Gender-Swapping Writing Experiment

Author’s Note: this is a very, very simple thought experiment I’m throwing out there. Obviously these sorts of issues have to consider intersectionality as well. So this sort of thing can, and I’d say should, be done across multiple axes of oppression. I purposely chose a high level example for this post.

Another Author’s Note: Gender is not binary. But discussing the fluidity of the concept is beyond the scope of this post and what I was trying to accomplish with this little experiment.

You’ve all heard of the Bechdel Test, right? It’s not without flaws nor is it necessarily a quality benchmark. At the very least it just tells you that a particular work has two women who have a conversation with each other about something other than a man.

Tying into that is: how often as writer do you make secondary or tertiary characters men by default? Until it was brought up to me a while ago, I had no idea I even did that. I always thought I was pretty good about making sure I had women in my books and stories. But then I went back to my WIP at the time and saw that almost every time I needed a:

  • restaurant owner
  • business person
  • guard
  • solider
  • police officer
  • friend
  • colleague
  • doctor
  • random passerby
  • etc. etc.

These characters would be written as “he” in my outline. Even if they didn’t have names or more than a line or two of dialogue, almost all of them were men by default. It blew my mind to realize that. It wasn’t that I was trying to actively exclude women characters, it was just I was conditioned to think of and create men characters first. As if it had been ingrained and reinforced across multiple spectra–especially pop culture–that men were the important pieces in a story.

As I’ve gotten older and have attempted to be more aware of these issues regarding representation  and intersection, I’ve wanted to fix my shortcomings. Not only does it help a tiny bit to improve the field, but it also helps me grow as a writerThis kind of thing–unconsciously emphasizing men and just writing the same things over and over–requires no effort. It’s lazy. And lazy writing is boring writing. Lazy writing doesn’t challenge the creator nor the reader. This kind of lazy writing accidentally “punches people in the face.” And I don’t want that.

So going forward I decided to do a little experiment. In my current WIP, the main character, Itjani, is a woman detective, and the women in her family are all major characters (mother, aunts, and grandmothers). But there were other characters in the first draft of the outline that were men, including a character that teams up with Itjani outside official police channels to move the plot forward. Let’s call that character K for right now.

I stopped halfway through my outline and went you know what? This book already emphasizes interpersonal relationships between women in a post-colonial context (i.e. how do they form communities and identities going forward and dealing with centuries of colonization in this secondary world fantasy), so why not make K a woman too? How would that change the dynamics of the relationship I’d written into the story? I changed absolutely nothing else about K’s personality or actions other than their gender.

All of a sudden tons of new nuances entered into the story, themes that resonated with other more personal, familial sections. Itjani already had a male partner on the police force and they had a whole slew of interactions (based on gender, tenure at work, political power, ethnicity, social status, etc.) so it made the story better to give a counterpoint to that. Itjani and K interact across those axes in completely different ways (plus a few more that I can’t talk about right now without giving away too much plot).

I continued the experiment throughout the outline. A god became a goddess, a police coroner with a few lines became a woman as well. And so it went. Not every character was changed, but the majority of them were. And you know what? Even just re-reading my outline, it feels like a stronger story with more nuance, more subtext, more everything. I think part of why things felt better goes hand in hand with what Liz Bourke discusses in “How Do We Talk About Strong Female Characters?

This isn’t revolutionary stuff, and I’m not claiming that consciously changing a bunch of characters to women will somehow give this book a free pass. Or that these characters won’t be problematic in other ways. Nope. Chances are I’ll manage to screw something up, but that’s part of being an artist–especially one in a privileged position. It’s how you react to learning of those screw ups, listening to marginalized voices that’re telling you how you screwed up, learning from those mistakes, and not repeating them in the future.

Still, I’d rather make these choices than play it safe and churn out the same face-punchy science fiction and fantasy you’ve seen for decades (see Puppies, Sad & Rabid). This experiment is a small step, but it’s one I’d urge other writers to take too.