Gender-Neutral Pronouns: Pros and Cons of Their Use in Fantasy

I have a ethnic group in the Aerdhish universe that has little sense of gender. Certainly, they have an understanding of biological sex, but even that is substantially more murky that how we construe sex in modern Western society. Contact with heavily gendered societies has left them with an awareness of gender as a categorical identity, but it’s not something they understand particularly well. It makes sense, then, that their language (Droma) would lack gendered pronouns. Right? Right.

The last section of Ariah takes place in the Droma grasslands. Ariah is on their turf, lives with them at their mercy, and he understands them through their own eyes. It’s important, then, that the gender neutrality of their language (and culture) is made crystal clear in the text. But how, exactly, to do this is giving me pause. Given that this book is written in English, where gender-neutral pronouns are odd, to say the least, technical aspects of this are growing hard for me to navigate:

Pros:

  • Use of gender-neutral pronouns will make the meaninglessness of gender as a social category very clear to the reader.
  • This culture is a ethnic grouping of elves, who have social and biological differences from humans (both humans as represented in the writing and actual real-life humans like you and me). Use of gender-neutral pronouns can serve to highlight the otherness of elves.
  • I, personally, think gender-neutral pronouns are important to get out there.*

Cons:

  • Good writing, to some extent, is invisible. That is, the story should flow without the reader having to struggle to parse the way that story is written. To this point, the use of gender-neutral pronouns is awkward and stilted in English since we don’t use them. It will take the reader some getting used to for them to be able to easily and effortlessly parse the gender-neutral pronouns, which can turn readers off and break up the text.
  • Related to that, consistency is sometimes hard to keep straight with gender-neutral pronouns. I, as the writer, can’t always remember what one form vs. another is, so how can I expect the reader to remember?

For Ariah, I’m going to risk it. For this piece, for me where I am as a writer and worldbuilder, I think the pros outweigh the cons. I have to trust my readers to navigate the thorny issue of pronouns. Readers are smart people; they can handle it. But it is something I bear in mind while writing this section of the book. When I am reading through recent parts I’ve written, the gender-neutral pronouns are jarring. They stick out. Pronouns are a part of speech which are not supposed to stick out.

The hardest part, honestly, has been figuring out which set of gender-neutral pronouns to use. I’ve gone back and forth, adopting one, then abandoning it in favor of another. Right now, I’m using a set I invented. We’ll see how long that lasts.

As for the rest of you out there, I would LOVE LOVE to hear any thoughts you have on this!

*As I state in my bio, I’m genderqueer and prefer the use of singular they to refer to me, so this topic and all the knotty little intricacies of it is something I think a lot about on a day-to-day basis.