LGBT fiction: The challenge of gender-neutral pronouns

new book Steph Shangraw is an indie novelist at Prysmcat Books, in Kingston, Ont. She  writes about fiction for LGBT Perspectives and offers some of her own works here.

Steph ShangrawBy Steph Shangraw
LGBT Perspectives

Let’s talk about pronouns.

First-person pronouns are pretty straightforward: “I/me” and “we/us”. In English, since we no longer differentiate between second-person singular and second-person plural, using “you” for both, we get into a bit of trouble now and then. There’s a persistent sense that we need to be able to distinguish between the two sometimes for clarity, so we end up with “y’all” or “you guys” or any number of dialectical variants. We’re missing a pronoun that we clearly feel that we need. That’s more of an issue when speaking or addressing others directly, however. When it comes to narrative fiction, at worst a character may stumble over the ambiguity the same way it happens in real dialog, and need to clarify their meaning to their listeners in whatever way is appropriate.

At the end of that paragraph, I just ran into the big, and familiar to many, pronoun issue with third person. How to phrase it? His listeners? Her listeners? A character could be either. His or her listeners? There are two problems with that: it assumes that the character actually identifies as one or the other, and it gets really awkward-looking after a few repetitions. So I went with the singular “they,” as many now do. It works.

An increasing number of people prefer to have gender-neutral pronouns used for them, often singular “they/them,” because they do not feel that either set of gendered pronouns works for them, and to many people, “it” is dehumanizing and insulting. (Unfortunately, “they” is also the plural form of “it”: “Did you bring the books?” “Yes, I have them, they’re right here.”) I absolutely support everyone’s right to identify however they choose, to express that however they choose, and to have whichever pronouns they feel the most comfortable with used.

However, it creates a serious dilemma for an author of narrative fiction who wants to be inclusive and respectful. I’m including myself in that, as a pansexual ciswoman whose partner is trans, and whose fantasy novels frequently include characters who are non-traditional in a variety of ways, often involving sexuality or gender.

An author’s job is to make the words invisible: to draw each reader so deeply into the events that they forget that it’s being transmitted by words on a page or a screen and instead feel that it’s something they’re experiencing themselves. If the reader is constantly being jolted out of the flow by awkward phrasing or unfamiliar terms or other things that force the actual words to their attention, they’re going to have a lot more trouble getting lost in the story. The content has to be absolutely clear, otherwise your reader will be backtracking to re-read passages as they try to figure it out, which is also disruptive to the flow.

And yet, an author’s job is also to blaze trails and set examples, to show people what could be and to teach, ideally without the reader ever noticing that they’ve learned anything rather than just being entertained. That’s the power and the responsibility that come with storytelling: people typically don’t think critically about the messages they get from fiction. They absorb the story and with it whatever it conveys under the obvious level.

Non-heterosexual, poly, responsibly kinky, and transgender, especially non-binary transgender, characters are sadly under-represented in any kind of fiction. When we do appear, it’s most often in endless rehashings of coming-out stories — which are valuable, but get repetitive, and imply that our existence is limited only to this single aspect of our personalities. Alternatively, we’re portrayed only in stereotypical one-dimensional forms. There needs to be more narrative in all genres that have characters who live anywhere within the alphabet soup of inclusion, narrative that expresses other aspects of those characters’ lives and shows them as multidimensional people, more than just their sexuality or gender.

Which brings us back to pronouns. And, specifically, the very large drawback to using third-person singular “they/them” as a gender neutral pronoun.

Singular “they/them” works in some contexts, but if you’re writing a novel and want any significant character to have a non-binary gender and use it as the neutral form, you’ve just run into a serious problem. Making it more difficult for novelists to include non-binary characters means fewer novelists will do so. Sure, there are some people who will, regardless. But like anything else, the more difficult it is, the fewer people will bother to do so.

Why is it such a problem? There’s the basic aesthetics of it, but people do adjust to different aesthetics constantly. Primarily it’s a problem because it interferes rather badly with clarity and smoothness in third-person narrative.

Like the distinction between the second-person singular and plural, a distinction between third-person singular and plural is highly useful when you’re writing about interactions within a group (which is something that tends to occur in any novel with more than one character). Imagine three characters having lunch together. Amy identifies with female pronouns, Bob is quite happy with male pronouns, and Cass chooses the neutral “they” for themself.

They finished. They paid. They left. Who did what, now?

They finished. Amy paid. They left. We’re getting closer, but we still don’t know clearly who has finished or who has left.

They all finished. Amy paid. The whole group headed back to work. Okay, now we’re clear on who did what, although it took some extra work and twice as many words (including a version of “y’all”). Not such a high price for the sake of being inclusive, even if it has rendered the plural “they” largely unusable without qualification.

I pulled this paragraph from my novel Renegade:

She didn’t raise her head from her pack until she was sure her expression would betray nothing. He might be a way of staying safe between here and Eyrie, but as soon as they got there, she’d have to make sure they parted ways, preferably before he could introduce her to any friends he had.

The protagonist is a cis woman, but let’s pretend she isn’t and try to do the same sentence using singular “they” in place of “she.” You get:

They didn’t raise their head from their pack until they were sure their expression would betray nothing. He might be a way of staying safe between here and Eyrie, but as soon as they got there, they’d have to make sure they parted ways, preferably before he could introduce them to any friends he had.

Do I need to break down why this is bad? I can try re-writing it:

Kisea didn’t raise their head from their pack until they were sure their expression would betray nothing. Kian might be a way of staying safe between here and Eyrie, but as soon as the two of them got there, they’d have to make sure to part ways with him, preferably before he could introduce them to any friends he had.

Okay, it works. Of course, once again it means avoiding any unqualified use of plural “they”, so your reader is clear on who is doing what. You effectively have to choose, for the novel, whether to use “they” as a singular or as a plural, and every time you vary from that, you have to qualify and clarify. Excessive use of proper names starts to feel awkward after a while, and starts to sound like the writer has a poor grasp of language.

Worse still, when you try to write an entire novel that way, including fast-paced scenes in which a lot is happening very rapidly, it gets really difficult really fast.

Take my word for this: writing a 50k- to 100k-word novel and making sure that there are no awkward sentences, missing words, punctuation problems, almost-but-not-quite-right words, unintentionally ambiguous descriptions, and all the rest, without even considering the content, is a sufficiently large challenge. Deliberately adding something new to watch for in every sentence as you proofread the manuscript for the thousandth time — and the odds of a test reader or editor catching this stuff is pretty low, so you’re on your own — is really not an idea that’s likely to have much appeal. It isn’t about being lazy or not caring. Editing is hard work. How many hard things do you do, that you voluntarily make even more difficult for yourself? How often is it something that will potentially offend or anger people if you get it wrong? It’s easier just to not need the extra complication: don’t include characters that you can’t use either “he” or “she” for.

You don’t have to be transgender to write about trans characters plausibly and respectfully, any more than a cis woman author can write only female characters. If you’re cis, though, you may be hesitant to step onto this particular ground, for fear of being accused of doing an insensitive or inaccurate job of it. (Despite reassurance from my partner and others, an upcoming novel release of mine is making me rather nervous for exactly that reason.) One part of that is inevitably going to be the pronoun problem. If taking the chance means trying to restructure your writing around a set of pronouns that are going to present you with constant potential pitfalls and headaches, on top of all the other worries, you’re less likely to do it at all.

So, am I saying that no one should use, or ask others to use, singular “they”? No, I’m not. If you look, I’ve used it repeatedly through the course of writing this. It’s a useful form, no question. What I’m saying is that this particular gender-neutral form has a very large disadvantage, one that’s not going to be visible to most people: it’s going to discourage the presence of non-binary characters in narrative fiction. I don’t have a solution to offer, but I really wish I did. Using “he” or “she” automatically creates subtext and associations, which raises a different and equally serious problem. (I should add that, when writing about characters to whom one or the other applies, having gendered pronouns is extremely useful to an author, so let’s not abolish them.) In one case, for a work I may not finish for other reasons, I finally resorted to first person for the main character, who literally has no sex and no gender; Emma Bull did the same in one of hers, with brilliant subtlety. That isn’t a viable option for all narrative, and can have its own difficulties. With some characters, swapping between “he” and “she” works, but there can be scenes when it’s hard to tell which is more appropriate, and that only works with some gender identities. Invented or foreign pronouns tend to be jarring, as though the word is highlighted repeatedly on the page, drawing undue attention when pronouns should be invisible, although flexible readers may adjust and stop noticing eventually. Nothing currently available that I’m aware of is a good substitute.

Singular “they/them” is not a perfect solution, and we need to not stop looking for a better one simply because this one is adequate in many contexts. One step in increasing the presence of agender and fluid characters in narrative fiction is going to have to be a set of pronouns that don’t make using them an uphill battle. Languages evolve constantly in response to social needs, and we need to keep pushing it in this direction until we have a gender-neutral option that works in all contexts and makes it easier to include in narrative fiction characters with interesting stories to tell who do not fit within a gender binary.


2 thoughts on “LGBT fiction: The challenge of gender-neutral pronouns”

  1. I’m old-school, but I find “they” quite grating when referring to only one person.

    If you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, it’s probably OK to use a coined word like “ze” because people reading those genres have learned to accept coined words in many situations. For other genres, yes, it’s really tough. Maybe think to yourself “What would character XXX want to be called?” and then go with he, she, they, ze, or whatever you think the character would want.


    1. I’ve been writing fantasy for a really long time, even if it’s only recently gotten to the point of indie publishing, and I’ve been reading it and sci fi for even longer. Coining words or redefining words is frequently necessary, because a part of the genre is creating concepts that are alien to the real world. Typically, however, those are nouns or verbs, creatures or forms of tech for example, both of which are used only a fraction as often as a pronoun. We learn new nouns and verbs all the time in every day life, and they assimilate relatively quickly. Besides, they’re important words, and if they register more strongly for a while, it’s not such a problem. Pronouns are completely different. Reading something with unfamiliar pronouns is rather like reading a printed page where someone has used a highlighter on each pronoun. We don’t expect to learn new fundamental parts of speech. We expect the basic support beams to stay the same, while the structure they support evolves. As I said, some readers will adapt, but many will not, and will just abandon the book.

      For any genre, it isn’t as simple as what the character would want to be called. If it makes it more difficult for the reader to be absorbed into the story, then you have fewer readers. Readers don’t keep reading something that they can’t get into; they go find something different to read that requires less effort on their part. “Write whatever you want to write however you want to write it” is only true to a point, unless you’re writing entirely for your own amusement. If you expect to have an audience, you need to temper that with some consideration of your audience and what they’ll tolerate. If you’re writing purely for the minority that finds exotic pronouns to be normal or acceptable, then go for it. If you’re writing for a wider audience, however, it doesn’t work that way – and introducing a wider audience to concepts like gender fluidity and agender in a positive way strikes me as a good thing.

      Just as an example of a small piece of narrative text done with various pronoun sets:


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