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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
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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
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    @Amadeus As someone who has experienced dysphoria relating to my gender and who knows numerous others who have experienced it to a much greater degree, your question feels like it belittles the continued struggles of those past transition. Your questions have some merit since we're talking about how to write a character, so I'm not raising a flag, but your comment feels offensive to me. It's like you're denying the whole intrapersonality disorientation of the experience. – Ed Grimm Mar 7 at 5:42
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    @Amadeus I'm feeling confused. Are you saying your comment was without merit and I should have flagged it as offensive? Or are you just trying to goad me into explicitly stating that the merit of your prior comment was the fact that this post is about the portrayal of a character, and their internal angst may show in their portrayal. You can just ask, you don't need to goad. Plot isn't relevant to this question as the question was how to portray a character. – Ed Grimm Mar 8 at 0:12
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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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What is gender dysphoria?

Gender dysphoria is a relatively new diagnosis, defined as someone who feels uncomfortable with their body because it does not align with their gender identity. Unlike an outdated diagnosis of transgenderism (which was treated with conversion therapy), gender dysphoria is treated today with hormones, surgery, clothing that reinforces one's gender identity, and/or therapy. The word itself is almost certainly anachronistic in Victorian times.

Transgender and "experiencing gender dysphoria" are not synonyms. I am transgender all of the time, but as long as I work out and wear the right clothes I experience gender dysphoria very rarely. Others may experience gender dysphoria more regularly. The more severe the dysphoria the earlier people usually transition, and the more severe the mental health ramifications are if they do not.

As a trans man, gender dysphoria for me is usually accompanied by intense anger at myself, any God that exists, and the world in general. When I'm suffering from dysphoria I push myself to work out to dangerous levels, yell often, and throw things when I'm alone.

How to portray gender dysphoria

As with everything, the two keys to portraying gender dysphoria are figuring out what role the scene is supposed to play in your story, and doing your research. For research, read biographies by trans people and news articles that include interviews with parents of young trans kids. (Parents from conservative backgrounds who let their kids transition young usually do so because of particularly severe dysphoria.)

If you're not writing from inside the head of the trans character, gender dysphoria might be a little hard to distinguish from other disputes over gender identity. It's a bit hard to portray respectfully because it looks a little extreme to the outside observer. Trademarks of dysphoria are aversions towards mirrors/reflections, and aggressive reactions towards parts of one's own body (as if trying to get rid of it).

For a scene inside the trans character's head, gender dysphoria is associated with very strong reactions (temper issues, depression, eating disorders), and frustration with an inability to get others to understand what's wrong.

Note that most books about transgender characters rarely include scenes about gender dysphoria, although they may talk about it in the abstract. This doesn't mean that you shouldn't include it. The main reason scenes of gender dysphoria are usually avoided is probably because they are very internalized and may seem hard to believe for cisgender audiences.

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    Good answer, I upvoted it. I have a picky question. You say "midevial times." I thought probably it's a typo for "medieval times" but the question is about a story that takes place in Victorian times, so maybe I'm wrong about that. You might want to edit it to reflect what you meant. – Cyn Aug 5 at 22:44
  • Nice catch. Thank you. – TMuffin Aug 5 at 23:55
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I'm going to talk about fun first, and concepts second.

If you want trans readers to enjoy your story, my advice would be: don't make the trans character's life an unending hell. It doesn't have to be a tragedy. Let him have some fun. Maybe let him laugh at how silly those other people are about gender, who don't realise how freeing it can be to break the rules. Is he annoyed when someone rudely, pointedly calls him ma'am when he's out wearing trousers and a waistcoat? Very much so. But his life doesn't have to be all suffering all the time, and it certainly helps that you wrote him a friend who accepts him as he is. I wouldn't focus too heavily on him hating himself. Not all trans people have the same level of disphoria anyway, there's a diversity of experience.

The terminology of trans people, and fundamental concepts of what it means to be trans, have changed a lot over the last hundred and fifty years. They also vary dramatically between cultures.

Since you're writing in a pseudo-victorian fantasy setting, it is up to you to decide how you want to balance between actual historical ideas, 21st century ideas, or ideas unique to your fantasy world. All valid options.

However, the more you diverge from 21st century Western ideas, the more you might have to explain to the reader, and the more you risk the reader not having fun and/or saying mean things about you on twitter.

(I'm writing a story about a trans woman in the year 3000... and it's taking a frankly unreasonable amount of expository dialogue to get across that a minority of my Martians don't see gender the same way Terrans do! Maybe you don't want to do that, and that's OK)

In the actual late 1800s and early 1900s, sex change surgery didn't exist, and hormone therapy was non existant for trans women and not widely available or well known for trans men. There was no word or defined process for transitioning. Also, the possibility of a marriage between two equals simply did not occur to many gay or straight people. Consequently, the difference between a tom who lived like a man because she wanted a wife, and a man born female who lived as a man because he saw himself as a man, was not as clearly delineated as it is now. However getting this across to the reader without offending anyone would be, honestly, a job and a half.

Doctors of the time were split on terminology. Some referred to all butch lesbians, femme gays, crossdressers, trans people and intersex people as "inverts". According to the magnetic theory of sexual attraction (opposites attract!) it was assumed that a female invert would want to marry a "normal" woman; any butch/femme couple or trans man with a wife would be seen as confirming this theory.

Other doctors of the era had started to distinguish between homosexuals and what they called "transvestites". No distinction between crossdressers and transsexuals was made before the mid 20th century, when a need for such a distinction was found by a doctor who wanted to decide who should or should not be given hormones. Again, that lack of distinction is another thing your readers might be uncomfortable with.

The emphasis on gender dysphoria is also a mid 20th century thing, from the diagnostic criteria for prescribing hormones. Before that, it's not talked about much, and there's no word for it.

Ordinary people didn't necessarily use this medical terminology, although some did if they were well-read.

What we would now call LGBT communities had their own words for male or female inverts. Uranians, toms, marys, queans, etc.

Trans people without access to a community like that would have had no special words and just had to come up with their own ways of thinking about themselves. There certainly were at least a couple of trans men in that era who simply insisted "I am a man". That, at least, is an easy thing to write that won't make 21st century people uncomfortable.

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Above answers are pretty well researched, so I am going to keep this simple.

Thing is, we don't feel the dysphoria all the time, so you should avoid pointing out a constant depression due to it. Sometimes the character has fun, laughs, gets into the ideology of "body doesn't mean shit." But sometimes, they get referred with a pronoun of another gender. Sometimes they catch their reflection on a store window with one or more of their unwanted, gendered features highlighted. Similar to how you write a trauma, sprinkling that stuff into the story like a fine spice instead of making a constant drama on it is always more relatable and just reads better.

-1

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
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    @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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