Importance of Gender in Fiction

Sexuality and gender in writing brings up a whole pile of subtopics. Each come with its set of obstacles – some more subtle than others. This post is an attempt to make some observations, ask some questions, and perhaps incite questions of your own.

As easy as it is to get into the tirade of how ridiculous ‘feminine’ armor is depicted in fantasy media, that is not what this post is about. I already touched on that in why I hate elves.

No really, chill.

There, settled.

A peer in my writing group once raised a question about changing the gender of one or more of her characters. The question concerned how the characters related to the audience, and this is not an unusual question when crafting any kind of story.

The agents always ask: “To which demographic are we marketing this?” and the fellow-writers will ask “To whom are you writing this – a specific group or yourself?” Then the philosowriters may ask: “If there was no such thing as gender, would your story still make sense?”

It is no secret as to whom the majority of games and movies of the fantasy genre are aimed.

men-vs-women-armor

I’ve reached the point where the amount I’m turned on is directly proportional to the practicality witnessed.

Setting that madness aside, gender plays a role in how we relate (or don’t) to characters, certainly, because as much as the feminists — the real kind of feminism, which preaches equality — will have you believe otherwise, there are some differences between the sexes that can cause barriers.

At least in the context of relating to fake people in a book.

I like to ask the question, “Does the gender of the character have anything to do with the story?” Like, if s/he is a male, does that make whatever job their holding more or less believable? If s/he is a female, does that put her motivations in question?

Unless your character is a lumberjack with a heavy interest in, I don’t know, cars or something (whatever the hell it is men find interesting), it might stretch the imagination to find this character to in fact be a lumberjane.

If the answer is no, and you can apparently swap the gender of a character without any major plot implications, then why are they that gender in the first place?

As for me, I ended up facing this question about three years ago, in my own writing. I realized the Novel Project that I’d been working on had something of a preponderance of male characters. An obvious side-effect of…

  • being a male writer
  • the setting/occupations of the PoV characters
  • stereotypes of the genre and age (medieval-esque fantasy)

Those of you who know me moderately well might recall my insistence on referring to myself as a fantasist, and while there’s no shortage of heroines in that genre (gods, sometimes it feels over saturated with them), the question boils down to “WHY is the character [insert_gender_here]?”

The following is an excerpt from an article at Cracked.com, concerning the way in which women are portrayed even by one of the currently eminent fantasy author, George R. R. Martin.

“…Right now I’m reading a book from mega-selling fantasy author George R. R. Martin. The following is a passage where he is writing from the point of view of a woman — always a tough thing for men to do. The girl is on her way to a key confrontation, and the narrator describes it thusly:

“When she went to the stables, she wore faded sandsilk pants and woven grass sandals. Her small breasts moved freely beneath a painted Dothraki vest …”

That’s written from the woman’s point of view. Yes, when a male writes a female, he assumes that she spends every moment thinking about the size of her breasts and what they are doing. “Janet walked her boobs across the city square. ‘I can see them staring at my boobs,’ she thought, boobily.” He assumes that women are thinking of themselves the same way we think of them.”

In my manuscript, I ended up changing one of my pivotal PoV characters from male to female mostly out of a desire for a balance in the cast, but also as something of a challenge.

In the first writings, Zayne was an old man, but by the time any readers would meet the elder I had since swapped him out for an old woman. This not only meant formatting the manuscript a bit (like changing all the [he said]’s to [she said]’s), but forced me to reconsider why he was a man in the first place.

Turns out there was no particular reason for having him of a male persuasion, and as a double-bonus I found Zayne’s character significantly more fun to write. A snarky, quick-witted and vengeful old crone comes as something of a comical surprise to other characters (and, I hope, readers as well) when the stereotype for a grandmotherly-looking old lady – the likes of whom might be expected to be pulling freshly baked cookies out of an oven or serving hot sweet tea – is turned on its head.

queen

I find both the character and the performance of the Queen of Thorns to be hugely inspiring. Been a long time since I saw her last playing Lady Holiday in the Great Muppet Caper.

Overall, Zayne’s personality did not change much after the transition, and I’ve always thought it liberating (as well as an active challenge) to write a character of the opposing gender. If anything, she evolved, because it opened doors to her personality that I hadn’t considered before.

WHY did she give up prospects of marrying in favor of a career as an ambitious merchant? WHY does she view the women of her culture as weak and dependent for seeking nothing more than to adorn themselves like hens hoping to be plucked?

Back to the question. Should a character’s gender be reconsidered in an effort to make them more ‘relateable’ to your intended audience?

Perhaps. Though, I’ve found that over the course of my literary adventures the question of whether the character was male or female didn’t really influence whether I liked them or what they did or said was convincingly possible. If Tyrion Lannister were a snide, pint-sized woman, or if Illidan and Malfurion Stormrage were twin sisters instead of brothers, I wonder whether they would be as interesting to me back in the day?

Though I will admit that Conana the Barbarian doesn’t really work for me.

Zula, on the other hand, was a unique and special kind of badass in Conan the Destroyer.

Zula, on the other hand, was a unique and special kind of badass in Conan the Destroyer.. This is a great example of a canonically male character being swapped for a female portrayal.

Unless the character is talking about something exclusively in the realm of the feminine (such as, say, childbirth), or perhaps the social pressures present in the story affect the character’s demeanor and, by extension, the plot direction of the story arc…then I am inclined to say that the gender doesn’t really matter.

So I say, choose the gender that you feel works best for who the characters are, not who you’re trying to sell it to.

Therefore, I encourage you all, as much as myself, to ask yourself why. Why is a character a particular gender in your story?

Did you have it planned? Did it ‘just happen’ as lots of creatives like to claim? Was it the product of perhaps unlabeled, subconscious stereotypes? Or perhaps some other, specific reason?

Advertisements

Two Desceptively Good Horror Movies

I’m going to talk about movies that came out years ago.

A spoiler warning would be superfluous.

I first saw The Descent in theaters sometime around it’s American release, which would mark my first viewing around 2006. I remember liking it then.

467462

It’s a horror movie, and to that end you instantly know there are going to be some familiar tropes. Aesthetically pleasing characters (a group of them, in fact, imagine that), a secret held amongst the members of this seemingly tightly-nit group of friends, and of course the “hey lets get ourselves in a dangerous scenario” cliche.

Not long ago, I found myself treated to The Cabin in the Woods, an utterly trope-ridden film that seems to have set out to do that purposefully. Cabin in the Woods is a critique and deconstruction of horror films — forcing us to address what we like and what we don’t like about the genre.

Lately I’ve been increasingly respectful of Joss Whedon’s work.

To that end, the movie itself is cleverly written in that there’s almost nothing original about what you see in it. However the manner in which it is tied together is rather revolutionary; personally I like to think that it offers an explanation for why horror movies exist. The cliches, the tropes, the familiar themes – it’s all part of a cyclic ritual to please bloodthirsty gods.

hand

Whose hand is this? I’d venture a vote that it’s yours.

One might go so far as to suggest that the “old gods” (a clear homage to H.P. Lovecraft) in the film are metaphors for the audience. We as viewers have arrived to witness a show, whether at a cinema or taking the effort to play the movie at home. We demand retribution for the crimes committed by the various characters, we demand mercy for the innocent, and most of all, we demand blood.

As the viewers, we decide whether a film exists (is playing) or not (turning it off, and the stories of the characters never play out and remain suspended in paused limbo forever). We also ensure the continued real-world Hollywood industry by repeatedly paying money to see these recycled movies at the box office.

I’ll tell you one thing I look for when watching a movie, particularly those in the horror genre.

Something different.

Something that’s more than the same elements of a story rearranged with slightly different faces and a slightly different biome. Cabin in the Woods manages to not only bring forth everything that is familiar, because that’s mostly what horror flicks — particularly those from Hollywood — seem to have become.

Cabin

I share their expression whenever see a poster or commercial for the next scary flick.

I’m not sure how many times I could re-watch this movie (I’ve read other reviewers say they can and have quite a bit), but I can easily say I count it as extremely memorable for its clever subversion of tropes and critique of not only the producers of these kinds of movies, but the consumers as well. It is, as people in Dungeons & Dragons circles call it, meta and thoroughly self-aware, however it never once breaks the fourth wall.

Go see it.

Back to The Descent (2005). Now here’s a deceptively good movie, if Rotten Tomatoes has anything to say about it. As I mentioned earlier, it’s got familiar horror movie elements, but I would like to emphasize that it’s not a Hollywood production. The people behind this one came from across the Pond, and while filming was done in the U.K., the setting for the story takes place in South Carolina, USA.

Much like how The Cabin in the Woods utilizes familiar tropes, we see a group of close-knit friends (though all-female, which is an interesting production choice, as there’s an absence of the typical alpha male character) delving into a dangerous situation of their own volition.

Guess how many live.

Guess how many live.

They’re adventurers, in possession of what is suggested to be extensive caving experience. They’re a group of physically capable people, and for once they look the part. Unlike the rail-thin plastic dolls we see so oft-depicted on the silver screen like in Charlie’s Angels. Or most every movie containing an Action Girl.

Naturally, the characters discover more than they could have expected down there. Between claustrophobia, the way out being sealed by a cave-in (resulting of course in a “no way to go but forward” scenario), and injuries from plain old-fashioned accident, they encounter what really attracted me to this movie at first: the creatures.

Troglodytes, subterranean hominids that look and act like flightless bat-human hybrids. With a sickly pallor and blindness to boot, they rely on acute hearing and pointy teeth to get around down there, and the creatures themselves were conceptualized a little more thoroughly than your average monster. There’re hints of tribal organization, with females and motherly vindication being witnessed. These aren’t mole people, either.

But the creatures are not what have me thinking highly of this movie. In fact, they aren’t a hugely scary element, although you do find yourself fearing for the characters.

The jump-scare reveal was pretty awesome, though.

The jump-scare reveal was pretty awesome, though.

What makes this movie interesting is the change that occurs in the protagonist, and ties nicely with the double entendre of the title. Sure, the ladies go and descend into a deep dark cave, but the main character – Sarah – also undergoes something of a descent of her own.

You see, in the opening scenes, we witness the tragic loss of Sarah’s husband and daughter in a car accident. The movie takes place a year later, after she’s been subject to psychotherapeutic treatment (evident in medications she’s seen taking during the one-year-later reunion with her adventurer friends). We also see that she’s prone to nightmares and, possibly, hallucinations, and as one of her friends points out, among the host of obstacles one might encounter in the Underdark are …well, hallucinations.

Naturally, the first time she sees one of the creatures her account is immediately dismissed by her peers and the expected “I told you so,” moment occurs later. But Sarah’s descent into madness is intriguing because it allows her to survive the coming obstacles.

A normal person might scream their head off after tumbling into a pool of flesh slurry. A normal person might be too overcome with guilt to mercy-kill her wounded, immobile friend before getting eaten alive by man bats. A normal person might freeze in panic at the sight of her friends being picked off one at a time.

But Sarah isn’t normal; to put it in less gentle terms, her mind snapped like a dry and brittle twig sometime between the trauma of her husband’s family and the bloody deaths of her friends. She thus underwent a sort of metamorphosis, into a human animal, arguably as savage as the troglodytes around her, and it is this metamorphosis that allows her to survive.

If you're cool then you know what this is. If you don't, you can get an idea form the title of the card.

If you’re cool then you know what this is. If you don’t, you can get an idea form the title of the card.

Add in the drama of a certain betrayal that I’d rather not spell out here (because if you still haven’t seen the movie, what I’ve talked about in this review actually doesn’t spoil all that much), and you’ve got a story that really stands out in the horror genre.

One of the better, modern horror flicks I’ve seen in awhile, and I’ve always felt it deserved more love.

Oh and there’s a sequel. You needn’t concern yourself with it.