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Gender Swapping

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I have made a few changes to my work in progress recently. Mostly, I’ve been working through some background (hence the recent flurry of posts about backstory). But I’ve also reinvented one of my characters. Read on to discover why I changed their gender.

Admitting My Mistake

So, I was listening to one of Mur Lafferty’s podcasts. They’re great, and I highly recommend you subscribe to the Murverse feed so that you get most of them. This was episode 237 of I Should Be Writing (I’m about a month behind on my podcasts, but I fool myself that I’m catching up). She was talking with Dan Wells about choosing a gender for your characters, and I realised that, yes, all the characters in my current WIP are male.

Actually, ‘realised’ is entirely the wrong word. I had known all along of course, but this episode was the catalyst that made me say, “well, I’m fixing a bunch of problems with my story, I might as well fix that one too.” I knew which character it would be easiest to change, but it took a little thought to realise why this was so overwhelmingly the right decision.

Some Musings About Choosing A Character’s Gender

I should say that the very idea of looking for a female character, or a space where a female character could go in my story, or even the idea of deciding whether a character should be male or female feels somewhat artificial. The ultimate aim of course would be to have no gender bias in my writing, and for there to naturally be a fair representation of every gender, race, disability etc. etc. without having to think about it.

That would require me to have no biases in my personality (which I suppose I must have) and for there to be none in society. I guess you just have to work with the hand you’re dealt in that respect, but in lieu of those things, deliberately considering the gender of a character feels like a patch job to cover up my own inadequacies. So be it, I guess.

Riply Leia and Buffy

Trotting out the good old examples - here are some strong female characters you may be familiar with.

The other aspect I wanted to talk about is the purpose of the gender of a character within a story. I place myself firmly in the same camp as mighty Mur Lafferty in this respect – too many stories have a female character because it suits the plot. A love interest is required: insert female character! Someone weak needs rescuing: insert female character!

Homosexual characters get added as plot devices too. In fact, anyone who might be considered ‘unusual’ (disastrously wrong word to use, partly because ‘unusual’ in fiction does not mean the same as ‘unusual’ in real life, and isn’t that a big part of the problem?) gets added in this way.

But that’s wrong! Female characters should exist in stories because women exist! The same with everyone else.

Now you might say that adding a female character because you don’t have any is just as contrived. Well, yes it is. See above. But I believe this is the lesser of the two evils, and the big difference is that adding a woman just for plot reasons will always seem contrived. Adding a female character because you ain’t got none will not look contrived if you have created an interesting character.

Relevant Sidetrack

During a rewrite of my previous story (now languishing in its third round of editing), I realised I need to add backstory to my protagonist and flesh him out a bit. As I had always promised myself I would include gay characters in my stories (and not just for plot reasons), I decided to make him homosexual.

Then came doubt. Because as I rewrote, the fact that he was gay became more integrated into the story than I had intended. It no longer seemed incidental.

But how could that not be? After all, your sexuality has an affect on how you view the world and how other people view you – it’s a major part of your identity. Had I achieved what I’d set out to do, or had I become a terrible hypocrite?

Then came acceptance, because after much thought I realised I’d done better than I’d envisioned. Yes, my main character being a homosexual has fitted in remarkably well with some of the themes in the story. But, his homosexuality does not drive the story. If he was not gay, the events would still take place.

So there is a fuzzy line, and there is a balance to be struck. In the end, you want these aspects of the character to have an affect on them – they need to feel real. That’s why characters written as men, but just given breasts don’t convince. They do not feel as if they’ve grown up in a society that views women in a certain way, or have had the experiences a woman would have. It’s also nice if their life experiences support the themes of the piece.

But the plot should not rely on the fact that they are a woman or homosexual or whatever, unless you’re specifically trying to make a point about how these groups are treated.

Anyway, Back To My Current WIP

The reason making this character female was so much better for my current story, is because it was much more interesting that way. This is another thing that came up in Mur Lafferty’s interview with Dan Wells.

The scene in question is a clandestine meet up between two people in space. Because this is hard-ish sci-fi, travelling through space is a dangerous and lengthy business. Consequently, when the protagonist met his old (male) friend in the original draft there was already some tension. Ships and supplies are precious and in desperate times you never know when someone might turn on you to steal either, leaving you for dead.

Starbuck old and new

The Battlestar Galactica reboot featured a very successful gender swap in Starbuck

One gender swap later and this tension takes on a different tone. A woman alone, help a week away in any direction, meeting a man (albeit an old acquaintance) who – did I mention? – has been in prison for five years.

I have reasoned that when people spend months at a time without any physical contact from other humans, mostly communicating through intercoms or not at all, when they do meet in the flesh, sex is often the result. I have also reasoned that some people, given the vulnerability of the situation, would not take no for an answer.

She is aware of this, or there’d be little tension. So, how gutsy is she? How strong willed and uncompromising? What does it take to ensure that she is in control of a situation like that, and does not end up a victim?

So by making the character a woman, and by thinking about it, making it matter but not the be-all and end-all of that scene, the character and the situation are suddenly one hundred times more interesting. That is a satisfying conclusion. Provided I can pull all of that off.

So, this will be the part where I turn it over to you fine folk. What do you think about the predominance of the white straight male in fiction? Have you noticed it in your own work? Ever made a gender-swap or something else because of it? Would you now? No, don’t talk at the screen! The comments section is down there – type!

Categories: Editing Tags: , ,
  • Craig

    This is an interesting topic, and one that I myself (as I’m sure you’re aware) have struggled with a great deal in my writing.  Yes, I’ve made some gender swaps.  Sometimes just for the hell of it (the adding of female characters because there aren’t (m)any), and sometimes more thought out.

    I’ll admit, sometimes it doesn’t feel right, and other times it feels so unbelievably correct that I am dumbfounded that it wasn’t always that way.

    In terms of fitting gender and sexuality into fiction and trying to make it seem natural (and the botching of that) I think the best medium to study is video games.  Because its a kinda hot topic nowadays.

    Video games do not handle this very well.  At all.  Most notirious in recent memory would be Mass Effect 3.  BioWare, of course.  Yes, its all well and good them portraying homosexual characters in games, but they do it (in most cases) badly.  The characters become defined by their sexual orientation.  They are nothing but cliches.  And it really really stands out.  It feels forced and out of place and takes you out of the world, which is the last thing a writer should be aiming for, right?

    One thing that I do think they do well though (to a certain extent) is their portrayal of Gender.  Yes, most of the female characters in Mass Effect have fan servicy costumes and are overtly sexualised, but I think a very good example is Commander Shepard.  Obviously, the character the player choses is one they can design themselves, but the point is that the gender of the character doesn’t matter.  Yes, it is an ultimate case of gender swap; the game will play out exactly the same whether its a male or female character, but I think it works in context.  It is a military environment and FemShep doesn’t have to face any adversity because she’s a woman.  She isn’t sexualised, is the point, and as you say, a lot of the time, when women are included in fiction, they can be represented purely as sexual objects.

    I guess in a way, if you want to portray a female character well, you have to desexualise her (to an extent).  And it can be the same case with homosexuals.  You take away the sexual aspect of their identity and write them as a person first (and not make it a huge f***ing deal that they’re a woman/gay) then the problem can very swiftly go away.