If you want to create a more diverse cast of characters for your story, including a nonbinary character is a great place to start. Gender variance is an often overlooked aspect of diversity, and, even in stories that prominently feature other LGBT+ characters, nonbinary people don’t often get to see themselves represented.
Creating a nonbinary character is a great idea for any story, but you should be cautious about how you portray them—especially if you’re a cis person or new to the community. To avoid offending anyone and perpetuating harmful stereotypes, it’s a good idea to learn as much as you can about nonbinary identities before you get started.
What Does It Mean to Be “Nonbinary?”
“Nonbinary” is an umbrella term that’s used to describe someone whose gender identity falls outside the binary options of “male” and “female.” You might have heard of other terms like genderqueer, NB (or “enby”), gender nonconforming, and gender variant, but those all mean (roughly) the same thing.
There’s a lot to dissect there, so it’s okay if you don’t understand yet.
The “gender binary” is a societal construct that labels all individuals as either male or female. Nonbinary individuals are people who reject that concept because their identity doesn’t align perfectly with either option—male or female.
Some nonbinary people feel as if they are both male and female at the same time, while others alternate between feeling like a man and feeling like a woman. Some don’t feel associated with gender at all, while others feel mostly like one of the binary options, but not completely. Those are just a few of the ways someone could identity as nonbinary, but there are countless other ways people have internalized and expressed their experience with gender.
To understand the concept of “nonbinary,” you need to reimagine the way you think about gender.
Gender can be broken up into two subcategories: gender identity and gender expression.
- Gender identity is the way a person feels about their gender on the inside. This is how they see themselves, and how they personally align with their ideas of gender. A person’s gender identity is completely separate from their biology.
- Gender expression is how a person displays their gender to the world. This describes the deliberate choices a person makes with their wardrobe, their behavior, and their overall appearance to be perceived in a way that aligns with how they want to be seen. Gender expression is dependent on society’s understanding of what constitutes “masculine” or “feminine” behavior.
Gender identity and gender expression often match, but they don’t have to. Many nonbinary people have a gender expression that is traditionally masculine or feminine, though they identify with a different gender. Masculinity does not inherently entail “man,” and femininity does not inherently entail “female.” A person can be aligned with a masculine identity and still wear a dress, and that doesn’t make them any less of who they say they are.
Never assume that a person’s expression (how they look on the outside) indicates their identity (how they feel on the inside).
It is also important to remember that a person may be using their gender expression as a way of protecting themself from stigma and abuse. A person could identify on the inside as being a blend of male and female, but outwardly dress and behave like their assigned gender to avoid bullying. This is especially true for minors or people living in an area where the community at large is not accepting of nonbinary identities.
Writing Nonbinary Characters
The most important thing to keep in mind when you’re writing a nonbinary character is that nonbinary identities are incredibly diverse. There are tons of different ways to identify as nonbinary!
Remember that “nonbinary” is an umbrella term that encompasses many different identities within it. Some people (like myself) prefer to identify with the umbrella term itself for various reasons, but many others select more specific labels, such as:
- Third gender
There are hundreds (if not thousands) of different nonbinary identities, and everyone has very personal reasons for selecting the term they want to describe them. Two people with the same label may identify with it for different reasons. One person may identify with “nonbinary” because it isn’t as hard to explain as a more niche identity, whereas someone else may use it because they know they aren’t a binary gender, but are still in the process of discovering what that means for them.
Because there are so many different nonbinary identities (and new ones are debuting all the time), it isn’t reasonable for me to explain all of them here. There’s bigender, gendervague, graygender, polygender, aerogender, and hundreds more. In order to keep this article concise, I will be explaining some of the most common labels (those listed in bullet points above), but you can read up on some other common nonbinary identities and uncommon nonbinary identities on the Nonbinary Wiki.
Gender-neutral, also referred to as agender, genderless, or neutrois, is a gender identity characterized by neutrality. Gender-neutral individuals represent the absence of or indifference to gender, not a combination of the binary options.
Gender-neutral individuals usually choose to use neutral language, such as referring to themselves with the singular “they” pronoun, and substituting in words like “parent” instead of “mom” or “dad,” and “sibling” instead of “brother” or “sister.”
Androgyne, or androgynous gender, is an identity that is described as being between the two binary genders, or both at the same time. Androgynous individuals often feel like they are a mixture of male and female. That may mean they feel equally male and female, but it could also mean they lean towards one more than the other.
Androgyne is often used to describe a kind of gender expression that utilizes a combination of traditionally male and female elements (such as wearing a tuxedo and makeup) to create an ambiguous presentation, though it is also claimed by many as a valid gender identity. A person does not need to look androgynous for them to be able to use the term androgyne to refer to their identity.
Genderfluid individuals are people whose gender identity changes over time, usually fairly regularly. Many people think of this identity as someone who switches between feeling masculine and feeling feminine, but it isn’t exclusive to binary options. Genderfluid individuals can identify with many different genders besides just “male” and “female,” such as both, neither, something in-between, or something else.
Sometimes, genderfluid individuals are influenced by things such as their environment, company, and mood, while others may not have any indication of when or why their gender identity fluctuates. Depending on how the person identifies in a given moment, they may choose to dress differently or use different pronouns or names for themself. However, you should avoid giving a character more than one set of pronouns, since that can get really confusing for readers.
When a person changes between two different genders, such as male and female, or female and agender, then they can also use the term “bigender” to describe their identity. When a person fluctuates between three or more genders, they can also refer to their identity as “multigender” or “polygender.”
Fem and Masc
Fem (or sometimes “femme”) and Masc identities describe individuals who identify with femininity or masculinity to some extent, but not as female or male.
A person who identifies as fem feels some connection to femininity, but not to a female gender. Likewise for masc individuals; they associate with a masculine identity, but not a male gender.
The terms “fem” and “masc” can be used as standalone identities, but since they can also be used to describe aesthetics or gender expression, many people choose to use the labels of “nonbinary fem” or “nonbinary masc” to be more specific.
Additionally, a person who was assigned male at birth and identifies as fem may choose to use the terms “trans fem” or “transfeminine” instead, just as a person who was assigned female at birth and identifies as masc may use “trans masc” or “transmasculine” to describe their identity.
Similar labels for masc include “demiboy,” “demiguy,” and “demiman.” I’ve also seen “menby” or “manby” (man + enby), though I’ve never personally met anyone who uses those labels.
Likewise, alternative labels for fem individuals include “demigirl,” “demigal,” and “demiwoman.” I’ve also seen the label “femby” (fem + enby), but like with the masculine equivalents, it doesn’t seem very common.
Third Gender is a controversial identity that is used to describe a person who is not male or female and doesn’t identify as masculine or feminine, but for which terms like “gender-neutral” and “agender” don’t accurately describe them.
Individuals who identify as being third gender don’t feel like existing labels apply to them, because of the labels’ dependency on the binary and social ideas of masculinity and femininity. They are not masculine, feminine, neutral, or genderless, but rather a different option. It’s not that they do not experience gender; rather, their gender is experienced differently from how the traditional binary understanding of gender allows.
So why is the term controversial? The label of “third gender” has a long history of being used to describe many individuals within the LGBT+ community and other perceived “social deviants” (such as feminists fighting for women’s rights) as a way of ostracizing them from society. Many people have reclaimed the term and use it as a way of describing their personal identity, but not everyone is willing to accept it.
(This is also true for other reclaimed terms like “queer;” not everyone likes when reclaimed terms are used, especially by those who are outside the LGBT+ community.)
If you like the idea of this gender identity for your character, but you want to stay far away from any controversial terms (good move), then you should stick with an umbrella term like “nonbinary,” and have the character describe how they feel in their own words.
Questioning Gender Identity and Ambiguity
Your character doesn’t need a label to identify as being “not exactly male or female.” Depending on the setting of your story, your character may not have the knowledge or language to describe how they feel. For example, if your character grew up in a sheltered environment, they might not know that there are words to describe how they feel and other people like them in the world. Another character might understand that they are nonbinary, but not really know exactly how to narrow that down to something more specific.
You don’t have to use all the proper language to talk about your characters being nonbinary. You can simply have them state that they don’t feel like a man or a woman, or you can have them try to explain how they feel in their own words. You don’t even need to address it if you don’t want to, and you can just refer to them with gender-neutral language throughout the story.
A character’s gender identity doesn’t have to be (and in fact, shouldn’t be) a major plot point in the story, so don’t be too worried about drawing enough attention to it. A character’s gender identity is just another part of who they are, like the color of their hair or the place they were born.
Using They/Them Pronouns for a Character in Your Story
At this point, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that many nonbinary people are uncomfortable with the pronouns she/her and he/him. Using neutral pronouns to reference characters can take some getting used to, but it’s not as hard as some people make it out to seem.
By far the most common option for gender-neutral pronouns is the singular usage of the pronouns they/them. This means instead of using “he” or “she” in a sentence, you would simply use the word “they.” For example:
“He went to the supermarket.”
“They went to the supermarket.”
Using a plural pronoun to refer to a single individual can create some grammatical confusion, however, since verb forms are different for singular and plural nouns. Fortunately, it’s not that hard to understand once you put it in perspective. Even though the pronoun “they” is being used to reference a singular person, it is still correct to use the plural verb form “are” in the same sentence. For example:
“They is going to the supermarket.” is incorrect.
“They are going to the supermarket.” is correct.
Even though the verb “are” is used most often when referencing plural nouns (those are bees, the cats are cute, the cups are dirty, etc), it is not incorrect to use it in this context. Consider the second-person pronoun “you.” Regardless of whether or not “you” references a single person or many people, it is still appropriate to use the plural verb form “are.”Singular “you” works exactly like singular “they.” For example:
“You is going to the supermarket.” is incorrect.
“You are going to the supermarket.” is correct.
This applies to all verb forms. Some other examples are:
“He doesn’t like that.”
“They don’t like that.”
“You don’t like that.”
“He seems tired.”
“They seem tired.”
“You seem tired.”
“He has a snack.”
“They have a snack.”
“You have a snack.”
In addition to verb forms, you can also use the reflexive pronouns “themselves” or “themself” to reference a singular neutral person. I personally prefer to use “themself,” but both are technically grammatically correct.
Other Neutral Pronouns
Singular “they” is not the only option when it comes to neutral pronouns. You might have heard of something called “neopronouns” or “new pronouns,” and they’re exactly what they sound like. These pronouns are new additions to the informal English lexicon, and they are being used more and more frequently in place of “he/him” and “she/her.”
Some examples of neopronouns are:
However, although there is nothing wrong with real people using neopronouns for themselves, I strongly advise you not to use them for fictional characters in your story. Neopronouns can be confusing for people who are not familiar with them, and you don’t want to pull readers out of your story simply because of a small choice you made for one of your characters. Unless you know the majority of your audience will be LGBT+ people, or those who are familiar with the community and the terminology, then you should avoid using neopronouns in your story.
On a related note, it is not uncommon for nonbinary individuals to use more than one set of pronouns, such as they/them and she/her. However, you should not give your characters more than one set of pronouns each, because it can be really difficult for readers to keep up with what is going on if one character has inconsistent pronouns. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with real people identifying with more than one set of pronouns—you just generally shouldn’t do that in your story for the sake of clarity. With that said, if your character is genderfluid, and actively switches between more than one gender throughout the story, you can use different pronouns to reflect their gender expression at a given time. Just be as clear as you can do your best to minimize confusion.
Nonbinary and Neutral Language Alternatives
In addition to using neutral pronouns for a character, you should also consider how else they will be referred to by other characters and narrators. Gendered language extends beyond pronouns after all, and it can be helpful to identify those words and find suitable replacements before you start writing seriously.
Here are some common gendered words, and some nonbinary or neutral alternatives that can be used instead:
|Common Words||Nonbinary / Neutral Alternatives|
|Mother / Father||Parent, Baba, Mopa/Moppa, Nonny, Nona, Pare/Perry, Zaza, Mada|
|Daughter / Son||Child, Kid, Baby, Teen, Tween, Youngest, Eldest/Oldest, Middle child|
|Brother / Sister||Sibling, Sib|
|Niece / Nephew||Nibling, Nespring, Nieph, Niephew|
|Aunt / Uncle||Auntcle, Avaunt, Untie/Unty|
|Grandma / Grandpa||Grandparent, Grandy, Grandwa, Gran|
|Boy / Girl||Kid/Kiddo, Teen, Tween, Child, Youth, Enby, Neut/Newt, Null|
|Man / Woman||Person, Enby, Adult, Being, Human|
|Boyfriend / Girlfriend||Datemate, Date, Lover, Paramour, Partner, Sweetheart, Significant other, Beloved, S.O., Signif, Soulmate, Bothfriend, Enbyfriend, Birlfriend|
|Fiancé / Fiancée||Spouse-to-be, Betrothed, Intended|
|Wife / Husband||Spouse, Partner|
|Bridesmaid / Groomsman||Wedding Usher|
|Mr. / Mrs. / Ms. / Miss / Sir||Mx., Mz/Mezz, Mir, Tiz|
In addition to these words, you should also keep in mind occupations that identify people, such as “fireman” and “postman,” and try to use neutral alternatives such as “firefighter” and “postmaster” instead. That’s actually a pretty good rule to use all the time, too, and not just in reference to nonbinary people and characters.
Avoid Stereotyping Your Nonbinary Character
By now, you know that there is no perfect way of being nonbinary. There isn’t a nonbinary rulebook. Culture, personality, circumstance, and many other factors influence how a person internalizes their identity and expresses themself, and as such, no two nonbinary people are the same.
- Some nonbinary people experience dysphoria with their body, voice, and expected gendered roles in society, while others don’t.
- Some nonbinary people choose to use a new name or pronouns (or both), while others don’t.
- Some nonbinary people choose to use they/them pronouns, while others are comfortable with he/him, she/her, or neopronouns.
- Some nonbinary people pursue gender confirmation surgery, while others don’t.
- Some nonbinary people do vocal training, while others don’t.
- Some nonbinary people will get really upset if their name, pronouns, or identity aren’t respected, while others take that disrespect in stride.
- Some nonbinary people are okay with some gendered terms like “mom” or “bro,” while others use exclusively gender-neutral terms.
- Some nonbinary people dress in neutral clothing, while others dress more masculine or feminine.
- Some nonbinary people are comfortable being seen as masculine or feminine, while others are not.
In addition to that, the ways nonbinary characters behave should not be dictated exclusively by their gender identity. Like all characters, nonbinary characters should have habits, fears, traits, behaviors, flaws, and a robust and well-fleshed out backstory. After all, gender identity is only part of who they are.
Take a look at these articles to get an idea of how to make characters complex and realistic.
Some Dos and Don’ts for Writing Nonbinary Characters
Any time you are writing about a minority—especially if you aren’t part of that demographic—you need to be very cautious about how you treat them in your story. To help you out, here are some tips formatted as DOs and DON’Ts.
When writing about nonbinary characters…
DO include them in your story, regardless of genre.
DON’T use their nonbinary identity for shock value or plot twists.
DO give them hobbies and interests unrelated to their nonbinary identity.
DON’T draw attention to deadnames, biology, or anything else that could delegitimize their identity.
DO give them their own plot arcs, love interests, and happy-ever-afters.
DON’T make your only nonbinary character a villain.
DO have more than one nonbinary character in your story.
DON’T make your only nonbinary characters robots, aliens, or other non-human creatures.
DO make minor characters nonbinary, too.
DON’T kill off a nonbinary character if they are going to be the only one dying.
DO talk to real nonbinary people about your story and characters to get their input.
DON’T make their existence a sob story.
DO give them intersecting identities. Nonbinary people are incredibly diverse, just like any other kind of person. They can be white, Black, Deaf, religious, non-religious, poor, wealthy, disabled, neurodivergent, gay, straight, and any number of other things. It isn’t “unrealistic” to give them many different facets to their identity!
Naming a Nonbinary Character
Naming a nonbinary character isn’t really that different from naming any other character. However, it is important to keep in mind that many nonbinary people use a name that is different from the one they were given by their parents. Unlike with other characters, the name a nonbinary character uses is likely one they selected themself.
It is important to keep in mind that whatever name a character chooses to use is the one that should be considered their “real name.” The name they were given by their parents when they were born should be referred to as their deadname, and it should not be used.
The most straightforward choice for many nonbinary people is to take a nickname from their given name, shorten their given name, or pick a different variation of the same name. Some examples of that are:
- Sebastian could use “Seb” or “Ian”
- Alexandria could use “Lex,” “Lexi,” or “Alex”
- James could use “Jamie” or “Jay”
- Kelly could use “El” or “Kel”
- Hannah could use “Han”
- Carter could use “Art”
- Fionna could use “Fin” or “Fio”
- Emilia could use “Em” or “Eli”
- Benjamin could use “Jo,” “Benny,” or “Min”
It’s not uncommon for nonbinary people to pick names that sound like just one letter in their original name, like “Kay,” “Cee,” or “Es.”
Another option for naming a nonbinary character is to simply choose a gender-neutral name. Many nonbinary people prefer a name that sounds more traditional, and thus pick one that doesn’t sound too out-of-place. Examples of such names are:
Alternatively, your character could have a traditionally gendered name like Michael or Sarah. It all depends on the character’s preference and how connected they feel to the name. Having a gendered name does not make the character any less nonbinary. If “Robert” says they are nonbinary, then they are nonbinary.
Finally, there is a stereotype that nonbinary people choose nouns for their names. This isn’t true for every nonbinary person, but it is definitely not uncommon. Nonbinary people who choose a noun for their name often pull names from their interests, such as space, nature, or mythology. Here are some examples of names like that:
Finally, I can’t move on without addressing cultural appropriation. It is extremely distasteful for a nonbinary person to pick a name from outside of their culture simply because it’s “trendy” or “sounds cool.” This is even more true for fictional characters, since the character has no real feelings of their own, and their name was selected by you, the writer. If you have a white character who has picked the name Kagami or Setsuna just because they (or you) like anime, then that’s a problem.
There are exceptions to this (such as if the character was given a nickname by a friend from within that culture, or if they grew up surrounded by and immersed in the culture), but for the most part, it should be avoided.
Some Parting Thoughts on Writing Nonbinary Characters
You should absolutely include nonbinary characters in your story if you can—however, you shouldn’t tell their story.
What does that mean? Well, assuming you’re cis, it means…
Include nonbinary characters in your story, but don’t tell stories about them being nonbinary. Don’t write a story about gender-related trauma if you haven’t experienced it. Don’t write a story that focuses on their self-discovery, their past, their trauma, or their experience with discrimination. Don’t try to explain what their journey through life has been like, just focus on who they are today and now.
If you haven’t experienced what it’s like to actually be nonbinary, then your best guess isn’t going to feel genuine. Let nonbinary writers tell their own stories about what it’s like to be nonbinary. That doesn’t mean you should leave them out of your story, but it does mean you shouldn’t use their gender identity as a plot device.
That’s all for now. Have fun, be inclusive, and write on!