I’ve been meaning to do a post on how I approach gender in my writing for a while now, especially since I made efforts to tackle the subject (albeit indirectly) in a recently completed story (and, for those of you playing along in the future, that story is There Is A Light That Never Goes Out). I originally drafted this post in the wake of International Women’s Day, but sat on it for a while because it ended up being a bit of a monster. I’ve now decided to publish it in two parts, of which this is the first. Clearly.
Before we go on, please note that this is in no way meant to represent a definitive view on how to approach gender in creating writing: it’s simply how I approach gender in my writing at this particular point in time. Neither is it about stories that deal with the topic of gender: it’s just about making sure that more than one gender is represented.
Diversity in general … or not
As a male writer (also: white; heterosexual; married; middle class, more or less) I’m aware that I bring a relatively mainstream, heavily privileged point of view to my writing. I don’t necessarily view this as an obstacle—I want to tell good stories, not change the world—but neither do I want to tell stories that are only about straight, white men (because we get enough of those every day).
That said, for the time being I’ve mostly sidestepped tackling race or sexuality. That’s not to say I won’t ever deal with those issues, but for now they are not core to the stories I want to tell. For the moment I’m not convinced I’d have anything valuable to add to existing discourse by writing explicitly from a non-white or non-straight viewpoint: it’s simply not my experience, and I don’t feel I have a right to try and present or define that experience within my own stories.
Many of my stories involve families (often single-parent families) and/or feature characters who are—I freely admit– usually written as straight. In my defense I’ll offer that they are rarely defined by their sexuality (or often don’t have their sexuality defined within the story).
By the same token, while most of my characters are inevitably written as white, I typically avoid defining them as white. To this end I naively hope my readers are free to see my characters in whatever way suits them.
I do realise this is a utter cop-out: it’s important to keep fighting for equal representation across all walks of life, and this has to be represented in our fiction as well. As it happens one of my yet-to-be-written stories does touch upon race. However, up to this point I’ve simply been concentrating on writing stories that are actually readable. Making them worth reading is the next step!
However, gender is (fortunately) not so easy to sidestep. Not unless I want to have my stories populated exclusively by [straight, white] male characters. Which I don’t. I really, really don’t.
This is where you really want to dive into part two of this article, which outlines the steps I’ve taken to avoid the above scenario, with specific examples.
If you want the tl:dr version, here it is:
- at first I didn’t even realise I wasn’t including female characters in my stories
- then my wife helped educate me
- along the way some of my stories have had female leads simply because it was the best narrative choice
- but some of them have had mostly make characters because that, too, was the best narrative choice
- while writing There Is A Light That Never Goes Out I had something of an epiphany relating to the agency of the female characters in that story – that, in part, is what inspired this post
For the full monty you’ll have to read part two.
So, I’ve talked a fair bit about what I’ve done up until now, but what am I going to do with my next story, and the ones after that? Well, it’s kind of easy. I carry on doing the same thing that will (I hope) continue to make me a better writer: I take the lessons that I learn and apply them to my current and future writing.
Some of my stories will continue to be told from a male perspective; some of them will be told from a female character’s perspective. One recent change in my approach is that, while plotting new stories, I make a conscious effort to think about the gender of my supporting characters as well as the leading ones. In one recently drafted story (Needle, for you future-people ) all the characters started out male; I flipped two of them to make them female and it worked fine. I didn’t change any of the plot details, I didn’t try to make the characters any different; they’re just people who happen to be female just as some of the other characters happen to be male.
That said, following my experience with There Is A Light That Never Goes Out, I will be forever conscious in future of which characters are actually driving the plot. If the only characters moving things forward are male then I’ll know that there’s potentially a problem (not always, though: some stories may only feature a single, male character).
I find the topic of gender in writing, particularly in relation to story mechanics, fascinating. It’s very easy to slip into standard tropes (and, to be fair, these sometimes provide a useful shortcut for your audience) but avoiding those tropes will often make your writing richer and more rewarding for the reader. As the writer it’s your call whether you want to tell the story efficiently or differently. If you’re really good you can do both.
My first priority will always be to the story. If the story isn’t well told then it’s not worth reading and nothing you put in that story matters; you can have the greatest message in the world inside that story, and people still won’t want to read it.
I’m profoundly aware that writing—that words and stories— matter. The stories that I’ve read in the past and that I read now not only make me think, but have the capacity to change the way I think about things.
It’s a huge responsibility as a writer: if you have the capability to make people think about things; why not make them think differently about things?
One day I hope to be worthy of that responsibility.