I struggle sometimes to decide whether a character should be male or female. An odd struggle to have, I suppose, since it’s the first thing most character sheets ask for. But there’s a lot of added weight which comes with the decision and the entire outcome of the story may rest upon it. Before this new person in my head even has a name, they might have an entire set of character traits that I hadn’t even considered yet and all because I went with one gender over the other.
Just because those implied traits are there doesn’t mean I have to take any notice of them of course, but readers might.
It isn’t a case of one gender over the other, because society expects things of both and I wouldn’t like to say either has it ‘better off’. But there is a trope which quietly categorises the expectation that in fiction men will be seen as ‘active’ and women as more ‘passive’.
The trailer for Juan Solanas’ science fiction film Upside Down looks visually stunning, but it left me wondering why Kirsten Dunst’s character wasn’t making more of an effort to well, fall down if she loved this bloke so much. While Jim Sturgess is creating magic shoes, being shoved from moving cars and running from the authorities, Kirsten is moping about on a sofa somewhere.
Of course, this is from nothing more than 2 or so minutes of footage put together by a company that has nothing to do with the films production, nor the writer’s script, so I’m saving my final judgement for when I see the film proper. Which I will because, you know, dystopian future cities split in two are kinda awesome and Strugess is pretty. But it still brought me back to the idea that even if romance is only a subplot in a story, it still assumes female characters would be more passive than their male counterparts.
I like to play a game when I watch films or TV shows sometimes and it’s pretty simple – I change the gender of one of the main characters in my head and then try to work out how different the story would be.
I rewatched Stargate Universe recently and thought about how different the show would be if Eli Wallace, the audience’s surrogate, were an overweight geeky young woman instead of a man. There’d be no lovers rivalry between he and Lt Scott over Chloe, or would it have simply been diverted to one between ‘her’ and Chloe over Lt Scott? Would the other characters still have taken as much notice of her as they did of this Eli; trusted her to perform mind boggling calculations in her head as the ship plunged towards a sun? Looked to her for random inventions and as a problem solver when Doctor Rush was out of action? Would she have spouted Star Wars references and still become as important to both Colonel Young and Rush in the end?
I wouldn’t have changed David Blue’s performance for the world, but it doesn’t stop me from wondering if the decision to make Eli a man was because it was imperative to the story and the character itself, or because it was felt the target audience wouldn’t have responded as well to a female version.
My great love of the science fiction game trilogy Mass Effect is due in part to the fact that, whether you choose to be a male or female protagonist (or indeed, antagonist) the decisions of the game are not affected. I can give that bloody Journalist on the Citadel a punch in the mouth whether or not Shepard has boobs at the time. Fabulous.
In my own writing, I tend to create the world before anything else. The rules of these fictional lands inside my head often dictate what kind of story I can create within them. But character creation I tend to leave until last. As much as I want to make a character strong, unique and brilliant, I don’t want any of those things to depend on what’s inside their pants.
What about your story? The one you’re working on right now. Tell me about that main character or yours and what, if anything, would change if they were a different gender.