1. ThievingSix
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    ThievingSix Member

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    Developing a character without a gender

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by ThievingSix, Mar 10, 2012.

    Recently I have been trying to write a story in which the gender of the characters remain neutral until a climax in the story.

    I have tried to infuse history with fictional characters but i always find myself coming unstuck when describing character actions without using gender specific pronouns. The main reason i wanted to do this is to avoid preconceptions the reader might have about certain genders.

    This got me thinking about how one would go about writing a story about a transgender or biological hermaphrodite. Obviously with transgender you could take either the gender they want to be or their original gender and use it as a technique to allude towards certain things, but with a hermaphrodite i think this would be harder.

    When trying to find alternatives to gender specific pronouns i found myself always referring to their profession or title. I really want to avoid doing that because both those things add another whole bunch of preconceptions, i.e. plumber - large male, dirty clothing etc. I know its impossible to write without having some kind of preconceived ideas, but i guess i want to design my own character that the reader can connect with, before discovering what they really are, removing the factor of appealing to male or female audiences only.

    So i guess my question would be How do i write without being gender specific?/ How do i develop a character without revealing a gender?
     
  2. killbill
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    killbill Contributing Member

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    I think it is a wrong notion that the gender of your mc will decide the appeal factor to male or female audiences only. I don't think letting the readers know the gender of your characters will trap your characters in preconceived ideas, unlike in the case of, as you rightly pointed out, describing a char as a plumber and nothing else. As a reader I am frustrated when I don' know the gender of the characters up front: I am imagining the char to be male, three page later turns out the character is female. Unless the writer has a good reason for doing so I am most likely to put the book down. It's good that you want the readers to connect with your characters, but I can tell you that concealing the gender is not the way to do it. Bring out the uniqueness of your characters through other means. Give him/her personal traits, put them in difficult situations and let them make decisions, let them be great warriors who cries...
     
  3. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    It's an interesting idea, but you know that readers look to stereotype everything into patterns, we humans are like that, that's how we function in the world. The only way I can see out of it is to use the androgynous first names (Cam, Sam, Nick etc) but I am not sure how well it would read because pronouns are there for a reason and if every sentence has "Cam this, Cam that" it would be a very clunky read.
    I think, when you are writing, something like gender to be a punchline is a bit, I don't know... Gender is a gender, and if it's a hermaphrodite, they'll refer to themselves as he, she or it, you need to decide in the beginning and go with it. Bu.t that will bring a host of other stereotypes with it.
    What I am trying to say is, I don't think you can avoid readers having preconceptions, prejudices and expectations, no matter what you do
     
  4. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    Honestly, if your goal is to avoid sexism and gender stereotypes, writing a gender-ambiguous character doesn't exactly help the cause. To me, it's like saying that women who are career-driven, direct and not interested in the white picket fence life are "like men" - the phrasing implies that in order to be a true woman, you MUST fit some traditional pigeonhole as prescribed by the 1950s. If you want your character to be free of the restraints of sexist people's perceptions, then write them without those perceptions applying to their character. Feeling the need to be gender-unknown to avoid stereotypes is like saying there's no way to break free of them, but there is. You can.
     
  5. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    I did it with a male couple for a piece of flash fiction. Chris was having a conversation with his father about Sam his partner who he thought was having an affair, but I didn't want the readers to know whether the couple was gay, lesbian, transgendered etc I just developed the people, I knew they were two men but I didn't reveal it until the last line.

    In the UK/US people who are intersexed have an assigned, legal gender. Hermaphrodites are relatively rare but a person with some kind of physical, chromosomal or hormonal sexual ambiguity affects around one in every 1,500 births.
     
  6. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    It's not really a new concept. We even had another thread about it a couple months ago. Saturday Night Live had an androgynous character a few years ago - "It's Pat."

    The Star Trek franchise has had many androgynous races over the years. Ironically, they are always played by women.

    It's difficult to write in English. The gender neutral pronouns are not always appropriate to use with people. "They" is perfectly acceptable in a plural context, but "it" is considered inappropriate to use for people. So you are working under a handicap. You can mislead by using the gender assumed by a particular observer, and let it change from one POV to another. You can coin your own genderless pronoun and make it part of the language/culture in the story, but that makes the reader acutely aware of the genderless quality of the character, which may not be what you want. It also doesn't work unless gender neutrality is a significant element in the society you are writing.

    It sounds like gender remains important in the culture you are writing. You are choosing not to reveal the genders as a literary device, but the characters do have gender identities.
     
  7. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    i don't see how you could possibly write a story that way... how would you refer to the characters?... i can't see it being reader-friendly... why don't you give us a sample paragraph, so we can see how you handle it?
     
  8. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    Pat was hilarious. :)

    While it's been done successfully, though, I think Pat was more for the sake of comedy, while the OP is referring to making a character gender-ambiguous to avoid sexist stereotyping by readers. I think a better way to combat that is to write a non-stereotypical character.
     
  9. ThievingSix
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    ThievingSix Member

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    Thanks for all the advice, i agree its quite difficult, and I'm not nearly skilled enough to pull something good off.

    The suggestion of changing POV was interesting and I'd have to admit I didn't really think about it. It also makes sense that characters should have gender identity and I can see now that I was approaching it from a bad angle. I agree its much better to give them an identity but allow them to exist outside the stereotypical.
     
  10. marcuslam
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    marcuslam Senior Member

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    If I read a novel that refuses to tell me the protagonist's gender, I might think I have missed it. Then, when I go back and still fail to find it, I might get frustrated. That would be something to consider.

    Also, for example, say if a female character appears, I might go, "I wonder if she'll get into a relationship with the protagonist? Wait, is the protagonist a guy or a girl?" These factors might distract readers from the experience. It is an interesting experiment, though.

    Is this a short story or a novel? The longer the story, the more challenging this would be.
     
  11. Jeeves
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    Jeeves Member

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    I'm with Marcuslam on this. If I am reading a story, I immediately begin to form a mental image of the character. It isn't something I do consciously but I do it every time. If the author gives all of the physical attributes of the character fairly early on, it's no problem. But after enough of the story has passed and then you spring something on me, even as much as mentioning her long blonde tresses, it can be a little unsettling and can disrupt my immersion in the story.
     
  12. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    In my case it was a deliberate choice to make it unsettling. It was to highlight those that actually are neither male nor female and show that whether or not the people in relationship are male/female or other it doesn't matter, feelings and emotions are the same. It was to ask the reader to challenge their preconceptions. I can't post that particular story as I wrote for a conference/group and as far as I am concerned it is theirs to do with as they will. Might look at writing another similar one.
     
  13. Afion
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    Afion Senior Member

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    You could set it in a futuristic world, where the MC dosen't know his/her gender. You could make it a journey of self-discovery in first POV. :)
     
  14. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    True and that way you can use the alternative gender terms like xe etc
     
  15. Luna13
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    Luna13 Active Member

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    If someone is actually interested in a story, then the gender won't matter to them. I mean, Harry Potter would still be the same great Harry Potter if it were about a girl named Harriet Potter, wouldn't it?
    I guess what I'm trying to say is the only reason someone would read a book based on the gender of the protagonist is if the book didn't look that good. I'm a girl, and I might be more likely to get a book about a girl than a boy, but I am always more likely to read Harry Potter than, say, Pretty Little Liars.
    If the gender issue gets in the way of the story, leave it out. Your readers will thank you for it.
     
  16. ShortBus
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    ShortBus Member

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    I think what ThievingSix is worried about is simply how to use he or she or him or her in the sentence without saying those words. Calling it an it would just look weird and offputting. I would suggest to always call "it" by its name. That might get a little annoying after awhile but I don't really see any other way around it.

    Depending on the story though, people can call it what ever gender they think it is. One character can call it a she and another a he but, either will really know any better. This way you can use your pronouns and it won't interfere with how you are going to end the story.
     
  17. Ettina
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    Ettina Active Member

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    Easiest way to refer to a character in gender-neutral terms would be to write in 1st person from that character's perspective. The 'all conceiling I', I believe it's called.

    In one story I have with an intersexed character, I had other characters assign a gender to this character, but disagree among each other about which one it was. So character A was 'she' if I was writing from character B's perspective and 'he' from character C's perspective, and so forth. I was inspired to do this when my father and I both perceived a gender-ambiguous character (the person who asks about Martian gender in Mars Attacks) as opposite genders - I thought the character was male and he thought the character was female.
     
  18. CrimsonReaper
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    CrimsonReaper Active Member

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    Ha! I just started writng a scifi novel with an alien that is a functional hermaphrodite as the MC. I deliberately went with the "all concealing I" (and frankly the story works better from first person anyway), though he and she still pop up because the alien knows that OTHER SPECIES have distinct biological sexes that are important to their individual perceptions of the universe. The character is a bounty hunter (the old-fashioned "dead or alive" kind, not a bail bondsman) and has dealt with plenty of different species. The only pronoun in the character's native language translates to "they" in the text and is contextual. Of course in the alien culture it would be rude to refer to anyone other than their preferred name anyway. This is lampshaded at one point when the character wonders when they started thinking in such alien concepts.

    Also remember that other factors will impact how the viewpoint character sees the world and thus how you write their chapters:

    Culture for one. The word "it" is NEVER used to describe an intelligent being as the alien's culture considers there to be very clear lines between the unthinking (most animals/machines) and thinking creatures. This pops up when an inexperienced human, not sure what to call the alien and another of the same species, falls back on "it" and nearly gets her neck snapped in retaliation. The other alien, not as experienced with humans and the like as the MC, had naturally thought the word was meant as a grave insult.
     

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