A Post on Gender in Fiction

This is a topic that has been coming up more recently, which is appropriate considering that today is International Women’s Day.  So hurrah for that!

I follow mostly writers in the blogosphere, and so most of the perspectives inspired by this have been on gender in fiction, more specifically (but not nearly completely) focusing on women and their portrayal in books and movies, and about the gender of characters and such.

Well, seeing as I’m full of opinions, sometimes even overflowing with them, I thought I’d throw in my two cents on this as well.

I’ve written the first drafts of quite a few novels in my day, which doesn’t necessarily make me an experienced writer, but does give me some insight into the type of protagonists that I prefer.  Throwing in the short stories that I write and I can clearly say that I don’t have a strong preference for writing male or female protagonists.  I have books (and series!) with both strong and (at least hopefully) well-characterized male and female protagonists.  My current story features a female protagonist; the one before male; before that, it was multi-perspective, with both.

So at the very least I think I get points for variety here.

I’ve heard a lot of things on gender in fiction.  There is the Bechdel Test, an appalling low bar that many works still fail on.  Even when a work passes, there is a chance that the women (or, much, much less often, the men) are nothing but stereotypes and caricatures. And I think we can agree that this is Bad, and to not do that.

But there is other, more troubling advice that I’ve seen.  Even if well-intended, I’ve seen it said that men shouldn’t write women (and less often, that women shouldn’t write men).  I’ve always taken issue with that, and not just for the double standard that it can imply, but also for the further implications of that.  The argument goes that men can’t possibly understand what it means to be a woman well enough to write it (a sad and hopeless state of affairs if the genders ever hope to find common ground).

What I don’t understand is why that should be limited to gender, or if it’s intended to be.  Should writers only have protagonists of their own race, and social class, and sexual orientation, and religion, and occupation?  No matter how much impact each of these things have on the story?  Does a story with a female protagonist necessarily have to delve into the depths of what it means to be female?  If my character is Christian, is that the lens through which the entire story must be interpreted?  Does that change if he or she is Muslim?  Wiccan?  Why?

My goal for my stories is to have interesting characters do awesome things, mostly by failing a lot at first, and to overcome their own character flaws to do so.  A character’s gender certainly colors the story, but I don’t think that it should overwhelm it (or else an adventure story with a female protagonist would be very hard to write!).  I guess, in short, my characters are people first, and then male or female, rich or poor, good or evil second.  I don’t want to define them by pieces of them.

And I don’t think that is a very earth-shattering idea.  In fact, among the authors that I read, it’s very common, which I think is a good sign.  The best way to write a “strong female character” is to focus on a well written character first, female second (feel free to disagree, vocally in the comments if you wish).

But I think there is another reason to dislike the advice of only writing characters like yourself (whether given overtly or not, that’s what pronouncing that men should not write women, for instance, leads to).  For an authors to write characters well, they have to understand them.  They have to connect with their characters.  They have to imagine how a character would react, given everything about them (including gender, race, religion, etc).  To do that well, they have to learn how a real live person would react.  They have to put themselves in their character’s shoes and empathize with them.

In other words, encouraging people to write characters dissimilar to themselves, it helps them to understand people dissimilar to themselves.  The understand will never be complete, of course; I will never fully understand what it means to be a woman, or to be a person of color.  But if I write characters like that, and put in the research to write them well (a very important step!), then I will understand better the difficulties that women face, what their lives are like and how they are different than mine.

And that, I think, is a very, very good thing.

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