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Opinion: So you want to write a trans character

Opinion: So you want to write a trans character

April 8, 2016 | By Katherine Cross

April 8, 2016 | By Katherine Cross
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More: VR, Console/PC, Social/Online, Smartphone/Tablet, Indie, Serious, Design



With the blessing of Elminster himself, we can put paid to the absurd idea that trans people have no place in the D&D Forgotten Realms campaign setting.

Beamdog’s statement about this week’s furious hate mob also made clear that they will neither throw one of the most talented RPG writers in games under the bus, nor will they cave to pressure to remove Mizhena, the trans woman cleric who occasioned so much angst, from Beamdog's recent release Baldur's Gate: Siege of Dragonspear. With the mob blocked at every turn, and the creator of the setting himself shutting down the popular “but it’s Medieval times!” concern-troll argument, we can now look to a more constructive future for the game and Mizhena herself.

Trent Oster, Beamdog’s CEO, said in his statement that Mizhena should have been introduced “with more development,” and he goes on to say, “we will be improving this character in a future update.” While a few gasping remnants of the torch and pitchfork brigade continue to flash their flaccidities on social media by calling for writer Amber Scott’s firing, I’d argue that given her history she’s the perfect person to better develop Mizhena going forward.

For developers, Scott's writing provides a masterclass in writing trans characters well, with depth and humanity athwart mere “tokenism” and “virtue signaling” as she was wrongly accused of this week. She is also a hopeful reminder that it is possible for people to write convincingly about people who belong to groups they are not a part of; all that’s required is an openness to the weaving and stitching of other people’s lives. We can start by analyzing Mizhena herself more deeply.

***

 
"It is possible for people to write convincingly about people who belong to groups they are not a part of; all that's required is an openness to the weaving and stitching of other people's lives."

One of the more common complaints essayed against Mizhena was that she was a mere “token” defined entirely by her trans status. Given her small role in the game, that was a difficult accusation to avoid, but within the limits of the character Scott wrote her as well as she could. How do you communicate a character’s transness in less than a minute’s worth of dialogue without seeming hamfisted? All told, Scott actually did a pretty commendable job.

Here is my response to some of the more sensible-sounding objections to Mizhena’s revelation of her trans history:

Real trans people don’t talk about their histories at the drop of a hat: Yes, why, though? Because, frankly, we fear mockery at best and violence and discrimination at worst. As people have been at pains to point out, Forgotten Realms’ Faerun is not Earth, and there’s little evidence of there being a similar culture of trans-hate that would cause Mizhena to be fearful. Mutatis mutandis, people who transition in Faerun would have a different relationship to how it’s publicly discussed.

But the dialogue is still forced. Who’d talk about that right away? The dialogue tree that leads to the trans revelation is entirely optional and occurs only when you ask Mizhena about her name. As I observed in my last column, the explanation for her name is inextricably bound up with her transition, and that’s actually quite reflective of genuine trans experience. Most of us have interesting stories about how we chose our names; funnily enough, my own involves RPGs. Also, it’s a bog-standard RPG convention for NPCs to be more forthcoming about their histories than most real people might be. Or are you saying trans people should be treated differently from everyone else?

It breaks the lore to go “I’m trans!” Well, A) see what Mr. Greenwood has to say about the implications of that and B) Mizhena never once uses the word “trans.” When I advise developers about how to write trans characters for the fantasy setting, I tell them you can and should avoid using our 21st century medical and activist language to connote their existence. You’re far better served by coming up with lore-driven names and backgrounds for trans people. Mizhena’s history was precisely that; it carries intimations of her culture, her tribal background, and a personal journey that never once dips into contemporary language. It’s so embedded you almost have to squint to realize she’s talking about being trans.

Interestingly, this last objection actually gets at one of the ways Amber Scott has grown as a writer.

***

The Pathfinder Adventure Path series of pre-written tabletop RPG campaigns, which recently celebrated its one hundredth issue, contains in its vast annals one of the best trans characters I’ve seen in any corner of games. In issue 73, the first issue of the Wrath of the Righteous campaign, which sees your party fight back a demonic invasion of a once bucolic nation, you’re introduced to Anevia Tirabade. When a violent attack shatters the town square, it sends your party and several residents hurtling into the warrens beneath the city; much of this first adventure is about finding your way back to the surface and linking up with the resistance fighters -- among them, Anevia’s wife Irabeth. Among many other things, Tirabade is also a transgender woman.

The nature of her inclusion actually addresses many of the concern trolling criticisms that swarmed around Mizhena. This material about Anevia’s backstory was for the benefit of the dungeonmaster, and need never be revealed to the players; the focus of Anevia’s role in the campaign is not her trans-ness, but her role as a resistance fighter against the demonic horde; her primary conflict in the first adventure is driven not by her transition, but by the fact that she badly broke her leg in the fall.

Anevia’s history also addresses key questions of social context -- i.e. How trans people are treated in Golarion, and how she actually transitioned. The latter is a lovely story involving Irabeth selling an heirloom sword of hers in order to buy a rare magical potion that allowed Anevia to complete her physical transition -- your party has an optional quest to retrieve that sword for Irabeth later in the series. She has such expansive breathing room in the series that she is allowed to be a well-rounded character, neither defined by her trans-ness, nor burying it to the point of absolute immateriality.

But for a few bits of inelegant phrasing on Scott’s part, Anevia’s a trans character done almost perfectly. To say she was “born a man” is awkward language that serves only to make trans women’s experience inaccurately intelligible in our particular social context; it’s both misleading and too grounded in our real world. That’s what Scott improved on in Dragonspear, giving more verisimilitude to Mizhena’s revelation. Instead of saying “I was born a man” she says “When I was born, my parents thought me a boy and raised me as such. In time, we all came to understand I was truly a woman”; it hints at a variety of cultural norms and possibilities, and lacks the blunt intrusiveness of our own real world argot.

What made Anevia more fully successful, however, was all the breathing room she had. One of the most tired tropes of trans portrayal is locating all of our conflict and struggle within a relatively brief period of our lives: the time we actually spend transitioning (usually with sexual reassignment surgery situated as the climax of the story).

While that period can indeed be adventurous, to put it mildly, it’s not the totality of our lives. Anevia enters into the players’ lives well after she had transitioned -- and stories of trans people living their lives post-transition, for good and ill, are rare indeed. Aside from Amber Scott, The Necromancer Chronicles’ author Amanda Downum is the only other cis author I can think of that gets this balance quite right: making a non-trans related conflict the centre of the character’s life without rendering their trans identity completely invisible.

But Scott’s example shows it need not be this way for long; it’s actually quite easy to write a trans character well and it’s nowhere near as much of a minefield as it’s made out to be. Even Mizhena works well as a character who's post-transition, and whose actual, limited role in the story has nothing to do with her transition. With Anevia Tirabade, we got a beautiful and authentic contextualisation of her trans status that gives it supporting lore in the fantasy world, so it feels less like an antiseptic ripoff of our own world and something more organic to the setting Scott was writing in.

With Amber Scott’s writing in Pathfinder’s Chronicle of the Righteous, a supplement that describes the hierarchies of angels and demi-deities of the setting’s virtuous gods, we see an effort to create a theology around trans-ness as well. One of the Empyreal Lords, a genderqueer figure named Arshea, has followers who change gender as an act of religious devotion to them; some revert after a while, others settle happily into a gender other than the one they were born into. As a consequence “Arshean” can become a way of saying “transgender” in this setting. Just like that, you have rich lore that enfolds trans people into the setting without breaking its verisimilitude. From this bargain you get setting-appropriate language and characters who grow organically from the lore you’ve created.

In short, you have a fantasy setting: use it.

***

Matters of taste are rather like those of the heart: one wants what she wants. It’s an irrational, unfalsifiable thing. I cannot persuade those who think Amber Scott’s writing is terrible to think otherwise, but I hope I have at least demonstrated that her writing on trans and gender-non-conforming people in fantasy worlds is both far deeper and more thoughtful than some have given her credit for this week. That work deserves recognition and, perhaps above all, emulation.

Contrary to the idea that she merely uses people like myself as “tokens” to “signal" her "virtue,” she’s actually led the way in showing what deep, humanizing portrayals of trans people can look like in fantasy worlds. She’s deepened and expanded Pathfinder’s lore by doing so; far from destroying it or inserting a jarring, ill-fitting note into its symphony, she added much that was perfectly resonant. I see Mizhena as a continuation of that, halted only by her status as a minor NPC.

Her work in Pathfinder provides a blueprint for, say, BioWare to make Maevaris Tilani a companion in their next Dragon Age game. It’s a roadmap for confident writing and design that need not fear the “minefield of political correctness” that trans lives are falsely presumed to be. We are, at last, human; seeing that portrayed actually keeps me in the fantasy of an RPG.

Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.



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