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Context

In my fantasy novel-in-progress, one of the two main characters has a close friend he's known since childhood. Both of them are greatly developed by their interactions with each other throughout the story, and this character is critical to the story as a whole.

The story takes place in a very restrictive Victorian-esque setting, the character's full backstory is only revealed much later as part of a major plot sequence, and he presents himself as masculine (by which I mean that he dresses in traditionally masculine clothing and refers to himself as male). For all of those reasons, it is not immediately obvious to the reader that this childhood friend is a transgender man, and the character himself does not explicitly spell it out until a conversation with the main character a few chapters in.

In other words, this character being transgender is only one part of his character, and thus far I have not focused too much on this aspect of him; however, lately I have begun thinking about developing him more and giving him more scenes and dialogue, and that has led me to this question...

Question

As part of developing this character, I have been thinking about how to accurately portray the thoughts and internal struggles of a character who has gender dysphoria in a way that is accurate to people who have gender dysphoria in the real world. Specifically, as part of a scene later on, I would like to write a brief POV scene of a traumatic moment from this character's childhood that involves his feelings being belittled and challenged by his non-accepting mother.

However, I do not have firsthand experiences with the thought processes involved in gender dysphoria and how a person would mentally and psychologically experience it.

How do I portray the thoughts and feelings of a character with gender dysphoria in an accurate, sensitive and positive way?

Edit: Additional information

I would like to clarify that the reveal is not sudden, unexpected or "out of the blue" - it is made fairly clear when the character is introduced. When I say that it is not explicitly stated until later, I mean that the character does not make an outright reference to his status in dialogue until a few chapters in, since the main character has known him for a long time and I didn't want them to exposit their backstories at each other in their first conversation solely for the reader's benefit.

I would also like to clarify that I use gender dysphoria as a general term for a person who feels that their gender identity does not match their physical characteristics, and do not in any way suggest it is a pathology or disease. That would be horrible, obviously.

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    My comment is complete aside, and slightly unrelated, but I'd argue for not having completely tight lid on reveal like that. It might feel sudden, forced or done for no reason if you do. Like in detective stories, clues should be out there, not conjured out of thin air when convenient. This character should have some eccentricities that can reasonably mean nothing unusual, until after reader sees entire picture. – M i ech Mar 6 at 11:05
  • @Miech Fully agree. I try to strongly hint at it until that point so it doesn't feel like a "gotcha" moment. I think I do an okay job of building up to it and making it pretty evident from the first time the character is introduced, without forcing it. – Sciborg Mar 6 at 12:26
  • The term "gender dysphoria" is specific to psychoanalysis from the POV of the analyst: a "patient" is suffering from a pathology, and it's from a fairly specific era (not the time period of your story, and not modern-day either). If you look for potential character models through research, the search terms (especially dated / biased terms) will skew the results…. "Dysphoria" not going to lead you to "accurate, sensitive and positive" internal portrayals – it will lead to people who sought psychiatric treatment during a specific time period, in an analysis context (not their "normal" lives). – wetcircuit Mar 6 at 13:18
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    @wetcircuit Actually, gender dysphoria is a fairly recent replacement for the term gender identity disorder. As I mentioned in my answer, it's thought to be a genuine problem, but is only faced by some trans people, rather than synonymous with being trans. – J.G. Mar 6 at 14:05
  • One thing to bear in mind is to have more than one character dealing with this or similar things, so that it's not like One Character = All Characters w/Gender Dysphoria/GID. A great example is Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett -- the women are in disguise as men, and each has different reasons for doing so, and how they would carry on living given full freedoms. (Some would choose skirts and home life, some skirts and battle, some pants and home, some pants and battle, etc.) – April Mar 6 at 14:23
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Firstly, have the right reasons for writing this story. (This paragraph won't speak to the one scene you're stuck on, but it's worth fleshing out a point here.) If you realise you don't, that's fine; you can write something else (and by that, I could mean a different story that still features such a character). There are excellent reasons for including a trans character in a story; even today fiction doesn't do enough to represent trans people, and especially trans males. But there are also bad ones, such as using their being unusual either as a source of humour (in this respect Mrs Doubtfire, which at the time was a vital commentary on divorce, hasn't aged well), or even if horror. For some reason society thinks "they're mentally ill" is enough reason for someone to be a serial killer, even if it means inventing an illness or lying about how one works. And while gender dysphoria is a valid modern term for a certain constellation of problems trans people can face (but it's not synonymous with being transgender), a story's usage of a GD character will err if this is used to amuse or scare us instead of to humanise the character to the point of sympathy. It sounds like you're not making that kind of mistake in the scene you describe, but bear it in mind elsewhere.

Secondly, since your story's setting is modelled on a very specific time and place, it's important to research it well. Look into what people said at the time, and whether private actions reveal something different. (To take a different but not entirely unrelated example, Victorians enjoyed sex a lot more and in more variety than they publicly acknowledged.) And if you can find what trans people at the time said about their own experiences, so much the better. Similarly, if you can find other real events that closely mirror what you want to write about, e.g. a child facing transphobia from family, learn about those to. At this point you don't necessarily even know what form the event would take, let alone how it would feel.

Lastly, have an eye to the effect on the story as a whole. Your scene won't be hermetically sealed. This isn't just about making the portrayal more respectful; it speaks to issues writers always face such as characterisation consistency, character development, making twists surprising on a first reading but obviously hinted at on a second, how other characters are affected, and so on. I realise the trans male isn't the main focus of the story, but having such a friend will inform an MC's trajectory ever so slightly. I know I'm a slightly different person for having had the eye-opening experiences I've had with many kinds of diversity, including trans people.

  • Thank you for the answer, it is very helpful and informative. Great point about thinking about the scene in the context of the story and the MC's character arc being affected by having this friend in his life. I was somewhat looking for more specific advice about how to write what a trans person thinks and feels, but this is excellent guidance for writing a trans character in general. – Sciborg Mar 6 at 8:11
  • @Sciborg You're right, my answer wasn't very specific about their thoughts or feelings. I won't pretend to have that information at hand, which is why I focused on advising what easily overlooked questions you'd need to research. – J.G. Mar 6 at 9:59
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As mentioned in some previous comments, I am uneasy with your use of "gender dysphoria." Is this a dated place holder for "trans-gender" or are intentionally focusing on this as a pathology (which is problematic on more levels than I want to address)?

  1. If you are wanting to write about a trans character, talk to trans people.
  2. Based on the experiences of trans friends, I can suggest that it would be helpful to imagine your character as simply being the gender with which they identify. At least as a little thought experiment, eliminate all confusion with regard to their interior life. Now, imagine everyone sees them as the other gender (as if they were disguised or cloaked by a hologram). Given that you are suggesting setting them in a sexually repressive and intolerance time, suppose they have to go "undercover" and pretend to play along with other peoples' perceptions for their safety, even though these bear no relation to the character's interior reality.

Is this all a bit of an over simplification? Sure, but maybe it will help you to break away from a cis-normative perspective and find empathy for your character.

  • No, it is absolutely not being used as a pathology. Definitely not. That would be atrocious. Edited my question to clarify how I'm using the term in this scenario. If it's an outdated or negatively connotated term, I am happy to change the question to reflect a more modern conception. – Sciborg Mar 6 at 14:37
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    Good! Then we will call it "anachronistic terminology," which is something that any trans person would jump on immediately. So, moving away from that choice of words is a good first step in relating to your character. – It's Complicated Mar 6 at 14:43
  • I did not mean to use a hurtful choice of words, my apologies. I am sorry for any offense the term may have caused, did not realize that it had become an outdated/negative term. What would you suggest I use instead? – Sciborg Mar 6 at 14:45
  • OMG, APA took a generic term for feeling at least a little out of sorts with ones equipment, and used it to replace gender identity disorder? I knew I had issues with the DSM-5, but... wow. Thanks for prodding me to do that google search. – Ed Grimm Mar 7 at 5:41
  • @It's complicated I was always under the impression that GD was an appropriate modern term for the feelings of trans and non-binary individuals for clashes between their actual gender and their assigned gender. Or the experience of the body vs gender. (If that makes sense). I just did a quick google search and that seems to track. I'm interpreting your statements to mean that my understanding is incorrect? That GD is anachronistic and there are better terms for the feeling of "being in the wrong body"? Is that a correct reading? And what terminology would be better? – user49466 Mar 7 at 14:19

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