Home > Characters > The Small Issue of Gender

The Small Issue of Gender

January 29th, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments
  • Tweet
  • Sharebar
  • Tweet

We’ve touched on it before, but it’s time to tackle gender in genre fiction. And we’d like you to join in the discussion. Got an opinion? Come on in and lay down your comments.

Since we’re in character month, I’m going to use this post to elaborate on a point I made in my previous post about character – one I didn’t explain very well – and explore the issues surrounding it, that of gender. 

Flame shield up. 

I rather offhandedly stated gender shouldn’t matter. Which of course, is incorrect. It is a troubling issue, considering the media I’ve been submersed in lately. I’m not going to start a diatribe about videogames, and their apparent inability to contain female characters that aren’t there as plot devices or sexual objects, but it has got me thinking about female characters. 

All Subjected to the Genre

What makes it more problematic, for me at least, is that I primarily write sci-fi. Having just recently started reading book 4 of Justina Robson’s Quantum Gravity series (go read it, it’s very good), I became even more focused on it. Robson has commented on her blog (http://justinarobson.blogspot.co.uk) that sci-fi is kind of a tough genre for female characters, due mainly to the tropes of the genre. This of course stems back to the 50s, where attitudes were… different, and sci-fi was kind of a boy’s club. 

Going Under, by Justina Robson

Sci-fi book covers are a source of contention too. Justina Robson’s aren’t too bad. But the quote might be considered unfortunate in this context – is it okay to be a female writer and not have “sexy writing”?

Female characters tend to fulfil a secondary role, plot devices, or are subject to sexual objectification. It’s a situation I feel sci-fi hasn’t entirely gotten over. Looking over my own writing, I (shamefully) found I haven’t been immune to this. 

Strong Female Characters

So how do I go about remedying this? Looking back at my previous comment (about how gender shouldn’t matter) what I was trying to get at was you should look at a character as a person first, and a gender second. This can apply to any ‘minority’ (not that I’m saying women are a minority, because objectively, they aren’t, there are more of them), based on colour, creed, sexual orientation… Because we are – as a society – kinda lazy, and fall back on the tropes and clichés that may be prevalent with descriptions such as ‘black’, ‘Jewish’ or ‘gay’. 

Sometimes these tropes can be helpful, in broad strokes, but you have to go deeper to develop more complexity in characters. Especially in a sci-fi arena, where these tropes are very often manifest. 

Personal Experience

As I said above, I looked at a lot of my own work, and specifically the female characters, and the roles they play. I don’t know if it is just me, being male, but I find it difficult to write a female character who may have sexual desires without her being merely a sexual object. 

Looking at my most recent project, I created a female character who was in the introduction. Originally, she was just going to be the person who found my central protagonist, and then the story would go on without her. 

Thing is, as soon as she was there, I found myself interested in her. As much as she was originally an extra, there was just something about her that clicked. Now I’m not going to say the character came to life and did her own thing, clinging on desperately to a role in the story, but I must have written something in the first draft stage that really brought her to life. 

So I thought about her back story, And in doing so found a very specific niche for her. And as it happens, this was very useful later on, because it allowed me to switch a separate subplot to her instead of the protagonist, which would have been contrived. 

Riply Leia and Buffy

Let’s bring these examples of strong female characterisation out again, shall we? It speaks volumes that the same examples come out again and again. Are there really so few strong females in popular fiction? Or am I just unimaginative or lazy? Are these even good examples?

Bechdel Test*

The other thing – and I didn’t intend this when I wrote it, someone who I showed it to pointed it out – was she had chemistry with my protagonist. This was good. The bad thing was it left me with the quandry of whether she desired him. And this, I guess, is where I come to my long, convoluted point.

How can I write this character as having a desire for my protagonist without her appearing weak and clichéd? I don’t want this to appear like my protagonist shows up, and she turns into a stereotype who swoons over him, and therefore becomes defined – as a character – in relation to my central male role. She makes some severe actions later on which will have long-term repercussions to the overall plot, but I am concerned it may appear sexist. 

These concerns may all be in my head of course, because I am hyper aware of these issues within the genre. And actually, it may be kinda helpful, because it means I am very focussed on not creating clichéd female characters. Just clichéd male ones. 

Is it just me though? I wonder if other writers have such concerns, and whether female authors feel the same way about their male (and indeed female) characters. 

So over to you readers. Do you have these concerns? How do you get around the issues regarding creating well rounded characters who don’t slip into cliché? As ever feed the comment monster below…

* Info on the Bechdel Test here.

  • http://getmewriting.com Matt Roberts

    On the subject of sexist book covers, Jim Chines has a great blog where he copies the poses of sci-fi and fantasy book covers to show how unrealistic they are. Such fun!


    Heard about it on Mur Lafferty’s I Should Be Writing Blog

    • Craig

      It aint just book covers. In the post-Avengers comedown last year, I saw a rather humorous example that someone had created of the Avengers poster, the ‘what if?’ being ‘What if all the male characters were posed like women?’ which is true, if you look at the official poster, Scarlett is posed in a purely sexualised way (in the mock up by the way, all the characters had their chests thrust out and were twisted round so you could see their pertly drawn behinds.)

      • http://getmewriting.com Matt Roberts

        Heh, here it is…