Can you use pronouns for a non-binary character without confusing readers?

Image of tee shirt with the words they and them

Can you use pronouns for a non-binary character without confusing readers? I recently read a ghost story (link below) by Nadine Rodriguez that successfully uses they/them for the protagonist. The story works because:

• Rodriguez almost always keeps plural items and multiple persons grammatically isolated from the protagonist’s they.

• The author is non-binary themself, so that probably helped create the smooth prose.

• The story is confusing, initially. I stumbled on the first two they/them, but then I had zero trouble reading the rest of the story.

• The protagonist’s non-binary gender is germane to the story.

• I personally don’t like xe/xem/xir/xirs/xirself as non-binary pronouns because they don’t disappear in a text like he/her/his/theirs/hers do. If I came across: “Grief was a silent and solitary thing for xem, but it was an animated affair for xir mother,” I would falter. It would slow me down. But my eyes went smoothly over Rodriguez’s sentences such as: “Rosa’s breath, thick and unmoving like the crystallized honey they’d seen their grandmother warm on the stove, was caught in their throat.”

I can’t relate to the non-binary gender identity, so I won’t be writing a they/them protagonist. (Of course, I can’t relate to a serial killer or a lingering ghost, either, but I’ve used both of those as protagonists. Never say never!) However, I can enjoy reading a well written story with a non-binary protagonist.

Anyway, it’s obvious I think Rodriguez did a good job with their story, incorporating they/them and not confusing me. If you’d like to check out their ghost story, “A Lively Place,” it’s in the latest issue of the free online literary magazine 34 Orchard.

65 thoughts on “Can you use pronouns for a non-binary character without confusing readers?

  1. I’m glad to see that nonstandard pronouns are getting more widely accepted now. When I wrote about an alien in my space opera who was born male, transitioned through a neutral phase, then became female at the end of life, the publisher made me take out my nonstandard pronouns and change them to she/her — even though the text said that the other characters misgendered zir based on the “female” voice of zir translator. I would fight that fight differently now, but in 2015 I didn’t feel I had a chance to win it.

    Thank you for bringing attention to the subject.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, nonstandard pronouns are more widely accepted now. Thanks for chiming in, Loren. It’s interesting to hear from an author’s point of view who has written a gender-transitioning character. Enjoy the rest of your weekend!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is an interesting post, Priscilla. I’m beginning to see a wider use of all kinds of pronouns. It can be confusing, but I think it will sort itself out over time as readers become more familiar with them.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. An interesting post, Priscilla. The “xem” would knock me out of the story too, but perhaps over time, I’m get used to it. “They/their/them” seems to work better for me, but I agree that an author has to take some extra time with sentence/paragraph/scene construction to avoid confusing the reader. It sounds like Rodriguez accomplished that. Well done.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sure it does take extra time when writing to make sure they/their/them doesn’t confuse the reader. So yes, kudos to Rodriguez. I’m glad you stopped by, Diana, and congratulations on the release of The Ferryman and the Sea Witch!

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  4. HI Priscilla, this concept has only recently come to my attention. My sons are far more familiar with non-binary than I am, in fact, Greg had to explain to me what it meant. I am sure I could adjust to the idea in a book, but I wouldn’t try to write that way myself. I prefer to keep as much as possible to my own culture and background when I write as I don’t want to risk error or misrepresentation of another culture.

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  5. Whoa. This blew my mind. I’ve always been guilty of using “they” wrong when I write, but not for the reasons it’s being used today which is more an expression of gender…or lack thereof. All of which confuses me. To which someone who is non-binary said to me, “Welcome to my world. Now you know how I feel.” But I’ve never read a story like this yet, and I sure as heck wouldn’t even contemplate attempting to write one. Such an interesting observation for a post! Well done!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks, Priscilla. This is something I’ve been thinking and talking about to people as well (mostly because I teach English these days, and it makes it even more difficult to try to explain something like the personal pronouns…). I did read a story using they/them for a non-binary character, and I remember it did take me a while to understand what was happening, as I just assumed the story was about several people for a while. I understand the logic, and understand that it should be accepted, although it is difficult when you’ve never been exposed to that usage in the language (the debate exists here, in Spanish as well, so evidently not unique. The Real Academia de la Lengua Española, the supposed “authority” in all things language, are insistent that the male pronoun [in Spanish, to add to the confusion, we do have plural male and female pronouns, ellos y ellas, and all things are gendered] represents males and females [and I guess non-binary as well], so it is incorrect to use any other options) you’ve spoken for many years.
    You make an excellent point about the writer, and I’m sure there are ways to make this clear within the text, but I think most of us will take some time getting used to it. I’ve read quite a few books using female pronouns rather than males when talking in general terms, and I found it very easy to get used to.
    Stay well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you commented, Olga. I was wondering about non-binary characters in other languages, and it sounds like the subject is even more complicated for Spanish speakers. Thanks for stopping by!

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  7. For me, especially at my age, I would not have finished reading the book… “The story is confusing, initially. I stumbled on the first two they/them, but then I had zero trouble reading the rest of the story…”

    I simply would not have had the patience. But, bravo to you for not only acclimating to this “trend” of non-binary characters and leaving a positive review. After all, that’s the bottom line for any author, is to acquire favorable reviews.

    Great post, Priscilla!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Sue Marie. I think I was interested to push forward in this story because of the genre (a lovely ghost story). If it had been, say, romance, then I wouldn’t haven been interested enough to keep reading. I’m glad you stopped by!

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  8. Fascinating. I like that you spotted one way the writer helped to smooth your reading, by separating two different usages of they-pronouns. One rule (maybe the Golden rule) of plain language is that clarity is the writer’s responsibility. Readers should not have to struggle. I reckon they/their/them is the version that’s here to stay. Language changes constantly, as you say, but it won’t be forced. Meantime I’m keen to spot the new writing skills that make this change easy for readers to swallow. Thanks for helping me think!

    Liked by 1 person

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