Why Not Roll A Die To Determine The Sex Of The Character In Your Story?

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 4.824% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Last night, I caught myself defaulting to male again.
Which is to say, I was writing a novel, and my protagonist was wandering through a cargo bay. A dockworker told him to scurry off.
The dockworker was male.  Because my default characters are always male.  It’s an unthinking bias I’ve picked up over the years from various cartoons and movies – stories where you have a bunch of guys and one woman, whose role in the group is often “Just be a woman.”  The guys are these strong personality types – the hot-head, the wounded soldier, the brain – and then you have Smurfette.
So what you come to internalize over time is that “guy” is the default mode of “human.”  And when you create a character at random, what pops out unless you specifically fight this urge is Yet Another Dude.  This is something that the creator of BoJack Horseman goes into in a lot more depth in a rather infamous Tumblr post.
I caught this one, and switched the dockworker to a woman.  Another victory against a nasty template – because if you aren’t careful about populating your world with female characters, you wind up creating yet another Smurfette world where every incidental character your protagonists encounter is male, creating a world with an implied alternate biology where hey, females are born only 3% of the time!  They must be!  We certainly don’t see ’em elsewhere.
But I had people saying, “That’s cool!  I should roll dice to determine what the gender of my characters is.”  Which is something I’d thought about doing, early on in my career – just randomly assigning genders via the nerdiest fucking methodology possible.
If you wanna see how weird gender is, assign your genders randomly.
Because while you can do it – I tried for a while – the thing that’ll leap out at you in critiques is how the exact same personality gets viewed in different ways, merely based on whether they’re sporting a pair of breasts or not.
Remember, you’re not just creating “a character,” as in rolling up their stats.  Good writers give their characters strong personality traits, and don’t just stop when you’ve discovered what’s lurking between their legs.  So you don’t just roll up a woman – you decide “Hey, I want a hard-drinking, alienated ex-soldier who passive-aggressively seeks intimacy” and then roll your dice and go “BING!  Woman.”
And if she is a woman, she will often get entirely different reactions.  What’d be seen as proof of competency from a dude – snapping off corrections – comes off as bitchy from a woman.  (Imagine a female House insulting everyone in the emergency room as she yanks the scalpel out of their hands.  She’s not gonna be nearly as lovable.)  If a woman wants romance, she’s often seen as needier.  People will have a harder time buying into the idea that a woman character defaults to violence.
You’ll also be saddened from critiquers – often female ones – who will point out that yes, your ass-kicking female character has been tied up and carried off by the bad guys and not been sexually assaulted.  Maybe you have, quite consciously, decided to create a world where you’re just not dealing with that shit, in much the same way that somehow James Bond – who has enemies who want to humiliate him – never seem to rape his ass in all of this kinky bondage.  And it’s a valid choice, to have your world just skip over the realities of sexual assault, in much the same way that gun-toting detective narratives often skip over the realities of the PTSD that would come from gunning down strangers.
Yet you’ll get pushback.  Because for a lot of these readers, often and particularly female ones, the world doesn’t feel real to them unless you’re addressing the fears that they often deal with.
It goes both ways, of course.  A woman who’d be a nice, supportive housewife will often read as a useless wimp when rolled up as male.  An emotionally needy guy will often be seen as a douche, even if his worries about his partner’s infidelities are completely warranted.  A depressive introvert with social anxiety?  Beloved as female, often written off as a male.  Gender roles cut both ways.
Which is not to say that you can’t make it work.  You can.  But you’ll be shocked when you take someone who you saw as sympathetic, and discover that they’re viewed as worthless, simply because of what gender you happened to assign them.
Hell, I have some fears on that level.  I have my book Flex coming out soon, and one of the main characters is a videogame-obsessed, sexually voracious, overweight woman.  She gets all the best lines, of course, because she’s also funny as hell and insightful.  But she is, essentially, a gender-swapped detective archetype – loving kinky sex, reluctant to commit to anyone, prone to violence and passionate in all her desires – and I’m a little terrified of how people are going to interpret her.
And maybe Valentine will be as loved as I want her to be.  Note how I have seeded this essay with the word “often,” because fiction is a magical art and sometimes characters work for people out of the box.  I’m not saying that all angry women will be seen as irrational – I’m saying that in my experience an angry female character is more likely to be seen as irrational, and if you write enough characters you’ll start to go “Oh, yeah, if I don’t want to have people hating her I’m going to need to justify her anger more here.”
The point is, if you assign gender randomly, you’ll start to see how crazy our fucking society is.  You’ll have someone who you need to be sympathetic for purposes of the narrative, and just because they’re the “wrong” gender you’ll have to work three times as hard to make them likeable.  You’ll see the biases exposed right there in your fiction.
And you’ll to experience directly what many claim is the female experience: you gotta work three times as hard to be as good as a man.  I don’t know, I’m not a woman.
But I do know that writing gender-blind isn’t as easy as rolling dice.  Merely changing the gender can change the whole tone of a story.  And monitoring how that tone shifts can provide a vital, vital education.

7 Comments

  1. Mishell Baker
    Jan 26, 2015

    ” (Imagine a female House insulting everyone in the emergency room as she yanks the scalpel out of their hands. She’s not gonna be nearly as lovable.)”
    If this blog had been a book, when I read that sentence I’d have thrown it against a wall.
    Because why the fuck not?
    Do we cater to this idiocy on the part of readers? Or do we start putting that scalpel-sharp tongue in the mouth of a woman MORE often, and showing supportive, needy men MORE often, until people get the hell over it?
    I say, roll those fucking dice. And when your readers act like sexist shits, call them on it. It’s too late for our generation, but today’s young people become what they see in the media, and we are the media. Give people options.

    • Michael Cahoon
      Jan 27, 2015

      Because if those sexist shits don’t like the book, you’re not gonna get paid.
      Being confrontational with your own customers seems like a terrible strategy to change the world

  2. Yarr
    Jan 26, 2015

    I’ve actually done the dice rolling thing myself back when I played a lot of RPGs. Every random NPC defaulted to male until I started randomly assigning gender. Know what happened? The story improved, and the other players got more involved since the world became a bit more real and detailed instead of all interchangeable.
    I approve of this method 100%.

  3. Terri Jones
    Jan 26, 2015

    I’m experimenting with this in the novel I’m rewriting, and it is very interesting watching my own perceptions shift.
    It is all well and good to say fuck it and write a character of any given gender or spectrum without any regard to how current society assumes and expects and indeed feels perfectly justified with. However, all of us base our expectations on lived experience. It’s cool when you’ve learned enough to be able to take a longer, more level view. But the very best way to begin that shift is to do it in steps. Some people are very far away from seeing. It will not work to hit them with a Kleig light. They’ll close their eyes tighter. No, you take steps, introduce, show *why* more light or a different way of seeing is much more interesting than that dark corner. Show the dark corner for what it is, a limit.

  4. Kate
    Jan 26, 2015

    Minor quibble, and funny which post it slipped into. I’m pretty sure you didn’t mean ” to be as good as a man,” but rather “to be perceived as being as good as a man” in the second to last paragraph.
    Feel free to delete this comment when you decide if you want to change the post or not, this isn’t meant for posterity.

  5. Alexis
    Feb 2, 2015

    Sigh…I think it’s be fascinating to write a story where the gender of all characters is unknown/unknowable/changeable. So far as I know, no one has written anything like that since Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Imagine a world where no one knew anyone else’s gender until the two agreed to intimacy…

    • TheFerrett
      Feb 3, 2015

      Try Ancillary Justice. It’s not quite there, but it’s close.

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