1. Kersje
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    Kersje New Member

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    How to make your protagonist gender-neutral

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Kersje, Jan 20, 2014.

    Hi all,

    Sometimes easy things are getting difficult when looking for the correct words. Does someone have experience or thoughts on how to make (one of) your protagonist(s) gender neutral.

    This means not saying "he is doing that, or that" and "she is doing that, or that". But I do not want to use the he/she words as I would love to keep the reader in a neutral sense what kind of gender 'it' is. Indeed, you might easily go to the 'it' ("it is doing that or that"), but it sounds incredibly materialistic to me or unnatural.

    Someone some tips?

    With love,
    Kersje
     
  2. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    Well, in murder mysteries for example, I've seen writers use no "indicative nouns" but just go with the verbs ("Gliding through the study, touching nothing to leave clues..." type of thing) - but it would be extremely difficult for both writer and reader to go through an entire book in that manner. You could go with first person, of course - people don't often refer to themselves via gender terms. But then, what about the other characters? You'd have to ensure that they didn't refer to the protag in some manner which indicates gender as well.

    I'm curious as to why you'd want to do this. Murder mysteries, as I mentioned, do this out of necessity but that's not the entire book. If it's one of those "but I want to" or "I think it would be fun to fool the reader", I'd caution against it. Readers like a little solid ground under their feet when reading, and hiding something this basic could backfire quite easily.
     
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  3. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Ditto shadowwalker there. Don't do it just to be clever. And definitely don't do it in a novel - it's no sustainable.

    If it were a short story or something, you could always use "xe/xir" - I think it's actually an official pronoun for people without gender. Or you could check out which pronoun this group uses in India - I think it's India. They officially recognise a third gender, but I forget what that's called.
     
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  4. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    You could use other references besides he/she. The Turk, the blonde, the person. Or you can use nicknames. I've given some of my characters nicknames because the narrator doesn't know their names, Stripes, Door-guy, Keyboard lady. You of course wouldn't add lady or guy.
     
  5. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    Add me to the curious folks -- I would find it disconcerting and annoying (which would take me out of the story) if I couldn't get a handle on what the protagonist was like, and especially not even knowing whether it was male or female. It makes it much harder for the reader to identify with your protagonist, which makes for a tough sell.
     
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  6. SuperVenom
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    SuperVenom Contributing Member

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    It's a good question. By not using a he-she you run the danger of dehumanising the charater. Making them robotic almost. We even give gender to objects like cars because we are emotionally invested. But I see why in a murder it would be useful as it gives total anonymity.
     
  7. obsidian_cicatrix
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    obsidian_cicatrix I ink, therefore I am. Contributor

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    Good suggestions by @shadowwalker @Mckk and @GingerCoffee, but I'm with @chicagoliz on this. I like to have an intimate knowledge of the protagonist. Not knowing would irritate me, and have me constantly second guessing. I think I'd find myself scrutinising the minutiae, missing the bigger picture.
     
    Last edited: Jan 20, 2014
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  8. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    Well, with murder mysteries it's often essential to keep the gender of the murderer a secret - you could lose half your suspects (and half your suspense) if you specify even that much. ;)
     
  9. Andrae Smith
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    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

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    One thing to remember about a good mystery is that the murderer very easily can be someone who is named very frequently on the page. It's all about how and when the information is presented in the story.
     
  10. Burlbird
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    Burlbird Contributing Member Contributor

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    How to do it? Depends on your language, right? :) As I understand you write in Dutch, not English, so all the things english-speaking members above complain make much less sence :) For example, in my native language you couldn't hide the gender by simply using the first person - while there is a neutral "I" pronoun for both gr. genders, verbs in Serbo-Croatian have gender-specific forms in personal forms (what's called "highly inflicted").

    So for a language specific question like this - I'd really recommend NOT searching (or listening) to advice from people who don't use your language. Try finding relevant stylistic forms and relevant language usage in literary works in Dutch - that'dbe the best place to start.

    As for why you wanna do that, I agree with others who say not to over-do it. If you can't do it elegantly and in a way for your readers not to notice it (and I guess that's the case, because you're asking about it) then keep it simple, localized, "chapter-size" at most. Try practicing the technique on a smaller scale (a short story or a prose snippet). This should probably go for just about everything in writing - from descriptions, dialogues and characterization, to plotting, style and artistic licence - nothing can help more than practice and reading...
     
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  11. Revilo87
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    Revilo87 Member

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    In some Indo-European languages like Armenian and Persian it wouldn't be hard as they are gender neutral having the same word to say "he & she" and "his & hers," etc. However this doesn't equate to many other languages. I would say to use this only if your story really calls for it. For instance if your protagonist needs to hide their gender from other characters that is understandable by why do they need to hide their gender from the readers? Is it really necessary?

    Maybe if you were wrote all the characters in a gender neutral way, a science fiction story set in the future it would be more acceptable because even if the writing style seems strange, that's what science fiction is supposed to be
     
  12. DeathandGrim
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    DeathandGrim Contributing Member

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    'It' 'they' 'them' 'the x'

    But it'd be quite annoying if I didn't even know that basic information.
     
  13. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    So there's this kindgarten/pre-school in Sweden that wanted to be really gender neutral and came up with a gender-neutral pronoun "hen." They don't refer to the kids with the actual personal pronouns hon (she) and han (he). I don't know how that has worked out...

    The Finnish translator of Joyce's Ulysses invented a new pronoun (Finnish has only one and it's gender neutral, hän), hen for females. Which makes a bit more sense, I guess, considering a hen is a female chicken, right? So yeah, clever, chicks.

    So, you can invent a new pronoun that's gender neutral. Of course most people will go like "omg so annoying argh can't deal!" but if that solution happened to work for you, screw 'em.

    Other than that you have to resort to names and depersonalizing nouns "the character/figure/person" but that can get really awkward. If the character is your MC, you can write the story in first person. I think it's interesting how frustrated people get when they can't pinpoint a character's -- or an actual person's -- sex. I know I do, too, at first, but you get used to it.
     
  14. jorel
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    jorel Member

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    As long as the story is good, I don't care about gender. Depends on the reader though.
    A few years ago, I read a book that was in first person's POV and I somehow assumed the MC was male.
    Half-way through the book, I realized Max was a girl.
     
  15. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    You could do it more easily in first person. As I recall, in Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body, the sex of the main character is not provided.

    For a third-person novel, look at Greg Egan's Diaspora. He uses "ve," for example to refer to characters of indeterminate sex.
     
  16. Bryan Romer
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    Bryan Romer Contributing Member Contributor

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    If I went through the first chapter of a book and still could not determine the gender of the protagonist I would stop reading. There are simply too many things that are affected by gender to avoid revealing this information without being totally artificial about it. Unless the person is totally androgynous, other people are inevitably going to react to the character's gender in revealing ways.
     
  17. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Sarah Caudwell's Hilary Tamar, the first-person narrator of a series of mysteries, is never revealed as male or female. They're fun and very clever books, but the gender neutrality does have a cost--Hilary is, IMO, the least likable character.
     
  18. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    One thing you can count on in fiction is that categorical statements like these will turn out to be wrong. This one is no exception.
     
  19. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Sounds interesting @ChickenFreak. I'm making a note to look into those.
     
  20. Bryan Romer
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    Bryan Romer Contributing Member Contributor

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    Since I am referring to a personal preference, the statement it not wrong. I strongly dislike ambiguity of that kind and would not continue reading if neither description or situational reference allows me to determine the main character's gender in short order, no matter how interesting the plot or wording. In part it is because I am a strongly visual reader, and if I cannot almost immediately create some kind of mental image it would be too frustrating/annoying to continue. That does not mean the author couldn't make a good try, but merely that I would not accept it while others might.

    Nor am I saying that it wouldn't work for a very limited period, say if in the opening lines the protagonist is viewing a scene through the eyes of a drone or surveillance camera, but that could not carry on for long.

    Don't get me wrong, I am quite happy to go with a genderless character, if that is really what it is. The "Bolo" series is one of my favourites, and the MC is often a large tank-like sentient war machine.
     
  21. JayG
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    JayG Banned Contributor

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    Here's the problem you face: Readers come to us to borrow our imagination and play a grownup game of Let's Pretend. They're not looking for the detailed history of a fictional character. That would be of no more interest then the history books you were required to read in school. History books can be interesting. And they certainly have all the elements that make fiction compelling. But what's missing is uncertainty. Every event described had already happened and events are immutable, so we're being informed, not entertained. But as Anthony Burgess observed: “A character, to be acceptable as more than a chess piece, has to be ignorant of the future, unsure about the past, and not at all sure of what he is supposed to be doing.”

    In practical terms, because the reader wants to experience the story as the protagonist. They want to see the scene as that uncertain protagonist does, know what resources the character can bring to bear, what their needs, desires, and goals are, and everything else that character is using to make their decisions.

    That means your androgynous character, if it's not the protagonist, can only be so if the protagonist sees him/her that way, and the reader will want to know why. If you can satisfy that, in some way, you're okay. If the ungendered character is the protagonist you have a far more serious problem. The only way you can pull off being without a gender and provide meaningful POV is to make the reader ungendered, too (at least in the story). Getting them to buy into that may be more effort then it's worth.
     
  22. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I think it's definitely worth the effort. Imagine that we couldn't write a good, engaging story with a protagonist who doesn't define their gender, who don't see themselves as either, or who see themselves as both! Surely it will requite some skill, but it's definitely worth it. Besides, there're probably as many ways to define "a meaningful POV" as there're readers.
     
  23. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I don't think that's the only way. In Jeanette Winterson's book, you could read the main character as either sex. It's just never specified.
     
  24. Sheriff Woody
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    Sheriff Woody Active Member

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    The original screenplay for the movie ALIEN was written with every character being gender-neutral.
     

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