Gender and POV

I’ve been meaning to post this for a while.

This week, I want to talk a little bit about Gender and writing, my writing specifically. This also has a lot to do with point-of-view (POV from now on). As writers, our portrayal of a character’s gender can be as difficult as any other aspect of characterization. I think this is particularly true of Main Characters (MCs) because both the reader and the writer are far more involved and invested with MCs than with any supporting characters. But, writing gender “correctly” is a tricky and difficult task, particularly when you are attempting to subvert or out-right overturn gender stereotypes. This can lead to accusations that your women are “too manly” or your men are “chicks with dicks” or whatever because they don’t conform to your reader’s preconceived notions of how a particular gender acts, thinks, or dresses.

There are three main POV categories, but I don’t write or read Second Person POV, so I won’t say anything about it. In the context of gender, Third Person is probably the easiest to write. A Third Person narrative will almost certainly be sprinkled with “he” and “she” in reference to the MC by the second sentence where they are mentioned. These pro-nouns are simple, subtle markers for gender, whether natural or assumed, and will color the reader’s thinking about the character regardless of the rest of the characterization. Therefore, the shock to the reader’s system is a bit less violent when the character does something normally reserved by society for the opposite gender. At least, it is if you’ve played your characterization right. The reader is expecting a particular gender, from the pronouns, but they are also expecting non-conventional MCs from the first mention.

First Person POV is a bit more complicated, at least in English. English, unlike other languages (Japanese among others) does not distinguish between genders in first person (or second person for that matter). The pronouns “I,me,my” are completely gender neutral, so when writing a First Person POV, you have to ensure that the character’s actions, words, and thoughts portray the correct gender from the very first sentence dealing with the MC. This is, of course, much easier said than done, particularly if your MC is non-stereotypical in their gender expression. I’ve never attempted to write a truly trans-gender character (Sioned not-withstanding) but I imagine they would be even more difficult, particularly if they are in the midst of their transition.

I have two pieces of work, both in First Person POV, both with female MCs as the POV character which I have gotten some feed-back on. Both pieces have garnered at least one comment expressing surprise at the gender of the character when it becomes explicit further in the story. In both cases, the criticism was not because of the tone of the character’s “voice” but because of the way they dressed, the gender of their romantic interest, or the job they were doing. Personally, this distresses me rather deeply. I don’t think it is quite appropriate to start a story with “My name is ___ and I’m a female.” Somehow, that just wouldn’t be a great first sentence. Short of doing so, I’m not sure how to further convey gender subtly and gracefully in the course of the story. Hopefully, with practice, my portrayals of women will become more convincing, but it sort of makes me laugh that I, an incredibly feminine woman, would have difficulty writing women. I always thought my biggest problem would be writing men.

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3 Comments

  1. Abby said,

    July 7, 2010 at 5:47 pm

    In fact, that is an unimaginative first sentence. “My name is ___ and i’m a girl.” I feel as if I’ve seen a lot of those in books I’ve read.

    I think I would have trouble writing women as well. Good luck!

  2. LM Preston said,

    July 8, 2010 at 12:35 pm

    There are subtle ways to express the sex of your character. Like dressing their hair or putting on a skirt. Some books have done it well. Not only that, the thought process and dialogue can be a strong factor.

    • Bookewyrme said,

      July 8, 2010 at 3:34 pm

      Oh yes, that helps. Except, how do you deal with a character who is female but acts and dresses in stereotypically “male” ways? That is my issue. I have characters who challenge gender stereotypes, but it is difficult to bring that concept across in first person POV.


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