The selection of gender

How do you go about choosing a character’s gender? Is it the same as something like their name, height, or hair colour and a just a choice for the writer to make? Or it is more intrinsically linked with the nature of a particular story?

One of the many points of discussion that has sprung up in the current cultural debate about gender politics in society has been how there are so few “strong female characters” in our media. I’m not going to go into detail about the deeper issues here. There has been plenty written and discussed online already – to varying degrees of vitriol – but I want to address this particular issue that is unavoidably interwoven with any creative media. Like it or not we come from a traditionally patriarchal society, and thusly our storytelling traditions have been very much filtered through that ideology; men are the protagonists in life, with women at best secondary or at worst totally sidelined. As Joss Whedon famously pointed out, until we reach the point where strong female characters are no longer highlighted as different from the norm we will remain in an unbalanced media.

There are many reasons for this. Some of it is, of course, straightforward misogyny. The recent #GamerGate scandal has highlighted how much of that lingers around certain types of people. But as vocal as this segment can be it is not one that has an overtly active role in the real media. And yes, while I understand that many people have been seen to pander to this demographic I refuse to believe that entire industries have purposely developed around this kind of mindset.

No, the larger part of this issue has been blindness. Time and time against I have read interviews with men in the media who have told the same tale; unique to them but telling the same story where they were made to suddenly realise they had been perpetuating the gender divide without even realising it. They had never considered themselves as marginalising women. They were merely part of an established system that did so on such an ingrained level they could not see it for the trees.

This issue is an endemic one, but one that is slowly being swept aside. Mainly due to the actions of a few very strong and impressive role-models who have made a stand rather than allow themselves to work within a broken system, facing the far too often vitriolic nature of certain areas of “internet culture”. I honestly feel that today writers and media creators are far more aware of gender in their work than in any time in recent history. The issue is not going to fixed overnight, no social injustice ever is, but it has been set on the right path.

So, as a writer, how much do you need to worry about this? How much do you need to actively plan your work to help bridge the divide when it comes to female characters?

When I was nearing the end of The Serpent’s Eye I began to worry. I realised that I had written a book that hit all the traditional tropes of the old system without thinking; I had one single male protagonist, and all the female characters were viewed through the filter of his viewpoint. Did that mean I had written a bad story? Did it mean I was one of the many people perpetuating the gender imbalance through not paying attention?

No, I don’t think I was. Not everything needs to pass the Bechdel test. More things need to of course – in fact most things should – but the important question here was could I justify my choices for the good of the story?

And yes, I think I can. The story I had come up with involved somebody traveling aboard to deal with a serious of legal issues for a prominent family in the nineteenth century. Would there have been any female lawyers at that time? And if so would they be hired for such a job by an ancient and traditional noble family? For all the thousands of ways I could have created a female protagonist and worked them into the story, this would not have worked for the level of simple realism I wanted to achieve.

I know there are stories that can be told where the gender of the characters will not have one single effect on the plot. It is just that I believe these are as rare a chickens teeth.

The simple fact is, as much as we may not realise it, interpretation of gender plays a massive part in our lives. Everyday we are making thousands of snap judgements about the people we pass in the street based on age, appearance, clothing, attitude and hundreds of other tiny unnoticeable triggers. We don’t even notice we are doing it until we think about it. It is impossible to get to know someone without spending time learning who they are, and so our minds learn shortcuts based on what we can take in quickly so we can make a snap judgement of how they might act based on our previous experiences. These shortcuts are filtered and developed through the societal norms of a culture with thousands of years of momentum. We may try to be gender-blind, or colour-blind, or any kind of prejudice-blind, but it is simply not psychologically possible. It can take years to get to know someone personally, and until then, and even after, all our thoughts and interactions with them will be interpreted using the preconceived ideas that are simply so ingrained into who we are that we don’t realise they exist.

A good writer cannot simply spell out everything about a character, and so has to make use of their reader’s prejudices and assumptions to fill in the blanks. This is a tool that needs to be carefully used. Whether you want the reader to fill in the blanks in a character’s background, or to throw the reader by playing with their assumptions, the first stage is understanding how a reader will initially flesh out the character in their first scene.

These subconscious interpretations can have a profound effect on a story. The writer Brandon Sanderson has said how in earlier drafts of the first Mistborn novel the main character, Vin, was originally a boy. However he felt the tone of the story wasn’t sitting right but he couldn’t put his finger on why. Then he decided to change Vin to a girl and everything fell into place. The story needed a female protagonist, as the character dynamics simply were not working otherwise.

In Nice or Naughty – <shamelessplug> Available to read now in Dark Holidays, an anthology from Dark Skull Publications </shamelessplug> – the protagonist is a young girl with a little brother. Had I swapped the genders around it would not have altered the plot in any way, but the feel of the story and the reader’s relationship with the character would have changed significantly. Most people will have a very different preconception of a young girl’s attitudes towards her little brother than those of a young boy towards his little sister. You never meet the brother in person, he is only discussed, but that relationship is vital to the story and I can’t afford to bore the reader with a page and a half spent spelling out their relationship. Rather than do that I used what I feel will be the reader’s preconceptions and then subtly nudge them at the correct points to give the impression of the children’s relationship.

Now I don’t believe for a moment that, at this stage of my career, my work is going to have any affect in the greater debate on this issue, but also I don’t want to be seen as simply one more white male writer creating white male characters. What I do want is to create stories with a variety of characters and types, and this will sometimes mean developing a story about the character. Sometimes I will have to create male characters, if the story requires it, but at least I am aware that this is not the only option. I know that I need to develop stories to fit around female characters – and in the greater scheme of things also characters of different races and cultures – rather than let my stories grow around lazy writing. To make sure I push myself as a writer.

In the end my choice was not one of which gender I felt like writing, but which gender better fit the character and story.

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