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Now I know that seems like a silly question. Everybody has sex, right? Characters in books no exception. And I’m going to lay off the childish wordplay that pleased me so much when I thought about this subject. Honest. (but one letter like “a” can make all the difference in context, can’t it? You have no idea how much I enjoyed the “strategic use of comma” meme that’s been popping up all over my social media these past few days. And for your edification, here it is. I can’t credit the creator as I have no idea who they are. Suffice it to say, it wasn’t me, and whoever it was is Awesome.)

Punctuation. It saves lives.

Punctuation. It saves lives.

It’s a relatively tiny number of sentient creatures in this world who can truly be said to have no gender. And this is all generally the fault of Science and more specifically Biology, because on a chromosomal level gender persists, and anyone who’s ever watched a crime show or archaeological dig knows that you can pretty confidently tell the gender of even skeletons by looking at their pelvis.

Except it’s not as simple at that, and we all know it. Because Science equally allows us now to turn men into women, and even the chromosomes occasionally decide to get together and produce a person who is geniunely neither one sex, nor the other.

Which is fine. So enough of junior school science lessons, because I’m not a scientist and will probably get lots of things wrong if I continue. Back to writing, because if in writing I get things wrong I can claim it’s Just My Opinion and therefore safely ignored. (ignoring my opinion is sanctioned by the Department of Health. I have a piece of paper and everything.)

I was reading something a friend had written the other day and which she wanted my comments on. It was her usual high-standard rollicking fantasy stuff with zombies and reckless slaughter and I enjoyed it immensely. When I sat down to compose my feedback on the piece, I realised that until about page four I had no idea whether the narrator was male or female. They had a gender-neutral fantasy-land name, and through narrating in the first person had no reason to describe themselves. It became apparent during the first chapter that they were in love with a male character, then married to him: but that too could not be said to give a definite answer to the question of the narrator’s gender.

And none of this, of course, actually mattered. This was not a story in which gender was important. (It’s not like there’s a weird 1950s style culture amongst zombie-slayers where actual slaying is considered “women’s work” and any men taking it up have to go through a form of suffrage. Or maybe there is. I can almost see the Bakelite machetes hanging up in Fonzie’s mum’s kitchen. Perhaps you should write a book about it)

So I started thinking: what real effect does gender have on a character one is writing? If gender (and its associated issues) is not the driving force behind the plot, does it actually matter?

Here are some protagonists, for your consideration:

  • a woman who has been driven to the brink of suicide by the death of her parents
  • a man who makes a living by selling the souls of elephants
  • a woman who has three heads, one of which is trying to kill her

Which one of these people’s books does this paragraph come from?

“I don’t think people will ever understand why it is that I have to do this. It’s gone beyond what I can safely call a choice. A long time ago other people’s opinions would have mattered to me, but since I met Arthur on the Bridge of Sighs, I’ve started to realise that what really matters to me isn’t who I am on the outside, not the thousands of different perceptions that define me – but the reality that I don’t have a choice. It makes me so angry, this assumption that I have chosen, when in fact the choice was made for me.”

The answer is, of course, it could be all of them. And another qualifier at this point is: surely the skill should be for the writer to make sure that the reader knows instinctively whether the voice that speaks to them is a man or a woman?

Gender makes it easier for some readers to identify with a character. “They’re a man, like me – they think in a way I recognise.” “They’re a woman, like me – of course I understand what they’re thinking at that point. Any woman would.”

So what would happen if I wrote an entire novel, with one male and one female protagonist, and at the last edit before publication, swapped their genders around?

Would it matter? How much would it matter? Would it even (heaven forfend) be interesting? Gender is endemic in our language (“chairman” “affiliated” “manpower”) – is it also endemic in our character creation?

I may just do it anyway, but first I have a novel chapter to finish (my current main character is a chirpy transvestite, so I won’t even go into how one that fits into this particular concept) and about 1700 words of a purely-for-fun thingy (you know the one I mean) to edit. Gender can wait, ladies and gentlemen and Unassociated Gender Identifiers. Gender can wait.

(And if anyone ever writes the story about the guy who sells elephant souls OR the 1950s zombie-killing housewives, I really would love to read it.)

Addendum: I actually finished a drabble this morning where the gender of the main narrator is unknown, and was surprised at how hard it was to maintain.