Video: Terry Pratchett, pronouns, and fluid gender in literature

This isn’t a new video, but it’s one I like. Terry Pratchett is probably my second role model as a writer, after Ursula K. Le Guin, and I enjoy this analysis of his careful and deliberate use of pronouns in his writing.


  1. says

    I keep meaning to get around to Monstrous Regiment & haven’t done so yet. The video does a nice job of highlighting those moments at the end of the book where the narration is used to say some pretty deep things about identity and gender.

    Curiously enough, I’ve just been ranting in the past couple weeks that fiction writers who tackle shape-shifting characters (everything from werewolves to touch-replicant’s like John Carpenter’s “Thing” from “The Thing” to magical beings or spell casters that can just polymorph themselves into a different shape) do a TERRIBLE job on average (remember: on average) of handling sex, gender, and race.

    What does it mean to be a “Black man” if you’re also a grey wolf with a ruddy muzzle and a black stripe down your spine? What does it mean to be “a woman” if you can just cast polymorph self & impregnate a female goshawk? Or a female human?

    Such questions don’t have to be addressed every time a book gives anyone a shapeshifting power for half-a-paragraph, but the percentage of works which omit such questions shines a damning light on the overwhelming neglect cis writers show when addressing the possibilities and meanings of shape change.

    Any one cis writer might be good, of course, but as a group they are so overwhelmingly silent on the topic that it’s downright unnatural.

  2. anat says

    I gave Monstrous Regiment to my son when he just started transitioning. He loved it so much!

  3. lumipuna says

    Hah. I’ve read Monstrous Regiment in Finnish translation only, and the pronoun subtlety was lost there because Finnish doesn’t have gendered pronouns.

    Speaking of which, I have this headcanon that Dwarf language must be entirely non-gendered (like many human languages are), and indeed the very concept of gender shouldn’t exist in traditional Dwarf culture. It just happens that traditional Dwarf presentation looks masculine in human eyes, and therefore Dwarfs are conventionally dubbed as “he” in gendered human languages, such as Morporkian, which is presumably structured like English.

    Then, when Dwarfs live among humans, they adopt the idea of gender and most of them start seeing themselves as male, by convention, but some of them realize they’d rather identify themselves as female. And the latter, of course, may not be always biologically female, because you never know about Dwarfs.

  4. Katydid says

    Monstrous Regiment was great on many levels. It spoke about gender, it spoke about religion, it spoke about culture. It spoke about the atrocities in war. Read it and you won’t be sorry.

    His later books talk about the relationship between the dwarves and trolls, using them as stand-ins for cultures we’re familiar with. Thud! is particularly good.

    I don’t know how Pratchett’s work translates into other languages because I read it in the language he spoke and wrote in. One of his strengths is making words twist and reveal themselves; this is particularly evident in Lords and Ladies when he off-handedly mentions that elves are terrific…they inspire terror. Then the reader realizes that the original meaning of the word terrific was “inspires terror”. Things like that.

  5. Katydid says

    I want to add the filmed series The Watch, based (loosely-ish) on the book of the same name. Most of the first episode, I kept protesting in the vein of “NO! Dwarves are NOT TALL, this isn’t RIGHT” and “Lady Sybil is round and old and a member of A Certain Class, not a beautiful slim accomplished assassin!” and “But Sam Vimes did NOT grow up in an orphanage!” Then I settled down and watched and the actors cast were just so very good. I’m hoping there’s a second season soon. Or at all.

  6. says

    @Crip Dyke – It reminds me of the race thing. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I didn’t really notice the absence of non-white people in science fiction (Firefly comes to mind) when I was younger. Since learning enough to be able to actually see that, I’ve also noticed with with queer characters, disabled characters, and so on.

    I’m working on a fantasy novel right now that has shapeshifting, and yeah – shapeshifting without gender fluidity is a bit like writing without adjectives or something. You can do it, bit it’s pretty obvious something is missing. One thing I’ve found tricky that I’ve seen other fiction struggle with is creating a society in which there’s no stigma or barriers based on any of that, without having the urge to explain it to the reader. The example that comes to mind is from Jessie Gender’s new video on sex in Star Trek:TNG with people like Riker needing to have pronouns explained to them. I get the need, especially back when the episode was written, but it does seem odd that the society of the Federation doesn’t have trans, NB, and genderfluid folks as a seamless part of day to day life.

    And yeah – there’s zero chance that a world with shapeshifting magic doesn’t have people using it for gender affirmation, among many other things.

    I mean hell, maybe you could cure cancer by turning into a naked mole rat for a while.

    I also want to thank you for pointing out the issue of race for someone who turns into non-human things. I’m not going to tackle that in our society, I think, since those aren’t my stories to tell, but it’s definitely something I’ll need to think about. I haven’t figured out to what degree racial, gender, or sexual prejudice will play a role in the world I’m building. It’ll probably not be zero, but also not the same as what one would generally expect from sword and sorcery.

  7. says

    I can’t remember if Monstrous Regiment or Small Gods was my first Discworld book. I think the Watch series remains my favorite, while Tegan prefers the Witches. I think I ought to re-read Small Gods though, it’s been a while and that was a really interesting one.

    @Katydid – I only heard bad things about that show, but maybe I’ll give it a chance at some point.

  8. No Respect says

    Edit: decided that I don’t feel like platforming general hatred of humanity. Have a sarcastic fringehead video instead -Abe

  9. Katydid says

    @Abe: The Watch cast a non-binary actor as Cheery Littlebottom, which I thought was brilliant. Carrot was just as I expected him to be in my head. Vimes was right, or at least not wrong. Angua was supposed to be taller in my head.

    HOWEVER, after I stopped fussing about it and leaned in to the story, I thought the show was actually pretty great. The actors leaned into their roles and the writing throws some bones to the Discworld readers. I think it captures the spirit of the Discworld, if not the way characters should have looked. Here in the USA, it’s very hard to get any movies or series about Discworld.

  10. No Respect says

    I wish! Anything but a sentient creature, anything but human. That’s what I truly don’t respect, humanity, especially my own.

  11. says

    Well, we’ll move them to moderation with that creationist climate denier, and see if they come up with anything worth saying.

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