Most characters you’ve ever read have been either male or female – but there are a couple non or ambiguously gendered characters that deserve high praise. Ann Leckie’s Breq/Justice of Toren from the Imperial Radch trilogy stands apart as an excellent example, as is HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Whenever we think about AIs or aliens, the possibility that they may not express gender the same way as their author must be considered.
Even if you don’t intend to have computers, aliens, or other non-human characters, chances are high your book will include a character of a gender you don’t belong to. That can feel difficult sometimes, but writing good characters of the opposite gender has similar premises as writing one without gender.
I’ve tried my best to write good characters of multiple sexes and genders, and here’s what I’ve come up with.
Think Critically about Stereotypes
Sometimes this is easier said than done. Stereotypes can help authors because it allows us to create a character whose traits are known quickly. Give a female character a tight ponytail or bun, and she’s all ready to get down to business. Give a guy a scruffy beard, glasses, and a fedora, and he’ll live in his parents’ basement. A reader will know what to expect from these characters without the need to introduce them.
At the same time, using stereotypes can work against you if the ploy is too obvious. If your character has very many lines or appears multiple times throughout the book, avoiding these quick-creation schemes can help alleviate the sense that you don’t know how people really act. Treat every character with as much care as your lead, ensuring to give them depth and motivation.
Give Your Characters Reason
Most humans are capable of judging and rationalizing decisions on their own. Almost every human character is able to express rational thought. Without these abilities, the decisions characters make wouldn’t have a complex set of causes and effects. As a reader, you look for characters to make decisions based on causes, and you’re able to judge their decision making as a rational creature yourself.
If you wouldn’t make a decision your other-gendered character does, ask yourself ‘why.’ If it’s because of their gender, I’d really consider if your character is doing something reasonable at all. Allow their decisions to be informed by the same information and feelings you would have. Make sure that their decision to act otherwise still falls within a range of reasonability, and use your own rationality as a test.
That brings me to another robot trope: the inability to feel or express emotion. If you make this choice, you have to be very careful to keep this character unfeeling.
Describe Appearance Respectably
Appearance is where it seems male writers of female characters fall into the most trouble. Recently, there was a Twitter hashtag where female writers wrote about male characters like they perceive male authors write about female characters. What I noticed most vigorously when I read some of these hashtags was the focus on appearance. (Also, I desperately hope my female characters are better written than some of the ones the Twitter people pointed out!)
If you were to describe the people above as they appear, would you take them seriously later when they’re landing a business deal or piloting a ship to save the empire? Whenever you describe a character’s physical appearance, you run the risk of idolizing that appearance rather than conveying their personality. Even if you add personality or action for your characters, focusing on appearance can degrade any of the work you put into them elsewhere.
If you’re writing erotica, all of these rules can be thrown out the window. I’m not much of an erotica person, but I can tell you that it is not the same as other writing. Stereotypes help you get straight to the sex, and appearances matter a lot with vicarious scenes. So there’s that.
Otherwise, these tips mostly help set you on a path to respect your characters. If you respect your characters, your readers will too. Take yourself and your words seriously. If you have questions about a character’s portrayal, try to get other people’s input – especially those of the gender or sex you’ve written about.
I like writing characters of vague, interesting sexes and genders (robots and aliens mostly, I’ll admit). Have you ever had difficulty writing a character of a different sex, orientation, or gender? Do you have any tips? Let me know in the comments below!