man one day, throwing him away from his beloved girl with such force that the man was launched clear from the surface and into space, where he took up orbit around the Earth, never to return.
The Sun was satisfied that the man would not come anywhere near his girl again, and I suppose to some extent the Sun was correct. The girl, however, was distraught to be so far away from the man she loved so much. Every night, when the Sun went to sleep, she’d awake to gaze with longing at the face of the Moon (which was what the man had come to be, though she never knew this was true). Her gaze lit the Moon’s surface silver, a light she used to search for her long lost love.
Meanwhile, the girl’s anger towards the Sun only increased with each day that passed, made all the worse by her ever-deepening sleep deprivation. She cursed her father, stomped her feet, made ugly faces, and otherwise caused trouble every chance she got — much like you would do if you were being kept away from something you very much wanted. The Sun, as much as he loved his only daughter, eventually tired of all her fussing and fuming and stomping around and turned her into water.
Now, as you can imagine, the girl was even more upset to find she’d been turned into water, and she raged and foamed herself into a mighty flood and subsumed a good portion of the Earth, forming the Oceans you know today. Although the Sun has perhaps succeeded in keeping the girl apart from the man she loves, he continues to draw her to him, and moves her still. Their love and longing causes the tides that ebb and flow on every shore. Every morning as the Moon sinks below the horizon, he tells her to be patient, that he will come for her — but she never quite hears him over the sound of her own constant crashing against every shore distant and near, hoping in vain she’ll one day rest at her lover’s side.
Tips, hints, and facts for cis folks writing trans characters
Hey, it’s super cool that people are looking for more trans* characters in things. This is a good sign! Making the world of fiction more diverse and more reflective of everyone in the world, not just one subset of them, is good for everyone. Of course, it’ll be even more cool if everyone gets shit right. The majority of people out there don’t have personal experience with being trans*, so they can make missteps in portraying us, even with the best intentions at heart. So here I’m going to make a little list of tips and hints.
- Being gay and being trans* are two different things. Yes, the abbreviation is LGBT, but the T isn’t a sexual orientation, and isn’t even connected to it! Being MTF is not a step beyond being an effeminate gay man, and being FTM is not a step beyond being a butch lesbian. Being MTF means you’re a woman. Being FTM means you’re a man. A trans person may be sexually/romantically attracted to people of the same gender or of different genders, just like a cis person.
- Transvestitism is not the same thing as being transgender. A man who wears dresses because he likes wearing dresses is not a woman. A drag king is not a man- these are people who do different things with their gender presentation than the norm, but their gender identities are still cis.
- Gender roles and gender presentation are not gender identity! Liking to sew or cook or wear pink dresses or draw unicorns does not make a person a woman, just like liking motorcycles or skulls or carpentry doesn’t make a person a man. Seeing one’s self as a woman or a man makes one a woman or a man. Cis guys, cis girls, trans guys, trans girl, and everyone else can like unicorns and/or skulls without it defining their gender.
- Stories where a character is forced to dress as the opposite gender to accomplish their goals do not count as anything close to trans* representation. I am talking both about “Cloud disguises himself as a woman to rescue Tifa from a lecherous old man” and “Mulan disguises herself as a man to join the army in her father’s place” stories. They can be fun, but they’re a tired trope, and readers and writers alike need to realize that’s not the same thing as being trans*.
- Being trans* isn’t a one-way street. Here’s a fact: I’m FTM, but when I was younger, I did not know FTM people existed, even though I knew trans* people existed. Why? Because all coverage of trans* people that I’d seen in fiction and nonfiction was about MTF women. Media today still has the problem of acting like the only kind of trans* person is a trans woman, and ignoring both trans men and nonbinary people.
- Not everyone has undergone physical transition. The majority of people do want to, at least to some degree, but cannot due to living circumstances or finances. Some trans* people are pre-hormones, pre-surgery, some are on hormones but haven’t undergone surgery, and some are on hormones and have undergone surgery.
- “The surgery” isn’t one operation in the case of both trans men and women. I can’t concretely speak for the variety of surgeries trans women undergo, but for trans men alone there are separate surgeries for removing breasts, the uterus, and ovaries, and for constructing a phallus. Not everyone undergoes all of these, and they all happen at separate times.
- Being trans* is an inborn trait. Everyone has a gender. Sometimes that gender doesn’t match a person’s physical sex. It’s not about trauma, or suddenly deciding to “be” trans* one day. You destroy the sense of a character being legitimately trans* if you make their identity the product of a traumatic event.
- Not everyone realizes that they’re trans* at the same age. Some folks may figure it out when they’re just a kid, while others come to the conclusion in their teens, or adulthood, or even when they’re middle-aged. It may also take a person a long time to admit that they’re trans*, to come out, and to start presenting as their actual gender.
- Gender dysphoria is a big part of being trans*. Not everyone who identifies as trans* experiences it to the same degree, but a sense of loathing or strong discomfort towards one’s assigned gender, name, pronouns, and body parts are more or less the defining traits of being trans*.
- Intersex people exist, and overlap with trans* people to a degree, but are not the same thing. Some intersex people physically transition to the gender they identify with. Some embrace their assigned gender and their physical sex.
- Intersex people are intersex people. Don’t call them hermaphrodites, and do research into what being intersex actually does to the body. People are not going to have fully functioning sets of male and female genitalia. It does not work that way.
- I’m looking at you, Heinlein: trans men cannot impregnate anybody, trans women cannot get pregnant. Medical technology isn’t there yet. A trans man who is off hormones and has not had any of the surgeries on his uterus/ovaries/vagina could get pregnant, and a trans woman who is off hormones and has not had surgeries on her penis/testicles could impregnate someone. This is not very likely.
- From a more writer-y position: please think about your reasoning for writing a trans* character. Is it for shock value? If so, don’t do it. Is it so they will experience tragedy or hardship and teach a valuable lesson about tolerance to cis people? If so, don’t do it. Are you consciously filling out a Diversity Quota? Don’t do that.
- Trans* people are not all about their gender. We are people. We have hopes and dreams and relationships and interests outside of our genders. Don’t write Chloe, the trans woman, whose defining trait is being trans* and who only ever talks about being trans*. Write Chloe, who is a motorcycle repairwoman who works alongside her younger brother and wanted to be a ballerina when she was a little kid and who has turned her garage into a stronghold against the zombie apocalypse, who is also trans*. But, y’know. Your own characters, your own stories.
- Trans* people did not magically appear in the world in the 1950s. We have been part of humanity for far longer, and in cultures outside of the West. The 20th century is when modern surgeries emerged and trans* people became more visible.
- Our modern ideas of gender and queerness, however, are more recent. When writing a historical or non-Western trans* character, keep in mind what their frame of reference for their own gender would be, and how their society conceived of gender. Don’t let this stop you from writing historical/non-Western trans* characters, though. Just proceed with care.
- Magical sex-swaps are not emotionally satisfying for trans* readers, and don’t reflect their real-life circumstances. On the other hand, if you write a setting with magic or sufficiently advanced technology, and it can’t be used to help trans* people fix their bodies, readers are going to ask why not?
- I strongly advise against writing stories where a cis person is magically turned into the opposite sex. They are overdone and trite, and once again not emotionally satisfying for trans* readers. Especially if the plot is about the character learning to accept their new body and the gender everyone assumes they are, because that rings totally false to anybody who has actually been stuck with a body that doesn’t match their gender.
- I also strongly advise against writing a character who comes to regret their transition or ceases to identify as trans*. This very rarely happens in the real world, and an overabundance of this in writing gives readers the wrong idea. The last thing we need is another reason for people to keep going “but are you sure?” to trans* people.
- If you find yourself using the term “trap” or “reverse trap” to refer to a character, stop that. Right now.