Fenris Braun is the most loved and talked-about character in my new alternate history novel, Breath of Earth. He is an acerbic scene-stealer with a slim form and a practiced glower. He’s effusive in his childlike joy of machines, especially his cobbled-together passenger airship, the Palmetto Bug. Fenris often gripes at his business partner, Cy Jennings, and Cy takes it all with a smile and a shrug. The two men are as close as brothers, and have been for over a decade.
Fenris is also a transgender man. In the alternate 1906 setting of my novel, he could have chosen to live as a man in order to attend engineering school and to work as a mechanic, defying the many societal constraints placed on women in the period. In Fenris’s case, however, he isn’t “secretly a woman”; he identifies as male. If an option to change his sex were available, he would take it without hesitation.
Writing a trans character requires research. It requires respect. It requires a conscious, fervent desire to not muck up everything. I am, undeniably, a cis female. I have often been uncomfortable in or outright loathed my own body, but I never questioned my identity as a woman. I came to understand more about the transgender experience as I supported several friends through the process of gender reassignment. I had no idea about the psychological challenges that came with the physical change: the isolation from family, friends, and co-workers; the worry about the money to pay for everything; the joy and terror that came with the re-discovery of their own bodies.
Because of my friends, I became more conscious of how transgender people are often regarded as things within the media: curiosities, sex objects to be regarded as mere body parts. Hollywood perpetuates this horrible stereotype when they use trans characters as objects of pity who exist to be injured or murdered, and thus make the protagonist look like a sympathetic hero through the experience. The thought of my friends being treated like that in the everyday world—dismissed like that—fills me with rage.
I kept this in mind as I started to develop Fenris within Breath of Earth. The basic inspiration for him came from a character in the classic RPG Final Fantasy V—Faris, the purple-haired pirate captain with a secret past—but my Fenris soon became a character in his own right. I’m an author, but that doesn’t mean all facets of a story are under my control. Sometimes, it feels as though I’m directing the wind. I have ideas. I have outlines. But the plot and characters go where they will. Fenris is one of those rare, vivid characters who didn’t require extensive revision. He burst onto the page, no filter on his dialogue, his brows furrowed, arms crossed, his shoes tap-tap-tapping in impatience. Fenris works all the day long, his clothes oil-stained and skin blotched, and he’s happy in his own grumpy way.
But then it came time for revision, and I had to stop and think. What gives me the right to write this character? Am I doing justice to Fenris? To the transgender experience? Am I part of the problem in the media? The very idea of contributing to that sort of awfulness disturbs me on a deep level.
The easy solution would have been to change Fenris, make him a cis male. Boom! Problem solved. I considered it. I couldn’t do it. It felt wrong. Fenris wears trousers and binds his chest because if he wore a skirt and grew out his hair, he would be lying to himself and the rest of the world. Taking that part of Fenris’s identity away would have broken him as a character. It would have broken the whole book.
Gender identity is important like that. It is to me personally, and it’s something I took for granted for many years. I still do, really. I mean, hello: I’m a pasty cis straight woman. I am legion wherever I look in the media. My transgender friends didn’t have that—and examples within genre fiction and gaming fandom still remain few. I remember talking once with one of my friends about the character of Flea in Chrono Trigger. Flea is a bit-part villain who presents as female but identifies as male. There is little character developed beyond that, but even so, my friend gushed about how much she loved Flea.
“He is like ME!” she typed in reply, with added kissy emoticons to echo the hearts blown by Flea’s character sprites.
My transgender friends need better representation than Flea.
Yes, I’m taking a risk in writing a character who is unlike me in some major ways. Critique readers can offer helpful perspectives during the revision process, but in the end, the responsibility is on me. I might botch everything. I might not. Even so, this offers me an opportunity to stand up, in a small way, and acknowledge that transgender people exist. That they have existed throughout history, and that they can be heroes.
That literary acknowledgment carries its own risks. Case in point: the recent one-star review campaign against author Chuck Wendig for daring to make casual, non-sexually-graphic references to gay relationships within the Star Wars universe in his book Aftermath. But so far, reader response to Fenris has been incredible. In major interviews, he has been brought up more often than my main character. He’s being given special call-outs in reviews. People say he feels like a real person.
While that’s the kind of feedback I hope for with any character, in Fenris’s case, it gives me profound—but temporary—relief. Temporary, because I am working on the sequel novel now. My job as author isn’t done. I’m still a cis female, and defined by those life experiences. I want to do what’s right by my characters, and by transgender people in the real world. I’m still ignorant…but I want to learn. Through Fenris, maybe my readers will learn right along with me.
Beth Cato is the author of The Clockwork Dagger series, and resides in the outskirts of Phoenix, AZ. Her husband Jason, son Nicholas, and crazy cat keep her busy, but she still manages to squeeze in time for writing and other activities that help preserve her sanity. She is originally from Hanford, CA, a lovely city often pungent with cow manure.
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