Thursday, August 31, 2006


This is the title of a book I just read. By Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Wood, it's a practical handbook on writing about people of different sexes, orientations, races, cultures, etc., from your own, with exercises from the workshop on this topic the authors designed. Most of the discussion focuses on writing about people of different races or cultures, something I admit I'm very timid about. Like the hypothetical writer mentioned in one of the chapters, I'd be afraid of getting it horribly wrong and offending somebody. Creating characters who are vampires, werewolves, dragons, or visitors from a distant planet doesn't pose that threat. After all, as far as we know, there are none of these creatures around to read my characterizations of them and get upset with me. :) The only viewpoint character of a different race/culture I've produced is Kenji, the half-kitsune hero of my shapeshifter erotic romance, "Foxfire," in the Ellora's Cave ( anthology TRANSFORMATIONS. He's only half Japanese and was born in the United States, so he was pretty safe to write about.

One thought sparked in me by WRITING THE OTHER, however, was speculation about writing from the viewpoint of a person of the opposite sex. Now that romance publishers readily accept scenes from the hero's viewpoint (which wasn't always the case), all of us have probably used POV characters of the other gender -- true aliens! :) The popular self-help manual claims men are from Mars and women are from Venus. Dorothy Sayers, one of my favorite mystery authors, asked in the title of one of her essays, "Are Women Human?" -- from the viewpoint of male-dominated culture, that is. Sayers, not surprisingly, advocates the position that women, like men, are primarily human beings, and on many topics it makes no sense to speak of a "woman's viewpoint." She remarks that on some issues she has more in common with her charwoman than with any man, but on other issues she has more in common with George Bernard Shaw than with the charwoman. In contrast, a female character in Robert Heinlein's NUMBER OF THE BEAST speculates that men and women are so different they can't belong to the same species; they must, instead, be symbiotes. James Tiptree's unforgettable classic "The Women Men Don't See" features two American women in a South American jungle (if I remember the setting correctly) who seize at the opportunity to hitch a ride on an extraterrestrial spaceship and leave Earth forever. The male viewpoint character asks the older of the women how she can stand to think of spending the rest of her life among aliens. She matter-of-factly replies, "I'm used to it." Recent neurological and psychological research has discovered that typical male and female brains really do have objectively verifiable differences. Gender identity is nowhere nearly so dependent on cultural conditioning as it was fashionable to believe in the mid-20th century. Remember the feminist picture book about Baby X? X was brought up completely unisex, with his/her gender revealed to no one outside the family. The point of the story was how happy and well-adjusted X was, and how the other children in her/his class joyfully adopted his/her "free to be you and me" outlook on life.

(Read Steven Pinker's fascinating book THE BLANK SLATE for a history and deconstructive analysis of the position almost universally held in this period that no fixed “human nature” exists and that any claim of innate differences among people must imply superiority and inferiority. We see evidence of the cultural assumption that people are infinitely malleable in texts as different as BRAVE NEW WORLD, 1984, and C. S. Lewis's ABOLITION OF MAN.)

WRITING THE OTHER discusses the concept of the "unmarked state," or as I often think of it, the default setting. In North American culture, the implicit default is a white, middle-class, heterosexual man. This used to be true in many professions; a lawyer or doctor was assumed to be male unless one specified "woman doctor" or "woman lawyer," as illustrated by the old logic problem that wouldn't fool many people nowadays: "The patient is the doctor's son, but the doctor is not the patient's father." On the other hand, in a few occupations the unmarked or default state is feminine; people still tend to say "male nurse" if the nurse isn't a woman. I know that in my own reading, if a story has a first-person narrator, I assume the character has the same gender as the author, unless the text makes the opposite clear up front. If neither the text nor the author's name gives a clear indication, I often assume the narrator is male. When I first started writing fiction at age thirteen, almost all my protagonists were male, because that was the model I found in the classic horror stories I read. I think I also leaned toward male characters because of a not fully conscious assumption that girls and women were less interesting than men. Now I follow just the opposite pattern. Except for a very occasional short story, all my protagonists are female. In romances I create scenes from the hero's POV, but the majority of the text stays inside the heroine's mind. I've become aware of the differences between typical masculine and feminine thought processes, so writing a credible male viewpoint character at any great length would pose a more difficult challenge. (In my teens, I shared all my stories with my future husband, who commented about one of them that I had no idea how boys' minds worked.)

The classic exploration of gender differences that leaps to mind is, of course, Ursula LeGuin's LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS. The inhabitants of the planet on which this novel takes place are sexually neutral most of the time. For a short period every month, each person enters a state called "kemmer," in which the individual transforms into either male or female. The result is completely random except in close proximity to a person who has already assumed a particular sex, in which case the other person becomes the opposite sex. LeGuin uses this alien biology to speculate on what a human society without our culture's sex-related baggage would be like. She presents this society through the eyes of a "normal" human male, an ambassador from another world. Because she doesn't invent a gender-neutral pronoun, the visitor thinks of all the local inhabitants as "he," a choice that can't help but bias the reader's perceptions. Unless one keeps the aliens' "neutral" state in the forefront of one's mind, a reader may tend to drift into thinking of this world as inhabited entirely by men who sometimes take on female traits. I had a similar difficulty with the STAR TREK: NEXT GENERATION episode in which Riker falls in love with a person from a planet of hermaphrodites. Unlike a novel, a TV program has to SHOW the characters, and they didn't have a pool of sex-neutral actors to draw upon. So I couldn't help seeing all the aliens in this episode as women with short hair and unisex clothes. Which illustrates how deeply the importance of sex in determining identity is embedded in our minds.

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