It takes effort to be aware of and counteract prejudices. Here are a few steps you can take toward displaying gender equality in your writing.
- MATH: Make a list of characters you have named, including characters who don’t appear on screen, etc. If you’ve mentioned a named character, put it on your list!
- IMAGINATION: Imagine your main characters and secondary characters with the opposite or different gender/sex. How does it change the way you’ve imagined them?
- ACTION: Now, make changes based on your observations. Try to get an even keel on male vs. female characters, and changing a character’s gender/sex can add a new flare to your story.
Tools of the Trade
One of the following: White board, Microsoft Excel Spreadsheet, Microsoft Table, or just a scrap piece of paper and pen
- Basically, make a table. Whether you do it in Excel, Word, or on paper/white board, it’s entirely up to you.
- Make two columns (or more if you have additional genders. Most common: Male and Female.
- By memory, start listing the characters who have names. You’ll probably start with the main characters and then move on to secondary, tertiary, and random folks. Try to be as comprehensive as possible.
- Go through, scanning your manuscript, and try to find all the names you couldn’t remember. I can almost guarantee you will find some.
- Look at your columns. Check to see if you have more names in the Male list than the Female. Or vice versa. I think you’ll be surprised to find that you probably have an uneven balance of characters.
- Let’s break it down even further. Put a box around the characters that are the main players in the story. Hero, villain, sidekick, etc. Box anyone who has screen time.
- Is the balance different? Maybe you have a lot of female characters, but all the major players are male?
- Let’s go again: Put a heart next to the names of people who fall in love or are otherwise considered romantically focused. Put a star next to characters who you consider to be strong. Put a sad face next to characters you consider weak or in need of rescuing.
- Take a look at how things are balanced. Have you accidentally given the male characters all the power and made the women the damsels? Are your female characters only interested in falling in love? These are traps we can fall into without thinking about it.
Tools of the Trade
One of the following: If you’ve already made the Character Sheet from the 1. Math section, use it here! If you haven’t, you can just use your brain! No tools needed!
- Think about your main character. Think about your villain.
- Why did you decide to place them as their current genders? For example, why is the main character female and the villain a male?
- Often, I find that people default to having a cliche villain figure. Tall, dark, brooding male character who is evil for the sake of evil. But we must strive to make our villains as complex and interesting as our heroes, and that means asking questions.
- Why is your hero/villain their current gender?
- If you swap that character’s gender, what changes?
- Does changing the character’s gender fundamentally change that character’s identity or role?
- Does their behavior still make sense if they are the other gender?
- Go ahead and go through this same process with your secondary characters (especially if you have a lot of one gender from the Math section).
Tools of the Trade
One of the following: Something to write with. Anything. That crayon under the couch.
You’ve probably noticed that a lot of the advice under Imagination comes from cliches in writing. We vilify bad guy and we make him a trope. Or we make a a damsel fall in love and get rescued by Hero.
Cliches come from the same place as prejudice: from not properly or complexly imagining others. To take steps forward, we need to do one thing: spend more time thinking and imagining characters/people.
- Instead of thinking about people, imagine a person. What does that person think and feel? Why are they doing what they are doing? Really try to get inside their head. If you give your characters—and others—a fraction of the time you spend in your own mind with your own life, then you’ll be surprised at how quickly they become more real.
- Walk through what happens when you change someone’s gender? If you want to change a powerful business executive from a male to a female, how would it change the way you write the character? Do those intense dialogue scenes now feel demanding and uptight instead of commanding and controlled? If so, this is evidence of gender bias that exists in workplaces, where people think powerful women are bossy instead of The Boss. So try to pay attention to how you display a character, and try to take steps to overcome those inherent predispositions. If you want to make a female character as The Boss, think about how you would write her as a male first in order to overcome unintended detrimental tone/content.
- Take a look at what you can change in your story. How many of the genders can you swap? Can you maybe add some balancing named characters in the future? Keep these things in mind moving forward!
- When you make a gut decision while writing, make sure you revisit it and ask why did I choose that, and could there be a more unexpected and original option?
- If the villain is a skeezy and sexist male, does making that villain a female make those traits seem uncomfortable and wrong? That might be gender stereotypes creeping into your writing. Don’t fall into the trap of making your male characters womanizing or creepy for the sake of making them villains. It doesn’t matter if it fits the gender; does it fit the character?
- Make sure you are writing and thinking with intention. If you make a decision, make sure you’re actively deciding it and not just letting the current of plot/life move you forward. That might sound like a lot of hard work. It is. It should be. Great writers and good people are empathetic and try their best to understand what makes a person do what they do.
In the end, you want your story to surprise people. You want readers to find your story original and fresh, and part of the way you do that is by making sure you aren’t falling into the easy traps of gender roles, cliches, and tropes.
For me, I almost always accidentally end up with more male characters than female. Most of them are side characters, so I try to even out the scoreboard where possible. While I’m doing that, I also try to make sure that I’m giving women jobs that maybe I typically ascribe to men. Like delivering bodies to a morgue or managing large finances or punching someone.
On the other side of that coin, I try to make sure the men characters aren’t all brutish or emotionless. Sometimes swapping genders is the best way to illuminate the well-worn path we’re walking on and to give us the foresight to jump off and go somewhere surprising.