One of my coworkers at the Day Job goes by they/them pronouns. I do my best to use the correct ones, though I’ll slip sometimes. After working with them a short time and getting along quite fine, I told them to feel free to correct me at any time — in fact, if I slip in their presence, they are free to slap me on the arm. [And they have, much to mutual amusement.] I’ll still slip from time to time, but I think I do pretty well now. In fact, it’s gotten me thinking a lot about others I work with or the customers I meet, wondering if I’m using the right pronouns they prefer, and it got me thinking a lot about how I write gender in my novels.
I’ll admit I didn’t know much at all about the gender spectrum when I began writing the Bridgetown Trilogy back in the early 00s. I mean, I did, but I didn’t have all that much real-life experience at the time to base it on other than movies and books that may or may not have done it justice. I did, however, encourage myself to insert characters with different sexual and/or romantic preferences. Caren, for instance, is bisexual. Sheila is lesbian and Nick is asexual. (Alec is purely hetero but he accepts the entire spectrum, which fits his character.) The closest I got to it was hinting that Colin was a variant of the gender spectrum, which gets explained in a bit more detail in The Balance of Light — the reveal of who Colin really is, and how there are others like them, is actually tied in with the book’s thematic concept of balance.
It wasn’t until maybe the last ten years that I realized that maybe I should expand my central casting a bit more. I’d learned a lot and expanded my knowledge and experience considerably by that point, so it only made sense to use it. In My Blue World, for instance, includes both nonbinary and trans minor characters that I put there for that reason. And in MU4, I’ll be introducing two new soon-to-be majors, one of whom is trans and the other is nonbinary.
I realize that some writers are worried that they’ll do it wrong: placing this kind of person in there for the gold star (Hey look, I’m inclusive n’ shit! Gimme a cookie!), creating this character for manufactured conflict or drama (the minor role/target that ends up dead because Real Life Is Gritty), or something similar. I knew I’d fall into that same trap if I overthought it or constantly worried about it, so the way I approached it was to approach the way it is in real life: hey, some people are just trans or nonbinary or queer or whatever, simple as that. No literary reason except that’s just who they are, and that’s how life is. I do expand on their character description as necessary to ensure they read as such, but I’m always conscious of making them realistic instead of a caricature or a stereotype. I don’t create these characters for political reasons, because that’s not the kind of writer I am (and believe me, I’ve tried that route and I am absolutely terrible at it). I create them because it’s like meeting my coworker for the first time: they just happen to be such, and it’s up to me to honor that.
And just like my coworker, I have to make sure I use the correct pronouns. In Theadia one of the main characters is nonbinary and I had to make sure I constantly used they/them. And yes, I did have to fix it in a number of places during revision! I totally understand that when you’re taught that he/him and she/her are the socially correct defaults, it’s sometimes easy to forget when you meet (or in this case, create) someone who doesn’t go by that default. It’s not about going out of your way to please them; it’s just about creating an alternative to make it work for both sides.