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Characters w/multiple pronouns

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ChaseJxyz

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Gonna preface this with "I'm Big Queer so I know how to handle/interpret this, but I have no idea how cishets would handle/interpret this, so that's why I'm here." Also for the sake of not melting anyone's brains too much, I'm going to not bring up neo-pronouns. Also also I'm going to use "male/female presenting" to refer to how a character looks based on their cultural/species gender norms.

So I have some characters that have multiple sets of "valid" pronouns.
  • One is a dragon, who really does not care what you use (he/she/they/it) and has a dragon form that is not gender-identifiable (i.e. I did not put boobs or a ribbon or a mustache on it) and a male-presenting human form
  • Another is a birb, who has a female-presenting birb form (if you can see UV, which 3/4 of the POV characters cannot, so she isn't gender-identifiable for humans) but a female-presenting human form and a feminine title, so she's she/her. But she does take on male-presenting forms sometimes for plot reasons, and the POV character might not realize that this dude is this specific birb (or they might figure it out halfway through the scene)
  • And then there's this female-presenting dragon-thing, who I have written down as she/they for pronouns...but I've only used she/her in the text so far because I do not know how to handle using both without it being confusing for people who don't live this every day
I don't want to stop my story to give the reader a lesson on how someone can have multiple sets of pronouns and they're all Valid and Good and this isn't misgendering at all, but since I'm not using footnotes anymore...I don't have a good way to put this in the text without it turning into [this image]. Like if I have multiple people referring to the same character but using different pronouns in the same conversation, would people GET that?

A: Where did Bobbie go? I didn't see them leave
B: I think he went upstairs
C: Her phone rang, maybe she's taking a call?
D: Maybe it went to the bathroom?

Or maybe the pronouns change across scenes/chapters, but the narrator sticks to one set per scene/chapter. Or different pronouns per context; irl example: I have a friend who uses it/its...but as you can imagine, some people are Real Assholes About It and also explaining itself to all of its coworkers is a huge pain, so it uses she/her in spaces like that to not rock the boat. No, I'm not going to put "my pronouns are...." badges/pins/ribbons on any of my characters, or trans flags, or "hi my name is CoolBird, my pronouns are...." moments. This is a book for adults, and also this is a fantasy world where stuff like this is Normal, so diegetically it wouldn't make any sense to have any "okay let me hold your hand and teach you how pronouns work" scenes.

So: would just organically using multiple/different pronouns for the same character come off as too confusing for people? Has anybody encountered such an issue in the wild and liked/disliked how it was handled? What do non-Queers actually KNOW about this topic??? I have only 2 cishet friends and none of them are writers so they're of no help lol.
 

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As a reader, I rely on pronouns to help me follow action and conversations when proper names aren’t being used. If a character is presented as he but is later sometimes a she but sometimes also a they or an it, I might catch on and go with it. But you’ve added friction to my understanding, so it damn well better quickly and obviously be worth the effort or I’m probably bailing out.
 
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Also, what's a birb?
 

Nether

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I'm already confused by the explanation. I'm not sure how well I'd be able to track it in the book :censored:

Maybe you can limit it to dialogue? I feel like it might be less confusing if it was just in dialogue and each character consistently used the one pronoun for another character. (Do people irl just randomly switch up pronouns for people in the middle of a conversation? I would have assumed a person would consistently stick with one pronoun when referring to another person even if they understood multiples were acceptable.)
 

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Cis, albeit a full time trans ally (as in closely acquainted with trans people who are just (name) and (pronouns) and the phase of struggling to remember new names/pronouns is long past) - still learning about different types of gender identity, neopronouns etc.

I think if the context is clear, I would be fine with a character changing pronouns. A real life example: BBC Radio 2 presenter Paul O'Grady has a drag queen persona Lily Savage. (Well, back in the day Lily Savage was on TV a lot, now Paul O'Grady's on Radio 2) I didn't realise I was doing this, but turns out I use he/him for Paul O'Grady and she/her for Lily Savage. Since I realised this, I've noticed that people do this a lot for drag queens. So although the way you describe this in your post sounds very "omg that's so confusing I can't cope with that", in fact, I think people would cope better than they realise. But the context needs to be clear.

People use a lot of pronouns without realising it, for example in the hilarious (but actually not funny at all) situation where a transphobe tries to be derisive of non-binary pronouns by saying something like "well, if someone expects me to call them "they", I won't. They should just pick he or she because they is plural and I refuse to call them that," - using they/them in a singular context so instinctively that they didn't notice they were doing it. I've seen a number of comments like this quoted from places like Twitter where transphobes do exactly like that. (Along with "I don't have pronouns" and other ridiculousness.) As much as I hate transphobes - examples like this illustrate how pronoun variation is actually a lot easier for people to cope with than they realise, and certainly easier than transphobes try to claim in their incoherent rantings.

I think changing pronouns mid conversation would be very confusing no matter what because pronouns are already potentially confusing as third person pronouns can refer to more than one person in a conversation if two or more characters have the same pronouns. If one character randomly has different pronouns mid conversation it could be misunderstood as someone new randomly appearing. Even if you establish that someone's pronouns change, it's still ambiguous. Unless a character's changed their gender presentation mid scene and you've indicated that this has happened, and already established that when this character's gender presentation changes, their pronouns do as well. So really it all comes down to unambiguous context which is part of good writing anyway.

People pick up social conventions by context so it doesn't need to be explained, but it does need to be presented in an unambiguous context. This goes for any aspect of worldbuilding. I don't think what you're describing here is different to other aspects of worldbuilding, characterisation, teaching the reader about your main character's species, cultural norms etc. The difficulty of introducing this naturally in the story is the same as other aspects of world building that are so normal in your character's world they wouldn't mention it, but completely different to our world. For example, in my story set 40,000 years ago, clothes are just something you wear when it's cold in the winter. I want the reader to default everyone to naked unless stated otherwise. But it's written in first person and my MC's not going to say "no-one was wearing any clothes". So I have to find ways to show it.

So I would say that you would need to introduce the whole concept - characters changing gender presentations, or having no identifiable gender characteristics and not caring what pronouns they're known by, and whatever other aspects of the specific character and the worldbuilding - through the context same way as you'd do for other worldbuilding and characterisation, and introducing pronoun use as part of this.

Regarding she/they - how does this work in real life? My understanding is that the person is comfortable with either pronoun (please correct me if I'm wrong - I'm still learning). If they're she in one context and they in another, then this would just be part of her characterisation. Singular they is a lot more embedded and natural in our language than people realise - I used both she and they to refer to your character in this paragraph. (Again, please let me know if I've misunderstood.) If it's something that's harder to get to grips with, maybe have an in-story way of explaining it, e.g. a character meeting someone new and telling them what their pronouns are. There's nothing wrong with sneaking in a small scene or part of a scene simply to introduce a piece of worldbuilding or characterisation.

If it's the usual thing in your story's culture to introduce yourself with your pronouns, then do that - maybe have a scene where someone introduces themselves to a new person, to show that stating pronouns along with their name is is the norm in your characters' culture. Presumably if there's a lot of variation in chosen pronouns, and that variation is accepted, there still needs to be some way for characters to tell people what their pronouns are, same as "what is your name?" in our culture.

Please feel free to correct me if I got anything wrong or misunderstood anything. I am still learning.
 

owlion

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I really like the idea of bringing in more pronoun uses. What might work is, rather than a character sitting down and explaining it all, is having the POV character comment something like '[dragon name] never cared about their pronouns, allowing their conversation partner to assume whatever they liked' - most conversation partners will pick one pronoun and use that, unless they're aware of how multiple pronouns can be used, so it would be realistic. The birb sounds straightforward enough, just switching from he to she when the POV character realises who she is. The female dragon could have people closer to them refer to her by either pronoun, which should be fine so long as it's clarified by the POV character in some way.

ETA: Though she uses 'she' as a default pronoun, Ann Leckie does discuss cultural differences in pronoun usage during Ancillary Justice, which might help with working out how to approach it.
 
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:unsure: Well... this particular off-the-shelf, standard-issue Het is confused just reading this thread, so, uh... I suspect I'd end up very confused if I came across this in a book. :Shrug:


(Oh, and I'm obviously not rolling my eyes at the question like the emoji is - that was the only Shrug I could find.)


Norsebard
 

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I listen to a podcast where one of the presenters is referred to by the others as both “she” and “they.” I admit, it confused me a little at first, until someone told me that friends of people who use multiple pronouns (she/they) try to alternate between them to recognize all sides of the person.

On the podcast, what helped me was that the other presenters also frequently used the dual-pronouns person’s proper name. I would do that in writing to clarify—especially in any scene with a bunch of characters!
 

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My thoughts on this is whether there’s going to be confusion to the characters. If everyone’s using a different pronoun for the same person, is it going to be jarring at all for the folks speaking? Maybe not if they’re used to it, but I can imagine a conversation between multiple people about multiple people causing more headache for at least one of the characters. Surely there’s room for a natural source of “Oh, I didn’t realize Character D calls him ‘it’” as a normal readjustment of expectations in conversation, just to orient the reader’s expectations too.

I’m a big fan of multiple pronouns depending on the person speaking/thinking, but I have to admit that I’d have a hard time following the conversation you presented without some sort of initial orientation. I just think there’s a perfectly natural way to include that orientation in context without providing a lesson to your reader.
 

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I’m a big fan of multiple pronouns depending on the person speaking/thinking, but I have to admit that I’d have a hard time following the conversation you presented without some sort of initial orientation. I just think there’s a perfectly natural way to include that orientation in context without providing a lesson to your reader.

There are a number of human languages that do this because pronouns reflect social hierarchy and/or kinship. Will it be confusing for the reader? Possibly.

But think about this.

Different people refer to the same entity as my brother, my spouse, my nephew, my boss, my teacher, my friend, my neighbor . . .
 

Yzjdriel

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Hiya! 20-something cishet here to drop my $.02 on what's confusing and what's not. :)
So I have some characters that have multiple sets of "valid" pronouns.
  • One is a dragon, who really does not care what you use (he/she/they/it) and has a dragon form that is not gender-identifiable (i.e. I did not put boobs or a ribbon or a mustache on it) and a male-presenting human form
  • Another is a birb, who has a female-presenting birb form (if you can see UV, which 3/4 of the POV characters cannot, so she isn't gender-identifiable for humans) but a female-presenting human form and a feminine title, so she's she/her. But she does take on male-presenting forms sometimes for plot reasons, and the POV character might not realize that this dude is this specific birb (or they might figure it out halfway through the scene)
  • And then there's this female-presenting dragon-thing, who I have written down as she/they for pronouns...but I've only used she/her in the text so far because I do not know how to handle using both without it being confusing for people who don't live this every day
1) As with many things in writing, the key is to be consistent.

If a person has multiple acceptable pronouns, then it stands to reason that any number of those pronouns might be used in the same conversation by different people to refer to that person, but I've never met anyone who has ever referred to another person by two different pronouns (excepting 'they') in the same conversation (unless they were corrected, which from the sound of your question isn't something that would be happening). I've also never met anyone who uses two different pronouns (again, excepting 'they) to refer to the same person, full stop (unless that person has different pronouns in different contexts, like the friend you mentioned).

So long as the reference to that person is consistent from each character, if the characters understand that they're talking about the same person, the reader probably will, too; especially if you intersperse some inner commentary on the conversation from whosever perspective is being used - using other descriptors in said inner dialogue that parallels the outer dialogue word serves as a throughline to hold the conversation together, such as how when you're talking about someone, you (or at least I) typically have a picture of them in your head that floats around while speaking because that person is the topic of conversation.

For example, say the dragon in question has red scales in dragon form and a square jaw in human form: if our pov-character hears someone say something like "he looks tired today" and our character mentally compares how the dragon looks today with how they've previously seen them to confirm this, noting that their scales looked less shiny today, and someone else wonders "whether she's had enough sleep lately" and our character notes the bags under the eyes of the human form seeming to soften the squareness of their jaw this morning, it's clear that all three characters are referring to the same person, even though each of them is using different pronouns to do so. In this case, it's the use of the word 'dragon' as a descriptor that clears up any potential ambiguity, but you could just as easily use the word 'redhead' to do the same for a human character with red hair.

2) If a person isn't aware of someone's pronouns in this world, to what do they 'default'? Seeing as 'they' is a gender-agnostic singular, it would be a safe choice (and it's what I default to), which would avoid having to switch awkwardly mid-conversation (at least out loud); that said, if the character does default to 'he' upon seeing the male-presenting form before realizing that this individual is actually the birb that they already know, switching their internal pronoun references to 'she' after making this realization is perfectly natural - it's what characters who've just seen through a disguise mid-scene have been doing in writing for hundreds of years, and while the reasons for the initial misgenderings aren't the same, their conveyance in writing is.

3) If a person's pronouns are she/they, and I understand what that means correctly, then it's not outside the realm of possibility that everyone relevant to the story will refer to that person as 'she', and there's nothing wrong with that. Not every aspect of a character's identity has to be explicitly spelled out.

As a general rule, though, using 'they' to refer to someone is never confusing, even if others in the same conversation refer to the same person using 'she', unless there's also a group of persons to which that word might also refer, so having some characters refer to this person as 'she' while others use 'they' wouldn't cause any confusion, at least not to anyone in my generation, to the best of my knowledge.
 
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Nether

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Different people refer to the same entity as my brother, my spouse, my nephew, my boss, my teacher, my friend, my neighbor . . .

Yeah, but few people refer to the same entity as all of those things. If I'm following the conversation correctly -- and again, I feel a little lost -- there's a suggestion that the same person will alternate between multiple pronouns for the same entity, and sometimes alternating between them in the same conversation (iirc, somebody mentioned this is done to acknowledge the different sides of a person?)

And moving away from gender pronouns to just social pronouns, I've worked at places with my brother. Any time I've gone to describe my brother at that point -- who was both my brother and my co-worker -- I've always defaulted to "my brother," because that's always felt like the most prominent association. Even though my brothers have had a lot of different social affiliations with me, I've always just stuck with one thing (and often mentioned the secondary affiliation while acknowledging the first).
 

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Yeah, but few people refer to the same entity as all of those things.

In English, yes, but that's not true for all languages. Some languages use pronouns (and gender) to convey data about kinship, social status, and various kinds of class attributes.

So speaking about your brother to your boss you might use inflected pronouns that convey my-brother-of-a-different-father-who-is-older-than-I-but-reports-to-you

But speaking to your shared mother about her son who is her first born and heir, you would use different pronouns and inflections.

English is very weird compared to other languages in the ways we now use pronouns.
If I'm following the conversation correctly -- and again, I feel a little lost -- there's a suggestion that the same person will alternate between multiple pronouns for the same entity, and sometimes alternating between them in the same conversation (iirc, somebody mentioned this is done to acknowledge the different sides of a person?)

And moving away from gender pronouns to just social pronouns, I've worked at places with my brother. Any time I've gone to describe my brother at that point -- who was both my brother and my co-worker -- I've always defaulted to "my brother," because that's always felt like the most prominent association. Even though my brothers have had a lot of different social affiliations with me, I've always just stuck with one thing (and often mentioned the secondary affiliation while acknowledging the first).
 

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Read some books a while ago by T Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon) where there is a species of being in her world for whom gender is related to profession and social status. An individual can change gender if they change professions or castes (which has happened with a character or two in the series). It was explained and prefaced in a way so it made sense, but the narratives were in a more distant third person.

However, it wasn't a matter of the genders changing within the same conversation or switching back and forth seemingly at random.

This strikes me as one of the difficulties in capturing a different concept of gender in our highly binary language, where gender is generally tied to biological sex of a living being or creature. I'm not sure there is a smooth and easy way to do this that is true to your world and character viewpoints.
 
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When I’m writing a scene with multiple cis characters of the same gender, I have to write it in a way that doesn’t confuse the reader from multiple “he”s or “she”s. Countless are the times in conversation, where a speaker doesn’t put as much thought into their words as an author does, where the speaker might switch from one “she” to another “she” & the listener doesn’t ride the same thought train & gets confused about who the speaker’s talking about. But in writing, we’re expected to consider this confusion & orient the reader to understand in the most natural way possible, even if in real life, a speaker/thinker wouldn’t.

The OP has the opposite problem (although there could certainly be some overlap with multiple characters in a scene, some sometimes sharing pronouns). One character might have multiple pronouns, and the reader needs to be able to identify the character from whatever pronoun is being used. A lesson in pronouning isn’t necessary, but the author should still take the same care that, to the reader, each pronoun clearly identifies the character it’s supposed to. Why would we take less care for a character with multiple pronouns than we would for one with only one pronoun?
 

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It can get confusing, even with just two genders that stay fixed for all characters. IRL speakers rely on non verbals to make it clear who they are referring to. Sometimes one can integrate these into dialog, though it's harder with character-driven narration.

"She's always done that when she's excited." Floof glanced quickly at Poof, who was gesticulating wildly.

The only suggestion I have for narrative confusion regarding gender-switching or fluid characters is to use the name often enough to make this clear. This can feel a bit klunky, but one must also also tag, provide contextual cues, and use names more frequently in dialog with multiple speakers, or use names more often in scenes that have more than one character of the same gender.

I just remembered a Becky Chambers novel where there was one character who had "phases" where they switched gender (could be he or she or they, if I remember correctly). The narrative and dialog tags reflected this, but there was enough context and background regarding the character's biology and current state to let the reader know.

The thalosogrian had phased since the last time Bob saw her, er, them. From Bleep's hair color, Bob could tell they were now in an asexual phase. Hopefully he wouldn't screw that up and give offense.
 
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So, I think this is really cool and could make for really interesting storytelling/characters.

My opinion would be to have it come up naturally within the story and don't info dump a character's preferred pronouns with exposition. Let us learn about the character through the story and through scenes with other characters, possibly through internal thoughts. If you have a narrator, I think sticking to one set of pronouns per character would be best to keep things from getting confusing.
 

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I'm currently reading the short story "Suffering in Motion" by McKenna Marsden that appeared in New England Review, and this thread came to mind. Marsden for the first two pages uses no pronouns at all, cleverly avoiding any possessives, and not overusing the name "Hannah." There is a brief scene where Hannah comes out to the reader and another character as non-binary, after which Marsden uses "they/them." I thought it was pulled off beautifully.

My question, though, was about Marsden usually conjugating "they" as a plural: "They refuse [not refuses] to believe. . ." although I noticed one mixed mention of "They have [not has] told themself [not themselves]. . ." Related to neandermangnon's post below, I didn't understand a non-binary person to see themself as multiple people, just not fitting into one of two constructed pigeon holes. So would the conjugation of "they" as plural really reflect the character's reality?

People use a lot of pronouns without realising it, for example in the hilarious (but actually not funny at all) situation where a transphobe tries to be derisive of non-binary pronouns by saying something like "well, if someone expects me to call them "they", I won't. They should just pick he or she because they is plural and I refuse to call them that," - using they/them in a singular context so instinctively that they didn't notice they were doing it. I've seen a number of comments like this quoted from places like Twitter where transphobes do exactly like that. (Along with "I don't have pronouns" and other ridiculousness.) As much as I hate transphobes - examples like this illustrate how pronoun variation is actually a lot easier for people to cope with than they realise, and certainly easier than transphobes try to claim in their incoherent rantings.
 

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I like the concept and the questions you're asking.

My advice would be to have the pronouns be consistent by POV and character. It's possible that one person would perceive a dragon as a boy while someone else would consider the same dragon a girl.
 

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My question, though, was about Marsden usually conjugating "they" as a plural: "They refuse [not refuses] to believe. . ." although I noticed one mixed mention of "They have [not has] told themself [not themselves]. . ." Related to neandermangnon's post below, I didn't understand a non-binary person to see themself as multiple people, just not fitting into one of two constructed pigeon holes. So would the conjugation of "they" as plural really reflect the character's reality?

English does this all the time with "you". You is a plural pronoun. The singular is "thou". It should be - or at least it used to be:

I am
Thou art
He/she/it is
We are
You are
They are

The verb form goes with the pronoun. You have (not has*). You are (not is*). You refuse (not refuses*). These are all used these days as singular grammar. It's no different with "they".

*or matching the "thou" form, like thou art, thou hast etc

Singular "you" fell out of usage because, like in French, it became considered more polite to address people using the plural version (although French keeps the singular "tu" as an informal way of addressing people you know really well - AFAIK English did this for a while, then "thou" just completely fell out of general usage). Kind of like the Royal We, but directed towards the person you're addressing, not yourself.

On that, Queen Victoria said "we are not amused" referring to herself in the singular, not "we is not amused"
 

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English does this all the time with "you". You is a plural pronoun. The singular is "thou". It should be - or at least it used to be:

I am
Thou art
He/she/it is
We are
You are
They are

The verb form goes with the pronoun. You have (not has*). You are (not is*). You refuse (not refuses*). These are all used these days as singular grammar. It's no different with "they".

*or matching the "thou" form, like thou art, thou hast etc

Singular "you" fell out of usage because, like in French, it became considered more polite to address people using the plural version (although French keeps the singular "tu" as an informal way of addressing people you know really well - AFAIK English did this for a while, then "thou" just completely fell out of general usage). Kind of like the Royal We, but directed towards the person you're addressing, not yourself.

On that, Queen Victoria said "we are not amused" referring to herself in the singular, not "we is not amused"
Thanks, I was sort-of aware of the thou/you situation but never had it laid out like that. I was totally unaware that "they" was ever conjugated as singular. EDIT: Bah! Which is NOT what you said. I'm going to bed early.
 
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