Sunday, June 30, 2013

Thinking About Gender in Character Development and World Building

I want to write this a a pralude for the piece I am planning on writing about trans* characters. In the next few months I have multiple stories coming out with trans* and gender varient characters. Even when I write cisgender characters I tend to think about gender as it applies to my characters and my world building a lot.

When I start getting to know a new character, how they think about themselves and how they interact with the world around them, gender is one of the things I always think about.

How does the society this character lives in define gender?
How many genders are there?
How strict are the gender norms?
How do they affect work, dress, play, romance, etc?
How tolerant or intolerant is this society when it comes to gender non-conformity?
How does this particular character see themselves fitting in or not to these large societal issues around gender?
How does their own understanding of gender affect their relationship to their body?
To their sexuality?
To their experience of pleasure and sex?
To their romantic partner?
To their romantic partners experience of pleasure and sex?
To their chosen profession?
To their family unit?
To their religious community?

Thinking about all these questions are important not only to undersanding how any given character will react or interact to a romantic situation but also to my overall world building.

Because I write mostly fantasy I can decide the answers to most of these questions for myself. Like ripples in a pool of water though, the answers I decide on can have long reaching affect not only for my characters but for the entire world.
 How thinking about gender can and do affect all characters should be obvious even if you are not writing trans* characters.

For instance Jing Wei from Zi Yong and the Collector of Secrets does not conform to what is expect of a upper class woman within her society. Instead of getting married and running a household she dressed like a man and roams the countryside encountering strange and unusual things and having adventures. She smokes, she gambles, she drinks and she is friends with dragons. The fact that she does not conform to the gender roles of her society gives her more freedom than she might have had but also makes her an outcast and a loner.

Another instance of a society's concept of gender playing a role in character development is in Heart of Water and Stone where Ronan asks Girin to shave him. In the human society where Ronan was raised having a beard symbolized one's masculinity. Men who could not grow beards were not considered real men and could be penalized by not being allowed to marry or become a warrior. While men who were castrated or impotent where sometimes made to shave off their beards to simbolize their lack of manhood. In fact Ronan was shaved as part of his public humiliation and torture prior to the beginning of the story.

When Ronan chooses to go clean shaven he is making a statement. Ronan identifies as a cisgender man but chooses to reject the definition of manhood he was raise with. In essence he is saying "your definition of honor, of what it means to be a real man, and a warrior  does not definite me. This is not something you have done to me to shame me this is something I chose." 

In Business Makes Strange Bedfellows, the way society structures gender might be more familiar to us. Yet in that story it is easier for the main character Gert to get a court of law to rule that she is actually a man (despite identifying as cisgender and a woman) than it is to get the courts to rule that woman should be able to inherit property. Which is not, I think, the way gender works in our society today.

I think for stories with contemporary settings as well gender is a vital thing to think about. I think that is particularly true for GLBTQ characters. The GLBTQ community has a long history of thinking critically about gender, gender non-conformity even among cisgender people, gender play, gender fucking, gender outlaw behavior.

If your gay cisgender character chooses to conform to the gender norms of our society that is saying something about him or her, how they think about the world, how they think about themselves, it is also them making a statement within the larger GLBTQ community. All of which a writer should be aware of even if it's never overtly addressed in the story.

Overall I think gender is one of the most important elements of character and world building and I think about it a lot with every character I make and every story I write.

So, what role does gender play when you design your characters? Does sexuality make a difference to the way your characters gender is viewed or the way they view it? Does race, age, class, their differently abled status?

What are your thoughts on gender and character/world building?

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