I’m in the midst of revising a novel (Earth Reclaimed) with a non-binary protagonist. Since this work blends high fantasy with solarpunk and has alternates points of view, I choose to write it in third person. However, several of my beta readers and critique partners have been having a hard time adjusting to me using “they/them” as a singular, gender neutral pronoun.
Readers have suggested I switch to first person, or use something like Xe or Ze. Not realizing it was own voices, one reader even questioned if it was necessary to write the character as non-binary. She meant well, but just because there is a non-binary character doesn’t mean the story has to be about being non-binary.
I knew I didn’t want to write this story in first person, and I couldn’t picture this character CIS, but I did briefly consider a different pronoun.
Before making any decisions, I wanted to see how other writers used neutral pronouns, so I read the first two books of the Ardulum series which used two variations of gender neutral pronouns for aliens who had a third gender. It worked great for those alien characters, but would not suit my protagonist or my writing style for two big reasons.
Xe and Ze are not as neutral as they seem at first glance because they lose some of their neutrality when they become possessive. The writer has to make a choice: does Xe become Xer or Xis? In Ardulum, the author choose Zir as the possessive form of Xe, but when read out loud, it still sounds a lot like Xer or Her.
Some non-binary folks, including me, use gendered pronouns. I use she/her because it’s what I grew up using, and I get overwhelmed when I think about telling friends and family I prefer they/them. I don’t think I’ve ever even bothered announcing to most people that I’m non-binary or gender fluid because it’s a conversation that could turn awkward too quickly. Plus, I don’t like labels and boxes. No matter which one you stick on me, what matters is that I know who I am.
Even though Earth Reclaimed is an own voices story, the main character isn’t me. Serena lives in a future and region where gender is fluid and people are not boxed into identifying as men or women. They are also braver and bolder than I am. I wrote my first draft using she/her, and it just didn’t feel right. Serena needed a gender neutral pronoun, and at least to me, they is more neutral than the others.
Neutrality is not the only reason to choose they. Xe and Ze do not come to me as natural as they does. Growing up, if I didn’t know whether a person was male or female, I would automatically use they/them until I knew whether they were a she or a he.
Back then, I hadn’t heard of words like non-binary or gender fluid. Those terms may have existed, but they weren’t part of my vocabulary. I was in my later twenties when I discovered those words and thought “that sounds just like me.”
Identifying with the label didn’t lead me to change the pronouns I use, but that doesn’t mean all the non-binary characters I write have to use the same pronouns, especially of the conditions that keep me using she/her don’t exist for them.
When I write a third person, own voices narrative with a non-binary character, I am going to use they/them as a pronoun. Will there confusion in the early drafts? Yes. However, with careful editing, I hope I will be able to write third person, gender neutral they/them without confusing my readers.