Character Gender Fluidity


Madeleine Cassier
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Very recently, I discussed POV characters with Rebecca, specifically trying to examine our opposite predilections as it pertained to the genders of our written POV characters: I predominantly write a male voice, whereas she leans towards the female.

While this was something to which I had truly never given much thought, our initial conversation sparked some thinking about my hitherto unexplored process by which I genesis my characters. Specifically, I began to realize that characters are “born” inside my head with near-100% gender fluidity or neutrality.

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As the metaphorical “goddess” of this genesis story, my creations often end up as a partial reflection of myself — not entire, thank goodness! But I cannot deny that there are a few things that need to be said of myself right off the bat for a better understanding of what I shall talk about later.

1. I am sapiosexual, which means that I am attracted to a person’s intelligence before anything else. So, hypothetically, if I were to meet someone who does not stimulate me intellectually or is, perhaps, not particularly well-spoken, then I don’t care if they look like Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic — there is going to be nothing there for me. Some people say that sapiosexuality is a sham or some horrible new dating trend, I will state from a personal perspective that I think it far less shallow and pretentious than its detractors make it out to be. I’m more interested in a potential partner’s mind: what and how they think, what makes them tick, what excites them, et al. I’m going to be attracted to that before any set of six-pack abs and, yes, I do include emotional intelligence in this because it is still a form of intelligence in my book.

2. I am Gray-A/Demisexual. Yes, you heard me right: I’m on the asexual or “ace” spectrum.

AceFlag.png demisexual_pride_flag_by_pride_flags-d903wkt.png

Yes, asexuality is on a spectrum and those of us on it are often very different from each other in how we view ourselves re: relationships, sexuality, romance, etc. I fall into that Gray-A/Demisexual range, which basically means that I’m somewhere between sexual and asexual; more accurately, I don’t necessarily feel attracted to someone unless I’ve had the time to form some kind of emotional (& intelligent) connection to them beforehand. Basically: romantic and sexual relationships are not at the forefront of my mind.

I should mention, also, that here is also another aspect of the ace spectrum wherein people place themselves within a “romantic” spectrum as well, but I’m not going to go into that as I do not feel it will add to the discussion.


So what do my personal proclivities have to do with my character creation process? Since having my conversation with Rebecca, I think the answer is, actually, quite a great deal.

George R.R. Martin, author of A Song of Ice and Fire, was once quoted as saying that there are only two types of writer: the architect and the gardener. In his own words:

“The architects do blueprints before they drive the first nail, they design the entire house, where the pipes are running, and how many rooms there are going to be, how high the roof will be. But the gardeners just dig a hole and plant the seed and see what comes up. I think all writers are partly architects and partly gardeners, but they tend to one side or another, and I am definitely more of a gardener.”

In the above argument of the architect and the gardener, I am somewhere in the middle: I have a clear vision of any story’s opening and ending, but the middle usually gets half-planned as I go along and can change dramatically as characters develop or become “more solid” in my mind. I’ll figure out a rough sketch of how many characters I’ll need/want and, from there, give them relative age-ranges and professions, if they have one.

But not genders.

An early draft of a “character dossier” may look something like this:

Name: X.F.
Age: early 20s
Hair/Eye: dyed violently red; hazel-green
Purpose/Job: hacker for Domestic Intelligence Operations (DIO)

No mention of gender whatsoever.

Back to sapiosexuality: I’m more interested in people’s mind and in how they “tick” — why do they think the way they do? Why do they have Opinion A versus Opinion B. People are like a great jigsaw puzzle that must be solved, and any characters I initially create are no exception. I want to know why they are behaving the way they are in a scene/story, so I need to understand how they think; in understanding how they think, I then discover who they are.

Characters develop in my head as voices — I’ll have full-blown conversations with them which, yes, does mean that I (frequently) talk to myself in order to achieve this. But in these conversations with the characters, both in and out of context of the narrative, while certain physical things like hair/eye colour, rapidity of speech, and ticks/twitches become apparent, the gender does not.

Ellen_ripley.jpgI think of the story of the development of Ridley Scott’s iconic film, Alien. The scriptwriters, O’Bannon and Shusett, included a clause indicated that all characters were “unisex”, meaning they could cast with male or female actors — hence all of the characters being only ever referred to by their last names — with the exception of the victim of the “facehugger,” whom both writers stated adamantly had to be a man.

I find this interesting, especially as Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) has gone on to be one of the greatest heroines not only in science fiction, but in film in general. But when you watch Alien again, you’ll notice that the gender/sex of the characters is, honestly, not that big of a deal. Anybody could have been on that ship because it’s not about the sex or any kind of romance. These are people with a job to do, so you can get to know them as people in their own right.

I don’t actively think about this little anecdote during character development, but it is one that I hold dear because, for the large part, I write the same way.

The idea of the “strong insert-gender-here protagonist” doesn’t exist to me because, well, I just want to discover/develop a person who then happens to be my protagonist regardless of their gender/sex.

Why is this? It harkens back, again to those conversations that I have with my characters/self: I’m learning their minds and motivations, not their bodies.

Only when it comes time to actual sit down and start writing the story, do the characters tend to reveal or develop more defined biology. Sometimes there are exceptions, such as one that I mentioned to Rebecca on the podcast about a character who was biologically female, but identified as male.

TransGender_Symbol_Color.pngWhen I was writing that character, I wrote them as male and just figured that was that…until I started writing a particular scene with the character’s male work partner. This particular character had a real issue with changing their shirt in front of their work partner; there was nothing sexual going on in any way, and having been around my brothers and plenty of guys, I’ve seen them swapping shirts on and off in front of each other all the time. So why was this character so adamantly opposed to it? Trying to write it felt wrong, like a violation of privacy. I probably sat for 20 minutes, working it out with the character and then click! There it was: my character was male in every way, except for their biological sexual organs.

Talk about an, “Oh!”-moment.

But you know the best part about it? I didn’t have to change a single word of the manuscript re: that character. Not a single pronoun. Why? Because, for all intents and purposes, that character was male — their brain was male, so why would that character refer to himself as a “she” if he didn’t identify that way? Only one other character in this story knew up to that “reveal moment” in the manuscript, and he referred to that character as a “he”, so…problem solved.

It probably also helped that I had not written that character any romance.

Here’s where that ace spectrum comes into play: the general rule of thumb for me is that I will not write romantic relationships in my stories. Ever.

This was definitely a place where Rebecca and I differed, because she almost always has a romantic-type relationship in her stories — she’s even written a romance novel! I, on the other hand, shy away from it. In the podcast I noted that, whenever I thought about adding a romantic element, it always felt like I was shoehorning it into the narrative; that it took away from the story as opposed to adding to it. Is this because I, myself, do not feel a need for romantic relationships in my everyday life?

Let me make something clear: my characters are not me, but because I am their “goddess” — their creator and caretaker — they cannot help but often be reflective of different parts of me, and my ace-status is most certainly a very large and important part of me. The way I view the world as it relates to romantic entanglements cannot help but influence the way I tell stories: romance is always pushed to the sideline or very subtle, if it’s even there at all. Now, that doesn’t mean that sexual tension is not there — fear not! My characters can easily acknowledge some sort of sexual attraction and, sometimes, even act upon it. But when it comes to relationships? Not so much. So, fair warning for anyone if I ever manage to finish a novel and get published: don’t look there for romantic or sexual relationships. They’re just not likely to happen.

Knowing characters’ sexual attraction is certainly a part of my “genesis Alchemy_water2.pngprocess,” but whether or not my characters like men, women, or both does not reflect their own gender. Heck, I’ve developed a character that literally has no gender — to be fair, that character is a siren/water elemental and, per its relationship with water, does not have any assigned genitalia and shape shifts to look however it wishes.

I’ve found the beauty of this developmental fluidity is that nothing about what my characters do within their narrative is impacted by or related to their sex/gender. I don’t care if the character is male, female, both or neither, because it has no bearing on their thoughts or actions; their minds and beliefs are wholly their own, regardless.

I’d like to end off with a quote from film director, J.J. Abrams, that I think ultimately sums up my character genesis/creation process:

“I don’t try to write strong female characters or strong male characters. I just try and write, hopefully, strong characters…”


3 thoughts on “Character Gender Fluidity

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