“How do you go about writing a character that’s a different gender than yourself?”
That was a question I got at a panel at Wizard World Philadelphia, and it caught me completely off-guard.
This isn’t because it wasn’t a question I could answer, or even an issue I haven’t thought about. This was entirely because the question was addressed to me. I had spent the entire weekend on panels with Real Writers[tm] (I know, but you know what I mean), and Real Comic Artists and Real Movie People. It’s fortunate that I tend to go into performance mode when I speak in pubic, because I was suffering a serious bout of impostor syndrome all weekend.
And when I heard this question, my first thought was But I don’t do that.
I do, of course. I have a large cast, and while half my characters are female, the other half aren’t. I suspect the person was interested in hearing my approach to writing men. But I don’t actually have an approach to writing men. Sometimes a character is male, and it’s just another thing about them, and I don’t really think about it.
Which also isn’t entirely true, but I’ll get to that later.
In front of an audience, though, I had to come up with something. So I told people about a character in a book that’s not out yet. I told people about Dallas. And the combination of nerves, time, and my tendency to stammer, I explained myself…poorly.
Dallas shows up in the prologue of BREACH OF CONTAINMENT. Dallas is a parts scavenger, an astute businessperson, frequently sarcastic, a loyal friend, an introvert, something of a loner, a bloody good cook, and agender. Initially they were only going to show up in the prologue and Elena’s first scene on the moon of Yakutsk, but as I was twining the subplot through the story, it became obvious I needed another POV character. Fortunately, there was Dallas, fully realized and whispering in my head. (That’s how Çelik ended up with a POV in REMNANTS; at first he was just Elena’s irritating ex-captain, but he wouldn’t shut up.)
So Dallas pulls my subplot through the second two-thirds of the book, and I don’t write about their gender, because in the culture of my universe it’s not a notable characteristic. So it was odd for me to talk about the character from the perspective of gender, because I feel like I didn’t write them from the perspective of gender.
Except I did, of course, because one does.
Generally, when we write about gender, we’re not writing about gender at all, but the social structures and expectations around gender. It’s interesting, writing futuristic science fiction, thinking about what sorts of stereotyping and cultural pressures will be present in the future; but of course, since our readers are reading today, whatever we come up with has germinated from present-day assumptions. I use these assumptions all the time to hint at a character’s biases, at their blind spots, at their sexuality. I do it on purpose, sometimes to reinforce expectations, and often to subvert them.
The subtleties of Dallas were less straightforward. What I said to the Comic Con audience was this: that as I was editing, I read through the text once envisioning Dallas as male, and then again envisioning them as female. And I did indeed do that, but it’s just one small piece of what happened, and I feel like as stated it glosses over a lot of issues and potentially sounds like I’m casting agender people only in relation to those who adhere to a male/female binary.
Which wasn’t the intent of the editing exercise. The intent of the editing exercise was to deal with my own unconscious biases.
One thing that happens when you publish a book is that you can’t go back and change it. There are things I’d change in both my published books if I could go back to them. There are things I’d change in the one I just turned in yesterday. Perspectives evolve; the issues and ideas I want to write about grow and change.
I have always, from the beginning, wanted to write an egalitarian society, at least with regard to gender and sexuality. This wasn’t out of a desire to make a point. It was out of exhaustion. The world today is pretty awful in a lot of ways, and I write to escape. In my imaginary world, nobody thinks much about your gender or your sexuality (unless they’re romantically interested in you, in which case it becomes genuinely relevant, and even then no harm no foul). People care about what you do, not about the body in which you go around doing it.
And I found, writing this society, that I have my own weird, unjustifiable, lurking biases. Some of them I could catch while I was writing, and some of them I missed. I’m getting better, but I still trip sometimes. How could I not? I’m a rat in the same maze as everyone else. I try to see and learn and listen, but it’s a process, and I’m unlikely to ever purge all my blind spots. Elena, Jessica, Greg, and Ted are all coded female/male in ways I intended and ways I didn’t.
It’s the unintentional coding I wanted to avoid with Dallas, and that’s why I did the editing the way I did. I didn’t want the character to read as binary when they’re not.
And I’m sure, on some level, I still failed. There will be a lot of readers who assign Dallas one way or the other. We’re trained, we humans, to sort things, and our culture strongly reinforces the idea of two genders, never the twain shall meet. I didn’t write Dallas as an agender character; I wrote them as a character who is, among other things, agender.
Which is a cheat, really. But like I said: I write to escape. Beyond that, there’s a realism aspect to it. Just as the future isn’t going to be White Men In Space, neither is it going to be Gender Binaries In Space. Humans are already marvelously diverse and variegated now; in my posited future, where differences are accepted as usual, people of all sorts will be visible everywhere, and there’s not going to be much discussion of it.
This is how I write about politics: by not writing about politics.
In any case: I felt I’d given the question short shrift (apart from the bit where I pretty much dismissed the idea that writing men as a woman was anything like a stretch), and I wanted to clarify. It is something I’ve thought about, but it isn’t something I had prepared myself to discuss. I’m not a marginalized person writing a marginalized character; I’m an author who’s created a culture that has utopian aspects, and one of those aspects makes agender people as conventional as anything else.
Dallas is just Dallas, the character who showed up to save my plot.