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?

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