How May I Pronoun You?: Rachel Hartman talks writing pronouns in fantasy


shadow scale rachel hartmanI’ve written this post three times.

The first draft was crap, as they tend to be, but I did well with the second. It was all about how I’d strategically placed little discussions of grammar throughout Shadow Scale, a trail of breadcrumbs leading the reader toward an unfamiliar gender system. I said fear was the biggest obstacle to incorporating new pronouns and non-binary genders, and that art is going to reveal our subconscious preoccupations no matter what we do, so we may as well make it count.

I glossed over any explanation of why non-binary gender systems might be important in fiction, though. I guess I thought that was completely obvious.

Then xenophobic nationalism won the vote in the UK. I know it’s just one more domino in a long, grim line that includes transphobic bathroom bills, anti-refugee policies, racism, and misogyny, but right now it’s one too many for me.

Maybe the reasons for including non-binary systems in fiction aren’t completely obvious. Maybe they can’t be reiterated often enough.

SFF is a laboratory for thought experiments.The writer sets parameters, like the walls of a maze, and runs characters through to see what will happen. Writers are absolutely free to create any world they want. It isn’t necessarily wrong to reproduce the prejudices and problems of the real world (in fact, I’m not sure it’s possible to shake them entirely; our biases are too tightly bundled for that), but I think it’s more interesting to pick and choose which ones to jettison.

“Interesting” is far too weak a word. It’s crucial that we challenge our assumptions and preconceptions. That’s how we get to empathy, and how we finally stop being afraid.

Fear is the finger knocking over that terrible line of dominoes — fear of trans people, foreigners, black people, women. Fear festers in the dark corners of the imagination, and who better than fiction writers to shine a light into those very corners? Imagination is our specialty. If we won’t stretch and expand it in humane and compassionate directions, who will?

I introduced a new gender system in Shadow Scale out of empathy for my trans character, Camba. (For more on how I came up with my six-gender system, please read The Gods Roll the Dice, which I wrote last year). My feelings for her evolved as I wrote. In early drafts, I’m embarrassed to say, I was awful about her gender identity. Every person she met had to notice, as if she were a surprise package, or the punchline of a joke. The more I got to know her, however, the more I began to question what I was doing. Why did I feel the need to humiliate her over and over? I finally realized that this was the primary way I’d seen trans people depicted in media; their gender was supposed to be some kind of jump-scare, leaping out from behind a shrub.

But I loved Camba. She was very real to me, and she deserved better.

I sat myself down and wrote out all the things I wanted for Camba. I wanted her to have a loving family and friends, intellectual pursuits and hobbies, and how about a love interest? She tutors her nephews in math, dotes on her elderly mother, argues with the priest, belongs to the Mathematical Society and the Tragedy Fanciers’ Club, and finds love with another half-dragon called Ingar.

Still, she was accomplishing all this in spite of the society she lived in, like a salmon flinging itself up the rapids. It was exhausting, and again, I had to ask myself why? What if she didn’t have to struggle on multiple fronts all the time? (Contrary to what some skeptics say, eliminating systemic injustices doesn’t eliminate all tension and conflict in a story; Camba still had plenty to contend with.) Wasn’t I the author here? Surely I could do something about this.

That’s when I started thinking up new genders. If there was going to be a comfortable place for Camba in Porphyrian society, there needed to be space for her in people’s minds, and that meant creating space in the language. From there my thinking circled back to society, and what the practicalities would be for navigating six genders. Obviously, one could never assume anyone’s gender on sight, so there needed to be a default gender for strangers; it seemed logical to make that the catch-all, cosmic neuter. If gender wasn’t obvious on sight, then it couldn’t be ascribed to an infant at birth; all children were thereby genderless until their Day of Determination, when they decided for themselves.

And of course, good manners would require that you ask, “How may I pronoun you?” It’s handy that English allows us to turn other parts of speech into verbs. “Verbing weirds language,” as Calvin and Hobbes famously said. It’s not the only language that works this way, however, and in fact my inspiration for the question was the Spanish verb “tutear” — meaning “to use the informal form of you with someone.” It’s a question you can ask or a permission you can give. I don’t know how common it actually is, but I’ve seen it more than once in novels.

Novels, my friends!

Stories exist to challenge us, to make us think and feel. They’re here to blow our tiny minds with the myriad amazing things our fellow humans — ourselves — can be and understand and do. They expand our ideas of what’s possible, and give us hope.

Write the worlds you need because the real world needs them back. This is what art is for.

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About Author

Rachel Hartman

Rachel Hartman is the author of two YA fantasy novels, SERAPHINA and SHADOW SCALE. Her third novel set in the same world, TESS IN BOOTS, should be out next year, barring unforeseen disaster. She lives in Vancouver, Canada, with her family.