One Challenge to Inclusive Fiction in a Diverse World

In September of 2017, I blogged here about an idea for a transgender character, and how my initial inquiries to trans or genderfluid friends and contacts led me to reconsider that story as too stereotyped. Since then, I’ve danced around the inclusion of non-binary characters in my fictional works.

It isn’t that I write only what I know. I’ve tried to diversify my characters and settings—protags and secondaries with brown skin (my own is pale pink with blue undertones), male protagonists (I’m a cisgender woman), gay or poly relationships (I’m in a monogamous marriage with a cisgender man), war-torn backgrounds (my own was about as sheltered as you can get without a trust fund and a nanny), violent natures (I am at heart a pacifist). I’ve written stories in settings I’ve never seen with my own eyes: on an interstellar ship, in the cloud forest of Guatemala, in the Boston Common, in the heart of Chicago. I’ve created worlds that, as far as I know, exist only in my imagination (and hopefully, one day, yours), planets that circle as-yet unnamed suns and teem with life unfamiliar to Earth-based humans.

Still, I approach the idea of non-binary characters with some hesitation for fear that I will inadvertently give offense or sound disrespectful.

Lately, I’ve had a story brewing in my head, one where several of the characters are gender-neutral. Granted, it’s not a standard type of story with non-binary characters in everyday roles; these characters have no gender. Never did. My preliminary efforts to sniff out potential for this short piece led me smack into the middle of the growing Gender-Neutral Pronoun Discussion.

If a character is non-binary, or—as in this particular case—literally gender neutral, standard male and female pronouns don’t work. Opinions vary over which set of non-specific pronouns is best. Granted, we are still in the adaptation phase of this change in our language, which is always evolving to fit progression in our multi-layered culture. Of course, in real life, we can ask the person in question which pronouns they prefer, then use those with respect. (For the record, I use she/her.) But in fiction, it’s up to the writer to choose.

The thing is that until there is a universally accepted gender-neutral pronoun (GNP), readers of fiction are bound to see a wide range of variants with genderfluid characters. GNPs I’ve seen include “ve/vir/virs,” “xe/xem/xir/xirs,” “ey/em/eir/eirs,” and “ze/zir/zirs.” In researching for this post, I also found “co” (though apparently information on this one is still limited by comparison) and “ne/nem/nir/nirs.” Ann Leckie, Greg Egan, and Alastair Reynolds, among others, have each used one of these non-standard GNPs in their works. I applaud their groundbreaking efforts. Still, these GNPs tend to be jarring, at least to me, when I read a novel where they are used. Perhaps this is merely because they are all still so unfamiliar. Maybe it’s due to the fact that there are so many alternatives and their usage is inconsistent. I’m not sure.

I absolutely understand the need for a GNP in fiction, one that will allow people from all sorts of human experience to feel represented. After all, one of the reasons we read fiction is to put ourselves in the protagonist’s role for whatever vicarious adventure they offer. We can’t very well do that if we can’t identify with the character, can we? I wonder, though, if we might benefit more from a standardized GNP set that is agreed upon and recognized by everyone, one that will (with regular use) become second-nature and thus call no special attention to itself in a distracting fashion. If so, I believe the gender-fluid community as a whole should be allowed to decide which set we adopt, since it would affect them most of all, right?

In considering options for my short story, I asked my Facebook friends/contacts which GNP they would recommend. 97% of them said it’s easier (for readers) if a writer uses the singular “they/them/their.” Several feel that “they” is not a singular pronoun, and should not be used this way, although there is in fact some historical and grammatical precedent for its use in a singular context. Most of the non-binary people I’ve asked prefer “they” for their own use.

That said, I can see any number of ways “they” as an individual’s pronoun can present challenges to a writer.

If I have a single gendered character, I can say “She was happy.” With a single non-binary character, should that sentence become “They was happy”? or should I use a plural verb form, as in, “They were happy”?

Instead of “He himself,” do I say “They themself”? or “They themselves”? (Side note: in typing this draft, my spell-checker tried to auto-correct “themself” to “themselves” every time.)

If I have multiple main characters who act together on even a semi-regular basis in the novel, and one member of the group is non-binary, how do I word my narrative so as not to confuse my reader between the singular “they/them/their” for the non-binary character and the plural “they/them/their” for the group as a whole? It can be done, but it does make the writer think long and hard for ways around the conundrum that maintain clarity as well as respect.

Until we settle on a standard GNP, or a standard set of rules for GNPs, these questions can add wrinkles to a writer’s process. Even so, I know many writers will agree that the extra consideration is worthwhile in exchange for greater inclusivity in our fiction.

There are a ton of websites out there that debate or discuss this subject. Some even have charts to illustrate proper usage and pronunciation (here’s one; here’s another), so I don’t want to belabor the matter. At this point, I’m leaning toward “they” for my story; since it will have multiple non-gendered characters, any GNP I choose will present a similar challenge to clarity, so the familiarity of “they” as a pronoun may be less jarring to my readers. I’ll keep you posted on that.

Now I ask other writers: how do you handle GNPs in your work?

Which set of GNPs do you prefer?

Is there a work of fiction or specific author you feel handles this challenge better, and with more sensitivity than the rest?

As I said earlier, I have written characters from lifestyles and cultures very different from my own, but I was always able to ask for input from someone in those groups in order to inform my writing. When I turned to LGBTQIA contacts, I was told by a few individuals that they are tired of explaining themselves, so I stopped with the questions.

But now I’m reaching out again. If you are a non-binary reader or writer—which set of GNPs do you choose? Would you be willing to tell me why? I’d like to have a better understanding of your reasons when I write my own characters, in order to portray them with more authenticity. Your input would be most helpful.

Thanks for the feedback. See you next week!

Rainbow Paint – by Sharon McCutcheon

Genderfluid Flag by katlove

Gender Symbol Art by johnhain