Male. Female. Or Otherwise. by Mazarkis Williams

An author from an online writing group once offered some advice. He said a homosexual character should never be included in a story unless his/her sexual preference figured into the plot. Otherwise, it was a distraction, he said. To him, a gay character stood out—didn’t fit—and anything non-default about a character should be important to the plot.

Sometimes I get a dizzy feeling and I think I’m communicating with someone from another planet. This was one of those times. The idea that all characters must fit to some ‘default’ expectation threw me. How would I know who all my readers were, and what the ‘default’ was for them? Were they all straight? White? Middle-class? I didn’t think so. And where does one have to live so that homosexuals stand out as unusual? Yes, I have lived in urban areas most of my life, but still. Still. Even for an extremely plot-oriented writer (for whom characters are tools of the story), this guy was missing something.

So. Reader expectations. I cannot possibly guess what they are. I can comment only on reader behaviour, and that may reveal a bit about their expectations. And the first thing that comes to mind is that, as a member of both the fantasy/sci-fi community and the adjacent gaming community, I see a lot of discomfort with gender issues.

Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

In the MMORPG I play, I have both female and male characters (which reflects my unclearly-gendered public author identity, though not purposely). I have had people assume I am a male playing a woman, but when playing a male character I have been asked whether I’m female. One elvish hunter said, while watching my avatar dance, “I hope ur a girl, man, because otherwise u r gay.” Which would be … bad? Women are expected to behave in one way – feminine, agreeable, dance-y – and men in another – laconic, assertive, definitely not dance-y. To vary from that ‘default’ is to raise questions.

My gay friend who plays MMORPGs says that in his experience, only the younger players care whether he’s homosexual, and there’s more concern expressed about whether he’s male or female. Why is it so important to establish the gender of a player in an MMORPG? Some people actually feel uncomfortable when they don’t know my gender, when I am just some random person who joined their PUG for ten minutes.

I think it is so that they know how to treat me. Generally, when I am playing a female character, the assumption is I am also female and other players are chatty with me. They take time to explain everything, talk about their lives, and ask advice about how to get their girlfriends to play. When I am playing a male character the chat is silent, except for an occasional “thanks, bro.”

It’s considered uncool – or “gay” – to play a female character when you’re male. I have had men confess to me (in my female character form) that they prefer to play women, but would I please not tell anyone else, because they don’t want their online acquaintances to be angry with them. Yes, angry. I suppose since male players tend to open up to women, they are caught off guard when that “woman” is actually a man. But why do they make the assumption? Quite a few men play with female avatars.

Commitment Hour by James Alan Gardner

Others are not sure how to deal with me and are a bit squirrelly in communications, as if the not-knowing causes some discomfort.

Back to writing. People like to know, and in the absence of information will default to the most likely gender. Apparently for authors that is ‘male,’ and for me, assumptions vary between ‘straight’ and ‘gay’ and happily, not in a judgmental fashion. Some, a smaller number, figure I’m female. A surprising few have not made any assumption at all, and have asked instead. Others are not sure how to deal with me and are a bit squirrelly in communications, as if the not-knowing causes some discomfort.

So how does this affect how books are read?

On my blog I wrote about how book covers serve to immediately identify the type of book inside. An author’s name, indicating gender and background, may serve in the same way, bringing up their default gender expectations.

I have seen readers claim they don’t read books written by women because they’re too emotional, especially the male characters, which is unrealistic to them. Leaving aside the fact the most emotional people I have ever met are men, it’s likely not true. But female = melodrama, in these readers’ minds.
Then there is the opposite – there is a perception men can’t write decent women. However, I haven’t noticed anyone saying they won’t buy books for this reason. Many will choose male authors if they want more action and plottiness.

I have a confession. I tend to buy fantasy written by women. That’s because I expect more well-rounded characters in books that women have written. However, if asked to write down all my favourite characters, many of them would be written by men:

Male Writers Female Writers
Littlefinger (George R R Martin) The Fool (Robin Hobb)
Severian (Gene Wolfe) Seyonne (Carol Berg)
Arya (George R R Martin) Stephanie Plum (Janet Evanovich)

My belief that women write better characters is based on nothing more than a false impression, but it sticks. Just like those tests for which the word ‘yellow’ is written in red, and when asked what colour it is, we say ‘yellow’ – our brains trick us and they are not to be trusted. My advice to anyone who buys books based on ‘default’ gender assumptions is to stop it. You are probably wrong, and missing something.

To get back to the man who argued not to put homosexuals in a book unless it’s part of the plot: I have given a lot of thought to why I was so offended at the time. It’s because a gay character is real life. If I were to write a neighbourhood, it would be something like my real one, with lots of different people in it, of all different colours and religions, and gay, bi-, and straight as well. To eliminate them, and make my neighbourhood conform to some ‘default’ homogeneity, would be a lie. To me that is not real life, whatever any other reader might expect . I can’t try to imagine what some nameless reader is expecting; I can only write what feels real. That is my default.

And that goes to men and women too. Real men and women, with women who can lift things and men who cry, women who are unemotional and men who are conniving. Because there are all kinds of people, and they don’t all fit neatly into a slot. My pen name, for all the issues I have with it, reflects this fact. The word “woman” or “man” should not automatically conjure up an image. That’s what the writing is for – to create these characters, to give them breath and life and purpose beyond ordinary expectations. And that is what I aim to do.

Written by Mazarkis Williams

Mazarkis Williams

Mazarkis Williams has degrees in history and physics, and a passion for cooking and cats. Mazarkis has roots in both Britain and America, having been educated and working in both, and now divides time between Bristol and Boston.

  • Thomas Swift January 7, 2013 at 6:33 am

    If asked what I was leaning towards when writing, plot functionality or character development, I’ve a feeling I lean more towards plot even though I try to hold true to both. Yet, even from that perspective, the idea that I shouldn’t ‘have’ gay characters without having them a plot point is a little disturbing.
    The amount of attention to detail might vary, the time spent dwelling on the matter might be low, but the idea that having created this character I should be ashamed of what i’d created and hide it? There’s having an element of mystery, being understated, not wanting to force an aspect into people’s faces, that i’d understand. A blanket ban makes no sense.
    It’s the little interesting details are what make good characters. Whether that details is being gay, having one arm, an inability to see the color violet… All things I’ve read and enjoyed over the years that might have zip all to do with plot.

  • Michelle Knowtlon January 7, 2013 at 9:43 am

    I agree that there should be more fiction with GLBT main characters regardless of whether their orientation drives the plot or not. To assume a heterosexual main character is just as bad as assuming a white male character. I’m currently working on an urban fantasy with a gay main character. I’m facing a lot of challenges and don’t know if it will work. I was inspired by JR Ward’s upcoming novel Lover At Last. Her publishers finally gave her the go-ahead to release a paranormal erotic romance in a long standing series that finally makes the gay couple the central romantic couple.

  • Al January 7, 2013 at 11:35 am

    Interesting thoughts and I agree with your response to the other author. Only including things necessary for the plot would make for very dull books. No red-hearings, no embelishments, featureless characters? Having said that, if it’s not relevant to the plot is there any point in defining sexual orientation? The writer may have it in mind but individual readers may make other assumptions without any detriment to their experience of the story.

  • Anne Lyle January 7, 2013 at 12:25 pm

    I think it depends what you mean by “relevant to the plot”. I have several gay and bisexual characters in my Elizabethan fantasy series, and of course their sexuality affects their allegiances to one another and in that sense contributes to the plot. But would it make a huge difference if they were instead siblings or old friends? Probably not. The story isn’t about them being gay, so overall I consider their orientation plot-irrelevant. And yet the story would be subtly different in flavour if they were all straight… To me, plot and character are so intertwined, I have trouble separating them.

  • Kate Elliott January 7, 2013 at 12:41 pm

    That’s really fascinating about levels of chattiness in MMORPGs.

  • Mazarkis Williams January 7, 2013 at 1:39 pm

    Of course that’s only my personal experience re the chattiness. As for whether it’s worth defining sexual orientation: hmm. I can only say that when a character comes to me, he (or she) is an entire person, with a past and a family, wishes and desires, etc., and sex/romance is a huge part of life . . . why veil it unless the story is entirely procedural, and doesn’t delve much into personal relationships?

  • Trudi Canavan January 7, 2013 at 3:41 pm

    Great post, and the observations about the role playing world interactions, particularly that younger players are more concerned about whether a player is gay, are very interesting. I’ve had the occasional “why did you include gay characters if there wasn’t some point to make about it” reaction to my books. My response is always “If I had a point to make, it was only that I shouldn’t have to have a point to make.”

  • Paul (@princejvstin) January 8, 2013 at 6:47 am

    I think there is a growing expectation in some circles that secondary fantasy written by women is much more character focused.

    Of course there are those who think that women don’t write epic fantasy at all, but that’s a topic your colleague Courtney Schafer has recently discussed and dismissed…

  • Mazarkis Williams January 8, 2013 at 6:56 am

    @Paul Courtney’s very good at that. I have trouble with the definitions of the various subgenres, so I can only say “hey . . .”

    @Trudi Canavan I agree, shouldn’t be any more distracting than hair color.

  • TinyPterosaur January 8, 2013 at 7:30 am

    You know, I have often read of the plight of women gamers, and the chat they experience in MMOs, and not to say that it does not occur (it most certainly does) but having exclusively played female characters in RPGS my entire life, I have honestly not had one bad experience that I can recall. I do recall being asked once why I didn’t use voice, and I said I didn’t own a mic, and that might have indicated to the players that I was male, but nothing bad came of it.

    I know this is bad, but I almost feel left out because I failed to experience harsh misogyny online. Maybe Maelstrom was just a better WoW server :P

    To the gay characters in books, well, my current WIP has three POVs — one male and straight, one female and gay (and her coming out takes place in the book but isn’t part of a major plot arc) and the last is female and ??. (I currently have plans for her to fall in love with a sentient robot, though that’s much later) I incessantly worry about whether having two FMCs, neither of whom is “default” gender, and two MCs that are non-white, will keep my book from being published as easily as it otherwise might be. But the fact is that these characters aren’t themselves if they don’t have these traits. If I make them all white and straight, they’re not the same people. Even if being gay isn’t a plot-point, it affects how your characters view the relationships in the world around them, and its another difference that can lead to conflict, and thus interesting stuff!

    Anyone who wants to read male-only, white-only books should just go back to the 1800s and read Moby Dick over and over again if that’s how they want their stories to be.

    This morning I woke up thinking that all authors should go gender neutral for a year — just have all the books they publish one year be only in neutral pseudonyms or just acronyms. Reading this only makes me feel like its a better idea.


  • Eric Honaker January 8, 2013 at 10:18 am

    @Anne Lyle – you’re entirely right. On the one hand, there’s very little that you can do one way that you couldn’t do another. On the other hand, every facet of a character affects their make-up and personality, so doing it any other way would create a slightly different story.

    The first novel I remember reading with a homosexual main character (aside from some Darkover books, which I recall having a ton of viewpoint characters) was _Gossamer Axe_ by Gail Baudino. I was 14, I think, and I was far more interested in the fact that the MC played guitar than who she wanted to sleep with. Would it have been a hugely different story if she’d been straight? Probably not, the damsel in distress could have been a dude in distress instead. Or if she’d been a straight man, it would also have worked, but would have cut the legs out of from under the “girl power” vibe, which rocked.

    I think some people confuse “irrelevant” with “not central.” Probably so they can hang onto their comfortable familiarity with main characters.

  • Mazarkis Williams January 8, 2013 at 11:51 am

    @tinypterosaur I should say that on the whole my online gaming experience has been positive. If it weren’t, I wouldn’t game anymore. It’s just that I am sometimes reminded, via the chat function or through conversation with other players, that there is a certain segment of the gaming community who do not think it’s cool for a man to play a woman. I’m not so clear on them being misogynistic: I don’t know what their reasons are.

  • Francis Knight January 8, 2013 at 12:54 pm

    RE: the whole gaming thing – maybe it’s a difference in different communities? All my male friends play female as well as male characters (so do I), and I’ve had very little misogyny online, at least specifically directed at me. There was one time when someone accused me of being, well, shall we say, a person who does a certain thing with men. To which my answer could only be ‘Well, yes, as it happens, I DO do that with men…. ‘ and the accuser got laughed out of the PVP group.

    But the male/female authorship – yeah that’s tricky. And here I am, female writing under a male name. Why…man that’s complicated. But at least part of it is because some men just will not pick up a book by a female author, or expect it to be romancy or whatever (and I’m with you – I think men are, in general, more romantic etc than women, they just have to hide it because of society’s conventions). And I don’t know that women write better characters, but I think they write *different* ones to men fairly often. Or is that just my perception? Would I feel differently subjected to a blind reader test? Am I just as prejudiced? Probably to some extent – I think we all have our little foibles.

    Bah! Whole thing is such a can of worms!

  • Eric Rhoads January 8, 2013 at 6:13 pm

    Shame to ignore whole sections of the real world simply because they do not conform to someone’s private bubble. Fantasy would be rather boring if that happened. The world is a mosaic of interesting people and places and makes for great inspiration.

    I also know a healthy number of people who are men who play female avatars exclusively simply because more people want to chat with them. It is always a fun time when someone with a female avatar joins clan chat.

  • Mazarkis Williams January 9, 2013 at 9:03 am

    @Francis ha you should have entered Teresa’s contest :) But again I never used the word ‘misogynistic.’ Is that what people are getting from what I wrote? It’s true some of these players have an issue with male/female avatars but is it because they hate women? As I pointed out, when I’m in my female avatar form they are very welcoming to me. Life is complicated. I dunno.

    @Eric That’s interesting someone would use a female avatar just to chat, but it’s true. In my experience, the players are more likely to chat with a person with a female avatar. I can also be fairly sure that when I screw up they won’t scream at me :) I only hinted at it in the post, but the sense I get is that men want more women to play (so they ask how to get their girlfriends interested). So they don’t want to do anything that would discourage a (possible) female from continuing to play.

  • Francis Knight January 9, 2013 at 9:37 am

    True you didn’t use misogyny – however it IS pretty prevalent, sadly, and mostly what people jump on when talking about gender in game IME, so I kind of got sidetracked to that. Oddly , my husband has had more directed at him when playing a female avatar than I have (mostly ‘Hur hur U a girl, girls can’t play’ stuff). Other than that, I can’t say I’ve noted much difference playing male v female avatars wrt *myself* – though I’ve seen people kicked from groups/guilds etc for being female IRL. Perhaps that’s why it leapt to mind!

  • David Wagner January 9, 2013 at 11:55 am

    As to the thoughts expressed in the opening paragraph, I’d say that while it’s foolish to tell an author what he/she should and should not write, I do find homosexual main characters a distraction as well. Certainly write what you wish, but I don’t think it hurts to know that in doing so, you might add a hindrance to certain would-be readers. In my case, I’ve been able to quickly wrestle it down, pin it, and continue with the tale… I guess it comes down to how easily you want your reader(s) to navigate your storytelling.

    It’s the “head vs gut” thing, I think, as far as the whole issue of a straight dude dealing with the idea of homosexuality in general. The head says “people can be/love whomever they want, who gives a crap?” The gut says, “uh… yuck.” If a person fundamentally finds the idea of interacting sexually with a person of the same gender to be off-putting, then you can say it’s wrong until you’re blue in the face, there’s no denying that gut-level response leads a person to keeping the concept at arms-length. To saddle a main character with that trait (whether plot-driven or not) means that a reader who is likewise saddled with that gut-level antipathy has to work harder to like the character.

    I know it’s a sensitive issue, and I hope it’s clear that I’m not opposed to gay characters, I certainly think you can write whatever moves you, for whatever reason. I’m just trying to make sense out of the “distraction” angle, and that’s the best I’ve come up with so far…

  • Eric Rhoads January 9, 2013 at 5:01 pm


    My issue w/ that line of thought is it is a literary version of a reader sticking their head in the sand and refusing to read something that makes them feel uncomfortable. If the reader desires that, that is their choice however.

    But, if a reader is trying to compare fantasy worlds with the real world, it is stranger to NOT have gay characters than it is to have gay characters in your narrative. The absence of such things makes a narrative weaker and less reflective of actual life. Readers experiencing cognitive dissonance with gay characters or other wise “un-normal” characters do so because in their normal daily routines, they can simply ignore those unacceptable elements. They work and make friends that match their outlook in life.

    To flip the script, could you imagine ever telling a gay associate, “Hey, would you mind not being gay, or at least not around me, its distracting me from enjoying our friendship?”

  • […] Williams has a very interesting piece on gender and sexuality called ‘Male. Female. Or Otherwise’ over on A Dribble Of Ink. It’s beautifully and powerfully written which is something […]

  • Mazarkis Williams January 9, 2013 at 9:43 pm

    I agree, Eric. I also think there’s a difference between depicting a same-sex romance and writing a sex scene. Of course the two may go together in a book, but not necessarily. Personally I tend to skip over sex scenes, same-sex or not, unless they have an emotional, symbolic, or plot component that has me intrigued. (Should I be admitting that?)

    Anyway, there are plenty of straight guys who deal just fine with the idea of homosexuality, but then I live in Massachusetts where everything is great and wonderful. Should I ever put gay characters front and forward, I wouldn’t worry much about reader reactions, accepting that some might have trouble with it. I’m willing to pay that price to be true to my own experience.

  • Mazarkis Williams January 9, 2013 at 9:44 pm

    @Francis that’s terrible. I never heard of someone getting kicked for being female :(

  • […] “Male. Female. Or Otherwise.” by Mazarkis Williams […]

  • […] from traditional SFF is a lie. The Emperor’s Knife and Knife Sworn author, Mazarkis Williams agrees wholeheartedly with this, having recently spoken about gender and reception/perceptions in relation […]

  • […] Male, Female. Or Otherwise, from A Dribble Of Ink […]

  • […] It’s rather odd in an article about how gender and sexual orientation shouldn’t matter, we’re asked to examine how they do matter, but I’m with the author on the fact that they shouldn’t. I’ve been dinged before for having a random gay character in a scene. I wanted to set the image of “that’s not important to this society,” but she proved too much of a distraction and hit the cutting room floor. This article looks at all the ways we use gender to define, and how that affects homosexuality as well. It’s worth the time to read. […]

  • ELWagner December 3, 2014 at 9:06 pm

    Just ran across this post, and even though it’s been over a year, I have to say it’s excellent. Your experiences mirror what I’ve seen in WoW too, and I think I must have run into the same guy (or his twin) online. What was most depressing is how many of the other people in the online writer’s group, either chimed in to agree or simply ignored his comment. A large number of people really do think that there’s a generic kind of human being who serves as a “standard” character that all can relate to equally, and that this baseline model human is a white, straight, cisgendered, able bodied male. Any departure from this “norm” is a political statement, unless there’s some reason the plot requires it. Funny how rarely people consider that the absence of characters who are people of color, gay, transgender, differently abled, or female might also be a political statement.