Gender is a complex thing, and writing a character whose gender is different than yours can seem a daunting task. This is especially true for writing a gender less privileged than yours. Don’t worry, we’re here with sage advice. This week, we discuss how to avoid cliches, keep yourself honest, and make sure your characters don’t come off as one-note or offensive. Spoilers: It turns out that the best way to write people of other genders is to consider them as people first.
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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by SpacePineapple. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [Intro Music]
Oren: And welcome, everyone, to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren. With me today is—
Oren: And joining us once again is special guest host Ariel.
Oren: And this topic is actually Ariel’s idea, so I’ll go ahead and let her introduce it. I know she’s been having some exciting times with this recently.
Ariel: Oh, I’m so excited about this topic. So today, we’re talking about how to write characters of a different gender. So for most storytellers, we have this inherent bias, right? That it’s easiest to relate to and to depict the things that we know, and that goes for gender, as well. So let’s talk about some of the errors we’ve seen, why they happen, and how to fix it.
Oren: I mean, how many errors … let’s see, how long do we have?
Oren: So, no. Okay. I mean, I think that it’s no secret that this can sometimes happen from a less privileged author writing a more privileged character. It’s almost always the other way around, right? That’s why we have a million articles on how to write women and no articles on how to write men, because we just sort of assume that women know how to write male characters, but that male writers writing female characters is like, whoa, too hard, too difficult, need special training for that.
Chris: I’d like to just talk a little bit about some of the dynamic that’s involved in why that is. We all know that women just see lots and lots of stories about guys, and we’re just completely used to it. But we’re talking about depicting gender and what gender you’re depicting. It’s important to understand that there’s just an inherent inbalance in the way that we conceptualize men and women. Where, because men are default, the vast majority of characteristics are attributed to men.
Whereas, when we think of what characteristics women have, we tend to only assign them things that men specifically aren’t supposed to have. So women are nurturers because we have a stereotype where men aren’t nurturing. But anything that is ever neutral is just put in the cultural territory that we associate with men. So that’s an inherent kind of imbalance there. And that’s one of the reasons why we have so many articles about depicting women, is because when people set out to write a woman, they tend to choose from that tiny, narrow assortment of traits that are associated with women, as opposed to traits that are associated with anyone, which are all given to men.
Oren: And the same thing happens with regards to any kind of less privileged gender identity. I mean, you get the same thing with trans characters versus cis characters, binary characters versus non-binary, fluid versus static. It’s exactly the same dynamic. We just don’t see nearly as many articles on how to write non-binary characters because we have only just started having the conversation about, “should we have non-binary characters in our stories?” But I predict that maybe in a decade or so, that will be the new thing. We will have a million articles on how to write non-binary characters.
Chris: But just on the site, I have specifically stated, it’s just easier to write women if you just write a man, and then give that man feminine pronouns instead. And some people have taken issue with like, “are you saying women and men are exactly the same?” Well, no, but this is honestly one of the easiest ways. And that’s why that works, because so much things are attributed to men. So much cultural territory has been given to men, that if you set out to write a character that is of an underprivileged group, those associations sometimes just pigeonhole the character too much.
Oren: Right. And when you’re talking about “differences” between any kind of gender setup, yes, at a statistical level, often you will find differences, but in most cases, those differences are irrelevant to your story. There are very few stories that actually benefit from highlighting or talking about those differences in any meaningful way, especially not spec fic (speculative fiction) stories. so that’s why we advocate, “just write the character.” If you’re having trouble writing women, just write the character like it was a man and change the pronouns, because any kind of cultural distinction between masculinity and femininity is unlikely to matter in this story.
Chris: (laughs) Yeah. The truth is, for any character, if you just write that character as, like, I’m writing a 70-year-old woman. So I’m going to write everything she does as a 70-year-old woman. You’re probably just writing a boring character. Our characters are interesting and unique, right? That’s what we want our fictional characters to be like, we’re not actually—blank characters aside, most of the time, we’re not setting out to write a character that’s perfectly average in every way, anyway, right?
Oren: Yes. My character is written explicitly to be the mean on every statistical scale, for their demographic. That’s how I write characters.
Chris: (laughs) Anyway, that’s just some background information when we’re talking about various things and why we sometimes approach this the way we do. I cry when I see writing advice out there that’s like, well, if you want to write. You know, your woman should talk like this and men should talk like that because men and women talk differently. It’s unrealistic to make men that talk like women. It’s like, aw, come on.
Oren: It was great; I read a pop neuroscience book that ended with, and here, let me fix writing. It’s gender. It’s gender stereotypes. That’s my secret. I was like, okay, I’m glad you decided to put your foot into that arena.
Chris: (laughs) But anyway, do either of you have a specific trope or thing that you don’t like seeing that you’ve seen recently?
Oren: I have a million of them, but this is Ariel’s topic, so I want her to go first.
Ariel: So many things. Actually, I just wanna circle back to the advice to write women like men and then change the pronoun. I want to add one caveat to that, because something I saw recently was a female character who, if I didn’t know what gender she was, I would have chosen male. Except that any time she was—because she was strong, and she was authoritative, and she was tall. All of these stereotypes that you associate with men, she had all of them, and I would have loved this character so much, except that anytime she was alone in a scene, she would think about her insecurities of, “I wish I was more feminine. I wish that I could have been the daughter my dad wanted,” which, if you approach it like that with a certain voice, it could be great representation for non-binary, but it didn’t have that treatment. It was very much a, “I wish I liked the color pink.”
Oren: Right. I mean, and that’s the sort of thing where it’s conceivable that that could make a good story, because I’m sure there are women who feel conflicted about—on the one hand, they have traits that are more traditionally masculine, which is fine, but at the same time, they have a feeling that maybe they should be more feminine, or maybe they want to be and they aren’t allowed to be, or something. There’s ways to make that good. but it’s definitely not something most writers are ready to do. It’s especially not something most men are ready to do, which is why I always just, whenever I’m looking at a story with a less privileged character—and gender is the most often way this comes up—is I just don’t write the story about things that are specific to their identity.
I can write a story about a black woman fighting dragons. I can do that. That’s not terribly difficult. I would not write a story about a 13 year old black girl coming of age in Chicago. I don’t have the experience to write that story. That would be a very specific, very personal story that I just couldn’t do, at least not without a ridiculous amount of research and paying other people to help me, and I just don’t have time for that. I’m going to write about my fantasy settings, please.
Chris: Yeah. I do think with a lot of these things, the question is, is your work designed as a gender commentary? ‘Cuz I think a lot of times, we have writers who were just throwing in gender dynamics in the story because they think it’s fun, or because they think they’re supposed to, or other reasons. And I have a story where it is just a short story. It was just a woman and a man talking to each other, and they are doing a very gender dynamic thing. But it is also a story that is designed as gender commentary. That is the point. And that’s always going to be valuable to have, sometimes, of cultural commentary.
And there are cultural things going on with gender that are worth commenting about, but the average writer, who’s just “people battling dragons, casting magic spells,” they’re not writing their story to make cultural commentary about gender. And adding that into your story is adding so many more headaches that you wouldn’t want to deal with, unless that’s really important to you, unless that’s really the reason why you’re writing your story. So it’s better to just not go there unless that’s something that’s really central and really important. Opening a can of worms, I’ve called it elsewhere. Just don’t open the can of worms, unless that’s really central. And certainly with that kind of insecurity about, “is my femininity enough,” if you’re a guy who’s never had that or ever experienced that before, I feel like that would be tough to do, just because personal experience equals expertise in the area.
Oren: Yeah. And I mean, the question is what experience do you have that would make this something that people would want to hear about from you? What do you bring to this discussion? And for most dudes who would want to write about that, the answer is nothing. There’s just nothing they bring to the conversation. Now, they could always pay a consultant, especially if they’re rich and famous, like the guy who made Fury Road did, where he did do a gender commentary, and he paid a feminist consultant to come in and help him because he had this position of power, and that’s a different scenario entirely.
Chris: I have a little cautionary anecdote about asking the people in your life. So, as we mentioned before, most of the time women write men without a second thought, nobody complains, because of that sort of uneven dynamic. But there was one time when I was writing a story years ago, and I had a male protagonist, and there was a woman in the story that was attractive, but that he just didn’t like. And at the time, I wasn’t sure if it would be considered realistic for him to turn down sex with her, just because he didn’t like her, you know? And so, I was worried that it was me just imposing my (goofy voice) “womanly ways” on this male character. I mean, it was, again, years ago. So, to try to find the answer to this question, I asked three guys I personally knew whether or not—is it realistic for my male character to turn her down? Or is that just me as a woman, not understanding guys, or whatever. And they thought about it, but they all said, no, it’s not realistic. But the thing was, they were all wrong. (laughs)
Because since then, I have definitely met men who would turn her down in that situation. Not because they’re gay, not because they’re asexual. And again, characters are not average people. They’re unique people, they’re heroic people. They’re different and interesting people. They don’t have to have all of the efforts, characteristics of whatever demographic they fit into. Even if we were to take a survey of guys and find out the average guy wouldn’t turn her down, I think there’s a lot of stereotypes involved here that the men I talked to have probably absorbed. They probably think they would not turn her down more than they actually would, but even if the average guy was, it’s still perfectly realistic for a guy to turn down sex with an attractive woman, a straight guy who likes sex with women.
Oren: Also, men lie to protect their masculinity all the time. This is not a limited occurrence.
Chris: (laughs) Right. And similarly, I have no male writers that have told me after I looked at their story, “but how could my story be sexist? The two women in my life said it was fine. They both read it. They didn’t mention anything, you know?” And it’s like, well, not all women are actively looking or aware of sexist tropes. It doesn’t make it not sexist, unfortunately. So, with these kinds of things, the best thing you can do is just know what gender stereotypes are, and avoid them. Unfortunately, you don’t get immunity by asking the people who are close to you and getting their answers, as much as it would be nice, ‘cuz that would make things a lot easier.
Oren: Yeah. Excuse me. I asked a woman, I took out a woman insurance policy on this story, and it’s co-signed here. Please direct her complaints to the provider.
Chris: (laughs) So anyway, there’s my little anecdote, because that’s how a lot of people tend to approach these issues. It’s like, “but I can’t be racist, I have a black friend.” So anyway, for me, I guess the thing to keep in mind is, it’s good to be aware, when you write a character, who you’re writing that character for. And I think a lot of times, when men write women, the problem is, they’re writing the woman for men, and focusing on her sexuality a lot, and how sexy she is. I’m reading Red Mars right now.
Oren: Oh, gosh.
Chris: And it is bad. It’s real bad. And I’m pretty sure Kim Stanley Robinson doesn’t realize how bad he’s being, because we’ve got, so far, two women who have a point of views, and one of them is just terrible, but the other one is a character who’s actually really proactive and solves other people’s problems and is highly valued. But this woman is basically just coded as super masculine. She gets good traits because she’s not like other girls. She’s masculine, and masculine things are good. Whereas the woman POV character, who is associated with femininity, who is actually attractive, people are constantly—her POV itself was extremely reactive.
She didn’t have any agency. And since then, everybody who looks at her is constantly tearing her down, tearing her apart, and assigning every possible negative feminine stereotype imaginable, and focusing super hard on how attractive she is. And you can tell that that extra focus on a woman, her level of attractiveness, regardless of whether she’s attractive or not, that’s something that’s written for straight men. It’s not a woman who’s written for women. It’s a woman who’s written for the male gaze, because there’s so much focus on whether a guy would like to do her or not, (laughs) and it becomes pretty obvious.
Oren: Yeah, what’s really funny to me about that character is that, when we actually have her point of view, it’s very bland, and she doesn’t really do very much. And then, when we have other people talking about her, they’re like, she’s so manipulative and uses sex as a weapon. And she’s so irrational, is constantly breaking down. And this clearly has authorial intent. At first, I thought maybe this was supposed to be a commentary of what other people think she’s like versus what she is actually like, but I’ve since just come to the conclusion that Robinson just didn’t know how to write the character he was describing, because she’s not a real person. There would be no way to make that character convincing, so he just didn’t, and then we just talked about her from afar when we didn’t actually have to be in her point of view.
Chris: Right. The strange thing is, she’s not like that at all, when we’re actually in her point of view, and it doesn’t even feel like the same person. It’s very strange. But I have also read books, I think Summon the Keeper (by Tanya Huff) is a book that I kind of enjoyed. And my partner at the time read it—and this is one of those “who will she choose” romances—and he was bothered by the fact that the male characters just felt like they were written for a woman’s gaze, a straight woman’s gaze. (laughs)
Chris: And obviously he doesn’t understand that that’s how many women in stories are written that way. But whatever you’re writing, it’s good to be aware. I don’t think Kim Stanley Robinson was consciously thinking, oh yeah, this is a story for men. He just assumed that he could write “male-gaze women,” and that everybody would read that.
Oren: (sarcastically) Yeah. That’s just how women do. Everyone knows this. All right, Ariel. What else you got for us?
Ariel: I’ve been thinking lately about disappearing women.
Oren: So, women with invisibility powers?
Ariel: Basically. (laughs) A couple of the manuscripts that I’ve worked on this year have had scenes where three people enter, and one of them just disappears because they happen to be a different gender. So the two guys will just be talking to each other, and there’s a woman in the room. She came in and said something, and they talked to her a little bit, and then the men continued talking for a while, and then the scene just ended. Where did the woman go?
Oren: Huh. Fascinating.
Ariel: Yeah. And I’ve seen the other way around too. Where did they go? And Chris, were you the one who was telling me about the sexy lamp test?
Chris: Quite possibly. Yeah, probably. So the sexy lamp test is basically where you take out the female character and replace her with a sexy lamp, and see if the plot, the outcome events, actually changes. And if it doesn’t change, then you failed the sexy lamp test.
Oren: You don’t want to fail the sexy lamp test. It’s a very low bar.
Chris: Basically what it is, is a measurement of the agency that the female characters have in the story. ‘Cuz a lot of times, they’re just there. And this was a big issue with the feminine character in Red Mars, where we spent her entire POV, when she’s supposed to be a very social character, and so she focuses on people. But every time there would be a social conflict, she would not do anything. She would not participate. She would not actually steer the argument. And then it would be like, oh, people are doing this and this, but you know what? Nothing could be done about it.
Oren: Nope. Just can’t do anything.
Chris: And we’re supposed to be concerned that there’s different factions forming among these group of colonists. And normally, if you’re a social character and that’s the conflict happening, you would be proactively building relationships with various parties, and getting to know them, and making sure that everybody was on board with what you wanted, and building consensus. There’s proactive things that you can do. But the number of times during our POV, where I was like, well, there’s just nothing to be done about it. (laughs) That is not true. It’s a big agency fail. And a lot of times it is the female characters that are denied the most agency. And so the sexy lamp test is really an agency test where an object, an inanimate object obviously has no agency, does not proactively do anything or steer the story in any way. So if you can replace her with a sexy lamp, you know that you’ve given her no agency.
Oren: A character who was like that from a very well-known story is Arwen from Lord of the Rings, from the books. In the movies, they actually spiced up her role a bit, because, why not? But in the books, she’s barely present. And when she is around, she doesn’t talk until the very end, (incredulously) when she had a line of dialogue in the third book. And I was like, whoa.
Ariel: (laughs) She has a voice?
Oren: I’ve never heard Arwen speak before. The closest that Arwen ever came to influencing the plot was when Gimli and someone else, I think it was Eomer, maybe, got into a fight over which was the hottest elf. And it was either Arwen or Galadriel, and they almost killed each other over this fight, which is hilarious in retrospect, but in the book was pretty silly. And so that’s just a character that comes to mind when you think of the woman who was there, but is she doing anything? If not, why is she there?
Ariel: It also really stands out to me when all of the characters of one gender have traits in common. They are all either mothers or want to be mothers, which could be like, you’re making a statement about the culture of those women, but most of the times it’s just, that’s how you picture women. So my suggestion would be to make a list of all of your characters and then split them up by gender. And also list, what are the traits of those characters? And if you find that the characters of one gender have widely varied traits and the characters or the other gender are all short, and interested in clothing, and they all look alike, it means that you haven’t given as much thought to rounding out the characters of both genders.
Oren: True fact, in the Wheel of Time, every character has the same sex fetish. So now you know that. I’m not going to say which one it is. It’s just a thing.
Chris: It reminds me of—that kind of audit can be super helpful. It reminds me of an anecdote I heard from BioWare, where they’ll talk about how they first made an effort to evenly split their characters by gender. But then, afterwards, they actually did an audit of how many lines each gender had in the story. And they found that 70% of lines still belong to their male characters.
Ariel: I’ve read so many books and seen so many movies where the statistic for that is way worse.
Chris: But the point is that even when you’re trying, again, some of the advantage of just writing them as men and then switching is that it’s not perfect, but it’s a shortcut for getting around some of those unconscious biases you have. But otherwise, those kinds of—look at your characters and look at their properties and compare. And for women, having them all mothers, but just having all of the women being in some kind of nurturing role is a really common thing, you know? One of them’s a mother, the other one is a nurse. The other one is the nanny, or they’re all doing some kind of nurturing stuff in the story.
Oren: (Star Trek) Next Generation is like that, where Crusher is a doctor and Troi is a counselor, and those are both very important jobs that it’s super cool to have on the ship. I mean, regardless of how Troi actually gets treated. In theory, a ship’s therapist is an important job. But it is noticeable that on a fairly large cast, the two women are both in nurturing roles. Right. And Tasha Yar wasn’t, and then she left, and then it was like, well, now this is where we are.
Chris: I will say that Tasha Yar wasn’t a nurturing role, but looking at those early episodes, they made her really flirtatious and sexual. They did not spare her.
Oren: And they were also doing the whole “I don’t know if I can be a woman and a security officer” thing. With all of the subtlety of a hammer to the head. I’m sure they thought they were being like progressive and making a commentary. But really, it just felt like they were telling women who were in traditionally masculine jobs, that they should be insecure about their femininity.
Chris: Right. And this was actually the other issue with (Star Trek) Voyager. Even though they put a woman in the captain’s chair, it really does make a difference how your characters treat the thing that you do in your story. So, it’s like, they visit aliens, and the aliens are like, (mocking voice) “oh, they have a woman in charge. They must be a matriarchy.” If you make a big deal out of it, if you don’t treat it like it’s normal, you’re sending the message that it’s not normal. You’re not actually sending the message that you wanna—stop patting yourself on the back. If you pat yourself on the back, you’re treating it like it’s not normal. You’re setting the bar really low and asking for congratulations just for treating women equal to men, right? It’s not what you want. When you put a positive example in your story, you gotta normalize it and treat it like it’s something to be taken for granted.
Oren: Yeah. 99% of the time, that’s the way you want to go. There are always exceptions, but they’re pretty rare. One other thing that I think is important to realize is that when very often, when I critique a story for having some kind of a sexist role, usually in the case of a woman or other underprivileged person being displayed with stereotypically negative traits—the nagging wife is a very common one—someone somewhere will be like, oh, but that’s supposed to be commentary on how the patriarchy is forcing her into that role, or whatever the axis of oppression happens to be. And I’m like, okay. The author is dead, but let’s assume for a minute that that was the goal, and that’s what the author was trying to accomplish.
If you are an author trying to accomplish this thing, you will almost never get across a message that you are criticizing a power structure by having, by having the story attack an individual. I see this a lot in Victorian steampunk, where you’ll have the overbearing mother who just wants to smother her child and make her give up her dreams and have her get married. And some people will be like, oh, well that’s because of the times, the mother had to get the daughter married to ensure a financial future. And it’s like, yeah, but that’s not really what the story looks like. The story just looks like it’s telling us this person is bad in a very stereotypically feminine way. And you’re just not going to get across that social commentary just by hating on this one character. You need to be broader than that.
Chris: It’s not showing how this character is a part of a system that forced her to do that.
Oren: Especially because people aren’t all on the same wavelength as you, when it comes to the system, right? If you assume that, oh, well obviously they’ll realize it’s because of the system. It’s like, no, we tend to assume an individual’s responsible for their actions unless given a very clear reason to think otherwise. We’re actually pretty much out of time, now that I look at that real quick, Ariel, again, this was your topic, so if you have any others, I’d really love to hear about them.
Ariel: No. I’m good.
Oren: No, you’re good? Okay. Good. All right. Well then, we will end the topic on that note. For those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at Mythcreants.com. And before we go, I’m going to thank our two sponsors, Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek, and Ayman Jaber.
Otherwise, we will talk to you next week. If you like what we do, send a few dollars our way through our Patreon. Every cent goes into the hoard of gold we lounge on like dragons. Just go to patreon.com/mythcreants. [Outro Music]
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