I'm experimenting with writing nonbinary or generally gender-ambiguous characters in my writing. The most recent example of this is in an urban fantasy story I'm currently working on in my spare time, where the first character is introduced using they/them pronouns. Their pronouns are revealed to be those other than they/them later on, but I'd like to know if the neutrality reads well and, if not, how it could be expressed better.

I want to introduce them neutrally even though they are not a nonbinary character because it lets the reader identify with the character initially and then learn more about them as the story goes on, including their pronouns and gender identity. I'm trying to be inclusive without writing a character in a stereotypical way, and I'm avoiding the pronoun 'it' for humanoid characters to avoid potentially degrading nonbinary characters. Below is my intro to the story which I mentioned above:

“I wake up every morning / With a big smile on my face / And it never feels out of place”

Groaning came from the bed as a hand groped for the source of the music. Grabbing a smartphone that sat on the bedside table, the hand unsuccessfully pushed at the screen, the movements getting more and more frustrated.

“And you’re still probably working / At a nine to five pace / I wonder how bad that-”

The music cut off, prompting a sigh of relief from under the blankets. “Why’d I choose that ‘s my alarm…” The voice sounded more animal than human, a low growl. A bundle of hair appeared from near the pillows at the top of the bed, followed by another hand that flung the blankets off, revealing more limbs that promptly got caught in the sheets, slamming the ball of hair into the floor. “Goddamnit!”

After some more flailing, the...person? Being? Eventually made their way to the room’s door, slamming it behind them. A crashing noise came from the bedside table, and they sighed, then walked down the hall. Pulling some of their hair aside to reveal a tired pair of hazel eyes, a pug nose, and a downturned mouth, they spat some strands out of their mouth and sighed again.

“Anyone in there? Helloooo?” With no reply from the door, they shrugged and stepped into the bathroom, closing the door behind them before starting to brush their hair.

“Goooood Morning!~” A perky young woman with platinum blonde hair, green eyes, and a smile almost as wide as her entire head slammed the door open, making them jump.

“Lily! What the hell!” They growled. Lily looked innocent.

“What? Can’t say good morning to my big bro?”

The man grumbled as he brushed the hair out of his face. “You know how I feel about the door slamming.”

  • 5
    They/them is still too uncommon in general literature and may be too confusing for readers. But if you are writing for people who are accustomed (or willing to be accustomed) to these pronouns, you should be fine.
    – Alexander
    Mar 12, 2019 at 22:29
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    There's a similar question here: how do i keep the gender of my main character purposely ambiguous. That question was edited when the OP needed to clarify the character is an androgynous species, but it has quite a lot of discussion and many of the answers might touch on useful ideas and cautions.
    – wetcircuit
    Mar 12, 2019 at 23:05
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    Can you turn it into the first-person narrative? In English, this eliminates the whole problem.
    – Zeus
    Mar 12, 2019 at 23:49
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    Well, if you want to make a point and use 'they', then do it. It will inevitably sound laboured and deliberate, but if that's what you want, so be it. (I mentioned English because such an easy escape doesn't work in many other languages. There is a whole novel originally in Russian where gender or a character is obscured for some 100+ pages, mostly by using passive voice and neuter equivalent words).
    – Zeus
    Mar 13, 2019 at 0:28
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    Try the word one. Years ago we were studying an Inuit culture and they do not use me, I nor they. The word one is the most common pronoun used when referring to self - for that culture. It is neutral and potentially singular
    – Rasdashan
    Mar 13, 2019 at 1:38

2 Answers 2


It works up until:

they shrugged and stepped into the bathroom, closing the door behind them before starting to brush their hair.

I honestly think it is just too many "they-them-their" in one sentence. It's starting to sound labored.

A few weeks ago I attempted the same idea, a character who has a name but I didn't want to reveal as male or a tomboy. I wanted to see how far I could get:

Murphy didn't wait to be caught staring, and moved away from the door in the same direction up the sidewalk, and lit a cigarette.

My solution was to create run-on sentences that felt a bit stream-of-conscience and never used a pronoun. It started to sound labored when I really had to mangle the sentence to avoid a third-person person (TVtropes), like the Batman villain Solomon Grundy.

I didn't "fool" anyone, but beta-readers didn't mention it until one of them needed to use the character's pronoun to talk about the character, and then they just acted a little annoyed like I was being artsy and not all that clever by refusing to label them – it was only annoying to the reader when they had to do it themselves, and they refused not out of malice, but out of English.

It's not possible to read it without invoking a modern perception of a-gender-identity.

It reads as if the MC does not identify with any gender, or identifies as gender-neutral.

The sister comes along and genders "him", which implies that he hasn't made it an issue within the family. He doesn't react negatively to being gendered, instead the narrative picks up the gender he's been given from the conversation.

If the story continues, I might hope that the MC lapses back into not having a gender, until someone else comes along and assigns a gender again (maybe male, maybe female) it's interesting to see a malleable character, who will accept being called male, but doesn't really relate so as time goes on the "maleness" wears off.

That the narrative voice shifts to include new information feels fine, but I'm left wondering if this is a quirk of the character or just a "meet the everyperson" way to begin the story.

  • 1
    This is really helpful! I do plan on having nonbinary characters later on; this particular section was more meant to be a neutral introduction rather than a description of a character who fully uses they/them pronouns. Also I have friends and know others who use they/them and she/her or he/him interchangeably depending on who they're talking to, so that would factor in as well.
    – N. Dosker
    Mar 12, 2019 at 23:40
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    How's this? "With no reply, they shrugged and stepped into the bathroom. The door gently swung shut as they started to brush their hair." Still needs work, but possibly better?
    – N. Dosker
    Mar 13, 2019 at 0:50

Who's the perspective character in this scene? Your scene comes across as being from the perspective of some observer who has no clue who the character who's waking up is, and finds their overall appearance very jarring and confusing. And yet no one seems to notice this observer.

If there isn't a third person in the room who doesn't realize this guy is male, then you should probably rework a lot of this writing. In particular, lines like this:

After some more flailing, the...person? Being?

Pretty much the only way that kind of fumbling for words works is if there's a perspective character who is fumbling for those words in their internal monologue - ie, some observer who doesn't know WTF this guy waking up is. (The word "being" honestly comes across like it's unclear even what species this character is.)

The easiest way to keep a character's gender vague is to simply switch to first person, since in English, first person pronouns aren't gendered. If you don't have a strong reason to be using third person perspective, I'd recommend just using first person.

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