So you want to write a plural character
Last edited 3/25/2022 to fix spelling.
Many places and many systems will tell you, if you are singlet, to Not do that. The number of times a singlet tries to write plurality and winds up making the 'evil scary violent crazy person' trope vastly outstrips the few who don't. This bad publicity is often the first and only exposure singlets get to plurality, which can affect how they treat us in real life. In addition, having poor representation can make plurals feel poorly about themselves and try to repress their state of being because they believe that this state of being is wrong. Hashtag representation matters and all of that.
However, we are going to disagree with the notion that singlets are incapable of writing a plural character that isn't just “Split” in a new trenchcoat. Like any identity or state of being an author doesn’t experience, so long as one does proper research and writes with respect to us as people, its fair game. It might not be a perfectly inoffensive depiction(Such a thing is impossible, even if you are plural), but if it comes from a respectful, sympathetic, and well-researched place it doesn't have to be.
This essay is partially inspired by LB Lee's 'Writing Multi' page, but we felt it was too vague for our purposes, so we wrote our own. This essay can be found [HERE].
Things To Keep In Mind:
Please note that we are but one plural system out of many. We are not a monolith. This is why you need to do your own research, and research a lot. What we find to be comfortable and fine is not what other plurals may. Some tropes may bother us more than they might bother other systems. What as-of-writing-this is good rep and terminology may change, as times and attitudes change. What is accurate and resonant to the experience of one system may be borderline offensive to another.
Research. No really. Research more. If you think you've researched enough you probably haven't. We have compiled a massive list of plural resources and websites as well as our own [HERE]. Read them. Then go looking and read some more firsthand accounts. If you are respectful and doing so in a space that accepts this, ask questions. We are all unique in how we work, so read a whole lot from many different people.
It is best to research primarily from people who are plural directly. Ableism and saneism is often rampant in the psych industry, we are subjects to study and make normal under any cost to a lot of them- not people. You will have your best luck learning directly from the people you are looking to write- and this is true for many neurodivergencies. While there are good therapists who have valuable insight, they can be very hard to find amongst the ones who very loudly assert we shouldn’t ever be treated like people.
Sources to avoid:
Things that talk about plurals like we are animals, less than people, always a ticking time bomb of murder or abuse, or are just one very confused person who needs to go back to normal right this instant are the biggest red flags. You would think this would be a given, but it really isn't.
Things that talk about things as concrete scientific fact without other sources to back it up should also be suspect.
Things that seem weirdly antagonistic towards a specific group of systems or things that assert any given plural or type of plural has to be faking will also tend to be inaccurate, as gatekeepers invalidate experiences to promote their agenda and thus will also often be a poor source even for the thing they think is 'valid'.
From this point on this document will assume you have at least read one or two plural FAQs and are thus familiar with the terminology plurals use and other such basics.
The first thing you need to do is to craft your characters in the system. Make as many as you like, but keep in mind that these are each characters themselves that you need to manage. Its fine to make some of them only be comparatively background characters, but if you only have one fleshed out character and a bunch of cardboard cutouts who barely say one line, perhaps you will want to pare down the numbers to something you can manage. Like any other part of the character cast, only make as many as you can handle. Its true that some systems (particularly traumagenic ones) have very static and/or fragmented headmates, or a particular headmate might be falling back on a cardboard cutout persona out of stress, but be sure thats what you are trying to portray rather than just assuming or implying all headmates are like this.
If you have a specific type of system you are looking to depict, sometimes this can effect how they behave and operate. If the headmate(s) are intentionally created, they may view the host and their situation differently than a traumagenic headmate might vs a spirit who was summoned to the body vs any other headmate. Created headmates often have to be ‘upkept’ in their early days, so this might be something to keep in mind. Traumagenic systems often have more issues with communication and switching than Endogenic systems as well.
If you are looking to depict a specific disorder (DID or one of the OSDD subtypes) you need to look up and research the particular disorder from people who have the disorder. This guide is about plurality in general and a specific mental disorder is not a focus. If you are looking to write DID or OSDD specifically, you should direct yourself to resources specifically for that. Keep in mind that in addition to the 'normal' DID/OSDD criteria, like any diagnosis, there are also exclusion criteria that are just as important.
If you don't have a specific system type in mind that is also perfectly fine. You and the character do not need to know or articulate how they came to be. It is perfectly fine to ignore origin entirely if you like. Many plurals do not know nor care how they came to be.
Some systems have a known ‘original’ person, some don't. Some systems have a ‘host’ or ‘frontrunner’ that fronts more than then the rest and may or may not be the original. Some systems do not have a central member at all. You do not have to have or indicate a central member if you do not want to.
Some headmates have set roles, particularly in traumagenic systems. Not every headmate has to have a role, nor do all of the roles have to be present. You will see things like ‘protector’, ‘persecutor’, ‘little’, ‘gatekeeper’, ‘host’, ‘trauma holder’, etc around in plural spaces. These are common archetypes of headmates. There is debate about pigeonholing a headmate into a set role vs talking about common archetypes in a concise way, but there is no consensus there. Sometimes headmates will do certain things in their shared life that are ‘their thing’, such as one headmate who does all the cleaning, one who does all the bills and phone calls, one who does work or school. This can also be their role. If roles are used, sometimes the role may change as well. This is just one way some systems delegate use of the body and all work together.
Consider the relationships of the characters with each other. If a headmate fronts often(if they front at all), how do they interact with the rest of the cast? Do they share friends with the others? Do they have their own friend group? Do they pull away from the others and just not have any friends? Do they hate someone that the others like? Why? What you should aim for is Things That Make Sense. Think up the character’s individual feelings and motives and how the others would react if that headmate did one thing or another. Every system has a different dynamic internally and externally that can change over time because they are a different group of people who came together for different reasons. We would encourage you to remember that this internal dynamic is just as important as external ones.
Is this system out about being plural? If so, then to who? Many of us are not out universally if we are out to anyone at all, irl or otherwise. Its scary to do. There are heavy connotations and stigma if people even believe you in the first place. You risk people outing you to others without your consent, or reacting poorly. You can have it negatively effect everything from the unrelated medical care you receive to the custody of your children. The stigma of being ‘crazy’ is there wether you are clinically diagnosable or not. Most people only know plurals as a horror trope, and will act accordingly, even if they are professionals who should know better. For those they are out to, do they tell them whos fronting at any given time? Do they never state whos at the wheel? Do they only state who it is if people ask?
If the system does come out about it, what are the circumstances of it? The fallout? How do they explain it to others, if they explain it at all? Many plurals have a ‘singletsona’ or collective identity they use, as well. They may also all decide to act like the host(if they have one) if they aren’t out to people. Or they could just not do any of that while never explaining whats going on- if they even know they’re plural in the first place.
Some people may not know about the wider plurality community, are they only aware of how they exist and figure they are alone? Have they only heard of inaccurate media portrayals? Do they even know they’re plural? Not everyone knows, and it can take many years to discover this sometimes. Do they assume that everyone is plural until someone tell them otherwise? These things can affect how they feel about and manage their plurality.
Various systems have varied levels of dissociation, identity confusion, memory issues, internal communication, ability to switch at will, etc. Even nondisordered systems can have non-continuous memory between headmates or high levels of dissociation or trouble communicating internally. These problems can clear up over time, but some systems will always have communication, memory, identity confusion, and switching problems. These problems can also get worse with stress, repression of headmates, or new trauma.
Some systems have streams of consciousness where no one experiences being out of body, they just suddenly ‘become’ another person instead. Some are acutely aware of when they aren't in control of the body and have rich internal worlds. Some are somewhere in between the two.
Some systems always know who is fronting at any given time, others have blurry periods where they don't know who is in control of the body or don't know who they are.
Plotwise, if it would be exhausting and take up limited time to fit in a plural character who needs to be caught up on huge amounts of information constantly due to memory problems, maybe don't give them severe memory problems. On the flipside, if you need an excuse to exposition dump every so often about things that have been done off-screen, the catchup could pull double duty, or the memory problems could be come a big plot point.
In general though, do what makes sense. Don't make a system completely nonfunctional and then never explain how they can hold down a prestigious job and live alone when they switch frequently and uncontrollably, have no memory between switches, and little communication between headmates who all have wildly differing goals while most of them are too traumatized to go about daily life normally.
Some plurals have a headspace/internal world/mind palace/wonderland, etc and some plurals don't. Some people have a black void, some people have a room, or a house with doors. Others have whole worlds and internal lives with nonfronting members who never interact outside of the headspace, and there are even some who don't have a place where people who aren't fronting go at all. For some the inner world is just a metaphor to conceptualize things, others it is a very literal experience. It isn't necessary to describe the ‘inner world’ or give your plural character one, but if you do choose to give them one, the sky is the limit.
The Addition of Fantasy:
Fantasy frees up a lot of things from the chains of ‘unrealistic’. In the right setting, many tropes can be made sensible and not be harmfully inaccurate if they are properly reasoned. Be sure it does indeed fit within the world itself. Like a world with illusion magic having the plural character use it to change their appearance, or an AI in a sci-fi setting creating a fully formed headmate instantly.
In addition fantasy worlds may regard plurality differently. Perhaps plurals are revered, or feared even worse than Earth. They might be commonplace and theres whole pronoun sets and language that denotes who is talking and how many people are fronting at once. Maybe all plurals are regulated to a specific job and its considered a blessing by the gods. Or perhaps its completely unknown in any respect and the plural character feels very alone. Again, the sky is the limit.
Avoiding harmful tropes:
The biggest one to avoid is, of course, the Evil Alter. This trope features a headmate(usually of the traumagenic variety) whos only personality, motive, and actions are solely to do as much harm as possible. They usually do not get any development, except perhaps in the ‘and I was born when the host was abused horribly and thats why im evil!’ sort of backstory.
Its fine to have a mean, amoral, or otherwise not heroic headmate provided its done respectfully and they get as much development as everyone else- persecutor headmates do exist, as do assholes and abusive people, but this is a trope that causes plurals quite a lot of real-world harm because its all people are exposed to most of the time. If you really must add a Evil Alter, actually characterize them. How haven’t they been caught yet? Are they doing this out of a misplaced urge to protect the system? Are they doing it because they’re scared and don't know what else to do? Do they just love to hurt others? How can they develop as a person in the narrative? How can their relationships with others develop?
The Evil Alter falls under the Edge umbrella- a collection of tropes that all are extremely edgy depictions of plurals. These include violent headmates with setting inappropriate superpowers, constant possession angst, extremely dysfunctional systems who want each other dead, and other such tropes. These can work if they are in an appropriate setting or done well, but if you do edge without humanizing and all the rest of the characters aren't nearly as edgy, maybe consider Not Doing That.
The next major thing to avoid is singletification. This is an umbrella that contains all of the tropes that involve making a plural character no longer plural. These include permafusing/integration against one's will, death or destruction of everyone but the host, and separation of alters into different bodies.
These are harmful because the majority of media with plural characters does this and through the lack of plurals getting to exist as plural in a happy ending implies that one cannot have a happy ending while being plural. In a vacuum these stories aren't bad, but representation matters and the trend is demonstrative of other's views of plural folks and how much singlet society doesn't want us to exist.
We are worthy of happy endings as ourselves, AS plurals. This state of being can be happy, joyous even. How about a happy ending where a singlet decides to become plural and that is their happy ending?
Of the three of these things, only integration and headmate death are possible irl- and headmate death is hotly contested on philosophical grounds. Some people say the death of headmates is impossible, usually citing Structural Dissociation theory regarding this- stating that they are still apart of the system and can return in other forms after dormancy, others argue that ego death is a type of death, and the collection of traits that made up the headmate no longer exist in that form with that will- that specific entity no longer exists and thus it counts as a type of death.
Many systems do not view this kind of thing as a happy thing, even if the headmate(s) were not kind. This is a whole person going missing or dying or otherwise no longer existing as a cohesive person. It is not less real just because this person is a headmate.
Killing off everyone but the host and framing this as a good thing wether the headmate was antagonistic or not implies you can’t have a happy ending if you’re plural and that this death is preferable to your existence.
For integration... The statistic for successful integration/final fusion after 10 years of therapy is 12.8%. After 10 years. It is rare for full integration/final fusion/permafusing to stick if its even achievable in the first place, and yet it is very common in fiction. Many systems also do not want this and view it as a kind of ego death, or get more dysfunctional when integration is attempted.
Some plural folks do want to achieve final fusion, and that is their prerogative and some even achieve this and stay that way. However many more are not in this category, and because it is the only medically recognized treatment and end goal in the eyes of the psychiatric industry, the pushing of integration on those who do not want it is very much an active threat for all plurals who out themselves to a therapist. Integration of a character without their choice in the matter, wether they express afterwards or not their opinion in the matter feels like more of this 'you must integrate or else' insistence that can feel incredibly dehumanizing.
A ending involving integration is certainly doable with care, but its very easy to make it come off as 'your way of being is inherently flawed and you need to be normal and people forcing this on your system is good and acceptable'.
In the case of separating headmates into different bodies, many plurals would NOT be happier in separate bodies; unable to have the never-alone indescribably close intimacy, never able to just… take a break for a bit. For many trauma-related systems, this is taking away a person who they need to continue functioning; which likely will result in more alters on both of their accounts and not two singlets. For any system that has been a system since a very young age (wether they knew or not), they could very well end up with headmates again as well- their brain is deeply(and possibly permanently) wired for more than one person in it. It is likely that it Will Not End Well in terms of the separated system being able to function. Please be aware of how incredibly life-altering it could be for this fantasy situation to happen to someone if you choose to use it.
This is less of a potential catastrophe if someone is possessed in a fantasy setting in terms of creating more headmates, but if someone has lived like that for a long time, this is a deep and intimate relationship like nothing else that is suddenly gone, they may not even be able to cope with how to live life without being plural, or do so very badly. On the flip-side, it could also be a deeply happy occurrence, if awkward to now navigate- as their friend now has more autonomy.
Now, we are sure some plurals like it and wish they could separate and be separate in body, but we sure don’t, and it being so common as a happy ending instead of just... Being Plural is quite telling. At the very least this one asserts personhood and isn't forced integration propaganda, so in our opinion that makes it a bit less frustrating.
The final major harmful trope we will be covering is headmates not being considered people despite demonstratively acting like and being people. If a character is enough of a person to have their own set of behavior, if they are observed to act independently or have feelings and commentary separate from the host, if they have the ability to decide they are a person, then they are a person. If you think, therefore you are. Stop with the ‘its just the metaphysical subconscious of the host, not a Real People’. We are all full real people.
Yeah facets/less distinct headmates exist, but if you aren’t specifically trying to capture that experience and knowing that they can become their own fully-fleshed out people, it comes off very poorly.
It is the denial of our personhood that is the root of our abhorrent treatment at the hands of the psychiatric industry. We are referred to entirely as 'not people', not a single one of us, until they do their therapy magic and make us normal. The texts refer to us as 'it'. Our cessation of existence is seen as a good thing no matter how distressing it is for us. This is a normal mainstream thing.
To continue this trend even when demonstrably making each headmate clearly their own person contributes to our dehumanization.
There are plenty of other questionable tropes surrounding plurals, but these are the biggest, most broadly harmful tropes.
What To Do If You Wrote The Above
First off, don't panic. What is done is done. Learn from it now and your next plural character can be more accurate.
It is recommended to be open and transparent about the fact that your knowledge of plurality has expanded and that the character isn't representative of actual plurals should you be asked about it. We as a society hate acknowledging mistakes, but doing so allows us to grow.
You don't need to pull the media from circulation or discontinue your projects or retcon if you don't want to- the solution to inadequate rep in stories isn't to have less of anything, it is always MORE stories, actually. In a world where plurality was accepted better and plural characters were much more common and treated with much more respect, a plural antagonist with only murderous headmates wouldn't mean anything. Neither would singletification arcs. Help us make that world. That is the single best thing you can do.
Things that are common in fiction but not in reality:
Two Person/Binary Systems. Tulpamancy/created headmate systems usually have this number and they do very much happen outside of that, but the extent we see them in fiction versus the much more common larger numbers is a bit excessive.
The aforementioned harmful tropes. There is a reason they are so harmful, upsetting, and/or annoying.
Only disordered trauma-based systems and demon possession. Folks with DID and OSDD are only one part of the plural community, they are not even most of the community, and 'possessed by demons against your will' is a lot more edgy than the reality of most spiritual systems.
Systems that are perfect ‘host, little, protector, caretaker, trauma holder, persecutor’ models. Most systems do not fit this perfect cardboard cutout formula, or if they do, they don’t tend to stay that way.
Systems where everyone is the same gender and sexuality as the host. A large portion of systems have people of differing genders, sexualities, and even mental ages as the host.
Things we would like to see more of:
Internal Talk. Show us the internal conversations, the dynamics, the banter! Its a large part of the experience for many plurals, we chat like this if we are capable of it very frequently.
Headmates of varying genders, sexualities, ages, and species. This is also a common experience and is nice to see when it (very rarely) happens.
Love and care between headmates. So much of plurals in media are deeply adversarial, but many systems in real life love each other and live in relative harmony. We are a team and we are in this together, of course we care at least a little.
Supportive singlets. People can be really shitty about plurality. Its nice to see when characters are not this way, its nice to see what could be. Singlets switching names without complaint, singlets minding their business and not being afraid, singlets treating us like people.
More 3+ person systems. 2-person systems exist and are cool, but more members is more common. We are a system of six, some plurals have over a hundred in their system. Some depictions of that would be cool.
More hostless systems. And more systems with no known original or ‘core’ or anything like that. It would be quite novel to see a system like that done well.
More healthy multiplicity. They don't have to have it together, but more systems that explicitly aren’t distressed by how they exist would be phenomenal. We are so tired of seeing it driven home that how we exist is wrong and how we feel about ourselves is wrong.
BONUS: How to show internal talk
Internal talk between headmates might stump people, so this section was added. Some systems hear their headmates out loud, some ‘hear’ internal words similar to thoughts in different voices, some ‘hear’ internal words in their own voice but clearly not them who said it, some only get ‘knowings’ or vague conceptual wordless intention, and some don’t communicate at all in this fashion.
The short answer? Like everything above, do what makes sense and fits your story.
Personally, its such a non-issue and we don’t care. Whatever your personal style for internal thought should be fine and will work.
It is best to indicate in text, if the POV character can tell who is talking, who is talking very clearly, but if its a plot point that the POV character is unsure if their headmate is talking or if they thought it, then be as confusing as you like. Italicizing or bolding is a good choice, though(as many of these options are) its not super screenreader friendly.
You could use straight quotation marks like “This” for those who hear their headmates out loud, or quotation marks like ‘This’ like is standard for ‘normal’ internal thought.
You could also use ‘special’ quote indicators like *This* or #This#, or ^This^ or :This: or any other interesting symbol to convey the difference if you like.
You can even choose to have no quotation at all and just set it apart from the usual narration like
Its again, a bit awkward for screen readers.
For conceptual ‘speaking’ you can also play with it, stating things in roundabout ways like;
and A made it known to B that they wanted to go to the park.
:grass, swingset, laughter-happy-yes, question-want?:
Both are plenty good and have different aesthetics you may prefer.
Really it all works, though if you want to have different types of mindspeech or only a limited range of different speakers, you may want to indicate this with different ways of doing mindspeech, for example you may do telepathy like #this#, thinking to oneself like ‘this’ and headmates talking like -this-. Or have the host think like ‘this’, and alters talking like ^this^, #this#, and *this*
As for effects in video and audio, the echo talk used for internal thoughts like anime does works fine, its hard to replicate internal narration with hearable audio and that comes close enough. Again, if the particular system hears their headmates as actual audio, then go ahead and use normal audio if you like. It may cause some confusion, however.
Hopefully this was helpful to you and answered some questions. If you are not confident (and even if you are) hiring a sensitivity reader is recommended. Or several. Ideally somewhat similar to the type of system you have crafted.