Creating Nonbinary Characters

IMG_3905When I started creating the characters for the Templar novels, I knew I wanted the crew of the Veracity to include a variety of different sorts of people. Mykah, the human captain with his topiary facial hair, came to me first. His blue-furred Haru girlfriend came easily, too. The other two characters — Haoun and Vezali – were inspired by an iguana and an coconut octopus at the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.  One of the things I wanted to do with my nonhuman characters was to defy expectations.

In The Dangerous Type, Vezali’s translator has a metal-inflected voice. The other crew members on the Veracity use female pronouns to refer to Vezali, so Raena does, too. In the second book, Raena comments on the high-pitched girlish voice of Vezali’s new translator.

The new translator gave her a high-pitched girlish voice, which Raena guessed must be pleasing to Vezali’s auditory system, wherever it was. Otherwise, Vezali was clearly clever enough to adjust it to any pitch she wanted, even though it was based on Templar technology.

Kill By NumbersIt’s not until deep into Kill By Numbers that Raena and Vezali actually talk about Vezali’s gender:

“When I was younger,” Vezali said, “I fathered children. Now I’m between gender. The translator would call it gynandromorph. You can think of it as neutral. Someday I’ll become female.”

Raena nodded. “I’ve thought of you as ‘she,’” she apologized. “I judged you on the pitch of your voice and I’m sorry.”

“‘She’ is fine,” Vezali said. “Some of my favorite people are she. I’m honored to have them count me in their company.”

What I meant to show was that Vezali is so comfortable in zir identity that it doesn’t matter if others fit zir a gender construct that is familiar to them. My intent was to explore Vezali’s “other” POV in the final book.

Standing outside the gender binary would have given Vezali a different perspective on Raena’s relationship with Haoun. Ze could have commented on news events in the galaxy with a different set of eyes. I was looking forward to exploring how the lack of gender constraints would color zir observations.

Vezali unslung zir translator from around zir waist and wound its belt over the handle by the hatch, so Kavanaugh could find it before he picked zir up. Ze opened the Veracity’s hatch and looked down into the frothing ocean below. Not the most inviting place ze had ever swum. Still, ze’d volunteered for this. Ze retracted zir eyestalk, clutched the gun case close to zir body, and dove out of the open hatch.

The water closed over zir. Ze gave zirself time to adjust to the temperature and the flavor of the water, allowing zirself to drift on the currents. As far as ze could see in every direction, the ocean was empty. Perhaps that made sense. The more polluted waters would be closer to the surface. The leviathans would prefer the cleaner depths, where their prey survived.

Ze turned zirself over and headed down into the darkness.

After reading a couple of scenes from Vezali’s point of view, my editor said no. He’d let me get away with Raena’s bisexuality, the complicated sisterhood between Raena and her former mistress Ariel, and the explorations of masochism and power, he drew the line at nonstandard pronouns. He thought ze/zir made the Vezali scenes hard to read. They were certainly harder to write, because my pen kept defaulting to her.

As I argued for keeping the point of view, my editor pointed out that Vezali had already said ze didn’t mind the female pronoun. As zir creator, I think ze was being honest when ze said ze didn’t mind, but that was when she/her were placed on zir by people who didn’t know better. In Vezali’s own thoughts, ze wouldn’t fit zirself into someone else’s gender constructs.

I couldn’t figure out how to make the point of view work without the pronouns, so I gave up the fight.  I cut all the scenes from Vezali’s point of view.

ITWT_Book3_NoMoreHeroes_TYPEIn the end, No More Heroes still came in 10,000 words over its target. I understood that I was going to need to cut something. Still, I am sad that I didn’t get to explore Vezali’s character more. My hope is that, as soon as I figure out a plot, ze will have zir own short story.

In the meantime, here’s one of the longer scenes I cut from No More Heroes. What do you think? Is it hard to read with the nonstandard pronouns or do you settle into the rhythm before long?

Since Vezali was the junior engineer on this trip, ze was assigned to take the night watch. There really wasn’t anything ze needed to do, other than make sure the newly refurbished engine didn’t act up, so ze spent the time trying to figure out the Outrider robots.

Ze’d never handled one of them zirself, but ze had studied the recordings Mellix made of the Outriders. While the Veracity had hidden out with Mellix in the Tohatchi asteroid belt, Vezali watched the recordings over and over. Ze was awestruck by the way the androids knit themselves back together, using the magnetic tentacles that they could extrude at will from their necks and other joints.

That kind of tech — self-healing machines — amazed zir. Ze hadn’t known the Templars had tech that could do that, to say nothing of making it small enough that it could walk around or complicated enough that it could breathe and sweat and pass for a human.

But even more puzzling: if you could make robots that could look human, could you also make robots that looked like any other species in the galaxy? Was it more likely that the Templars’ robots only mimicked humans — or that there were other camouflaged robots at work in the galaxy even now, doing who knows what?

It boggled Vezali’s mind that the Templars would use such radical robot tech to deal in drugs whose sole purpose seemed to be to undermine planetary governments. It seemed so specific, so trivial.

What if, back in the days of the War, the Templars been playing a longer game, trying to topple the Emperor — or even the Empire itself? Vezali wasn’t an expert on the Empire like Coni. It was history before ze was born, but zir impression of it was that most humans hadn’t particularly liked living under its tyranny, which is why so many fled to the border worlds in the first place. Maybe the Empire would have collapsed on its own, even without the Messiah drug or the aftermath of the Templar genocide.

The Templars were an old race, so old that no one really understood what all they could do or even why they did the things they did. No one spoke Templar, which was a language of colors, and very few could read it. Which was why the Templars had developed the translator devices in the first place.

Like all the other Templar tech that ze’d taken apart in zir life, Vezali understood roughly how the translators worked. Why they worked was more puzzling. There were layers of science the rest of the galaxy just hadn’t unraveled yet.

Which brought zir back to the Outrider robots. They all looked identical, Raena said. Spread across decades, she’d seen four of them. Now there were apparently others, peddling the Messiah drug around the galaxy. Since Raena had shown the Outriders’ face to the galaxy in the clip of Mellix’s documentary that was being shown again and again on every channel, would the robots change their appearance? If everyone knew what they looked like now, how could they possibly travel around to sell their poison? If they traveled though a gate or landed at a spaceport, if they passed a security camera or appeared at a commuter market, wouldn’t everyone recognize them? Wouldn’t anyone turn them in on sight?

With the Templars gone and unable to direct the Outriders, why were the robots bothering to sell the Messiah drug at all? Was it simply that it had been their final command from the Templars? Or was there an actual self-directed purpose behind their actions?

Vezali kept picking at the questions, but there were no satisfactory answers. It didn’t make sense. The whole thing didn’t make sense: from the way the drug worked to what it did in the real world to people who never came in contact with it, to the cleverly made but rigidly used robots. People often shrugged at this point and cursed Templar tech. Vezali didn’t accept that. There was a reason. There had to be. Ze just didn’t have enough data to understand what it was yet.

IMG_4122With Vezali, I wanted to explore friendship between a human woman and a creature so alien that they have nothing, not even their genders, in common.  Vezali’s coloration changes with her mood, but Raena can’t read it.  Vezali has no expressions that Raena can decipher. Their interactions are reliant on a piece of machinery that may not correctly convey Vezali’s emotions. Even so, they come to enjoy each other’s company and think of each other as friends.

I am looking forward to spending more time with them.

About Loren Rhoads

I'm the author of 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die and Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel, as well as a space opera trilogy. I'm also co-author of a series about a succubus and her angel. In addition to blogging at, I blog about my morbid life at
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5 Responses to Creating Nonbinary Characters

  1. atoddmann says:

    Reblogged this on Alison Todd-Mann and commented:
    A great article on writing non-binary characters, editor decisions, and non-human characters

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