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I'm currently writing a paranormal thriller novel where people can inhabit other peoples' bodies -- regardless of sex, gender identity, or sexuality. I'm currently in moral turmoil over how to use pronouns for a specific character, because the character themselves does not identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community. As a gay man who keeps himself as educated as possible on gender identities and pronouns, I'm really hesitant about how to approach writing this character's pronouns -- or if I should at all.

So in my novel I have a character named Dalleth. Dalleth has lived over 700 years, and has "body hopped" into a couple dozen bodies, often times assuming the identities of those bodies. Dalleth's soul began in a man's body and, before Dalleth had encountered all things paranormal, was comfortable identifying as a straight, cisgender male. However, after Dalleth gains the ability to body hop, living countless lives and seven centuries, Dalleth now considers bodies as nothing more than vehicles -- tools to create a new world.

A friend suggested I stick with Dalleth's original pronouns (he/him/his). Throughout my book, Dalleth inhabits many different bodies of various sexes. At one point he inhabits a female body (one which presents as a feminine woman). The prose quickly gets muddied when I am using male pronouns, because I find that I am often having to remind the audience that Dalleth is currently in a woman's body.

So my question is: would it be right/ ethical to refer to Dalleth as they/them/their? Those are the pronouns I have used whilst drafting. I'm hesitant because pronouns are chosen to better represent ones own personality and gender expression. Whereas I'm not looking at Dalleth's pronouns from the perspective of identity per se. Dalleth sheds a lot of their identity throughout their many lifetimes because they're so focused on their end goal. It could be argued that Dalleth is agender because they don't identify with gender expression at all. I don't want to be exclusionary or dismissive of trans/ intersex/ non-binary people when writing this character.

I'm also worried people will think I'm being purposefully subtle about representing trans/ intersex/ non-binary people. I don't see any artistic merit in making LGBTQ+ representation the subtext of my writing. If I'm portraying a true LGBTQ+ character, I do so literally, purposefully, and proudly.

I've experimented using Dalleth in place of any pronouns, as I have done for most of this post. However, just like this post, my prose quickly reads as laboured.

Whilst researching online, I came across the use of pronouns per/pers. I also understand that many people who are agender sometimes choose to use a mix of pronouns. Perhaps it would be more sensitive to choose he/him/his and she/her/hers depending on the body that Dalleth is in.

I hope the above post makes sense. I appreciate that my issue is within a paranormal/ fantasy world and not a situation applicable to everyday life.

EDIT #1

The story is told in third person. For a majority of the story my protagonists are aware of Dalleth's long history and their abilities. Currently I have used pronouns that match the body that Dalleth is in. Here is an extract to illustrate what I've been doing:

At the centre of it all, upon a futon, was a thin white woman sat with her legs crossed. Waist-length dreads reached down her back, and her eyes were magnified through wire-rimmed glasses. She wore a white boiler suit like everyone else.

A woman who, beneath flesh and bone, was really Dalleth.

Dalleth untangled her legs and rose from the futon.

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  • Assuming the story is set in the present and they tried to fit in during the past 700 years of body jumping, I would assume they're used to have their pronouns determined by the body they're in. As well as conforming to match expectations/stereotypes that go with it (if only to avoid getting burned as a demon possessing someone). Which isn't necessarily an answer to what is the proper way for you as author to refer to them, but he/she seems appropriate for everyone doing it in-story.
    – towr
    Apr 10 at 19:55

2 Answers 2

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It's up to you

This question relies on what you as the writer believe the identity of your character is. This is not something that other people are able to decide for you since you are the one making the character. No one knows this character's mind except you.

If the character unequivocally identifies as male, then no amount of body-swapping will change that. The same thing applies if the character identifies as female. No amount of body-swapping will change that they are female.

So if your character always uses "he/him/his" pronouns, then that does not have to change when he is in a different body.

A character who is gender-fluid or non-binary, however, would have a different experience with shape-shifting, though. They might feel that they assume a new gender with each new body that they take. They might prefer to be called "she" when they look more feminine, and "he" when they have a more masculine appearance.

Personally, I think the best way to write this would be to have the character initially think of themselves as a man but then gradually start to realize with each new body that their gender identity was never as straightforward as that. They might realize that they like being called different pronouns in different bodies. Or they might realize that they no longer care about the concept of gender in general and simply consider themselves genderless after a certain point.

To summarize, the only answer to this question is that your character's pronouns are up to you.

If you want people to refer to them as "she" when they are presenting as feminine and "he" when presenting as masculine. That's fine. If you want him to only be referred to as "he" regardless of what body they are in, that's also fine.

I'd say it makes sense to have a character who shapeshift refer to themselves in a neutral sense, but it does not matter either way.

You ask in your question "Would it be right/ ethical to refer to Dalleth as they/them/their?"

To which I say, of course, it's perfectly fine. If that's how you'd say Dalleth identifies.

Representation is a good thing. You shouldn't feel afraid to add it to your story. No non-binary person in their right mind is going to get mad at you because you wrote a non-binary person in your book.

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As a reader I recommend you use the pronouns appropriate for the viewpoint of the current scene of the text. If the scene is that Dalleth of Dalleth's inner thoughts, then use whatever pronoun Dalleth would use; for instance:

I'm not used this new body, {pronoun} thought.

...where {pronoun} is a pronoun that represents what Dalleth thinks of Dalleth at the moment.

On the other hand, if it is an external scene, then use the pronoun appropriate to the scene, in its current context.

Assuming Dalleth has body-hopped into Lady Anne in 18th century London:

Major Wolford watches Lady Anne bemusedly. Her swoon earlier in the afternoon was unlike her; she always despised such dramatic tactics used by ladies of society. Now, watching her navigate across the room, her usual grace is gone, supplanted by a stumbling awkwardness, as if unused to her own body.

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  • Thanks for your input, @Jack! My story is told in third person, so your second example is really helpful. Halfway through the story, all of my protagonists are aware of Dalleth's long history. Dalleth proceeds to spend the majority of the book in a woman's body. (Please see my edited post for an extract). Whilst Dalleth is in the body of a woman, I use she/her/hers pronouns. The other characters know that, whilst the body is female, the spirit doesn't have a gender identity. In this instance, would it be appropriate to use they/them/their instead?
    – T Kitto
    Apr 10 at 21:41

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