Friday, March 22, 2019

Writing About Gender

No, this post will not be a political or social statement regarding the whole gender discussion. I prefer to keep things simple and discuss things from the perspective of the writer – whatever gender they may be. All writers understand that there will most likely be male and female characters in their writing. Most writers understand that these characters should be clearly different in their representation. Some writers take special efforts to showcase the differences. Few writers do it justice.

Let's take a surprisingly difficult example: Our character wakes up one morning, gets up, walks naked to the window and throws open the curtains to let the morning sun warm their skin. This is a simple scene, but depending on the writer and the character, the portrayal can be wildly different. And as many examples show throughout literature, the description of the character often reveals something about the author, rather than the other way around.

(Note: So people feel more at liberty to share this, I will be replacing the gender-specific anatomical nitty-gritty with the safe terms, “boy parts” and “girl parts.” Figure it out.)

In the example above, our character’s gender is not defined and this is deliberate. This begs the question, what gender was the character in your head? Did you see a man or a woman? Once you have that gender in mind, how would you convey that information to the reader? If the character is female, male writers often convey this by describing the sun shining down on the girl parts. Female authors describing a man usually turn toward broader physique, leaving the boy parts out of the narrative. Here’s the question – is either method better or worse?

Obviously, if the author is writing in the genre of steamy romance, then such descriptions speak to mood and play a role in setting the tempo. However, most genres do not require describing any parts in detail because the gender is revealed from the first pronoun. Saying he or she immediately fills in the blanks without distracting the reader with unnecessary details. More importantly, it allows the reader to fill in their own blanks while enjoying the rest of the story.

If some part of the character’s physique is important to the plot – whether it is in their parts or whatever – then the writer should have no qualms about including those details. However, I have never read a story where the plot hinged on whether a particular boy part or girl part was just the right dimension to save the characters and turn around the plot. It’s a rarity at best.

As a generalization, male writers who are still developing their technique often describe female characters in physical terms: attractiveness, size of clothing, size of girl parts. This creates a very superficial description and the character will read as equally empty. As female writers work on their descriptive chops, their male generalizations go toward the three “F”s: Features, Face, Physique. (get it?) Again, not much depth in there. In both cases, the characters end up feeling like a prop to support some more important character that never shows up.

In describing characters, there is sort of a writing Bechdel Test for determining whether description is necessary or simply gratuitous. It all boils down to three questions:

  • Does the description contribute to the mood (romance, adult themes, etc.),
  • Does it contribute details that are important to the story’s progression, and
  • If the description was placed on a character of the opposing gender, would it still sound natural?

Let’s look at that last one in a little more detail, as it's the most important. In the example at the beginning, let’s say it was a woman throwing open the curtains. If the next line was about the sun warming her girl parts, well, the test would be to switch the gender and reread the sentence. Does it sound natural to have a guy throw open the curtains and let the sun warm his boy parts? Or does it just sound weird? As a win, the sun can warm her skin or his skin alike, and it works just fine.

The takeaway here is that as an author, it is your responsibility to write characters that speak to all readers (depending on genre), and that reveal themselves in ways important to the story. The best way to do that is to make sure the character stands out on their own merits, and does not merely reflect some facet of the writer. After all, it’s the character that drives the story – when they fling open the curtain, we should only care about their interests, not the writer’s.

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