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(For refrence, I'm trans, and have done my research on this stuff.)

A character from a story I'm writing is nonbinary/genderqueer. Basically, they just don't care about gender. I really want to write this character as using both he, she, and they pronouns. I'm looking for advice on how to switch between these pronouns in a way that isn't confusing or clunky sounding.

Should I switch pronouns every chapter, or every section? Should I switch what pronouns are being used based on who is speaking?

Gender is not really a topic I see coming up too often in the story by the by, so there won't be any discussion of the character's preferred pronouns.

EDIT: Just to clarify, this character's gender does not switch between feminine/masculine, and they do no change their pronouns based on which gender they feel like, i.e. they are not genderfluid. They are androgynous and do not care about what pronouns others use for them. I just feel like all pronouns fit, and wanted to switch between them. I've come to the conclusion that I'll switch pronouns every chapter. Thanks!

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  • Who's talking, the characters or the omniscient narrator? Sounds like my answer here, especially the last section, might be helpful.
    – Laurel
    Jan 23 at 19:23

3 Answers 3

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It is confusing when a speaker or writer refers to a person by different changing pronouns. Every listener or reader will be always unsure who those pronouns are referring to.

"Here." Tam held out her t-shirt to Ada. Ada looked at Tam incedulously. She took his t-shirt and put it on. Then they left.

Whose t-shirt is it? Ada's or Tam's? And who leaves? Ada or Tam or both?

The everyday reality of a person who changes their gender frequently is that those around them will often not know what gender this person currently identifies with. You may want to reproduce this experience in your writing.

If you want to avoid this confusion, you can point out to your readers what gender your protagonist currently identifies with:

Ada felt male today. He put on his shorts and went for a run. Halfway to the beach, his identity shifted and she slowed down until she understood who she wanted to be now, then she picked up speed again and sprinted the last five hundred feet.

If on the other hand your protagonist doesn't care about gender and wants to irritate some of the people (s)he encounters, your writing might intentionally want to irritate some of your readers.

How you play this out will largely depend on the effect you aim for.

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    This answer I think fits the question good. Just one thing I'd like to point out is usually irritating the reader usually ends in people not finishing the story. Jan 23 at 22:57
  • Great example! Somehow I feel the transition would be even more palpable if it was "...and he slowed down until she understood..."
    – Stef
    Feb 9 at 23:48
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You should change pronouns for your character when and only when there's an in-story reason for it.

Does your character oscillate between male and female identity or at least presentation? Do you tell the story from the POV of several characters, some of whom see this character as a she and others as a he? Go ahead, change pronouns every time the character changes identity or when you're switching narrators. (You can switch the pronouns mid-sentence if that's when the protagonist changes identity. You shouldn't change points of view without at least a section break.)

Nothing of that sort happens? Don't. Choose a pronoun (they or ze, if you want nonbinary) and stick to it.

Just like you hopefully don't switch between a character's names (given name, family name, nickname, job title, and so on) at random, don't randomly switch between their pronouns either. If you do it as mere mannerism, it will be confusing, clunky, and purple.

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You may want to check out some examples.

One approach is to refer to the character with the pronouns that the people around them assume. This allows you to say something about how other people in the story interact with gender. In a heavily female-gendered space or while doing something The society associates with femininity, the character might be gendered female, and the reverse for a male space/role. Or you can deliberately flip this connection if your protagonist likes to stand out and break down boundaries. In other situations, using 'they' can emphasize the character's non-binary identity. The Order of the Stick webcomic is a surprisingly good example. (The elf character, although often assumed female, is ambiguous and referred to by whatever gender the people observing them assume.)

Consistently using 'they' or a neopronoun work equally well. You have to be careful about the grammer, but it's not nearly as difficult as some people make it out to be. You have to be careful about the grammar when talking about a group of three or more people anyway. A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers is a good example of using 'they', and I think some of her other books use neopronouns.

I probably wouldn't arbitrarily switch pronouns every chapter. I've seen this work well for non-fiction. It's common in Pathfinder RPG rulebooks for example. However, in fiction it's best to be as deliberate as possible. (Even in Pathfinder, the choices have some internal consistency. Clerics are usually referred to as female because the character art at the front of the section is of a woman, for example.)

In real life, I sometimes switch pronouns for the same person within a sentence if I really want to honor all the pronouns they use. I think this would be much harder to pull off in writing. I'd save it for dialog where there is only one person the speaker could possibly be referring to and it's clear the subject enjoys multiple pronouns.

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