Sunday, August 31, 2008

Writing characters of the opposite gender

Women and men (both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
e. e. cummings

My critiquer, GunnerJ, once told me that he wasn’t certain of his characterization of women in his stories, since he’s male. He then asked me if I felt the same way when I wrote about men.

Until then, I’d never really thought of writing characters as male or female, but Before the Storm is the only story set in a world where there are rigid gender demarcations, so it was the only novel where I had to have women behaving and being treated differently from men. In most of my other lands, there’s no real discrimination, and so I just created characters without thinking too deeply about gender. So when GunnerJ asked me this, it really made me stop to consider.

Why do we make some characters male and some female?

Genre plays a role in this. For instance, if you’re writing for Harlequin Presents, your stories are probably more likely to feature “strong, wealthy, breathtakingly charismatic alpha-heroes who are tamed by spirited, independent heroines”, rather than, say, a wealthy alpha heroine who is tamed by a man. I checked out Harlequin’s Steeple Hill guidelines, wondering if an inspirational line might have different requirements for the heroine than the hero, but interestingly, I didn’t see any.

Likewise, a historical novel is going to have inherent restrictions when it comes to gender. It’s possible, of course, to have a historical fiction set in the year 1700 and taking place on a oceangoing vessel where the heroine is the ship’s doctor. But if an author does this and then glosses over the setup or consequences, the story can seem unrealistic and may require more suspension of disbelief. It may also look as though the author hasn’t done his or her research.

Conversely, the author could explain how a woman became a doctor, how she managed to get a position on a ship, how she manages on board the ship with a crew of men, and so on. While this might be intriguing, it also means the anachronism is bending the story around herself. Rather than being a tale of maritime adventure, it becomes the story of the female doctor. It may be easier to tell the story that the writer wants to tell if the characters operate within the gender roles of that time – but do everything possible and realistic and interesting within those roles.

It’s also easier to win sympathy for some characters if they’re female. For instance, Gone with the Wind is unlikely to have worked if Scarlett had been male. An impulsive, self-centered boy passionately in love with a woman engaged to someone else and who kept trying to dissuade him… not sympathetic. But since Scarlett began as a sixteen-year-old girl, her flaws were much easier for me to accept.

That’s one reason I made Morava in Dracolytes a woman – she begins the novel as a devoutly religious soldier who all but physically assaults a man for blasphemy. If she had been a man who ill-treated a woman for the same reason, I think she would have been impossible to like. You read about male religious fanatics in the news, but a female religious fanatic is still relatively novel and for me at least, more palatable.

I think this works for male characters as well. A cold, reserved, hyperintelligent woman who disdained men might appear frigid, but Sherlock Holmes came across as fascinating, the kind of person who could be thawed by just the right woman (or right man, judging by all the Holmes/Watson slash out there). There are some traits which are just easier to forgive and accept when they’re held by a person of one gender rather than the other. Which isn’t to say that they should never be applied to people of the other gender, just that this is one reason writers may (unconsciously) select the one over the other when creating characters.

Finally, it may simply be easier to write from the point of view of one gender rather than another. I’ve read several criticisms of romance novels where the heroes behaved unrealistically – for instance, they were more interested in talking about their feelings than in having sex – though this may also be due to the requirements of the genre or the publisher.

It was a very interesting topic to think about. So much so that only after I'd written all this did I realize I hadn't answered GunnerJ's question. Which I'll do in another blog post.

1 comment:

JH said...

It's always really odd to see me listed as some source of inspiration... Looking forward to the second part!