Where are the Non-binary Characters in Fiction?
Over a year ago, I started to plan my novel, The Wizards on Walnut Street. What started as an exercise in fantasy world-building and humor quickly became a major project involving diverse and interesting characters…but along the way I learned something terrible about the fiction industry.
There isn’t much non-binary representation.
LGBT representation in fiction has long been a problem. With the advent of POD books and an increase in awareness by LGBT groups and creatives, there has been an explosion of queer charactersin the fantasy and sci-fi genre, which is just lovely. The Goodreads LGBTQ/GSM Fantasy and Sci-fi Group lists over 2500 books on its bookshelf.
So I was happy to add Wizards on Walnut to it. I was adding it to various categories, including the one where you mark if your book has certain types of characters: trans, gay, bisexual, pansexual, etc.
There was no option for Non-binary. (So I added one.)
Quick refresher: What is Nonbinary?
The term Non-binary has different meanings depending on who you’re talking to. In its most general sense, someone who is non-binary does not identify strictly with being a “man” or a “woman”. Sometimes they might feel like both. Or a little of one, and a little of the other. Or neither at all. It’s important to recognize that non-binary is an umbrella term that can cover many different gender identities.
People in the industry really don’t like it
When I wrote the main character of Walnut Street, I wrote it in first-person and was curious how long I could go without gendering my character. Maybe I could go the whole book. The goal originally was to make the character relatable to the reader regardless of gender, but as I got into it, it occurred to me that I had never enountered a genderless main character in fiction.
That’s when something happened. A few months back, while Walnut Street was only a couple of chapters in and had been sent out to beta readers, I was contacted through a writer’s facebook group from someone who had read my work. The person worked for a literary agency and was looking for new fantasyt titles. That led to this lovely interaction (the full exchange is here):
Agent: One thing though: you actually don’t give any indication add to whether Andy is a dude or a chick. I assumed due from the name but I know girls named Andy too. Might confuse the reader
Me: Ah. That’s on purpose.
I left out Andy’s gender on purpose because it doesn’t matter
Of course it matters.
Not really. The character is non-binary, but I didn’t draw attention to it.
Oh. I see. So you just couldn’t resist putting some kind of transpeople agenda into your book? that’s stupid. Your characters should be well-defined, and it’s not okay to normalize mental disorders in your characters just to you can feel superior to your reader
What happens if your reader likes the flirtatious scenes between Apollo and Andy and then funds it Andy might really be a guy? WHat is they don’t approve of that? You will lose readers just because your wanted to be controversial
My suggestion is just pick afucking gender. Andy’s either a boy or a girl. It doesn’t change the story overall so just fucking PICK ONE
If it doesn’t change the story…why does it matter
YOU’RE NOT LISTENING
“Just pick a fucking gender”. Oh, it is ON, I said to myself, and immediately resolved myself to never gender Andy. In that moment, in sheer protest, I cemented my decision to make Andy non-binary. And I have stuck with it ever since.
Some readers don’t like it either. But some do. And I mean, that’s cool. Read what you like. I won’t lie: I am maybe a little bothered bothered by some of the comments that popped up when I shared this conversation on imgur, such as “He’s right, you will lose sales” and “You’re going to turn readers off.” Maybe I will, I guess.
But Maybe I won’t. I am heartened by the top comment on that imgur album, which reads simply: “I would like to read this book.”
So where are they?
Back to our original question. It’s a shame that there’s not a lot of non- binary or gender ambiguous characters in fiction. too often it’s played for laughs or as a trope or to show how alien a race is. Not often is it just normalized.
And that’s the thing. Wizards on Walnut doesn’t shove gender politics into your face. It presents it very simply, as something normalized. Because being nonbinary, transgender, bisexual, asexual, pansexual, or any of many different identity terms is normal. And the literary world really needs to start treating it as such.
If you know of any fiction featuring genderless or otherwise non-binary characters, please leave me a comment so I can add it to my to-read list.