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Advice for Writing Trans Male Characters

Hi everyone, and welcome to our second guest post!  We approached a trans man, and fellow writer, to put together a list of suggestions for cis people who want to write trans male characters! He has chosen to remain anonymous. Always remember, there is no one trans experience, and no one trans person’s knowledge will reflect the range of ways that trans people live. Our post author writes from his perspective, based on his knowledge and research, and much of this is relatively specific to the modern United States. Always use multiple sources when writing a character with an identity or identities that you don’t share!

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    So you want to write a trans male character but you’re not a trans man yourself. Good! We need more trans male characters out there in the world. There are a few things to consider, however. This is not a perfect list (I would never claim to be perfect), but here are some thoughts from a trans man about writing people like me.

    Trans men are men. They talk like men, think like men, and walk like men, except where socialization as women has forced otherwise. By this I mean that descriptions should not include things like “he walked delicately, like a woman”. However he walks, it’s like a man, because he’s a man. Other characters should not note that he “thinks like a woman” or that he “acts like a woman.” If you talk about a trans man transitioning and you mention that he is working on ways to masculinize his speech patterns or walking, that’s fine, but make sure it’s done from his perspective, e.g. “Michael tried to lower his voice, attempting to sound more like his father.” Do not use “Michael tried to lower his voice, not wanting to sound like a woman.” It’s his voice and he sounds like a man. Also, many woman have deeper registers and many men have higher registers, and there’s honestly not that much difference between a woman who speaks in a low alto and a man who speaks in a high tenor. Avoid gendering voices, mannerisms, and other things. A good rule of thumb is that if it’s a concept, idea, or an inanimate or non-sentient thing, it is physically and/or emotionally incapable of having a gender and you should not assign one to it.

1. A trans man who has decided that all he needs to do is come out to be a man is still a man, with a man’s body and male genitals, because he says he’s a man. Even if he is not out, he is a man. He can be uncomfortable with his body, or with how others perceive his body, but it should not be described in terms of “womanly” aspects. 

        EX: David’s breasts made him uncomfortable, reminding him that others looked at him differently than how he would have liked. 

2. 72% of trans men do not ever want full gender reassignment surgery, and this doesn’t make them “less of a man.” The surgeries are expensive, invasive, and don’t always result in a fully functional genital apparatus. Also, there are a lot of them. A trans man, to have a full semi-working penis (one that will not be useful for sex but will at least be useful for urination), is looking at at least three surgeries: to remove the labia, to ‘bulk up’ the clitoris, and to move the urethra. There are also surgeries to remove the cervix and/or the uterus, to create a scrotum, and to add a pump inside the scrotum attached to a surgical implant in the penis to assist with arousal. Even if a man has all these surgeries, the penis he gets loses most of its sensitivity and won’t become physically aroused (as in, achieve erection) without medical intervention. He may also need electrolysis to remove pubic hair. Ultimately, many trans men opt not to deal with it. Many still want top surgery, or a hysterectomy, or both, and often testosterone is used to help deepen their voice and change their body shape (but, again, gendering a trans man’s voice by suggesting it’s “feminine” because he’s not on testosterone or because his voice hasn’t dropped yet is not a great idea). It depends on the type and amount of dysphoria a person experiences, versus their financial and mental ability to deal with the different choices. Some trans men are happy with no hormones and only top surgery. Others want or need everything. There is no “correct” way to be trans. 

3. Unless your story revolves around their transition (which, as a cis person, maybe it’s best you don’t do, honestly), there’s no reason to go into detail about your trans male character’s surgeries. If it’s not plot relevant, it’s probably not necessary. 

4. If you’re writing porn, make sure to always use male pronouns for him, even if he has chosen not to go through surgery. If he has gone through surgery, what he has will be indistinguishable from a cis male penis except that he may need  viagra or a surgical pump. 

5. Reactions to testosterone are different for every trans man. Some men never have their voices drop, never grow a beard, and/or never bulk up and get all muscle-y. Some men are on testosterone for two weeks and have a Gandalf beard with a voice low enough to sing bass. It just depends, mostly on genetics. If your character’s father is a super hairy mountain man who sings bass in his lumberjack quartet, then your character is more likely to end up similar. If your character’s father is basically an elf, then he’s likely to be similar to that. Also, for a number of reasons, a trans man may choose not to or may be incapable of taking testosterone. Most doctors won’t prescribe it if the man wants to carry his own children in the future, for example. 

6. Keep in mind that the order in which testosterone produces effects on a man’s body isn’t predictable, so don’t worry too hard about ‘getting it right.’ Even trans men can’t predict what they’ll look like after being on testosterone for a while. 

7. Also, a note: If your character is transmasculine and nonbinary, and taking testosterone, it’s likely they will be on a lower dose than a trans man. That’s not always true, but testosterone can be given at a few different doses, depending on how drastic a change a person wants and how quickly they want that change to occur. There’s still no guarantee: a trans man may never be able to grow a beard on a full dose, while a transmasculine nonbinary person might be on a very low dose and have a beard within the first month. But, generally, lower doses are meant to bring out smaller changes over a longer period of time, while higher doses are meant to bring out larger changes over a shorter period of time.

8. A non-fluid trans man is going to consider himself a man at all times, and always use he/him pronouns for himself, whether or not everyone else does. If you’re writing a trans man point-of-view piece where he’s not out or where he’s not fully accepted, make sure he or the narrator always uses the right pronouns when others don’t. That helps remind your audience that he’s not the person other people think he is.  

        EX: Daniel was frustrated. His grandmother insisted on calling him “Sarah” no matter how many times he corrected her.

9. Menstruation is a difficult topic for a lot of trans men. Some men lose their ability to menstruate when they take testosterone, while others continue to menstruate. If they retain their uterus, however, the possibility of a menstrual cycle is always there. If/when menstruation happens for a trans man, it’s often a time of major dysphoria. A trans man may have a lot of issues surrounding menstruation. Having a cervix also means yearly Pap smears, which can also be uncomfortable or dysphoria-inducing. Dysphoria can also happen during ovulation, when a person is most fertile. The body during this time is “getting ready for a baby” and the changes can be very triggering. 

10. Testosterone may stop menstruation, but it doesn’t necessarily stop pregnancy. Also, some trans men will go off their testosterone in order to carry their own child. During their pregnancy, it is important that they are still referred to as men. A trans man will generally prefer to be called “father” even if he carried the child, but some may prefer the term “mother.” If a cis person wishes to write a pregnant trans character, it would be better to err on the side of caution and use “father.” A trans man who has gone through top surgery will not likely be able to nurse his own children, but a man who has chosen to use a binder instead will be able to (probably – some people don’t/can’t lactate for other reasons). Whether or not he chooses to will be up to him. 

11. Gender Dysphoria is the medical diagnosis given to trans people who want to do any form of medical transitioning. Being transgender is not in and of itself a diagnosis. A person can be transgender and choose never to transition medically. Dysphoria is generally most clearly understood as a form of discomfort in the body you possess. Sometimes a person experiencing dysphoria is uncomfortable with their body no matter what. He doesn’t like his breasts, for example, unless they are bound, no matter what his setting is, who is looking at him, etc. His dysphoria takes the form of nausea at the mere sight of them. Alternatively, some people only experience dysphoria relating to how others see them. For example, a man may not mind his breasts when he’s alone, and he doesn’t usually bind, but on a specific day while he wasn’t binding someone glance at his breasts before calling him ‘ma’am’ and now he can’t uncross his arms in case someone else looks his way. For some people dysphoria comes and goes, and they have good days and bad days. Also, images can be dysphoria-inducing. For example, seeing a pregnant person might remind a man that he has a uterus, and make him extremely uncomfortable all day. Other people may go several days, or weeks or months, without experiencing dysphoria, but when it hits it affects them for a long time or very severely. Or a person might experience dysphoria every day, as kind of a low-level mental fog they can’t shake. 

12. Gender Euphoria is as valid as Gender Dysphoria. Gender Euphoria is the idea that a person might be content in the body given to them, but will never be truly happy unless they make a change. These people can live their whole lives as the gender assigned to them at birth without severe mental issues or physical problems, but it’s like living a life without color. They can do it, but if there’s a way to get color back, why wouldn’t they? 

13. Changing names is complicated and takes time. It also differs in every state/country, and may need to be re-done when a trans man moves. In some states, all they need to change their name legally is a court order. In other areas, a trans man needs to have lived using their new name for a period of time, or have doctor’s notes and authorizations. Once the character has changed their name legally through the courts, they need to change their driver’s license, banking information, insurance, work papers, social security information, passport, birth certificate, and any other documentation bearing their name. It can take anywhere from a month to a year or more, and is expensive, sometimes prohibitively so. It’s okay to have a trans male character who goes by “Mark” but whose parents or grandparents refer to as “Melissa.” The important thing is to make sure narratively you are confirming that those people are wrong.

        EX: “Melissa! It’s nice to see you come to visit!” Mark’s mom said. Mark cringed, hating the sound of his deadname, but he hadn’t yet been able to convince his mother to use the right one.

14. Do not portray a character binding for more than eight hours or with unsafe binders in a positive light. Just don’t. Binding, even with professional/high-end binders, is not safe. It’s a stopgap – safer than not binding at all for some people whose dysphoria is really bad. It constricts the lungs and can break ribs if not done properly. It can permanently alter a person’s chest cage if done for an extensive period of time. It’s a necessary evil for people who are waiting to get their surgery done, in order to keep them alive to have that surgery. It’s not a permanent cure-all. Binding also can cause dysphoria. A person who doesn’t have dysphoria surrounding his chest can develop it after wearing a binder. So, have your character bind safely, or discuss the issues surrounding unsafe binding. (And yes, this applies even in a fantasy setting or world where the technology may be different. A story is a story, but the impact it could have on a real trans man is potentially dangerous, so write with consideration, and if you do introduce a magical or technological solution to this, maintain awareness of the reality.)

15. Transitioning without an in-person support group is one of the most common factors in transitioning regret. Give your character someone to go to the doctor with them, someone to hold their hand when they get scared, someone to talk them through moments when they’re unsure. No one who goes under the knife is always completely 100% sure all the time. They need a community. Surgery and hormones are scary, even if a trans man knows he wants them, and trying to go it alone can spell disaster.

16. Given that a trans man will consider himself a man, it can be challenging to make it clear to a reader that he’s trans. If he’s the main/POV character, you can write him dealing with some dysphoria. For example, if you decide your character binds, mention that his breasts are bothering him particularly badly one day. Have him adjust his binder. Describe putting a binder on. That kind of thing. If he’s a minor character, it can be more challenging, but you can still have him do things like adjust a binder. You could also mention surgical scars, if a character takes off their shirt. Another thing you can do is just have the main character remember a time “before Mark went by Mark” (for example). Another way is to have the character mention some way in which they are fighting for trans rights, and acknowledge that the issue is personal to them. Try not to use the deadname unless he’s facing an actual microaggression by another character. The narrative or narrator character should never deadname the character.

17. FTM is not an accepted term anymore, as it implies that a person was one thing and changed. Generally speaking, if a trans man is not genderfluid, then he was never female or a woman. Likewise, the phrase “born in the wrong body” is not acceptable for use by cis people. The only real use it has is to explain dysphoria by transgender characters to cisgender characters who aren’t inclined to listen or try to understand. The accepted term is AFAB, or Assigned Female At Birth. Keep in mind that terms and labels change with time, so do your research. For example, if you’re writing a historical piece, different terms may be more appropriate, and if you’re writing a modern current-day piece, understand that in ten or twenty years the terminology you use will likely have grown outdated. 

18. The proper way to write the term is always “trans man” and never “transman”. Trans is an adjective describing a type of man, just like you might say an Asian man or a muscled man or a gay man. This comes back to the idea that a trans man is always a man, first and foremost.

19. An easy pitfall to avoid if your trans male character’s setting is modern or modernesque is: Don’t make the story all about their oppression. We are aware of the many ways in which the modern world is trying to oppress and harm the trans community, but trans men can still be happy and interesting people. They can have dysphoria without being depressed. They aren’t necessarily the “down in the dumps” character. Also, trans men have a long history of being activists, and are often erased in history, so don’t be afraid to make your trans men an out-and-loud activist. Yes, terrible things have happened and continue to happen to trans men, and any trans man who has done any research into trans history will know about individuals like Brandon Teena. Trans men know the dangers they face. Knowing that bad things can and are happening doesn’t mean a trans man can’t find his own joy in life, despite things not being perfect.

20. Keep in mind when writing in historical settings that trans men have existed for as long as people have existed. Many trans men were able to go through life completely “undetected” until they died and those around them conducted culturally-common burial practices. It’s not unreasonable to have a trans man in Regency England, Yuan China, or Roman times. If you’re writing about non-European-centric history, many cultures acknowledged those who didn’t present the way their AGAB (assigned gender at birth) would suggest, and do your research. Also, keep intersectionality in mind, and tread especially carefully when writing a trans man from a culture and period other than your own. This post is mostly applicable to trans men in the modern era, and especially in the United States. The trans male experience will be different in other places in the world, for people of different ages and of different religions and ethnicities and races, so the more traits your trans man has that are outside your own experience as a cis writer, the more you should consider if it’s wise for you write the story you have in mind, or if it might not be better to allow in-group members to tell those stories. And never forget – trans men can and are all things – all races, all religions, abled and disabled, etc. People have nuanced identities and multiple identifiers and trans is always only one of many.

21. In fantastical or science fiction settings, please always ask yourself if oppression of trans people or bigotry against them is even needed. Maybe a society doesn’t assign gender at birth, but waits until a child is old enough to tell the society where they belong. Maybe a society reveres those who are under the transgender umbrella. Maybe children are considered genderless until they reach puberty. You have a million and one options; why limit yourself to what modern predominantly Western white Christian society says? If you do make a society that doesn’t look anything like the modern world, for example they assign gender at age five, think about how that would affect society as a whole. What kind of pronouns would be used for children under five? Are young children genderless, or are they seen as genderfluid? What about people who age past five and are still genderless or genderfluid? What are the naming conventions for children? 

22. There are mixed feelings regarding how a science fiction or fantasy setting should treat transitioning. Should it be an easy fix, with magic or advance science doing it instantly or nearly so? Or should it be difficult, reflecting the modern situation where the process often years before a person can feel “finished?” That’s up to you. Trans people themselves are split on this, so there’s no pleasing everyone. Do your best, and whichever way you choose, make sure to tag it accurately or, for original fiction, be clear up front what approaches you’ve chosen, so people can choose not to read something that may make them uncomfortable at best or trigger them and profoundly harm them at worst. 

    Ultimately, your trans man is your character and you can do with him as you wish. Write responsibly, and do your research, and if you can, get a sensitivity reader or a beta who is a trans man. 

    So, go, diversify those stories, write the things, and present good representation! Happy writing!

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Giving Quality, Motivating Feedback

A guest post by @shealynn88!

The new writer in your writing group just sent out their latest story and it’s…not exciting. You know it needs work, but you’re not sure why, or where they should focus. 

This is the blog post for you!

Before we get started, it’s important to note that this post isn’t aimed at people doing paid editing work. In the professional world, there are developmental editors, line editors, and copy editors, who all have a different focus. That is not what we’re covering here. Today, we want to help you informally give quality, detailed, encouraging feedback to your fellow writers.

The Unwritten Rules

Everyone seems to have a different understanding of what it means to beta, edit, or give feedback on a piece, so it’s best to be on the same page with your writer before you get started. 

Think about what type of work you’re willing and able to do, how much time you have, and how much emotional labor you’re willing to take on. Then talk to your writer about their expectations.

Responsibilities as an editor/beta may include:

  1. Know what the author’s expectation is and don’t overstep. Different people in different stages of writing are looking for, and will need, different types of support. It’s important to know what pieces of the story they want feedback on. If they tell you they don’t want feedback on dialogue, don’t give them feedback on dialogue. Since many terms are ambiguous or misunderstood, it may help you to use the list of story components in the next section to come to an agreement with your writer on what you’ll review.
  2. Don’t offer expertise you don’t have. If your friend needs advice on their horse book and you know nothing about horses, be clear that your readthrough will not include any horse fact checking. Don’t offer grammar advice if you’re not good at grammar. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give feedback on things you do notice, but don’t misrepresent yourself, and understand your own limits.
  3. Give positive and constructive feedback. It is important for a writer to know when something is working well. Don’t skimp on specific positive feedback — this is how you keep writers motivated. On the other hand, giving constructive feedback indicates where there are issues. Be specific on what you’re seeing and why it’s an issue. It can be hard for someone to improve if they don’t understand what’s wrong.
  4. Be clear about your timing and availability, and provide updates if either changes. Typically, you’ll be doing this for free, as you’re able to fit it in your schedule. But it can be nerve wracking to hand your writing over for feedback and then hear nothing. For everyone’s sanity, keep the writer up to date on your expected timeline and let them know if you’re delayed for some reason. If you cannot complete the project for them, let them know. This could be for any reason — needing to withdraw, whatever the cause,  is valid! It could be because working with the writer is tough, you don’t enjoy the story, life got tough, you got tired, etc. All of that is fine; just let them know that you won’t be able to continue working on the project.
  5. Be honest if there are story aspects you can’t be objective about. Nearly all of your feedback is going to be personal opinion. There are some story elements that will evoke strong personal feelings. They can be tropes, styles, specific characterizations, or squicks. In these cases, ask the writer to get another opinion on that particular aspect, or, if you really want to continue, find similar published content to review and see if you can get a better sense of how other writers have handled it.
  6. Don’t get personal. Your feedback should talk about the characters, the narrator, the plotline, the sentence structure, or other aspects of the story. Avoid making ‘you’ statements or judgements, suggested or explicit, in your feedback. Unless you’re looking at grammar or spelling, most of the feedback you’ll have will be your opinion. Don’t present it as fact.

Your expectations of the writer/friend/group member you are working with may include:

  1. Being gracious in accepting feedback. A writer may provide explanations for an issue you noticed or seek to discuss your suggestions.  However, if they constantly argue with you, that may be an indicator to step back.
  2. Being responsible for emotional reactions to getting feedback. While getting feedback can be hard on the ego and self esteem, that is something the writer needs to work on themselves. While you can provide reassurance and do emotional labor if you’re comfortable, it is also very reasonable to step back if the writer isn’t ready to do that work.
  3. Making the final choice regarding changes to the work. The writer should have a degree of confidence in accepting or rejecting your feedback based on their own sense of the story. While they may consult you on this, the onus is on them to make changes that preserve the core of the story they want to tell.

Some people aren’t ready for feedback, even though they’re seeking it. You’re not signing up to be a psychologist, a best friend, or an emotional support editor. You can let people know in advance that these are your expectations, or you can just keep them in mind for your own mental health. As stated above, you can always step back from a project, and if writers aren’t able to follow these few guidelines, it might be a good time to do that. (It’s also worth making sure that, as a writer, you’re able to give these things to your beta/editor.)

Specificity is Key

One of the hardest things in editing is pinning down the ‘whys’ of unexciting work, so let’s split the writing into several components and talk about evaluations you can make for each one.

You can also give this list to your writer ahead of time as a checklist, to see which things they want your feedback on. 

Generally, your goal is going to be to help people improve incrementally. Each story they write should be better than the previous one, so you don’t need to go through every component for every story you edit. Generally, I wouldn’t suggest more than 3 editing rounds on any single story that isn’t intended for publication. Think of the ‘many pots’ theory — people who are honing their craft will improve more quickly by writing a lot of stories instead of incessantly polishing one.

With this in mind, try addressing issues in the order below, from general to precise. It doesn’t make sense to critique grammar and sentence structure if the plot isn’t solid, and it can be very hard on a writer to get feedback on all these components at once. If a piece is an early or rough draft, try evaluating no more than four components at a time, and give specific feedback on what does and doesn’t work, and why.

High Level Components

Character arc/motivation:

  • Does each character have a unique voice, or do they all sound the same?
  • In dialogue, are character voices preserved? Do they make vocabulary and sentence-structure choices that fit with how they’re being portrayed?
  • Does each character have specific motivations and focuses that are theirs alone?
  • Does each character move through the plot naturally, or do they seem to be shoehorned/railroaded into situations or decisions for the sake of the plot? Be specific about which character actions work and which don’t. Tell the writer what you see as their motivation/arc and why—and point out specific lines that indicate that motivation to you.
  • Does each character’s motivation seem to come naturally from your knowledge of them?
  • Are you invested (either positively or negatively) in the characters? If not, why not? Is it that they have nothing in common with you? Do you not understand where they’re coming from? Are they too perfect or too unsympathetic?

Theme

It’s a good idea to summarize the story and its moral from your point of view and provide that insight to the writer. This can help them understand if the points they were trying to make come through. The theme should tie in closely with the character arcs. If not, provide detailed feedback on where it does and doesn’t tie in.

Plot Structure: 

For most issues with plot structure, you can narrow them down to pacing, characterization, logical progression, or unsatisfying resolution. Be specific about the issues you see and, when things are working well, point that out, too.

  • Is there conflict that interests you? Does it feel real? 
  • Is there a climax? Do you feel drawn into it? 
  • Do the plot points feel like logical steps within the story?
  • Is the resolution tied to the characters and their growth? Typically this will feel more real and relevant and satisfying than something you could never have seen coming.
  • Is the end satisfying? If not, is it because you felt the end sooner and the story kept going? Is it because too many threads were left unresolved? Is it just a matter of that last sentence or two being lackluster?

Point Of View:

  • Is the point of view clear and consistent? 
  • Is the writing style and structure consistent with that point of view? For example, if a writer is working in first person or close third person, the style of the writing should reflect the way the character thinks. This extends to grammar, sentence structure, general vocabulary and profanity outside of the dialogue. 
  • If there is head hopping (where the point of view changes from chapter to chapter or section to section), is it clear in the first few sentences whose point of view you’re now in? Chapter headers can be helpful, but it should be clear using structural, emotional, and stylistic changes that you’re with a new character now.
  • Are all five senses engaged? Does the character in question interact with their environment in realistic, consistent ways that reflect how people actually interact with the world?
  • Sometimes the point of view can feel odd if it’s too consistent. Humans don’t typically think logically and linearly all the time, so being in someone’s head may sometimes be contradictory or illogical. If it’s too straightforward, it might not ‘feel’ real. 

Be specific about the areas that don’t work and break them down based on the questions above.

Pacing

  • Does the story jump around, leaving you confused about what took place when?
  • Do some scenes move quickly where others drag, and does that make sense within the story?
  • If pacing isn’t working, often it’s about the level of detail or the sentence structure. Provide detailed feedback about what you care about in a given scene to help a writer focus in.

Setting:

  • Is the setting clear and specific? Writing with specific place details is typically more rooted, interesting, and unique. If you find the setting vague and/or uninteresting and/or irrelevant, you might suggest replacing vague references — ‘favorite band’, ‘coffee shop on the corner’, ‘the office building’ — with specific names to ground the setting and make it feel more real. 
  • It might also be a lack of specific detail in a scene that provides context beyond the characters themselves. Provide specific suggestions of what you feel like you’re missing. Is it in a specific scene, or throughout the story? Are there scenes that work well within the story, where others feel less grounded? Why?

Low Level Components

Flow/Sentence Structure:

  • Sentence length and paragraph length should vary. The flow should feel natural. 
  • When finding yourself ‘sticking’ on certain sentences, provide specific feedback on why they aren’t working. Examples are rhythm, vocabulary, subject matter (maybe something is off topic), ‘action’ vs ‘explanation’, passive vs. active voice.

Style/Vocabulary:

  • Writing style should be consistent with the story — flowery prose works well for mythic or historical pieces and stories that use that type of language are typically slower moving. Quick action and short sentences are a better fit for murder mysteries, suspense, or modern, lighter fiction. 
  • Style should be consistent within the story — it may vary slightly to show how quickly action is happening, but you shouldn’t feel like you’re reading two different stories.

SPAG (Spelling and Grammar):

  • Consider spelling and grammar in the context of the point of view, style and location of the story (eg, England vs. America vs. Australia). 
  • If a point of view typically uses incorrect grammar, a SPAG check will include making sure that it doesn’t suddenly fall into perfect grammar for a while. In this case, consistency is going to be important to the story feeling authentic.

Word Count Requirements:

If the story has been written for a project, bang, anthology, zine, or other format that involves a required word count minimum or maximum, and the story is significantly over or under the aimed-for word count (30% or more/less), it may not make sense to go through larger edits until the sizing is closer to requirements. But, as a general rule, I’d say word count is one of the last things to worry about.

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The best thing we can do for another writer is to keep them writing. Every single person will improve if they keep going. Encouragement is the most important feedback of all.

I hope this has helped you think about how you provide feedback. Let us know if you have other tips or tricks! This works best as a collaborative process where we all can support one another!