Thursday, 11 July 2013

In Their Shoes: Writing The Analyst's transgender character

It occurred to me sometime while editing Dead Roots that one of my characters was transgender. When I put it that way, I may be glorifying the decision: the insinuation being that the character revealed the fact to me through a dream or some other afflatus of divine writ, and I had no agency in it. That would be dishonest.

The decision was mine entirely and a conscious one. However, once the idea took form I found it impossible to consider the character in their original context, impossible to back out and play it safe; in fact certain facts about the character’s personality and history made more sense to me once the change had been made, like details in a bas-relief uncovered by dusting brush. In this way the decision was both a calculated move and an unconscious part of the primordial muck of storytelling.

The change came on the heels of similar revelations in my own life, when two of my closest and oldest friends came out to me as trans (one female-to-male, the other male-to-female) within a six month period. I resolved that I would provide the most positive and respectful portrayal I could possibly drum up, which meant a lot of research. It would be impossible to write this without picking my friends’ brains beforehand. They were both thrilled to hear about the character, but I had to give them ample warning.

I warned them that as a horror writer, and keeping in the vein of my Analyst series, the portrayal of this character would go to some extremely dark and raw places. I wanted to take the horror of gender dysphoria and communicate it to a mainstream audience. I wanted something brutal and disgusting and overall, real for my potential trans readers. I saw it as an untapped well of material that deserved a thorough examination. To do this I would have to ask them some very probing and strangely specific questions, things they understandably might not want to share with anybody. If I couldn’t get the answers to those questions, I would not write it—they didn’t deserve guessing. 

To my relief and delight, they were on board with the process 100% of the way.

What came as a surprise—or maybe not, in retrospect—was the way that the non-horror elements, the regular conversations and handling of the eventual reveal, morphed as my own understanding evolved. While the nightmare sequences remained as raw as they needed to, I became aware of how ‘othering’ I was being in my default thinking towards the human side of the character.  A beta reader came back from the first draft of King of Men pointing out that while the emotionally-charged discussions between the character and their estranged parents rang authentic, their interactions with the main cast put too much emphasis on the recent reveal. The character was not reduced to a plot device but a palpable change occurred, not between the characters but between the trans character and the reader. Details were laid out in a clinical fashion for the reader’s benefit. Looking back over my draft I realized they were absolutely correct.

An article called TheTrouble With Depicting Trans People by Zinnia Jones (who has graciously acted as the third consultant in the process) articulated some of the finer points of the problem I was facing. After reading it, I found myself staring at the ceiling in thought for a long while, considering some of the places in King of Men where I had betrayed my friends’ trust. 

It’s always been my attitude that I expect my reader to be intelligent, willing to draw their own conclusions on ambiguities and do their own research. If an explicit detail can be obscured without interrupting the flow of the story, then I remove it. There are hints towards the eventual reveal laced throughout the previous two books, and as it turns out any questions that might be asked by the characters, or the reader, have been answered. 

I continued to cut out and alter certain scenes. I scrapped an entire planned horror sequence in favor of a single exchange of dialogue. I worried that this would come off as laziness, an absence of research or effort, but as I come closer to finishing the book I am learning to accept that I’m simply not equipped to cross certain borders, and I probably never will be.

The journey of the third Analyst novel is almost over. Reflecting on the process, the challenge of writing trans horror from a cisgendered perspective didn’t come from expressing the fear in a way that readers would identify with, but in maintaining the character’s humanity afterwards.
My aim from the beginning was to give a gift to two of my oldest friends: a character written for them, my way of involving myself in their lives and their struggles. This character is a monument to my gratitude and respect for them, for their friendship and their patience with the world and with me. If I’ve failed at that, then the learning and progress I’ve made may well have been meaningless. Rather than idly hope for the best outcome, I will make sure the final version of King of Men is a product I, and they, can be proud of; in September the readers can decide for themselves.