How do you end up deciding this important choice? Is it from personal experience of the story you’re writing? Is it how the character presented him or herself to you? Is it how the story needs its main character to be perceived? Weak, strong, overbearing, shy… these all create ideas of gender for us, no matter which side the descriptor causes you to fall on. But how do you shake up those old pre-conceived notions without going on a crusade? (Only those who agree with you are going to read that, and will they really be reading to experience your story, or to be validated by it?)
You may not go into such deep thinking when choosing your character(s) genders, but it’s a question that should be asked. And asked before you’re suddenly at chapter 15 and horrified to realize that the story you thought you were telling is something totally different. When charting out a recent fantasy story this exact thing happened to me – but thankfully the outlining stage was a much easier place to make that change. And how that one change affected the rest of the story! Familial relationships that had been important but a side note were transformed into significant plot points instead. That’s just a fact of life, when you examine how differently sons and daughters relate to their mothers and fathers. And the final twist? The princess locked away in a tower was suddenly the kind of prince your character might hesitate to save.
This is one of many examples of how gender influences the flow and even path your story might take.
An author wrote once about her habit of giving socially-perceived, gender-specific roles to the opposite gender, just to shake things up and keep the reader on their toes. A good example would be a harsh judge that has no compassion on the single mother appealing for favor with the courts (you can choose her reason or purpose for being there). If you write the scene with the judge as only the title, and then at a crucial point reveal that the judge is a woman (age, race, physical bearing also all things to consider), you’re going to surprise your reader into looking more deeply into both characters, and perhaps even the scene.
Imagine that Harry Potter was Harriet Potter (and no, I’m not talking about forays into fanfiction). While the story could have been just as engaging as the real series is, the issues Harry (or Harriet) would have with growing up abused and neglected, dealing without a mentor figure, and all of her relationships with the adults in the magical world would have been very different. Or would they? You should ask your characters what their pre-conceived ideas are about gender, roles, society, rank, etc. Don’t just assume that your worldview is the worldview of your character (not judging either one right or wrong within the story). If you give your characters freedom to tell their story to you, rather than barricading them into what you’ve known, you’ll probably end up with something far more interesting and engaging than before!
And if nothing else, changing up the gender of your characters as a writing exercise might help you discover more reasons why your character is the way they are!
Katie, signing off from the hot south.