Watch along for a dip into some of my research on the different ways writers can use POV—first-person, close third-person, or the “voice of god” omniscient third-person—to tell different kinds of queer stories and affirm the identities of their non-binary characters in different ways. I use a small sample of recent YA novels as examples, and even talk a little about my own novel manuscript 👀
Please also enjoy my cowboy shirt, the way my glasses sometimes go fully white in the sunshine like an anime character, and the dorky eye-catching thumbnail I made.
Originally presented, virtually, at the Australian Children’s Literature Association for Research conference, 1st July 2022.
Hello ACLAR folks, hello beautiful Perth, and hello wherever you are in the world! I’m Alex from UC, and today I’m going to be talking about some non-binary books.
Narratologist Susan S. Lanser argues “that questions of representation, and especially of queer representation, are as much questions of form as of content” (2015, p.24). When exploring current and potential advances in queer fiction, how these stories are told is as important to consider as the events and characters they depict. Today, I’ll be drawing on a chapter in my soon-to-be-submitted doctoral thesis, and will specifically explore this idea through a study of narrative voice, arguing that perspective and point of view hold great potential power in the growing field of queer YA. In particular, YA that represents non-binary characters.
I’ll cover three styles: the YA staple of first-person perspective and how this narration technique overlaps with Talia Bettcher’s concept of “first-person authority” (2009), the less-common close third-person narration and what visible pronouns and names may offer to a narrative of gender affirmation, and finally the underexplored realm of omniscient third-person narration that may affirm queer gender as possible using the “voice of god”. Today I’m going to weigh and explore the benefits and risks of each style, and to discuss why I have chosen to write my own manuscript in omniscient third-person.
As this is a project about non-binary representation, it seems logical to begin with a definition of what exactly this is. What does it mean to be non-binary? This is a fascinating question with a variety of answers… that [laughs slightly] I don’t necessarily have time to get into today if I want ample time for my analysis.
For our purposes today, non-binary is an umbrella term that covers gender identities outside, beyond, or in between the categories of male and female, man and woman. There are many more specific identities under this umbrella that members of this community may use to convey their gender configuration, and likewise there are other encompassing terms—such as genderqueer, a slightly older phrase coined by trans acitivist Rikki Wilchins in the 1990s—that people may prefer to use instead. This project primarily uses non-binary as its umbrella terminology, though I also use genderqueer where Wilchins’ phrasing feels relevant; or the even-more-encompassing language of queer gender, a notion I hope will convey the idea of gender across the bounds of binary trans, non-binary, gender non-conforming, and otherwise non-cisgender identities and expressions.
If you want more information about the many ins and outs of non-binary gender, its evolving linguistics, and the theory and history surrounding it, I can recommend these essay collections and resource books on the screen.
But let us dive into the world of non-binary fiction. Non-binary representation in YA has been increasing—I want to say “exponentially!”—over the past few years. But how are these various stories told, and how are authors using narrative voice in these novels with non-binary protagonists? As it’s somewhat the staple of YA, let’s look first at first-person.
First-person perspective is a narrative voice “in which a character uses his own voice to tell about his experiences and thoughts” (Thein and Sulzer, 2015, p.48). Essentially, we are inside the main character’s head, privy to their thoughts, and they narrate their story as “I did, I said, I felt…”. There are many reasons suggested as to why it’s the most popular and preferred style for YA. Gwenda Bond suggests that it characteristically “offers great immediacy” (Bond, 2008, p. 21) and a low amount of psychic distance between the protagonist and the reader, ideal for fostering connection and empathy, and the feeling that the book is a conversation or a confessional between narrator and narratee.
I argue that first-person narration has elements of transgender philosopher Talia Mae Bettcher’s concept of “first-person authority”. In her 2009 chapter, Bettcher applies the epistemology of “first-person authority” to the self-articulation of gender identity. While, in her own words, gender is not necessarily so simple as “because I say I am” (2009, p.99), Bettcher’s concept places ethical weight on the “avowal of existential self-identity” (p.115). The authoritative voice on any individual’s gender is the individual themself, and Bettcher likens a denial of this authority as a dismissal of personal agency akin to violence.
This crucially shifts the narrative of gender identity to, as Ynda Jas writes, “a result of self-evaluation” (Jas, 2020, p.73) rather than external classification. In medical, legal, and social contexts, gender identity (and transgender status, binary or non) has traditionally been associated with a gatekeeper’s judgement of a set of observable criteria. Bettcher’s call for the recognition of self-identification is philosophical, but also highly practical, calling for a breakdown of these systems and a recognition that a person’s articulation of their own gender is the most authentic expression of it.
While Bettcher initially suggested this model in a binary trans context, it echoes and resonates with non-binary discourse as well—and proves a useful framework for exploring the importance of language, euphoria, and personal affirmation emphasised by much non-binary scholarship and activism. In Beyond the Gender Binary, activist Alok Vaid-Menon invites the reader to consider that “[g]ender is not what people look like to other people; it is what we know ourselves to be” (2020, p.42).
In novels narrated in first-person, the protagonist is invited to “use [their] own voice” (Thein and Sulzer, 2015, p.48) to express and articulate their “avowal of existential self-identity” (Bettcher, 2009, p.115) to the reader in an intimate narrative conversation that the reader is invited, in turn, to take as “truth”. First-person narrators in YA may be unreliable in many ways and by their nature have limited knowledge, but for this analysis let’s consider that these protagonists are, at least, written to know themselves. First-person narration facilitates gender identity expressed directly by the narrator, as well as facilitating the kinds of gender journeys and arcs of self-discovery present in coming-of-age stories.
Authors of these texts have their protagonists articulate their identity in their own voice, whether in dialogue or in internal narration, or both. For example, Mason Deaver’s I Wish You All the Best (2019) is a realist coming-of-age story narrated in first-person. The reader learns of the protagonist, Ben’s, felt sense of gender and chosen identity label in Ben’s own voice: “I said those three little words. I am nonbinary” (Deaver, 2019, p.14). In these scenes where Ben expresses their non-binary identity in internal narration, they “come out” to the reader, and the reader comes to understand their identity as the internal truth of the text. Ben also gets to use first-person authority to express their identity to other characters in spoken dialogue, but the reader gets to have that conversation with them first. This technique is repeated throughout various contemporary YA novels, including Mia Siegert’s Somebody Told Me (2020) and Kacen Callender’s Felix Ever After (2020).
As well as its intersection with ideas of first-person authority, first-person narration is relevant to discussion of non-binary fiction because of its structural qualities. As Lanser explores, first-person narration opens the possibility for “narrative situations in which we have no way to know the sex, gender and/or sexuality of the narrating voice” (2018, p.930). Because “first-person is less sex-specific than the third” (Lanser, 2005, p. 394)—at least in English and other languages with neutral, non-gendered first-person pronouns—the gender of a character may be rendered invisible or ambiguous if they are the story’s “I”.
This opens the possibility for a narrator character whose gender remains unknown, but I argue that it also opens new possibilities for narrators who do not align with binary gender, and new possibilities for the kinds of flexible and elastic explorations of gender often featured in non-binary YA. A character who changes pronouns throughout the story—whether due to genderfluidity, exploration of different options, or any other reason—does not have to change the way the prose is constructed around them if they remain as the story’s “I”. This is the case in Siegert’s Somebody Told Me, as well as some other novels such as Linsey Miller’s Mask of Shadows.
The non-gendered “I” can also be used to facilitate a narrator character with nopronouns, such as in A.R. Capetta’s The Heartbreak Bakery (2021). The narrator, Syd, tentatively identifies as agender and jokes that Syd’s pronouns “are No, thanks” (Capetta, 2021, p.79 – 80). Syd admits to “avoiding [pronouns] in my head for years” (p.71) and this reflects in, and is represented by, the narration itself, which does the exact same thing.
Capetta capitalises on the ambiguity afforded by the neutral first-person “I” to create an unambiguously non-binary narrator, rejecting the notion that the text must be “stabilized” (Lanser, 2005, p.389) by gendering Syd inside the binary and its grammatical rules. Capetta deftly avoids the logistics of structuring sentence and story around a pronoun-less character, and creates a metatextual space in which said character is not required to settle on a definitive set of descriptors—a gender exploration plotline enabled and enhanced by the narration style itself.
First-person narration offers many possibilities for the expression and affirmation of non-binary identity in YA novels. However, while first-person and its characteristic embrace of first-person authority are to be celebrated, I also invite you to consider other point-of-view methods and what unique capabilities they may have.
While first-person is king, many novels also use close, or limited, third-person. As Bond explains, “In limited third person, the narrator focuses on a chosen character” while still having a sense of being “outside” that character (Bond, 2008, p.6)—perhaps best conceptualised as looking over their shoulder rather than being in their head. The crucial difference for our purposes here is that, rather than being the story’s “I”, protagonists narrated in third-person have their name and pronouns visible on the page. While making those things invisible has its advantages, as in The Heartbreak Bakery, third-person lets authors express and affirm their characters’ non-binary identity in different ways.
Much of this potential relates to the concept of narrative authority: as Lanser explores, “while the autodiegetic ‘I’ remains a structurally ‘superior’ voice mediating the voices of other characters, it does not carry the superhuman privileges that attach to authorial voice” (1992, p. 19). While there is a marked difference between close third-person and omniscient third-person that I will return to shortly, it remains true that there is an unspoken notion of authority embedded in third-person. Whereas first-person is recognised to be limited to what the narrator character can know and perceive and is thus unreliable or biased to a degree based on that character’s perception of the world, third-person narration is often used to infer a degree of narrative “truth” outside the confines of the described protagonist’s experience. I argue that this association between third-person voice and narrative authority can offer unique affirmative qualities to stories about non-binary characters.
Hal Schrieve’s Out of Salem (2019) is narrated in close third-person, thus the protagonist’s chosen name, Z, and their they/them pronouns, are consistently present on the page. As well as immediately coding Z as non-binary, the visibility of Z’s neutral pronouns renders them the “truth” of the text: the “rules” that the narration follows. This creates an intriguing dissonance when, having been introduced to Z as “Z” and as a genderqueer character, the reader then sees other characters referring to Z by she/her pronouns, as a girl, or by their deadname. These characters are juxtaposed against the authorial third-person voice that is presented as objective and accurate, thus positioning these characters as visibly incorrect.
Crucially, Schrieve’s use of third-person narration also creates a refreshing tone in which Z does not need to “prove” their genderqueerness to any party before the narration—the authoritative voice reporting the story—describes them with their chosen name and pronouns. In other words, Z’s first-person authority is unspokenly respected by the third-person authority of the text itself. Even if contested by other characters within the fiction, the narrator accepts Z’s identity as a fact of the story world and presents it as such in a way the reader cannot ignore.
Given the misunderstandings and structural lack of agency non-binary people face, there is an empowering element to a narrative context where queer gender is recognised and the chosen names and pronouns of a character are simply accepted and presented as truth. Close third-person provides a space to play this out, making non-binary identity possible within the very construction of the narrative.
However, limited third-person is still limited and may encounter the same quandaries of restricted perception found in first-person. Maggie Tokuda-Hall’s The Mermaid, the Witch and the Sea (2020) is told in close third-person with alternating perspectives, something the author ultimately uses to explore the genderfluidity of her protagonist and the way gender may be projected and presumed in different contexts. The non-binary protagonist alternates being referred to as Flora (with she/her pronouns on the page) and Florian (he/him) depending on circumstance and upon which character the close third-person perspective is currently anchored in. Chapters directly reporting Flora’s thoughts and actions use “she”, but a character observing the “Florian” persona (a masculine disguise in the tradition of “crossdressing” female pirates) and reading the sailor as male will use “he”.
These assumptions about Flora/Florian’s gender creates a cast full of unreliable narrators—save for Flora/Florian herself, who we can assume has the correct version due to that ethos of first-person authority. This shifting point of view and the shifting pronouns that go with it “mirrors the realistic nature of perspective” (Cadden, 2000, p.152), using situations in which the protagonist is effectively misgendered to capture the complicated and flawed nature of perception and the ways in which people make assumptions about the gender of others.
Salem and Mermaid both use their narration technique to separate the internal truth of their non-binary characters from the way they are perceived by others, placing these protagonists in unfriendly worlds but nonetheless providing acceptance and affirmation of their identities on a textual level. These narration techniques create a space for non-binary possibility and sites in which non-binary identity is marked as simple fact and narrative truth. But this potentiality can go deeper still if we detach (almost) entirely from popular convention and consider the least common form of narrative voice in YA: omniscient third-person, or the so-called “epic voice” or “voice of god”.
As Bond explores in her thesis Eye for a God’s Eye: The Bold Choice of the Omniscient Point of View in Fiction for Young Adults, omniscient third-person is the least common choice of narrative voice in young adult fiction, save for a “stray oddity” (2008, p.21). Omniscient third-person narrative voice is associated with, as the name implies, omniscience. As Monica Fludernik defines, the story told as if from above, and the narrator “is located, godlike, above and beyond the world of the story; [and] sees and knows everything” (Fludernik, 2009, p.92). Bond acknowledges that “the very grandness of omniscience’s ‘godlike’ associations may have put off some writers—especially writers of ever-immediate teenage fiction—from using it” (2008, p.5). A narrative voice that “floats above” (Fludernik, 2009, p.92) the characters and recounts their observations to the reader is yet another degree of psychic distance from the reader, and might seem antithetical to YA.
However, while it may not lend itself to every text, Bond argues for the potential of omniscient perspective in YA, citing works such as Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, and Justine Clarke’s One Whole and Perfect Dayas examples that execute it well. In particular, Bond suggests that the omniscient narrative voice lends itself well to “the story about story” (p.36), a playful, metatextual framework that adolescent readers are primed to engage with. Following from Bond’s suggestions, I argue that omniscient narration also has unique applications for playful queer storytelling, and may have an especially crucial role in stories of non-binary possibility.
I have been able to find no existing examples of YA novels with non-binary protagonists that use omniscient third-person voice. But that’s alright, because I have made my own. For the creative portion of my creative thesis, I have written a YA fantasy manuscript named Children of the Dusk, told in the style of a mythic saga or collection of legends. The narration is in the bardic mode through which many myths were spread, with an all-seeing, all-encompassing perspective that allows the narrator to know the whole past, present, and future of the story and to recount it as a sort of historian to the listener. It is not narrative convention to have an unreliable narrator at the omniscient level; the audience is not positioned to question the report of omniscient third-person in the same way they may accept the limitations and bias of first-person or even some aspects of close third-person.
If omniscient narration is the voice of an all-seeing and incontestable authority recounting the truth of the world and its events, then there is no arguing with this voice. When the Voice of God narrates that a character is non-binary, or recites their actions using neutral pronouns, that is the immovable, accurate, omnipotent truth of the universe: queer affirmation at a cosmic level.
These, I argue, are the potential risks and benefits of three different narration styles. First-person interlinks with first-person authority and allows writers to play around with pronoun use, but is naturally limited. Close third-person allows for characters’ pronouns and chosen names to be cemented as the rules of the text, but does still retain some of the limitation of first-person. Omniscient third-person lets a godlike narrator affirm non-binary identity as the immovable truth of the narrative… though it also takes you several steps away from the close psychic distance and emotional intimacy usually associated with YA. These all serve different purposes and have different applications, and it’s something I’ll continue to explore in my creative and scholarly research. For now, I’m out of time. Thank you for coming with me on this adventure, and I look forward to your questions!
Barker, Meg-John and Iantaffi, Alex. (2019). Life Isn’t Binary: On Being Both, Beyond, and In-Between. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Bettcher, Talia Mae. (2009). Trans Identities and First-Person Authority. In Shrage, Laurie J. (2009). (Ed.) “You’ve Changed”: Sex Reassignment and Personal Identity (pp.98 – 210). Oxford University Press.
Bond, Gwenda. (2008). Eye for a God’s Eye: The Bold Choice of the Omniscient Point of View in Fiction for Young Adults. (Masters Dissertation, Vermont College).
Cadden, Mike. (2000). The Irony of Narration in the Young Adult Novel. Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, 25(3), 146 – 154. https://doi.org/10.1353/CHQ.0.1467
Day, Sara K. (2013). Reading Like a Girl: Narrative Intimacy in Contemporary American Young Adult Literature. University Press of Mississippi.
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Jas, Ynda. (2020). Sexuality in a Non-binary World: Redefining and Expanding the Linguistic Repertoire. INSEP – Journal of the International Network for Sexual Ethics & Politics, 8, Special Issue 2020, 71 – 92. https://doi.org/10.3224/insep.si2020.05
Lanser, Susan S. (1992). Fictions of Authority: Women Writers and Narrative Voice. Cornell University Press.
Lanser, Susan S. (2005). Queering Narratology. In Hoffman, Michael J. and Murphy, Patrick D. (Eds.) (2005). Essentials of the Theory of Fiction (pp.387 – 397). Duke University Press.
Lanser, Susan S. (2018). Queering Narrative Voice. Textual Practice, 32(6), 923 – 937. https://doi.org/10.1080/0950236X.2018.1486540
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Morreal, John. (1994). The Myth of the Omniscient Narrator. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 52(4), 429 – 435. https://doi.org/10.2307/432030
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Twist, Jos, Vincent, Ben, Barker, Meg-John, and Gupta, Kat. (Eds.) (2020). Non-binary Lives: An Anthology of Intersecting Identities. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Vaid-Menon, Alok. (2020). Beyond the Gender Binary. Penguin Workshop.