Looking at gender, issues surrounding it, and then looking at it again through the lens of creative endeavors is and may always be something of a hot-button topic. For me, personally, it’s an unusual thing in that, while I rationally understand why people make such a fuss about it, emotionally it’s never seemed like a complicated thing to tackle. It is just the simple notion that, differences aside, people are elementally people.
I think the place where many authors (and normal people, for that matter) trip up is that they don’t look at other-gendered characters (or people) in the right light. Often times, they are classified in a surface-down fashion instead of a core-up fashion. To clarify, let’s take a male author looking at a female character. It’s certainly common enough for that author to think of the character’s make-up and actions in the story through the primary lens of ‘woman’ and that leads to difficulties. Not only will the author be tempted to fill in gaps with female stereotypes or, just as bad, with the polar opposite of said stereotypes (which are ironically JUST as stereotypical), the character’s actions outside of those stereotypes will still feel stilted and unnatural.
A better approach, I feel, is to try to train the mind to think of all characters in terms of their core essence first. In such a situation, the author from above views the female character he just created as a human (or elf or dragon or whatever) first and foremost. He doesn’t find himself asking the awkwardly-phrased question of ‘what would a woman do here?’; he simply asks himself ‘what would a person do here?’. The action becomes more natural, because they ARE more natural, not based off stereotypes or other gender concerns.
Obviously, there will still be situations where specific gender issues cannot be ignored. Some of these are biological, of course, and some of these are societal. Still, the above rule of thumb, I think, holds true. There is still a core at the heart of every character and those cores must be the foremost consideration when it comes to the action of the book.
The simplest example of this is to take a female character placed in a modern setting. When the scene has this woman exposed to sexist remarks from her co-workers, how does she react? There is no set answer, there aren’t even a few. The spectrum of reaction is going to be as broad as the human spectrum, even though it is also a specific gender issue.
To sum up, the ultimate point I want to be making here is that, underneath all of our differences, be it gender, ethnicity, or purely social, there is a core humanity and a core personality. While those differences may add filters to that core, it makes each person no less ‘human’ than the other. We can only get natural and meaningful action in our writing if we keep to that idea.
Not only that, but I think we could all approach the world in a better way if we applied that same principal to the world outside of our writings.