Gender & Writing

When I was in high school, there was this one creative writing assignment that drove me up the wall because the responses were all pretty much the same. The idea was to write from the perspective of someone of the opposite gender seeing your bedroom for the first time. Long story short, it was always either about a boy being surprised a girl’s room could be so messy or a girl being surprised that a boy’s room could be so neat.

Gag me with a spoon. I don’t even remember what I wrote, but it probably fell into the same category. Of course, back then I was in a bubble of gender non-discussion where my creative writing teacher made lame jokes like”words have gender, people have sex.” (This was in 2004-2006. Like, a million years ago.) By now I’m aware that:

  • Gender is either some sort of continuum, 3D puzzle shape, or asymmetrical puddle of self-definition.
  • Man and woman is a separate thing from masculine and feminine, which is a separate thing from male and female. (There might be better words for that. Let me know if I should adjust the phrasing anywhere in the post.)
  • These are all social constructs anyway, and you do you.

It helps that I went to a very liberal college and met all kinds of interesting people. Lots of new thoughts happened. Sexuality was questioned. You know, young adult growing up stuff. As a writer, it introduced all sorts of new thoughts about my writing, as well.

In retrospect there was a writing phase I went through for a while that was actually pretty interesting. I wrote a lot of short romance stories with ambiguously named characters and without using pronouns, then asked readers to describe what they’d assumed about those characters and their relationship. My original reason for doing this was to question assumptions about sexuality, but it works for gender too.

I don’t feel that men and women are all that different, or that much different to write. Not on their own, anyway, and anyone who falls outside of those two (very broad) categories seems to be an indicator of that. We’re just very socialized to fit into two (pretty narrow) classifications, right down to the separate toy aisles that are color coded blue or pink.

Recently I read a blog post that raised the question of how to write characters from the opposite gender, which is a pretty timely question for me. The main character in the novel I’m working on now is a guy, and his actions are mainly determined by how he was raised, the expectations placed on him by everyone in his life and particularly his father. I’ve found that being a guy is not what makes him difficult to write… If I can brainstorm the conditions and expectations the character was raised with, that helps. Having his head up his ass is what makes him difficult to write.

However, I do like to have my partner read over things and do socialization checks for me to see if my characters seem realistic. It always helps to get a second opinion, one that isn’t quite so wrapped up in the story.

Where I do stumble over writerly gender-ish problems tends to fall closer to my side of the fence but with personalities that are different from mine in particular ways. I find it hard to write women who, for example, consider makeup important because I never really “got” makeup. Mostly it’s a texture thing, I hate the way it feels on my face. Also I have a thing about touching or poking my eyeballs that makes me extremely bad at mascara, even if someone else tries to do it for me. My mother just didn’t get why I refused to wear any except when I had my arm twisted to look nice for prom. If I had to write a character who wears makeup regularly and considers it a source of confidence and empowerment, that would be a major struggle regardless of pronouns or their gender identification.

So I’m curious. What are your stumbling blocks when writing your characters, and do they fall along or against stereotypically gendered lines?


10 thoughts on “Gender & Writing

  1. I believe it’s important to be aware that there are many reasons why gender social constructs exist, some more effective than others and some that accurately represent certain traits of people that have similar sex/hormone balance as well as some that don’t. It’s hardly an All-or-Nothing situation at a larger scale of populations.

    I’ve dealt with writing many male or non-binary characters in the past, it took me time to develop an understanding of feeling comfortable writing female characters. In my experience, this doesn’t seem rare for a particular grouping of AFAB writers from the early ’00s-’10s teen/young adult grouping. A great deal of female-identified writers from this time period feel much more comfortable writing male characters for whatever reason, just an observation I’ve noticed over the years. Perhaps a byproduct of fan-fiction, mainstream yaoi/gay love, and online RP writing… dunno.

    Anyways, when it comes to gender expression in fictional characters, there are a few key elements I analyze/observe to formulate the presentation that a particular character takes on in the narrative form.

    Firstly, above all else (and this is just my preference), I consider their sexuality and sex-drive; what are they attracted to? What kind of fantasies do they have? How have they changed over the years? I believe that truly embodied gender expression can be linked to subconscious sexual drives (or lack thereof, depending) and how a character wants to relate to other beings in a physical way. Though it’s related, this has less to do with actual partnerships or actualized relationships, but relies more on the formation of the character’s sexuality through their private lifetime in regards to their own mind.

    Secondly, once I have a general idea of that first one, I look at their self-esteem, confidence (or lack-thereof), and level of awareness for their own behaviors and thoughts. This links with the first to figure out how open or closed they are with sharing this subconscious sexuality and how aware they are in different environments about how to present themselves… and mostly, how much they internally contemplate and/or struggle with defining their identity around their attraction to others and in essence, their relationship with their own body by proxy.

    This also includes understanding the physical aspect of awareness; genitalia, sex characteristics, muscle mass and fat distribution does offer different body language and stances for obvious reasons, so playing around with that sometimes requires a bit of research. I sometimes include a consideration of possible hormone balance as well… but only if I feel like messing around with research about that kind of stuff cuz I like to source scientific papers, not just articles/op-eds. I usually don’t because the expression of the hormones is implied in some behaviors and traits relying on life experience/observation without having to get technical.

    Next, I consider their environment and the world they live in and were raised in. This includes the micro of their home/family environment and relationships, but extends further to their culture and the greater global scale of history, as well as their awareness of things like that since I don’t often write in the modern Earth world with the same history we have. On the micro-level, during this process, I try to figure out and include any traumatic events that might influence how they choose to build their outward-facing persona versus their internal acceptance of personal understanding of their self.

    With these things combined, I start to get a read on the character and why they present their gender the way they do; whether it’s hyper-feminization, stoic masculinity, awkward androgyny, or any of the infinite combinations that can be built through understanding a specific character’s unique position in the created fiction world. Internal realization is different from outwardly expressed persona, however.

    When it comes to these kinds of identity traits, I like to have a wide range of characters. I’ve played with characters who are 100% Feminine, 100% Masculine, 100% Open, 100% In-Denial/Closed and everywhere in between, flipped, and underneath. I no longer have a preference beyond what is right for the character and their role in the story.

    To fully understand these options, the real work is in doing the actual writing and considering different points of interaction and decision-making that forces a character to become further defined. Some characters, like people, will be fairly fluid so what I find to be most useful is to find the actual points of rigidity – the moments where a boundary is created and a distinction suddenly becomes obvious, developing the character into their own.

    My most recent (related) character that I’ve been somewhat struggling with because it’s a rare identity for me to deal with and very specific to the story/world. I have played with the concept in the past, but it is a very difficult one to fully grasp as much as I like to grasp my characters; and that is the Multi-gendered or Split-Gender character. This is different from Gender-Fluid or Gender-Ambiguous or even Bigender. It’s very specific and a handful to keep track of.

    Writing wise, it’s also a struggle to figure out how to handle the pronouns – whether switching them is too jarring or sticking to one is too defining. I’m still working on finding a balance with that.

    …Lol, I wrote a mini-article… Sorry. Maybe I should just write a post about this on my own blog sometime. It’s one of those things I’ve contemplated a fair amount. 😛

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You know, I was more comfortable writing male characters for the longest time. Largely because of fanfiction. By “’00s-’10s teen/young adult grouping” do you mean born in that time range or just a teen or young adult then? Because I am in the latter category.

      Definitely post about this sometime, because this is an amazing comment. I think I might bullet-point it and use it as a character building exercise!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I came here from your answers to questions post, and I’m glad I did. The changes to perceptions of gender are something I’m a bit behind on (it’s a very generational thing) so it’s interesting to read your take on it. I agree with you that playing with gender and androgyny can give us a clearer view on our own prejudices, understanding what our assumptions are.
    As for what I find difficult, I don’t have a problem with writing about men (as a woman) but I had a similar problem to yours in trying to write a woman who was more traditionally female than I am – I just kept forgetting how meek and submissive she was.
    Anyway, great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s definitely a generational thing. I wonder if part of it is that my generation started hitting the internet around the same time as puberty started hitting us, and everyone on the internet seems genderless until proven gendered, i.e. you have you either have to ask or wait until they say. And later generations are familiar with that experience from a younger and younger age. Maybe that’s it.


      Liked by 1 person

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