[Author’s Note: The following article reflects the experiences of the writer who is a transgender woman in games criticism. Her perspective may not represent other individuals who identify as trans. For more about her own experiences in gaming, feel free to check out her personal essay “A Girl, A Curse, & Lots of Slime.”]
Making room for more transgender characters in video games is an important step forward for the industry. Yet games that touch on trans lives often misrepresent transgender experiences by creating unrealistic portrayals of trans sexuality, gender dysphoria, and transitioning in everyday life. Lackluster representation in mass media does more harm than good, and writers unfamiliar with transgender experiences tend to struggle with creating realistic characters.
Granted, transitioning is complicated, and a lot of misinformation on transgender identification exists throughout the West. So providing writers with basic information on the physical, social, and psychological issues related to transitioning can give developers the proper foundation necessary for creating better transgender characters in their games.
An entire series could be dedicated to the complexities of creating a strong transgender character, so don’t expect a single article to cover the wide breadth of experiences and identities found within trans life. However, taking the first steps forward is important nonetheless, and a solid foundation is absolutely necessary for creating realistic trans characters in the gaming industry. So keep these five tips in mind as you begin developing a transgender protagonist, main character, or supporting cast member.
Step 1: Do Your Homework
Writing a transgender character means understanding the basic building blocks of their identity. Before you begin your first draft, take the time to familiarize yourself with LGBTQIA+ resources on transgender terminology, identification, and transitioning. Organizations such as the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (or, GLADD) provide valuable information for writers, hosting in-depth FAQs that explain the difference between sex and gender, the various identities that fall underneath the trans umbrella, and why certain terms should be avoided when referencing transgender characters.
While doing research, keep in mind that the experiences of transitioning vary from person to person. Some transitioners take several intensive steps—such as hormone therapy, voice training, and legal name change—that others might not necessarily engage in. Social and economic marginalization can also impact transitioning, as many transitioners are forced to push off transitioning in order to assure their own safety—whether from sexual harassment, physical violence, emotional abuse, financial instability, or a combination of the above. So make sure to familiarize yourself with the various decisions that trans individuals take during their transitioning, and draw on research about the specific identity you would like to portray.
Step 2: Transitioning as a Defining Life Event
Transgender individuals are assigned the wrong gender at birth. As a result, many spend a significant portion of their lives aligning their bodies with their correct gender identity through transitioning. As GLAAD points out, this includes, “telling one’s family, friends, and co-workers; using a different name and new pronouns; dressing differently; changing one’s name and/or sex on legal documents; hormone therapy; and possibly (though not always) one or more types of surgery.”
Granted, individual steps during transitioning vary from person to person. No two people transition the same way, and some steps are more stressful than others. However, regardless of the context, transitioning itself is a major life event. The steps that a transgender person takes during their transitioning significantly impact the ways in which they present themselves to others, especially as a transitioner comes out about their identity and grapples with the social and cultural expectations of gender imposed upon trans identities.
Likewise, because of the various physical, psychological, and social changes that a trans person experiences, transitioning can be a traumatic time in a trans person’s life. Transgender individuals commonly lose friends during transitioning and struggle with family members who refuse to respect their gender identity. In some cases, transitioners might also be rejected from religious communities, face discrimination in academic settings, or struggle with healthcare coverage from general practitioners and private practices.
Games that explore transitioning should respect the impact that the process has on trans characters, and reflect the social, cultural, economic, and interpersonal stresses related to transitioning.
Step 3: Build Complex Characters
Strong characters are complicated to write. They come with ambitions, fears, goals, and desires. They have various moral shades of grey, and are infused with strengths and weaknesses in their personalities. Most well-written characters also challenge their beliefs over time, as they learn to grow as individuals within their stories.
Writing transgender characters in games is no different. While focusing on accurately representing transgender experiences, make sure to also flesh out your character’s interests, give them complicated personalities, build their relationships with other characters, and imbue them with conflicts and tragic flaws. In other words, make sure your characters have three-dimensional personalities that complement the settings they find themselves in.
This might seem like a given point at first, but it’s important to stress regardless of the game you plan to create. Transgender players identify with characters that feel lifelike, and that means creating individuals with passions, hobbies, ambitions, conflicting personality traits, and tragic flaws. Don’t let the setting limit your creativity, either—virtually any story can feature nuanced representation. Just make sure to balance out their portrayal in relation to their gender identity.
Step 4: Tweak It & Betaread It
Feedback is a valuable asset for creating transgender characters. Betareading your work can shed a new perspective on your writing, catching problems with a character’s development that are easily missed during editing. Likewise, trans readers bring a second opinion to the table, providing constructive criticism in relation to their own life experiences.
Industry veterans regularly betaread their work with trusted readers, workshopping character development and ironing out problems with their drafts. This helps improve the final quality of the game, polishing the writing and refining problems with early depictions of transgender characters.
For example, take Patrick Weekes’ overview of Cremisius “Krem” Aclassi’s characterization in Dragon Age: Inquisition. As he notes, Bioware originally had Krem’s superior, Iron Bull, make fun of his binding. A genderqueer betareader quickly pointed out how invasive this joke was, and Weekes used the feedback to refine Bull and Krem’s relationship—reestablishing the boundaries in which they teased one another throughout the game. Weekes explains how this was invaluable in the writing process, helping him “avoid some obvious-in-retrospect mistakes.”
Betareading grants readers the opportunity to point out problems with a creator’s work and make trans characters more realistic. Their perspective can reinforce a character’s strong points and fix problems with their presentation in the game. Just make sure your betareaders are comfortable reviewing your work first, as explaining transphobic depictions of characters can be stressful for many transgender readers.
Step 5: One Last Thing …
If you’ve done your homework, then you should have a solid footing to write a well-written transgender character. However, bigoted depictions of transgender individuals are invasive throughout Western culture, and can easily slip into lazy writing. These include:
- Depictions of trans women as sexual hedonists
- Conflating transitioning with crossdressing
- Portraying transitioning as an immediate process
- Depictions of transitioning as perverse or socially hideous
- Implying transitioners are inherently violent
- Depicting transitioning as a form of sexual pleasure
These kind of stereotypes are damaging for transgender players. They come from a place of ignorance and bigotry, misrepresenting fundamental aspects of trans identification by conflating transitioning with self-harm, physical abuse, sexual exploitation, and predatory behavior.
Popular media use these derogatory stereotypes to discredit trans individuals’ identities, exclude their participation in feminism, and insinuate that a trans person’s gender exists solely in relation to their sex. They are among some of the worst depictions of trans characters present in the West, and they reinforce damaging views on transgender individuals found in everyday life.
Again, make sure you do your research before you begin writing. Betreading your work and collecting feedback from trusted readers will help you avoid these stereotypes, strengthen your narrative, and, in some cases, even give you the opportunity to subvert the damaging insinuations that these tropes imply.
These five steps are just a starting point for a much larger conversation on trans representation in video games. Please feel free to add your own advice in the comments below!
Photos above are from the upcoming video game Aerannis, which features a transgender woman as the protagonist. The writer backed the game on Kickstarter in support, but the photos are from the public demo. Feel free to give it a try!