Adventures in Novel Writing Part 2: The Curious Case of Character Gender
I have a brilliant writing partner. She’s one of my biggest advocates since the day we started sharing work. Besides being supportive, she always seems to know how to ask the right questions. So it should have come as no surprise to me when she asked me this particular question:
“Is there any reason why both of these characters have to be men?”
She was referring to “B” and “H,” two of my oldest characters, whose identities were the most established in my head. It was a rather innocuous question, and indeed one that every writer really should be aware of. But my knee-jerk response was so vicious that it surprised me. How dare she ask me to change my characters’ genders? A diatribe started typing itself in my head.
Thankfully my more rational side said, “Holy shit, why are you so angry? Sit down, have some coffee, and wait an hour or two.”
My rational side is right about most things (which is why I ignore him when I’m drunk or pushing code). I made myself a pour over, sat down, and began dissecting my response. Why is it such a reasonable question evoked such a poisonous emotional response?
Why is a fictional character’s gender so important?
Here’s an experiment. Find a cat person. Now ask about their cat’s day. Most cat people will be happy to oblige you because they love talking about their cats.
“Oh, he just sleeps all day. I can get him to play every once in a while, but usually not for more than a few minutes at a time before he goes back to ignoring me.”
“That’s too bad. Maybe you should get her a new toy.”
At this point, the cat owner’s eyes will narrow and they’ll wrinkle their nose as if you’ve trespassed onto sacred ground and left a bag of flaming dog poop. “He.”
I don’t mean to give cat owners a hard time, especially since any pet owner in can be substituted. As for the cat, he almost certainly doesn’t care about getting misgendered; his biggest goal is to make sure his food bowl is filled and to get his owner’s attention at the most inopportune time. But to the cat owner, the cat’s gender is sacrosanct. Tread with caution.
(Note: I am a cat owner. His name is the Dude. Send treats.)
On one hand, it kind of makes sense that we’re so defensive about our pets’ genders. It’s part of their identity! We imagine them with funny voices that match their gender and describe them with language specific to their behavior. Sometimes we even dress them up in clothing specific to their gender and make gendered jokes at their expense. But why? It’s not like anyone can really map a human’s behavior to a cat’s, let alone learned gender behavior. And cats are assholes regardless of their gender.
But it doesn’t matter that a male cat pretty much acts the same as a female cat. Gender in modern America is so baked into our society that it’s one of the biggest markers of identity. We care about our pets’ genders because it gives us an anchoring point about who we think they are. Which, as it turns out, tells us a great deal of why changing a fictional character’s identity is so hard.
My characters are as real to me as a real person. While they are still fictional, meaning I could change their history at a drop of a dime, once they’ve taken shape, their history becomes as much a part of their character as what shoes they wear or what their job is. It’d be akin to telling a Chicago born friend, “You were born in Cleveland,” and then getting defensive when they get angry at you. “What? They’re both in the midwest, cold, and have bad sports teams.”
Asking to change the gender of one of my characters was like an attack on his identity and evoked a defensive response. A defensive response that needed to be addressed in a calm fashion.
While I’m still angry that I had to have the conversation with myself, having the conversation turned out to be more fruitful than anticipated.
After an hour, I opened my writing partner’s email again, now ready to reply constructively. There was a tiny problem, though. I still hadn’t actually thought about the answer to her question.
I went and got more coffee.
After another hour, I wrote back. “Well, it’s complicated. I had thought of both of them as men,” I emailed back, “I think it keeps in line with the theme of the book.”
I didn’t have to wait very long for a reply.
“But do they have to be men?” she asked, “or was that just the default choice?”
The curious case default gender.
When I was learning Chinese as a child, I always found it odd that there was a special word for referring to a single woman or a group of women, whereas a man, a group of men, a group of mixed gender, or an unknown person used a different word that was pronounced the same way. It wasn’t until I started learning about radicals did I realize that the latter word used the “person” radical and the former word used the symbol for “female.”
Fast forward to middle school, and I remember my teacher teaching us how there was a default pronoun. It’s a little less specific in English, there’s no “group of” women or men, just them. But someone of unknown gender invariably becomes “he.” This rule has been taught for centuries. Curious, I wondered if it was still the case. I found this conversation on English Stack Exchange:
It seems a to still be a pretty contentious subject.
I’d ask the author of the response why it’s so weird to use “her” as a generic pronoun, but I know better. They learned the same thing I had when they were in middle school and high school: that man is the default and woman is the tacked on characteristic, that Eve was made for Adam from his rib, and that any attempt to change this worldview goes against biology and human nature and will turn the world into a giant orgy of sin where all the Smurfs have names based on adjectives and not just the male ones.
(note: I almost assumed that the author of the post was a man, which just goes to show.)
One of the reasons I write is to hasten the arrival of this world of sin. This means that I have an obligation to view my narrative choices critically, even if it means potentially changing something that I consider immutable. Did either character really have to be male? Or, had I just taken the lazy way out?
After some more thought and more coffee (I’m really addicted to caffeine), I wrote back. “Well… I guess only “B” really has to be.”
“Why does he have to be?”
“Well, because he’s not really “him.” He just has to be because well… he was conceived of as one in-universe.”
“You’ll see in a couple of chapters.”
“Alright, alright, but what if you made “H” a woman.”
How I met “H”
“H” is an interesting character, but in order to know him, you need to know of “B.” I had envisioned “B” as a more effective version of Marvel’s Watcher (which isn’t particularly hard given the guy’s name). He’s a character who only gets directly involved if he really, really needs to though isn’t above manipulation to get his way. He has a very one-track mind and an extremely well-defined purpose for his existence. He’s got a very interesting and somewhat convoluted backstory. As it so happens, he’s one of my favorite characters. But I’ll be the first to say he’s not the most interesting or dynamic character.
One of the reasons he’s so interesting though is his counterpart, “H.” “H” cannot exist without “B.” Think the Joker to Batman. In the early days, that’s all he was to me. He existed to try and screw with “B’s” careful planning through mischief and trickery. The thing was that “H” could never win as “B” was a much better planner. Events that seemingly went against “B” always ended up aiding him later. But I had a lot of problems with “H.” While I liked his personality a lot, he was a man without a mission. Just opposition. That just made him a walking plot device, not a character.
At some point, I wrote “H’s” history. Suddenly his opposition to “B” made a lot more sense and I began to see eerie parallels between the two. Both were defined solely by their own mission so neither could ever really be trusted with their word. It was at this point that “H” stopped becoming a plot device and crystallized into an actual character whose identity I could discover more of but couldn’t change. And he happened to be a man.
But he wasn’t conceived as a man on purpose. It was just because I never thought about his gender. So now the question was: if he wasn’t a man, how would that change the narrative?
I looked to my writing partner’s novel for inspiration. Three of her main characters are androgynous and at least one of them passed back and forth between genders.
“What if they were ambiguous?” I asked.
“Both of them?”
“No. Just ‘H.’”
The Singular They.
One of the most interesting things about English is its adherence to gender in reference to a particular person. “It” and “its” are strictly forbidden except in the case of young children. “He” or “s/he” are used in its place, but “he” assumes a default gender and “s/he” is silly to read/write. I suppose “that one” is possible but it’s even clunkier than “s/he.” Luckily, the singular “they” has recently gained popularity as they default way to write in a gender-neutral way.
There are problems, however, as my above exchange with my writing partner illustrates. The singular they can be very ambiguous. It can also be very awkward to read, basically signaling to readers that the character’s gender is a big deal.
But that actually made me excited. This ambiguity worked in my favor in most cases. In fact the more I thought about it, the more I thought that it was an amazing narrative choice.
I set to work replacing my gender pronouns, and it was surprisingly smooth. My perception also adapted to the new truth. Soon, I’d even managed to work my own former troubles with“H’s” gender into the story.
My main character could still perceive “H” to be a man. This way much of her conflict with “H” would still fall in line with the main theme of the book. There were very few changes with her parts and their encounters. And because she never asks “H” their gender pronoun preference, she continues to use male pronouns in her head. Her thoughts on the matter were a mirror to my own previous prejudices.
On the other hand, one of my other characters perceives “H” to be a woman. I had to trawl through every instance where he used “he” to describe “H” and turn them to “she.” Again because he never has any direct communication with “H,” he never corrects himself either.
Finally, “B,” who has the most knowledge of “H,” also knows that he doesn’t know what gender “H” is. Rather than using a specific gender pronoun for “H,” he uses “them,” and I had to change his speech to reflect that. There was an added benefit. His speech became harder to parse and clunkier, which in fit his character as an unknowable, mysterious figure.
The singular “they” also gave me the a lot of practice in writing additional gender-neutral characters into the book. But it is still remarkable to me how much effort and mindfulness it takes me to write in a gender-neutral way. Even now I still find “he”s when I meant to write “they”s or “it”s. It also takes a hell of a lot of effort to stay in the mindset.
But it’s worth it. I feel like the story is more inclusive, better fits the theme, and is generally stronger because of this exercise. Finally, going through this exercise gave me a chance to look at my own prejudices and be more mindful of them in the future.