Storify: Deadnames in Fiction

Storify is shutting down in May and has informed users that we have to migrate our content elsewhere if we wish to save it. This is one of my old threads.

So, hey, um. *shy wave* I'm trans and nonbinary. Can I talk a little about writing trans characters? I'm gonna. Specifically, I want to talk about deadnames. Trigger warnings for same apply to this thread.

Term definition time: A deadname is a name that a trans person no longer uses, usually a name that was given to them at birth. Our society tends to assign gender to names. For example, "Benedick" and "Beatrice" imply genders because our society has attached them. So some trans people feel that their birth name doesn't fit well with their gender and decide to bury that name and use a new one.

Deadnames *can* be triggering for a lot of trans folk, because of the way family and friends may insist on using the deadname on them. That persistent, unwanted deadnaming can be a form of misgendering and of refusing to acknowledge the trans person's identity. But it's also important to understand that not ever trans person has a deadname, and/or some of us who do don't find them triggering.

(A note on triggers: People aren't "weak" for having them or "strong" for not. We're all different and we have different traumas.)

It's also important to understand that trans people who choose new names don't all use the same process. Some trans people pick an entirely new name they love; some trans people pick a name that incorporates their old name in a new way.

Deadnames are.... complicated in fiction, because (a) they can be triggering for readers and (b) cis reviewers can misuse them. But that doesn't mean that a deadname should never be used for any story ever or that authors can't know their characters' deadnames. I have trans characters whose deadnames I do not know, sure! But I also have trans characters whose deadnames I DO know. I have a character whose deadname I never plan to write, but I know their deadname because they incorporated that deadname into their name.

Here is my advice--and keep in mind I am just one voice here and not The Trans Pope--for deadnames in fiction.

1. Does it NEED to be used? Can the story be written without it and the heart of the story stays the same? Would its use be gratuitous? If the story doesn't need the name, consider not using it--if only to minimize harm for readers who will find its use triggering. If you do NEED it, there should be a trigger warning on the book for deadnaming, and a note to reviewers to please NOT use it in reviews.

2. Do YOU, the author, need to know it? Is this just another irrelevant birth detail, like the character's favorite crib-mobile? Sometimes the answer is "yes" and you can file deadname under "first word spoken" as a childhood detail you don't need to come up with! Sometimes the answer is "no" and you need to know the deadname (even if you'll never use it!) because it matters to the character. Okay!

3. Can you "use" the deadname without USING the deadname? Something I've used is dashes:

Rothe looked up. "Yes?"

I used an R with dashes because Rothe's deadname has the same starting letter. @Mer_Squared has also suggested gibberish noises. Here's her example, which I really like--especially in a contemporary setting.

"Merry Christmas KSSCCZZRRK," Mom says.
"Mom," I say, rubbing my temple. "That's not my name."

(It makes me think of a white static noise.)

These "workarounds" on deadnames protect readers, but also show character with regards to the POV character, which I like. As in, the character is blanking out the sound of their name into static. Just from that example, I can tell they're weary of the argument.

Please don't lose sight of the fact that trans people are *individuals*. Some of us don't have deadnames. Some of us do but regard them without pain or even fondly. Some of us weave them into our new names. Those stories are valuable too. We can and should write them. We just need to label them (trigger warnings) and review them respectfully.

I do feel comfortable saying a reviewer should *never* use a deadname in a review. There may be an exception somewhere, but.... pls don't. There may be a case to be made for characters who name-switch willing ("X in the work, Y at home"), but I don't call names a person willingly uses / switches between to be deadnames, so I stand by my "don't use deadnames in a review" stance.

If there's a word for name-switching based on context, or rather for the names one switches between, I'd love to hear that term. I have a genderqueer character who has one name for friends/family and another for strangers. I have another genderfluid character who uses different names with different pronouns.

So. We contain multitudes. Thank you for listening.

OH AND THAT REMINDS ME ABOUT PRONOUNS HANG ON. If you read a genderfluid person and if they move between she, he, and they, please consider using they/them for your review. I mean, if the character spends a disproportionate amount of time using another pronoun or expresses a preference for a pronoun, use THAT, but I have seen reviewers use "he" or "she" over "they" in an attempt to express their opinions on a character's bodily configuration.

So don't do that. Trying to use pronouns to dogwhistley signal a fictional genderfluid character's genital arrangements is transphobia.

As a final point, be gentle with yourself as a writer. You aren't going to be perfectly Socially Justice Aware in your head at all times. You aren't. Let go of that. You are probably going to misgender your characters in your head at times, NOT because you don't respect their gender but because you were thinking through the scene from the POV of another character who doesn't know or is themselves transphobic.

You will probably type neopronouns wrong at times. Muscle memory is a hell of a thing to untrain.

There will be characters where you are comfortable never knowing their deadnames and/or genital configurations. Great! There may also be characters where your brain nags at you until you figure those things out, then set them aside and never USE them. Okay! And there may be characters where one or both of those things may matter to the story and may need to be respectfully included. The important thing isnt to Be Perfect At All Times During The Process; it's to listen to sensitivity readers and fix problems before print.

I'm trans myself and I spend a disproportionate amount of time being terrified that I'm doing everything wrong. Try to be gentle w/yourself. The first draft doesn't need to be perfect and the most socially justice aware thing ever written such that grown men weep at its beauty. Bad stuff is gonna slip in and you go back in with your elbow grease and your team of experts and you drag the bad stuff back out.

SURVIVAL ROUT has a character who uses xie/xer pronouns JUST LIKE ME, and I had to edit out erroneous she/hers. I did a find-replace in Word of "she/her" to "she/her [format: highlighted yellow]" and checked EVERY INSTANCE.

Understand and embrace that you will screw up at times. Keep going, don't give up, and listen to trans folk when we tell you a thing hurts. Thank you!


Post a Comment