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It turns out I have a gender bias. Who knew?

July 9, 2012

(side note: Hello, author blog! Thank-you for patiently sitting here, gathering dust, and waiting for me to have something to say)

I’ve been working on a new project. It’s something very different than anything I’ve done. It’s dark and violent and harm comes to the main character in a variety of ways (but for good reasons, I swear!). There are funny parts and terrifying parts and devastating parts, and as I finished the first draft I found myself exhausted, but jubilant, too, that the initial intimidation I felt when starting this manuscript was beaten to the wayside. I was finally able to break through the barrier of “you’ll never makes this as good as it deserves to be” and able to settle for “it’s as good as it can be for a first draft (which is pretty terrible) but now you have the skeleton you need to make it better.”

The thing is, when I was about four or five chapters from the end I started wondering what if this book was about a girl fighting for her place in a hostile world, instead of a boy. How would that change things? Would it change anything at all? So once I was finished, I copied the draft, did a search and replace for the character name and began going through the whole thing to make appropriate he/she changes. Just as an experiment. 

What I found surprised me. Like, really surprised me. My manuscript became an entirely different book. Motivations and desires of the character morphed. I began to worry about the violence and the harsh conditions the character suffered. I wondered if this was more YA than middle grade.

And this was without changing ANYTHING other than the character’s name.

I have a gender bias I would never have suspected – in fact if I was at a conference talking to someone about gender in children’s books I would argue until blue in the face about the equality all genders deserve, because duh, right?

But when I was going through the manuscript I came across scene after scene that I would have written differently had the character started off as female. I wouldn’t have done this on purpose, but because there is a gender bias deep within me — an unconscious softening of the world — I would have perpetuated my bias towards both my character and my reader.

I am SHOCKED by this. And not a little bothered by it.

Is this kind of buried instinct to soften things only within me, or is it within other people, too? If I decide to keep this character a female, what will the feedback be from editors when they see what she has to go through to get where she’s going? Does the mere act of changing the character’s gender make the book’s story more powerful, or suddenly make it full of scenes that could be construed as gratuitous? Why this difference?

Now I find myself in a bit of a quandary. Do I follow through with my experiement and create a second draft with a fully (or as fully as a second draft allows) realized female protagonist? Even without changing the story, committing to doing this makes me mourn my previous main character a bit. I feel like I’ve abandoned him after spending so much time together – watching his character grow and change. But if this character morphs into a girl so many other things change, too. I see her becoming a real person – like a hologram on my desk. It is, frankly, a little terrifying.

So what is the point of this blog post? I guess it’s a confession. I could never have written a female character like this, with a story like this, unless I wrote her as a boy first.

As a tomboy, “boy-book” author, with a tomboy daughter, I am having real trouble allowing that this revelation is true. But I guess it is.

What biases do you bring to your writing? If you’re like me, you don’t know until you experiement. This, I guess, is the second reason for the blog post – to encourage others to try new things with their drafts. Try something on a lark and see what it does to your story.

You may have to write a confessional blog post, too. :)

 

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 9, 2012 4:48 pm

    This is a terrific, important post, Kari! I’m actually quite sure I have some (if not all, and maybe even more) of the same biases you do, and I think it’s a credit to you that you’re able to acknowledge it. I know I also bring a host of other biases concerning race, age, socioeconomic level, education, etc. it’s hard to be aware of all those things while doing our work (or, more importantly, living our lives), but it’s so important, and worth the effort. Thanks!

  2. July 9, 2012 5:52 pm

    I think it would be a cool double book, almost like an extended "choose your adventure" based on gender. i know, i know, tough to sell, right?

  3. July 10, 2012 2:02 am

    This is a very cool idea. I’m starting a WIP I think this experiment would be perfect for. *waves wand* gender change complete!

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