Saturday, September 2

Real Life Diagnostics: Using Unconventional Pronouns. Does This Work?

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose it on the site. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

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This week’s questions:

I'm trying to do two things here: first, establish the setting where the characters are and the setting where they recently were—it's a portal fantasy, you see. Am I establishing the settings and genre coherently and as intended?

Second, and this is the one I'm more worried about, is establish pronouns. As my fantasyland's three big gender categories do not map well to the modern USA's two big gender categories, I want to use the fantasyland pronoun sets for the protagonists and the fantasyland characters. (People who have never been to the fantasyland will still use whichever English pronoun set as appropriate.) What am I conveying about the protagonists' respective genders in this scene, or am I just confusing my audience? Further, with the a/tas/tan set, there's potential confusion between 'a' the fantasyland pronoun and 'a' the English article. Do I need to adjust that pronoun set to eliminate the confusion, or does context make things sufficiently clear? ("tas" rhymes with "mass", "tēn" rhymes with "main".)


Market/Genre: Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Zoē jogged up to tas parents' house on short preteen legs, water bottle thumping against tas denim-covered hip. A paused in the shade of the dogwood tree to wipe itchy sweat from tas face, straighten tas glasses and flyaway hair, and breathe the marginally cooler-seeming air.

Eirēnē, leaning on the shady side of the trunk, looked up at tan in silence. A basket of colored pencils and printer paper sat beside tēn, a large hardcover children's book sitting in the grass leaning on the basket. Tēs empty fingers twisted around one another restlessly.

"Obol for your thoughts," Zoē said, and gulped down some water.

Eirēnē laughed sourly. "Save it for the ferryman."

Zoē started walking around the tree, in and out of the long shadow cast by the late-summer evening sun. Though fear shrilled in tas ears, twelve years' experience told tan the cool-down phase of exercise wasn't optional. "The ferry won't take you home."

"I know." Eirēnē stared down the street, fingers still twisting into frustrated white knots. "The Asphodel Fields sound as boring as here anyway."

Zoē planned a quick prayer in tas head, then stopped in the shade. "Wise Owl," a said, "Who strikes prey with swiftness and silence—if You can hear me this far from home, please hear my prayer. My sister needs your guidance." A paused, admitted, "I need your guidance." Spilling water on the grass at tas feet, a finished, "Far-sighted Owl, help us."

"Not worried about Mom or Dad hearing you?" ē asked, while Zoē took another drink.

My Thoughts in Purple:

[Zoē] To me, this is a female name so I associate it with being female. Yet you use “tas” as a pronoun, which feels more a take on “his,” which suggests male jogged up to [tas parents' house] without context, this doesn’t feel like a pronoun to me on short preteen legs, water bottle thumping against tas denim-covered hip. A paused in the shade of the dogwood tree to wipe itchy sweat from tas face, straighten tas glasses and [flyaway hair,] this is a detail that could further reinforce gender, yet it’s vague and breathe the marginally cooler-seeming air.

[Eirēnē,] This feels male to me, though the art details in this paragraph suggest emale leaning on the shady side of the trunk, looked up at tan in silence. A basket of colored pencils and printer paper sat beside tēn, a large hardcover children's book sitting in the grass leaning on the basket. Tēs empty fingers twisted around one another restlessly.

"Obol for your thoughts," Zoē said, and gulped down some water.

Eirēnē laughed sourly. "Save it for the ferryman."

Zoē started walking around the tree, in and out of the long shadow cast by the late-summer evening sun. Though fear shrilled in tas ears, twelve years' experience told tan the cool-down phase of exercise wasn't optional. ["The ferry won't take you home."

"I know." Eirēnē stared down the street, fingers still twisting into frustrated white knots. "The Asphodel Fields sound as boring as here anyway."
] It’s a bit of a struggle to understand what they’re talking about

Zoē planned a quick prayer in tas head, then stopped in the shade. "Wise Owl," a said, "Who strikes prey with swiftness and silence—if You can hear me this far from home, please hear my prayer. My [sister] perhaps put this earlier to establish gender right away? needs your guidance." A paused, admitted, "I need your guidance." Spilling water on the grass at tas feet, a finished, "Far-sighted Owl, help us." I’m a little lost about the prayer

"Not worried about Mom or Dad hearing you?" [ē] since both the pronouns and the names use this letter, I’m unsure what this means asked, while Zoē took another drink.

The questions:

1. Am I establishing the settings and genre coherently and as intended?

Not yet. Very few of the details suggest a fantasy setting, and I don’t get any sense of a portal here (though that might not have appeared yet). It’s two kids hanging outside the house talking about things I don’t understand. Since it felt “normal,” what they were talking about didn’t make sense to me because I wanted to put it in context that I understood.

Pair that with the unusual pronouns, and I was struggling to figure out what I was reading. Having to parse unusual pronouns and figure out the world at the same time was just too much for me (readers chime in here).

It also felt very distant and detached, with no internalization or any inside glimpse into a character to help ground me in this world and these characters, so I felt very outside looking in with little to clue me in on what I was looking at.

It’s hard to suggest what to do here, because if your world is indeed set in a version of modern day, you wouldn’t have those fantasy details. If they’re in the real world now, but weren’t before, perhaps have them talk about that, or remember it, or refer to it in someway that lets readers know there are two worlds.

2. What am I conveying about the protagonists' respective genders in this scene, or am I just confusing my audience? Further, with the a/tas/tan set, there's potential confusion between 'a' the fantasyland pronoun and 'a' the English article. Do I need to adjust that pronoun set to eliminate the confusion, or does context make things sufficiently clear?

I struggled with this for several reasons (readers chime in). The names didn’t fit with the gender roles those names are typically associated with. I don’t know if Zoē is male or female or your third gender. The name is female to me, yet the pronoun used made me think “his.” The behavior also felt more masculine, and none of the description details were clear on which gender Zoē was.

The name Eirēnē felt male to me, and later turned out to be female (or so “sister” would suggest). The art details suggested female as well, but pronouns changed so it felt like a different gender from Zoē, who I pictured as female, even if she was a tomboy.

The ē in both the names and the pronouns was an additional hurdle for me, and I kept trying to figure out how they related. Zoe and Eirene work as names, so if they had the ē in them, it must mean something, especially since the pronouns also used them.

The ‘a’ as a pronoun was also very confusing. I kept thinking what came after it was a typo.

The pronouns themselves were problematic for me, because I couldn’t relate them to anything I knew to help ground me and identify gender. Using established pronouns as a base, I was looking for ways “his” and “her” correlated to the pronouns here, but they didn’t seem to work that way. Since “tas” felt like “his,” I designated that as male in my mind, and then was immediately confused because I tagged Zoē as a female name. Yet the details and behavior felt male, which confused me even further.

If I take your paragraph and swap out the pronouns for what I thought they were, I get this:
Zoē jogged up to his parents' house on short preteen legs, water bottle thumping against his denim-covered hip. He paused in the shade of the dogwood tree to wipe itchy sweat from his face, straighten his glasses and flyaway hair, and breathe the marginally cooler-seeming air.

Eirēnē, leaning on the shady side of the trunk, looked up at him in silence. A basket of colored pencils and printer paper sat beside her, a large hardcover children's book sitting in the grass leaning on the basket. Her? empty fingers twisted around one another restlessly.
Tēn and Tēs are used like they’re the same pronoun, but they’re spelled differently, so I’m not sure what they refer to. I never realized A was a pronoun until I’d read it multiple times. So then I wondered if “A basket” was supposed to be “Her basket,” which would work grammatically, though it didn’t track with any of the other pronouns, and would have three words that all meant “her,” which didn’t seem right.

And lastly, there’s nothing here to suggest there are three genders, so unless I knew that going in (which I might from the cover copy), I don’t know to look for unusual pronouns and what they mean.

I think you might want to consider adjusting your pronouns to help readers understand them better and make it easier for them to get onboard with this world. I’d suggest not using “a” as a pronoun, because no reader is going to think “pronoun” when thy see it, so every time it appears it will stop them and force them to decide how it’s being used.

I’d also consider pronouns that feel closer to what we already have, so the jump from “his” to “YY” and “her” to “XX” is easier to make. If they resemble each other, readers will be able to pick up on the changes without as much trouble. I’d also suggest names that are more gender identifying as well, to help readers make the transition. “Genderless” names could be another way to signify the third gender. I’d also look for ways to establish a third gender right away so readers know it’s there, and there’s a reason for all the strange pronouns.

Cliches and stereotypes are usually things to avoid, but in this case, you might be able to use them to covey more information more quickly (like you did with the art supplies for a female gender). They could be a useful tool to get certain concepts across, though be wary about relying on them too much. But a little here and there could help set the right images in readers’ minds.

Overall, I applaud you for trying something so ambitious and unusual, and if you find a way to make it work, it could be amazing. I think clarity is going to be key in getting this to work as you intend. You’ll have to very careful lead readers through the setup phase of this story, and break a few “rules” to make sure they can keep up with you. You might need to tell a bit, or do more infodumping to get these concepts across. Your characters and internalization will help there to keep this from feeling told, so use those to your advantage.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress (many by new writers), not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

12 comments:

  1. Re the pronoun question, it seems a simple solution is best, to make the reader as comfortable as possible.

    The pronouns are part of the characters' syntax, not the author's (unless she, too, is alien) or the readers'. So, since the rest of the general text is in English, why change the gender pronouns unless a character is saying the words? Let the reader read the book in her/his language, but get a taste of the characters' language when they speak.

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  2. Agreed, this is taking on a serious challenges.

    I'm with Janice, one part of your vision that may never be worth keeping is using "a" as a pronoun-- with everything else the reader is trying to follow, it's just too much to ask them to think over each of those they see.

    One particular thing: you may want to structure your first scene to be sure readers don't lose track of the meanings in the different grammatical forms of each gender's pronouns. The first paragraph with Zoē shows that "tas" is the "his/her" form. Then I think the second with Eirēnē is using the "tan" to look back to Zoē and teach us the "him/her" form that matches Zoē's "tas"... that's a good plan for what to teach next, but the example still leaves it hard to be sure. When you're showing something this subtle, you want to structure those lines so nobody can miss what you're implying. And you want to follow it up with a couple of clear repetitions of the lesson so it sinks in. And teach the other pronouns too.

    And still make it work as a story. That's one ambitious plan.

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  3. First, I admire your attempt to bring in an alternative language aspect, along with the third 'gender'.

    Unfortunately, as a reader, I relate the name Zoe with female. And the problems begin there.

    In order to get anyone to 'get' the idea that pronouns are different, and the gender population has been bumped up, you will have to surmount the reader's natural bent for assigning gender to characters.

    You also have to overcome all the 'facts' and assumptions about gender behavior. So, a teen boy and a teen girl are expected to have different views and certain behaviors. A third, unknown gender, is a wild card. However, if you are building characters from wholly alien cloth, then all three genders could essentially be wild cards.

    Personally, I didn't enjoy the complexity of the pronoun struggle and soon found I could rather haphazardly plug in my gender 'assignments' to each name, and could follow the action that way (though it was at a distance). In other words, my mind quickly began 'ignoring' the odd pronoun use.

    What this meant to me was that I would likely stop reading after a few pages and pick up another book, which might not be as unique or innovative -- which I assume your story would be, given your interesting approach -- but would be a book I could relax with, sink into, and get lost in.

    I would like to read the story without the change in language, which doesn't seem shape the dialogue, but only serves to confuse the narrative.

    I have 'learned' other languages in other books, which allowed me to understand history and structure of certain character cultures, but without impeding my ability to read the book.

    If you introduce and use the trio of pronouns in dialogue, I believe readers would quickly pick up on them. And if the story unrolls the concept of 3 genders, readers will absorb it and all the parameters you give it.

    Good luck with whatever path you take - I would vote not to shackle the reader with this pronoun change, and would urge you not feel that you've lost the idea by doing that. Just bring that use into the story in a way where the reader can learn it in an intimate framework: dialogue.

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  4. Agree with Janice's assessment 1000%. One maxim I've kept to the forefront of my mind in writing: you do most of the lifting for the reader when it coms to pulling them into your imaginary world. This is that instance here. From trying to pronounce Eirlene's name to working on my own reason why the author felt the need to have those "Es" there .. honestly, if this were published, I'd put the book back on the shelf, feeling this would be too much work to enjoy the story.

    I skimmed much of this for the reasons observed, most importantly, because I'd ask myself what's the real need/reason for there to be three species in this fantasy. Every fantasy I've read, including an urban one in the Pendragon series, always had two sexes in the species, even among the animals. To me, I'd leave that purchase alone, believing the author was making me work too hard to push something this unusual. I don't mind unusual, but IMO, adding in a third species shouldn't be one of those things to be toyed with unless you can really pull it off.

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  5. All I can say is ...YIKES! I had no clue what was going on after the first few sentences...nor did I care. I did what Maria did and started to ignore the odd pronouns immediately. While ambitious, I can't imagine reading an entire book this way..even if I somehow managed to arrange all the pronouns and sexes in my wee brain. If this is YA, I don't think they would have a clue either...but maybe I'm not giving them enough credit:) Confession that I don't read much fantasy, if at all, simply because I typically find all the "made up" names and language twists, etc. too much work :) So to reiterate what's been said, the struggle to define new sexes, new species, new worlds and new parts of speech seems too daunting. I wish you much luck if you decide to move forward with this old wine in new bottles. If you can pull it off it will be really something!

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  7. I wouldn't advise using "tas" for one person's pronouns and "tes" for another's, as the words are hard to distinguish, and once I realized that the author were alternating, I couldn't tell which was being used at any given time. My eyes are terrible, and a small A and a small E can look very similar--especially when I don't know what the words mean or what the difference is between "tas" and "tes." Not to mention that "tan" and "ten" are real words in English.

    All I could figure was that Zoe (a Greek name, commonly a girl's name) and Eirene (the Greek form of the name Irene, commonly a girl's name) were both NB. But I didn't know WHY Zoe and Eirene were using different pronouns, or what the pronouns were supposed to convey. I spent more time focusing on the pronouns--was I seeing them correctly? Was I interpreting them correctly?--than I did on the story.

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  8. First of all, congratulations on the concept. Don't give it up. (I think Ursula LeGuin plays with multi-gender in one of her stories, but I can't recall which one sorry.

    I think, if you are going to deal with a concept beyond most readers' imagination, you will need more identifying characteristics than simply the pronoun. Some examples might be skin pigmentation, hair texture, a particular colour of clothing, pitch of voice, shape of ear, type of shoe, item of jewellery (eg everyone wears a thong bracelet which then has a different type of knot made in it on the eve of adulthood?Another way to get across a brand new notion might be to have someone shock the narrator by not doing the thing that is supposed to be done by their gender. Just a few thoughts to widen the scope of ways to do what you wish to do. The pronouns just need to be more obviously pronouns (what if they were all the same but with macrons and accents? But definitely avoid any word that resembles a familiar word with a different part of speech ("a" as a pronoun instead of article is always going to be confusing, for instance)

    Don't give up on the idea. It's an important one

    All the best

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  9. If you are writing the story for yourself, use whatever pronouns and gender-bending names you like. But, if the story if for a broader audience, you must conform to our expectations in grammar. Made up words for places, names, and things are okay. However, pronouns should not. Doing so only confuses the reader. (Something you do not want to do unless you want them to stop reading."

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  10. Why not use pronouns already in the English language and more familiar to readers?

    he, she, and a neutral it, one, or singular they? If you want to choose a different pronoun, there are already a number of "third gender" or "genderless" pronouns in use by the LGTB community.

    As others have said, consider losing some of the accents and making the names easier for readers to pronounce as they go on, and either keeping them closer to English gender-norms or making them neutral.

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  11. She, he, and zie could work if your genders do match our male, female, and "other". But it sounds like they don't. I think you really are going for something different here, with three standard genders which don't match to our two. That's trickier (but also more interesting).

    Other commenters are saying that a is a mistake. I think I agree. Scots do manage to make it work as a pronoun, but making it a preposition is trickier. If you still want that sound, but want to distinguish it on the page, ah could work.

    I like the use of the macron, more unusual than the standard diacritics of the larger European languages. If you're going to use diacritics, it's nice to include a little variety. That said, it'd probably be better not to have them at all (at least you don't have random apostrophes in the middles of names).

    On another issue:

    "Penny for your thoughts" is a standard English expression. "Obol for your thoughts" is perhaps too obvious a translation, though it does feel natural enough. I assume that "Save it for the ferryman" and "The ferry won't take you home" are standard responses. They have that feel to them. A reference to a mythology somewhat like the River Styx, I imagine. The last line in this patch of dialogue, "The Asphodel Fields sound as boring as here anyway," is different, breaking out of the standard response into something more personal. The Elysian Fields, I suppose. I actually quite liked this dialogue, and found it fairly easy to follow.

    Asphodel was triggering little bells of memory in my head. Apparently it's a species of lilly. I'm not sure what it was reminding me of. Perhaps Asfaloth, Glorfindel's horse. If so, don't worry about it: the names aren't that similar.

    TRiG.

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  12. Janice invited me to comment here, and I'm glad she did. Pronouns are some of the trickiest things to work with, so I applaud you for taking that on.

    First, some thoughts on the scene. It's not clear to me who these people are or what world they happen to be occupying when this scene takes place - that makes it difficult. You're probably going to want to choose very carefully the scenario in which you decide to teach your pronouns to your readers - set up a situation of maximum clarity and conflict. Right now this scene could very easily be a boy and a girl, or a girl and a girl, in our world. That's a problem because the pronouns are having to work for themselves, without a lot of contextual support. A reader will likely try to look for hints in the description as to whether a character is male or female, and then try to take that gender concept and translate it onto whatever pronoun you have associated with the character. It's probably not what you want us to do. If they are in our world, perhaps have them using our pronouns but reflecting on how inappropriate they are and why. Or, if they are in the other world, try to show us what distinctions the pronouns are helping us to understand. Even better, have someone present who doesn't understand, so that the people who do can take offense and explain what the ignorant person is missing (or something like that). You will want everything about the characters and the action here to be as non-generic as possible for maximum clarity. You don't have to introduce characters of all three genders at once, but it might be helpful to imply that the total number is more than two, so readers know what to expect.

    Now, a few thoughts on the pronoun forms you've chosen. When readers are trying to understand something, they will be looking for any kind of hint. Very often, that hint will be any kind of resemblance to pronouns they know. I think that's probably why Janice leapt to thinking of "tas" as masculine, because it shares its last letter with "his." Deliberately choosing to use the same final letters as English pronouns can do a TON of work for you. An example of a story that uses this technique brilliantly is "Love Might Be Too Strong a Word" by Charlie Jane Anders. (Here's the link; it has sexual themes, so be aware. http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/love-might-be-too-strong-a-word/) This story has not one but several alternate sets of pronouns, but we can find our way through them in part because they have final letters consistent with the pronouns we know. You will definitely want to avoid any overlap between your pronoun set and English words, so "a" is going to confuse a lot of people.

    I'll end by recommending a couple more stories that do interesting gender things. One is Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, which uses our standard English pronouns but plays with them a bit. Another is Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice, which features a language (Radchaai) that has no gender in its pronouns at all, and for which the English pronouns used are all she/her/hers. Note that Le Guin's novel features people who are usually non-gendered but have the potential to take on either gender (and a human who is trying to wrap his head around them), while Leckie's novel features people who have gender, but for whom gender is not reflected in the standard language. Another resource you might find helpful is a discussion of pronouns that I had on my YouTube show, Dive into Worldbuilding: http://dive-into-worldbuilding.blogspot.com/2017/03/pronouns.html It goes into a bit more detail about what is happening in Anders' and Leckie's stories.

    I hope you find these comments helpful.

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