SFF author Alexandra Erin recently posted “De-Gendering Stories: A Challenge” on her website. In short, she challenges authors to pay attention to the ways we use gendered language and signal characters’ gender by writing a story in which at least two characters appear and neither character is explicitly gendered.
I’ve been thinking about gender in fiction a lot recently, especially in regards to one story that I just revised. I wrote it in the second person (not a popular choice, but I find that stories often come to me with a perspective already chosen, and I’ve never had much luck in changing them) and in the spring of 2015 workshopped it. The protagonist is female–there’s at least six points in the story where she’s explicitly gendered, and two of them are in the first pages–but half the workshop never realized this and complained that her gender had surprised them in the last few pages. Because she has a girlfriend, I assume.
I thought about changing the perspective, but ultimately left it as is. Ironically, that story just sold, but it left me thinking about how much of our interpretation of gender is tied up in sexist or heteronormative stereotypes.
As someone who writes primarily mostly characters, gendered language and signaling gender is always on my mind. I think its vital that writers learn to move beyond the male/female binary and the expectations that come along with gendering characters. I consider myself a feminist and someone pretty well-versed in gender issues, but I still find myself going that character’s a computer programmer, so they must be a he and falling back on old tropes.
I’m going to give this exercise a shot. I think it’ll be a real eye-opener to examine how I imagine my characters’ genders and how I use gendered language.
Alexandra Erin’s challenge continues until August 1st, and she’s offering a small prize for her favorite entries to encourage participation.