1. T.Trian
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    T.Trian Overly Pompous Bastard Staff Supporter Contributor

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    How Much Do You Need to Know to Relate to a Character?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by T.Trian, Apr 10, 2015.

    I was thinking of not revealing my MC's gender/sex in a short I'm working on. It's in 1st person, so I'm contemplating keeping even the character's name from the reader, but that's not such a big deal because it's a unisex name.
    The character is completely alone through the entire short (or, rather, doesn't encounter other sentient beings), so I don't have to worry about social situations, and the MC's looks and outfit are very androgynous too, so even stuff like mirrors etc. aren't a problem in keeping the sex a secret without any extra effort.

    So, can you relate to a character you don't know much about? Is it necessary to e.g. know the character's sex?
    I've been told by some people that they have a hard time relating to characters of the opposite sex whereas a couple were downright annoyed by the notion of not knowing the MC's sex.

    Personally, I've never had any trouble relating to a character of the opposite sex. Even when I was something like 7-8yo, one of my all-time favorite playable video game characters was kinda like this: I didn't know her sex or even that she was human. It was only revealed in the very end but only if you beat the game fast enough. All I knew was that it was a kickass character, and that didn't change when I finally did find out she was human and female.

    Now, video games are a different medium, and I don't think I've ever read a book where I didn't know the MC's sex, so I'm wondering if it's generally considered "necessary information" for a good story? I mean, especially considering some of the people who have opposed the idea, but I kinda like the premise of focusing fully on the character's actions, showing who the character is solely through behavior, choices, opinions etc. instead of what the character is/what's in the pants.

    Anyhoo, what say you?
     
  2. A.M.P.
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    A.M.P. People Buy My Books for the Bio Photo Supporter Contributor

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    New avatar, new title :3
    Just noticed.

    I personally think it's strange to keep it out for no reason.
    I've read many blogs/interviews from editors where they reject MS because the author failed to answer the first few basic questions most readers have as they begin to read.
    Typically setting and character identity.

    However, I think if it's well written and intriguing, you'd easily forget or simply substitute your own.
    It can work, I'm sure someone else did it brilliantly before too.
    I've read books where I got the characters gender wrong and it didn't bother me the least when I realized my error.
     
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  3. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I think it can work, especially in a short.

    I remember decades ago reading Robert A. Heinlein's Time Enough for Love. In it, there was an episode where two characters in identity-disguising suits (hazmat suits, if I recall) complete a difficult task together, and when they're done, one proposes to the other that they have sex to celebrate the success of their work. Character B says, "Excuse me, but are you male or female?" Character A says, "Does it matter?" Character B says, "I guess not." And away they go to have sex.

    I was a teen when I read that and it seemed like a bit of a revelation. If I recall, Heinlein didn't reveal the sex of the characters until after the task was done, and it didn't bother me then. I don't think it would bother me now.

    If it was a novel-length story, it would probably irritate me after a while, but if it's a short, I can easily see it working. Go for it! :)
     
  4. T.Trian
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    T.Trian Overly Pompous Bastard Staff Supporter Contributor

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    @A.M.P., new avatar, yeah, but I've had this title... probably since I joined the forum. o_O

    Anyway, yeah, it's not a long short (duh :D), and @KaTrian and I are planning to take the same universe (including the same character) for a new full-length novel, and that's where I'd be upfront about the character's identity, so keeping the sex secret would be just for the short.

    I know it can come off like a gimmick, so I guess I just gotta write it and see how it turns out. The inspiration for this setting came from observing several discussions about action-y characters and how the way they are represented in fiction/how people perceive them, is affected by their sex. I figured it would be an interesting experience to see how readers would react to an action-y character when they didn't know the MC's sex. My plan is to keep the focus heavily on the action/what's going on around the character (which is plenty and all in an environment that's totally alien to the MC).

    The other reason behind the setting was me getting a bit sick about the different ways people have criticized characters of different sexes doing the same things, like calling it cliché when it's a male character or unrealistic/gimmicky when it's a female character etc. (not so much with our WIP, but more so when reading reviews of other stories), so I thought, fuck it, I'll just leave out that little tidbit and focus only on what the character does, the action, values, attitude, environment etc. and flesh out the character that way. Basically, for the purpose of this short, I'm trying to eliminate the reader's natural tendency to observe the character through a gendered lens.

    Maybe it'll be a disaster, that's always a possibility with my skills, but at least it'll be a fun disaster. :D And, of course, it's always fun trying to trick the reader. :twisted:
     
  5. A.M.P.
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    A.M.P. People Buy My Books for the Bio Photo Supporter Contributor

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    @T.Trian
    Really? Swear it wasn't that...

    If Sia can make a social experiment by hiding her face then why can't you experiment with a genderless MC?
     
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  6. TheWingedFox
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    TheWingedFox Active Member

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    It's intriguing if it makes a point,but if it's superfluous to the actual plot,might it confuse? After all,you don't want your reader,after another couple of chapters thinking,'ah,I thought this was a dude!',and then have to think backtrack to get their feet to follow the storyline.

    But it definitely deserves some fleshing out,if not to make any political or social comments,then for the quality literary value alone. Imagine a MC whose gender is never revealed but the reader associates with,male and female. Can't imagine that's ever been done before.
     
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  7. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    That actually sounds pretty nifty. There're people who identify as "third gender" or who consider themselves genderfluid, pangender, queergender, etc. So really, would a character whose gender or sex aren't specified, especially in a short, be that big of a nuisance to the reader? Maybe it'd actually be pretty healthy for a change, to read something that's less fixed gender-wise...
     
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  8. Rennie1989
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    Rennie1989 Member

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    As long as it is well written it should be fine. I would have a hard time relating to the character if I did not know what gender it was, but that's just my personal preference. It sounds very mysterious, nonetheless.
     
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  9. Lightfoot
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    Lightfoot New Member

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    "So, can you relate to a character you don't know much about?"

    Depends on how much you decide to give us, if you give us just enough to get a basic understanding of the character then I believe it will work. Things like sex and appearance (unless his/her appearance has a part to play in the story) aren't really important to me for liking or disliking a character, what is important is what makes them who they are, how they react in the situations that they find themselves in.

    Of course, if you have a good reason to hide the characters sex then I believe that is alright to do, as long as it has a payoff for the reader at the end and if the reveal has a significant part to play. If not then I don't really see the problem with giving the reader a clearer picture of what they are reading about.
     
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  10. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    No other sentient beings? Is there a slight mystery tone to the piece? It's a short piece, right? In this particular case, it might not matter to know the gender, especially if the person is androgynous both physically and characteristically.
     
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  11. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    This can and has been done. Haven't read it but I remember hearing about John Scalzi's novel "Lock In" - in that case you had a protagonist named "Chris" whose gender was purposefully never specified, aided in that case by the fact that Chris had a virus that caused him/her to become "locked in" to their body, unable to move or communicate.

    They actually released two different versions of the audiobook - one narrated by Wil Wheaton and the other narrated by Amber Benson, so that listeners could CHOOSE whether they wanted Chris to be male or female.

    http://www.marketwatch.com/story/audible-releases-john-scalzis-new-audiobook-lock-in-performed-by-wil-wheaton-or-amber-benson-2014-08-26
     
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  12. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Well, heck. I've identified with stories written by dogs, rabbits, pigs, horses ...I reckon I don't need to know gender to identify with a character. I think it's an intriguing idea. It might work best if the gender is NEVER revealed. In fact, you'll make your point most strongly that way, I reckon. Gender really won't matter. However ...and this is always a caution with 'action' characters ...make sure we do get inside this character's head as to feelings, reasons, doubts, fears, expectations, etc. If it's just cut and thrust and duck and dive it won't be terribly interesting to us non-combatative types.
     
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  13. wellthatsnice
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    wellthatsnice Active Member

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    If there is a reason for it and it makes sense in the context, i would say go ahead and write an engaging genderless character. I dont see any reason why readers wouldnt be able to relate to them. Just make sure you have a solid reason for doing this, otherwise it become gimmicky and hackney.
     
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  14. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    It's sad that all I can think of reading the first sentence is, "oh yeah - I loved Animal Farm too!"
     
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  15. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Oh, shoot. I didn't even think of Animal Farm. I was thinking: Call of the Wild, Watership Down, Charlotte's Web, Black Beauty....and I forgot to mention Yellow Eyes (the Cougar.)
     
  16. ZYX
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    Do you have a gender for the character or is the character nonbinary ?

    I would probably assume nonbinary until proven otherwise, and then having the character be either a boy or a girl would throw me off. For the most part, people will probably do that or pick between boy and girl.

    I think people relate primarily on personality before physical appearance and things, and obscuring gender would probably make it easier for people who have an easier time if the character is a certain gender because they can just think of them in that sense and there's no outright contradiction.
     
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  17. T.Trian
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    T.Trian Overly Pompous Bastard Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Thanks for the replies, everyone. I have a better idea of what I'll do now. So yeah, the MC does have a sex and gender, but I won't reveal them in the short.
    The character is very androgynous both physically as well as psychologically. The full mental map covering the MC's past to support psychological plausibility won't fit the short, so I'm leaving it out almost entirely because that stuff has no meaning in the short's context, but it's still canon.
    I want to experiment with focusing fully on what the character wants, thinks, and does, as well as the milieu and the situation itself because it's kinda dire:

    The character gets stranded on a seemingly lifeless moon with a defunct ship. The entire short is all about the exploration of an inherently hostile environment: the moon is very cold, there's no breathable air, and there's plenty of radiation, so the MC has a time limit for searching for anything that might help fix the ship. The space suit has limited air, it's warm only as long as it's battery lasts and the heat doesn't dissipate, and it protects against radiation only up to a point.

    Basically the MC is focused on the situation, searching the nearby areas while keeping an eye on the oxygen and power meters as well as the radiation counter while exploring the moon that hasn't been charted by anybody yet. As far as the MC knows, nobody else has been there before.
    Which brings me to the next point:

    Because of the character's background, the skills and gear for ass-kicking are present, but there won't be any of that in the short since there's nobody there to fight unless you count the terrain, time, and other such inconveniences of reality.
    The dangers are related entirely to the milieu, meaning all the stuff I mentioned above as well as rough terrain. The MC goes to explore a series of caves, i.e. there's the danger of slipping/falling into a deep crevice, causing a part of the cave to collapse etc. because there are some unstable areas down there.

    I want the suspense to come from the ambience, the atmosphere, the desperate situation, and what might happen, what could happen. Of course some bad things will happen, but that those are the few moments when the suspense is "rewarded" with some survival action, but that that action is a fairly small portion of the short in comparison to the suspense stemming from being in an inherently lethal milieu with a limited amount of time before death becomes unavoidable.
     
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  18. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Sounds like a good, and unusual premise for a short story, @T.Trian . Again, I wasn't speaking out against action scenes—it's just that if an action scene is devoid of any human thought or feeling, then it's just mechanical description and not very interesting to read. Kind of like looking at a diagram of where to put your feet, instead of watching somebody actually doing a dance. But you sound like you've got that angle covered very well.

    From previous experience, I'd say you can write suspense very well indeed! This will be engaging, I'm sure.
     
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  19. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    Oops. I asked about pronouns, then reread and saw it was in 1st person. Tidy.

    I think this could feel like a gimmick, or it could be cool. Try it and see how it goes!
     
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  20. T.Trian
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    T.Trian Overly Pompous Bastard Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Cheers, Jan :) And I do agree, most definitely: an action scene without any emotional/internal content can be very sterile and, frankly, boring. At least I need to experience the emotions, the feelings of the character in order to be fully immersed into the scene. Otherwise it's very easy to end up with just a description of a choreography.

    @BayView, yeah, 3rd person would've made it very difficult to avoid a gimmicky feel. Besides, I really do need to practice my 1st person, so I guess this is as good of an excuse as any. We'll see how it turns out...
     

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