Thursday, February 26, 2009

"He" vs. "She"

I was over at Metamorphose reading the message board and came across a post on the use of personal pronouns. The author of the post made a pretty valid observation; use of the personal pronoun is split pretty evenly between the masculine and the feminine after a male-to-female (M2F, for the uninitiated) transformation. As someone who has written a story or two that involved a M2F transformation, I thought I would share my thoughts.

Pronoun choice doesn't usually require much thought. Masculine, feminine and neutral pronoun use is drummed into us from the time we first use language. This is true of any language, not just English. We all have an innate sense of what the right pronoun is. The problem with a sex change - be it surgical, magical, or some other other device - is that the pronoun itself must be transformed. When is the right time to make the switch? What is the convention?

The problem is that there are no set rules. I'm tempted to say that usage is a matter of taste, but it's a little more complicated than that. The choices made can greatly effect both the tone and readability of a piece of fiction.

A strict, literal approach is to use the pronoun that matches the subject's gender. "Bob waved his magic wand and was transformed into a girl. She looked down at her new body and was amazed." Simple, right?

Well, no. Some of the most unreadable, amateur, self-indulgent crap I've read follows this formula. While it seems like a good decision on the surface, it is clumsy in practice. Most writing is done in the third person. In that point of view, the reader is exposed to the main character's internal mental state. The mental switch from male to female doesn't typically happen with the physical switch, which is the source of most of the dramatic tension in a transformation story. The discontinuity between the mental state of the main character and the pronouns used results in a confusing, contradictory mess.

The other common approach is to change the pronoun usage when the character reaches a milestone on their inner journey. This is my preferred method. It provides a clear boundary to mark the change in the character's self-perception.

It seems a little cliche to me, but that change is most often during a sexual encounter. I do have an unpublished story that changes pronouns at the moment of climax, but as a general rule I try to avoid that particular choice. It's overused. On top of that, the implication that a female orgasam is so powerful that it washes away any sense of male self-identity just seems silly to me.
Other bad choice I've seen include the Clear Mental Choice. This is usually accompanied by an internal dialoge where the character decides to think of themselves using female pronouns. Eg: "Bob looked down at his new body and sighed. No, damnit! HER new body. She was a woman now, and thinking of herself as a man was just going to hold her back." Ugh. Please, reader, don't do this unless you've explored other more viable options.

More attentive authors do their best to keep the change in pronoun use transparent. It can even be used to help a story along. Imagine for a moment a story where the use of the feminine pronoun begins when the character is hypnotized. This would preceed the physical transformation. Then, after the physical transformation is complete, the hypnotic state is lifted and the use of the male pronoun is restored. This would be an effective way to reenforce the story.

Fascinating stuff. How geeky am I that thinking about pronoun use gets me excited?