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No, the Existence of Non-Binary Characters Doesn’t Need to Be “Explained” in Sci-Fi and Fantasy

Book opening with rainbow glitch feature. (Image: Alyssa Shotwell)

As I’ve started to peek outside my bubble of trusted book reviews on Booktube, I’m noticing a troubling trend of complaints about language and worldbuilding regarding the existence of non-binary and gender non-conforming people in science fiction and fantasy. In a genre that requires the most imagination and “work” from the reader to suspend notions of our current world, readers are still a little stuck.

I’m not even talking about the bigots. So, as easy as it would be to get really harsh, I wanted to speak to those encountering these non-binary characters for the first time and expressing genuine confusion—not about pronouns, gender, sexuality, etc., because that is easily Google-able, but how these characters exist within the story. In doing this, I will reference the way people of color (POC) are discussed in SFF because of the massive overlap in criticism. (Also because, despite what popular media will tell you, non-binary POC exist.)

Gender-free language in SFF

Many genres have employed gender-free language in the text, with thrillers/horror, children’s literature, and SFF utilizing this writing. Children’s lit tends to do this in picture books and abstain from pronouns to ease into reading. Thrillers/horror will often add an air of mystery until the author is ready to reveal the person, thing, etc. However, SFF and its many sub-genres use gender-free language more commonly than you might think, and its use only adds to the rich worldbuilding of these stories.

For example, Treefolk (many things plants), robots/AI, deities, etc., are just some ordinary genderless beings common in SFF. Sometimes, this being is more vast, like a forest or an ocean. They become a character or personality of the work. Where things start to change for readers is coming across a whole person who is gender-nonconforming, or reading about them and now having the language to recognize them for who they are.

Yes, you read that right. Gender-non conforming characters have existed in SFF for a while and have often been human or humanoid. One of the first SFF books to feature gender-nonconforming characters was Two Strand River by Keith Maillard in 1976. In the late ’70s and ’80s, SFF giants like Ursula LeGuin and Octavia Butler would feature alternative genders. Neil Gaiman’s work, from The Sandman‘s Desire to Good Omens‘ Aziraphale (in collaboration with Terry Pratchett), did as well, both in the ’90s.

Many more SFF works could be looked at somewhere on the gender spectrum. However, that is tricky because you also can’t impose current ideas/words of gender on characters and authors long gone. Some wrote outside the gender binary in discrete ways to avoid shame or the legal system. Scholars are walking that line to map out this history more clearly, as we speak.

Language is fluid, and so is gender

That history is important, but what about the practical use of gender non-conforming language in the stories? Despite what was drilled into us during school, there is no one correct way to write anything. There are a million asterisks, and meanings change. Some complaints have come from pointing out how “awkward” the writing sounds when reading pronouns others than she/her/hers, and he/him/his—especially in a group setting where they/them (for example) might be in plural use.

On the reader side, this could be a lack of experience reading gender-nonconforming characters from the last decade (when this became more accessible) or just missing other context clues. On the writers’ side, they could be missing enough cues to let readers get a proper account of what’s happening, or could just be new to using non-binary characters in their work and using they/them pronouns in the singular when writing. Both the readers’ missteps and the authors’ missteps can exist simultaneously.

Reading stories featuring/about gender non-conforming characters (especially by authors with lived experience) will help you grow and better understand their stories, just like it would many other marginalized groups. (And also the parallels to real-life issues, complications of this identity.)

Question your questions

Another complaint I’ve seen is that there is no explanation of gender in the text, so readers are in disbelief that other characters just “know” how to address someone. Not every little thing in a SFF book needs to be explained. The idea of info-dumping is a point of contention in SFF because some readers love it, and others are like, “Can we skip to the action?”

Adding pages or paragraphs of gender dynamics (just like racial dynamics) isn’t necessary if it will inhibit the story or the author doesn’t want to delve in on the page. That is what podcasts, interviews, essays, fan forums, and more are for. Also, even if they did include it, you already know people would call it something like “virtue signaling.” If you can suspend your disbelief and accept magical, ancient amulets and time-traveling assassins, I have faith that you can also let go of the idea that gender works the same way as real life in the story.

Here is where I see the parallels to the way people of color’s existence is questioned in stories. When a reader is bringing in these (almost always) irrelevant questions or asking how it works and not about the magic system or space travel logistics, you ask these characters to explain their existence as if they are an intrusion on your story. Their existence doesn’t need to be explained unless the author writes it, just like the existence of anything else that already exists in the real world doesn’t need to be explained.

(Image: Alyssa Shotwell)

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(she/her) Award-winning artist and blogger with professional experience and education in graphic design, art history, and museum studies. Starting as an Online Editor for her college paper in October 2017, Alyssa began writing for the first time within two months of working in the newsroom. This resident of the yeeHaw land spends most of her time drawing, reading and playing the same handful of video games—even as the playtime on Steam reaches the quadruple digits. Currently playing: Baldur's Gate 3, Apex Legends, and CS:GO. Still trying to beat Saxon Farm on RCT 3 (so I can 100% the game.)