When I was about ten or eleven, before puberty hit and my height leveled off, I was the tallest girl in my fifth grade class. I was the tallest among most of my fellow girl friends, too.
And because my perception of gender and sex at the time were determined by how tall you were and how big you were compared to everybody else, I’d often play typical male roles during Make-Believe, Impromptu-Imaginative-Type games. I distinctly remember that during one sleepover with a friend, I played the part of a male bodyguard protecting a princess.
And while you might think that because I was a girl, I wouldn’t enjoy acting out male characters, you’d be wrong. I accepted them with gusto, deepened my voice as necessary, and had tons of fun.
And I think, even to this day — ten years after I’ve discarded Make-Believe sessions on the playground for Make-Believe sessions on paper, thinking about my gender and my sex has made me a better writer.
Gender vs Sex
Gender is a social construct; sex is a socio-biological construct. Gender says women wear dresses and men don’t. Sex says women have two X chromosomes, and men have an X and a Y chromosome.
Biologically, I identify as female. Gender-wise… things get a little more intricate.
I am comfortable being identified as “female,” but there have been times when I feel “male” or not as “stereotypically feminine” as my peers. I don’t wear make-up all the time. I don’t drown myself in nutella (not as frequently as I used to). I don’t read Oprah magazines.
Of course, I know better than to think that all women are make-up wearing, nutella-eating, Oprah-magazine readers, because more and more, I find that gender is not definite and clear-cut. Like light, it’s a spectrum with all kinds of different frequencies and wavelengths.
Which is important to understand when writing characters that are the opposite gender. Gender bending — specifically acting out male roles — has helped my writing grow stronger, because it reminds me not to let gender dictate my entire writing process.
When I write any character of any gender, I try to think about their gender as little as possible. To put it in approximate numbers, my character’s gender influences 10% of their character. The other 90% is environment, upbringing, physical traits, occupations, fears, likes, dislikes, etc.
When writing dialogue for male characters, I don’t automatically intersperse grunts or make their sentences shorter because they happen to be male. When writing female characters, I don’t automatically make them all interested in fashion because they happen to be female.
Yes, I will probably write a male character who speaks in short sentences. Yes, I will probably write a female character that’s interested in fashion.
But there will be a logical reason why. Maybe said-male character doesn’t talk much, because they were made fun of in the past for their voice. Maybe said-female character is interested in fashion because her sister was a fashion designer and happened to die a mysterious tragic death, so she wants to hold up her legacy.
When writing, I do my best to keep in mind that my characters are humans first.
Sometimes, I think about what my life would have been like if I’d been born a boy instead of a girl. I wonder what my life would be like if everything about me currently — my curly hair, my love for pink, my taste in anime and video games, my love of writing and composing — stayed the same, but all that changed was my sex.
Would I still identify as male? Would I still find myself gravitating toward” feminine” activities, whatever those happen to bed? Would I still want to be an English major in college? Would I be encouraged to play more sports? Would society tell me to stop wearing pink, because it’s not a “boy’s color”? Would I still be criticized for what I write, solely because of my gender?
Gender and sex are powerful tools when creating characters. How your character’s gender is perceived can say a lot about the character themselves, but also their allies, enemies, friends, and much more.
To be clear, though, I still want to emphasize that gender is not the end-all, be-all. If anything, it’s like the diving board at the edge of a pool. Asking questions like the ones I’ve posed to your own characters in your WIP — or even yourself — might lead you to avenues of exploration you might have never considered.
But you still have to be willing to dive in — to speak from your chest, to puff our your shoulders, and be that bodyguard for your princess.
Hey, there. Hope you enjoyed this post or made you think about your own life in a different way.
And as always, see you next post!