In the first part of The Joy Of Gender I discussed some general principles I’ve adopted when determining the gender of characters in my stories. In this follow-up I offer some specific examples along with, hopefully, an overview of how my approach has matured over the recent years
Graves and other pitfalls
It’s not surprising—assuming you’ve read part one of this post— that my first two stories, Colder Still and Graves, published in 2009, had an almost entirely male cast. The subject and setting of Colder Still made this more or less inevitable, but when my wife proofread Graves for me she asked why there were no female characters (or, at least, none of significance). At the time I genuinely hadn’t thought about it; I certainly hadn’t gone in with a conscious goal to make the characters male, but neither had there been any effort to make them otherwise.
In hindsight I’ve noted a generally subconscious theme within my writing that the women characters should be somehow more wholesome than the men (no doubt this is some latent patriarchy at work, telling me that the women need protecting; that even fictional women need to be protected from my harsh characterisation). More overtly, this has been more of a defensive posture than anything: I didn’t want people to read my stories and think “Oh my, he’s written some awful women here. He clearly hates women!”.
As a writer you expose yourself every time someone reads your work; for that reason you’ll instinctively limit the scope of that exposure until your confidence increases. In those early days I wasn’t hugely confident in my writing, so I didn’t want to risk giving people a shopping list of things to complain about.Nevertheless, I went through
Nevertheless, I went through Graves again because I was absolutely not satisfied with leaving this obvious absence in my story. There was no real scope to add an entirely new character and, at the time, I struggled to find any characters that could be made female without changing the story (this is, of course, a nonsense: almost any character could be made female without breaking the story). To my mind, back then, the story was very much a ‘male’ story: it was fuelled by vengeance and violence, and I was reluctant to visit that upon my female characters.
In the end, I did find a character whose gender I was able to switch (Gail, the police deputy, for those of who have read Graves), and it worked just fine. This character has survived through to the novel version that I’m working on (currently called Where We Belong), and I’m glad to say her role has expanded a fair bit in the process.
Bunnies and other leaps
My next story went in the complete opposite direction and was told from the viewpoint of a young girl. I can’t remember why I went in that direction; I don’t think it was ever intended to be from any other pov, but it’s something that has recurred since. (In fact, the main character in Bunnies has turned up in one other story to date – The Christmas Guest – and is lined up for a third outing).
I’ve since taken a similar approach to two other stories, One and Drones (not yet released). For those last two stories I’ll admit there’s almost certainly some influence from The Hunger Games at play, since both stories are dystopian in nature. For One, given the nature of the story, it was virtually essential that the character be female. For Drones, the main character actually started out as a young boy, but very early in the planning process I felt driven to write her as female instead. Again, I’m probably bringing some tropes related to family and maternal protection to the party here, but I would have had a harder time convincing myself of the character if they had been male; and if I can’t convince myself about a character, then there’s little hope of the reader being convinced. (Related: if anyone reading this wants to check out Drones, just drop me a line).
There’s actually no reason that the character couldn’t have been male, but I find myself w
ondering if The Hunger Games would have played out as compellingly if Katniss had been male? To my mind a female character in that sort of scenario simply gives you a bigger bite of the cherry. Right or wrong (and it’s wrong, of course) you have harder work ahead of you if you want to write a male character who’s at once strong, compassionate and vulnerable. Great characters are born through contradictions (just as drama comes from disruption) and in some scenarios a female character gives you access to a far wider toolset than a male character might. Sure, it’s lazy: you can absolutely write male characters that are strong and weak, tough and sensitive; confident and riddled with doubts (I’d like to think that the main character in Graves prototypically fits that bill); but sometimes you want to be able to tell a story (especially a short story) without making the reader plough through pages of text just so you can justify why your character is the way they are.
Or, maybe, sometimes, you just want to have a female character driving the story.
There Is A Light that wears the pants
One of my recently completed stories, There Is A Light That Never Goes Out, took me over two years to finish (and I am, in fact, giving another draft at the moment). Over that time I went back and forth on how the characters should be presented, but I’d always gone into it with the view that I wanted a male protagonist paired with a strong female protagonist.
In my early drafts I addressed this by giving the female character most of the ‘witty’ lines (she was partially modelled on a Joan Cusack archetype) while the ‘boring’ hero got on with the hero stuff. As you’d expect it was pretty dire. To really hammer it home my wife didn’t even like the female character, which left me with a dull male hero and a female character which at least some readers would probably want to see the back of. After this I gave myself a few days to think about what direction I wanted the story to go in, and how I wanted the characters to develop throughout.Then it struck me what the real problem was: the female characters were all entirely passive.
Then it struck me what the real problem was: the female characters were all entirely passive.
Although I’d set up several scenes where the female characters helped to decide the next course of action, I realised that none of them truly, actively progressed the plot. In the meantime, the story had slowly turned—in part, at least—into a vague commentary about heroics, particularly the role and definition of the ‘hero’, while doing absolutely nothing at all to demonstrate that it was aware of that internal commentary.
I already had an even balance of male and female characters and I was fairly satisfied with who those characters were (or who they were meant to be). The only thing to fix was what those characters did.
It turned out to be pretty easy:I took all the scenes where the hero did something that actively shifted the direction of the story, and gave a whole bunch of them to one or other of the female characters. It was a huge education for me as a writer – not just the act of changing the story, but being able to understand the mistake I’d made. The end result was a story that was much more satisfying to me, actually made a lot more sense, and ended up being fundamentally altered from the original concept (I can’t say any more because: spoilers!).
In summary …
I now feel that I have a basic toolset to use when developing stories which gives me enough insight and freedom to tackle the following challenges:
- making sure that both female and male characters are driving the plot;
- not worrying about having a male lead, or an entirely male cast, if it’s the right thing for the story;
- making some characters female because there’s no reason for them not to be, not because they have to be defined as female
As I said in the first part of this blog post, I’m not looking to change the world (yet) but I can certainly change the way I write about it.