Looking at Character: He, She, or People? Characterization and Gender Identification

Hey there folks!

As I wait for the Amazon and Smashwords engines to chug forward in publishing my latest book, it would be a good time to get back in the swing of things and get a new Looking at Character article out.  This is one I’d been meaning to do for weeks now, inspired by some strangely coincidental input I’d received from multiple sources, all within a day or two of each other.  Let’s talk about characterization in light of gender, which is a way of asking ‘Is gender an elemental part of characterization?’

Maybe I should explain better.  Some people believe that a character should be identifiable as a gender simply through characterization.  A woman, for instance, should be recognizable as such without direct gender tags simply by how her actions and personality.  Others believe that this isn’t necessarily the case.  While a character might have identifiable gender traits outside of direct description, it isn’t always the case, the argument being that people are, at their core, people regardless of gender.  One could even expand these two opposing arguments to include ethnicity, sexuality, and other ‘intrinsic’ characteristics.

Which is right and which is wrong?

Gender politics aside (one could make a very strong case that the ‘gender is a base personality trait’ is sexist to both genders), I think the best approach to finding the answer is to talk to people.  Ask a man if he thinks that being a ‘man’ is more important than being a ‘human’ and the same with women.  I can tell you what I have discovered from asking everyone I know over the past few weeks.

No one wants to be stereotyped by their gender.  Well, most people don’t, at any rate.  Most people believe that who they are, their personality, is more important to their identity than their gender.  If that’s the case, why treat the characters in your writing any differently?

Obviously, there WILL be times when gender is important to plot and characterization.  There are gender issues, political, social, and physical, that can play a role in things and, yes, sometimes even be vital to a character’s overall personality.  However, these are not the norm and shouldn’t form a baseline of personality traits to add on to.  A person is a person first, then a man or woman.

I can’t claim to be an authority on this.  However, from both my writing instinct and my moral compass, treating a man or a woman as a person is simply the right way to characterize them.

This might be a divisive topic but I would also love to hear other takes on this.  Whether you agree or disagree, I’d love to hear your comments as long as you keep your tone and arguments civil and rational.

Until I can make an official post on my book publication or the next Starving Review, good luck and good writing!


  1. I don’t know what to tell you about where sex-roles come from, but I do have a strange story to tell about my eldest son, when he was not quite a year old. We were very poor: we didn’t even own a TV. I was a stay-at-home mom, and my son had never been to a babysitter. I took a job babysitting a 3-year-old and a 9-month old. The job was within walking distance from home, and I could take my son with me (he was still breastfed). He was pulling himself up to stand, and walking holding on to furniture. The first day I went to work, there were miniature cars on the family’s coffee table. My son was too young to have toys with small parts, and he had never seen a toy car. He pulled himself up to stand at the coffee table, grabbed one of the cars, rolled it back and forth on the table top, and said, “VROOM! VROOM!” Would a girl have done that? I really don’t know. That happened 35 years ago, and I still have a hard time believing I saw and heard my son do that.

  2. This is a very interesting concept, and I agree that it could be extended to ethnicity, age, job, sexual orientation, etc. I fall into the “people are, at their core, people regardless of gender” camp. I think that defining characters by such tags raises the risk of populating a book with stereotypes, tropes and stock figures.

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