Sunday, July 24, 2016

I tried to write a story with a gender-neutral protagonist

I wrote a horror story today. 

I needed a break from the other stuff I was writing, so I wrote this. I like it a lot. But I ran into a problem early on: what gender is the protagonist?

I couldn't decide. And I was on a writing roll, so I didn't want to stop and take the time to decide. I figured that if I wrote and the need arose to identify the character by name, or have others identify them, or have them use the bathroom, I'd decide then. Perhaps some other aspect of the character would reveal itself to me and I would determine gender based on that. 

It was a horror/supernatural story, but it was also a revenge story. Both those genres tend to have tropes strongly associated with gender. As I wrote, it became less about discovering the character's gender than it did about the exercise of writing a character who had no specific gender. This character could be male, female, or nonbinary. Perhaps they are nonbinary. I don't know. 

I didn't really want to deal with the particular issues that would arise from tropes in this kind of story if I picked a gender. But also, I sincerely didn't know what gender the character was or should be. I tried not to let it affect the writing. 

Writing gender-neutral scenes is way harder than it sounds.

It's far easier in first person, at least. As long as the character was alone, it was easy to write without gender. The challenge began when I introduced them to other characters. Male characters. Teenage boy male characters hanging out with booze and drugs and having a good time.

Because people treat men and women differently. They treat nonbinary people differently still. And people of different genders tend to react to certain situations in a way that acknowledges or signals their gender. 

I didn't want to decide the character's gender, but I found myself wondering: did I unwittingly give this character male privilege in "his" interactions with these other boys? Are the other characters treating them in a "neutral" way or is there some signal that "she" is a girl? Does the fact that the character doesn't worry about their safety when they get into the car with the bad guy signal that they are a boy, not a girl or nonbinary? Or is the character so focused that they don't care? Would readers be willing to believe that a brother could be close to a sister, or would they gender the protagonist a girl by default because they believe women form stronger bonds? When the protagonist cries, would readers believe they are a girl?

I'm probably overthinking this. 

My point is that so much of what we assume about character development and appropriate character behavior comes from a gender baseline. Maybe I'm just more aware of this. Or maybe I'm just prejudiced in some way, I don't know. I know that boys can cry and girls aren't always close to their sisters. But I also know the stereotypes -- and trying to write without invoking those stereotypes was hard.

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