Distinction between personality and gender

Rick Lowe

I’m working on a play for my Drama class, and one of the scenes I submitted involved copious amounts of dialogue between women. It’s not always easy for people of one gender persuasion to write from the perspective of a gender that’s not their own, but I was proud of myself when a female classmate walked in halfway through an out-loud reading of the scene and declared her initial impressions to be that of a woman author. That tells me I did it right, but in no way do I think that makes me an expert… on anything.

That being said, I feel the urge to offer up a simple explanation for how I did it. It’s really easy, actually: personality first, gender later. In order to write a character, you need to know everything about their personality, not their gender—because gender does not define personality except in extreme cases and worldviews. I don’t get up each day and think “how manly can I be today?” and my female characters don’t do anything like that either. The trouble most people have is that they think a character’s gender defines that character above all other attributes.

Of course, stereotypes present an issue as well. They’re not entirely useless; they can be adequate tools if utilized with the proper constraints. Since there are so many gender stereotypes, authors don’t seem to mind taking advantage of a few when they write their characters, but to do so risks flattening out otherwise-realistic characters.

Want an accessible example? Hermione Granger, Luna Lovegood. Would you consider either a stereotypical female? I wouldn’t. How about some of the extras in the cast of Harry Potter, like Lavender or Pansy—do you even remember those names? Most people don’t, because those two characters are “stock females” instead of well-developed, complex personalities like Hermione, Luna and real people.

So to sum up: personality is more important than gender. Get to know your characters in-and-out, as well as you know yourself, and then worry about what social issues or roles they might encounter as a member of their gender, along with personal thoughts and relationships that would be affected by their gender. Gender in fiction should be just as much a character trait as “flirtacious” or “noble,” and readers have difficulty relating to characters with a one-track personality.

Still having difficulties with it? Try this: take a character you like to write about that is a member of your own gender identity—that you’re most familiar with. Then, either start writing or at least imagining them as if they woke up with the body of the gender you’re having trouble writing for. Once you get past the inevitable “holy smokes I suddenly have boy/girl parts!” ask yourself, how much has their personality changed?

Straight-up: it shouldn’t, at least not by much. Maybe a shy girl who “became” a guy gets a little bit more assertive as a plot-point, or a misogynist goes through a rom-com in order to respect women more. List all your character’s personality traits in their original gender, and then do it again in their new gender. Again, what changed? You might surprise yourself. Aside from hormones and some biological stuff we can’t really change unless we’ve got desire and scads of money, men and women just aren’t that different—especially in fiction-land, where a writer can easily create a world free of gender roles and stereotypes if they please.

This was written with a few specific classmates in mind as well, so I hope they find this useful if they get a chance to read it.
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