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.

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

  1. Great post to ring in Pride Month, Priscilla. And I’m glad you found the story worked for you. We need more stories that embrace gender identity and do it well. And, perhaps with a little research and a lot of feedback, we can help write some. So long as non-binary authors are getting the spotlight as well.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Every time they/them pronouns come up I clench a little bit. I support LGBTQ completely, but I have not made peace with the grammar of it all. Working on it though. I’m going to have to check out the story, just, as you said, to see how it’s done right.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve read plenty of books with non binary characters and the use of they/them immediately clues you in to the fact that they are non binary. I think the more you read, the more normal it seems. I agree with the xir/xi etc pronouns, though. They really pull me out of the story.

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  4. I haven’t read anything with they/them pronouns as yet, but two authors whose books I enjoy–acflory and Lorinda Taylor–have nonhuman characters who lack gender and are referred to at “it.” That hasn’t been a problem for me, so I expect they/them would be OK too, once I got used to it, and if the author minimized confusion with other uses of those pronouns.

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  5. I have a character that is not non-binary, but is a woman disguised as a man. As such I wanted to be very careful to use gender neutral pronouns through out. I have to say I found it a challenge. Often I would rephrase things to that there was no pronoun, or used the character’s name instead, I felt that using male pronouns was a cheat. (written in first person the narrator knew the character was female) while to use female pronouns would give the twist away to easy. I had hoped readers would work it out, but not too soon. It was also interesting that in the absence of male pronouns, most readers would still assume that that Dr Van Essan, a botanist at Oxford University, was a man.

    He pulled his hat over his eyes
    The felt were was pulled down further over a pair of dark eyes
    Van Essan pulled the hat down further, dark eyes now obscured.

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  6. Of course, I respect anyone’s right to be called by whatever pronoun seems approrpiate, but I’m afraid that when I see ‘they/them’ I immediately think plural (or mistake, if it’s used for singular).That said, using ‘x’ is even worse.

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  7. I also do think it is possible to write a nonbinary character and their pronouns without it being confusing and I am glad you found that as your reading experience! And the more you read it, the more natural it will become so it will be easier and easier for you to process and recognise. I am looking forward to seeing more nonbinary representation in books in future ^.^

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  8. Priscilla, I like how you have handled this sensitive topic. I have gotten used to them/their and probably use it myself since he/she or him/her are wordy and clumsy. I have never seen the Xhir or any of the other x-versions and would find them even worse than the he/she or him/her. I have gotten used to LatinX but have not used it myself. For satire, I like s/h/it (an abbreviation for she/he/it)

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  9. Cool post, Priscilla. I had a real world experience, trying to describe a person who had an androgynous name — and whose appearance was equally androgynous. Until that moment I had never realized how much I NEED pronouns. LOL. Hugs on the wing!

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  10. Hello, Priscilla! I was so thrilled to see the headline for this post and was eager for your thoughts–and then I was extremely happy to see that Nadine Rodriguez’ “A Lively Place” was chosen as an upstanding example! I was going to come over here and say, “yeah, that’s tough, but it can be done well.” Imagine my surprise. Nadine did a wonderful job–proof that this can work without confusion or disruption if carefully crafted. Thank you!

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  11. Fantastic post, Priscilla, very interesting read. I haven’t even considered writing from a gender neutral perspective, largely because, as you said, I don’t identify with it. Or being a serial killer. (Though I suspect that’s just what a serial killer would say!) I’m fully in support of people living their lives in a way that makes them happy, I just don’t think I have enough depth of experience to do that topic justice. It’s great to see writers who do identify that way expressing this in their work so the world gets to experience their viewpoint almost first hand. Such is the power of written word.

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  12. I also find this a linguistic challenge… I don’t think you can change the rules of English grammar to suit gender, but you can add TO English grammar. And even though the “x”-efforts seem awkward, I think we could get used to them with more familiarity. While the whole conversation has helped the rest of us focus on the emotional connection we truly have with pronouns, I don’t think the conversation should end there — especially if it alienates otherwise-supporters…Methinks there is a better solution out there!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Another commenter said she got used to the x-pronouns with time, so I am willing to try again with an x-pronoun story. And of course our English language is constantly evolving. Thanks for stopping by, KC!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I came across a non-binary character in a fantasy book, and I think if I wasn’t aware of ‘they/them’ pronouns it would have been confusing. Knowing about preferred pronouns though, it’s refreshing to see when authors write the characters well 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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