Characters, gender balance, gender neutrality, and history

I’ve been peering into the notes and archives dating from the Time for Tea-writing days of 2002 and 2003, thinking I might find something interesting there to post. Not unexpectedly, a lot of the research links are now 404 Not Found, but I may end up doing a link round-up of pretty pictures.

For today, though, something that skims the edges of Women’s History Month. Back in April 2003, I was apparently participating in a discussion in other people’s journals about gender politics in fiction, specifically the idea that writers should cast characters as gender-neutral until a determination is necessary. I can’t access the original discussions now, so I’m guessing that from context, but here’s an excerpt of what I wrote about it then:

For this book I started with a basic situation — the time travel contractor, Bernard’s disappearance, the Bernard-Olivia-George triangle — and basic character traits, primarily the conflict between Olivia’s rule-following and George’s improvisation. (Here’s where I reveal what that very first imagined scene was, the one I mentioned some time back: the argument between George and Olivia over his playing of the anachronistic Mozart. It wasn’t originally the Sinfonia Concertante, but it had to be Mozart — and the dating of the piece I was going to use decided me on the tea smuggling plot.) Somehow it seemed instinctively obvious, and necessary, that Olivia be the point of view character (although I will use both her and George for book two), and that dictated how the book began and how the action progressed. 

Perhaps I could have written it the other way: a triangle with two female characters and one male. It may be wish-fulfillment or Mary-Suedom, or it may be a somewhat conscious echo of some of my favorite authors (Lord Peter Wimsey’s long pursuit of Harriet Vane comes to mind), but it didn’t occur to me to do it that way. Or Olivia could have been the improviser and George the rule-follower, certainly; but even though their characteristics are not precisely sex-linked, they are filtered through a gender lens: Olivia wouldn’t have improvised and George wouldn’t have trod the line in the same way. I’m not saying I couldn’t have told that story, or the story of Oliver and Georgina, but it wasn’t my story. 

Once I got past the fundamental beginnings of the plot and began to develop the other characters, they arrived, for the most part, with genders assigned by the story. Charles has to be male not because he’s a CEO but because he’s Bernard’s best friend; if he had been Charlotte, Olivia would have reacted to that relationship entirely differently. Andy, similarly, has to be male because he’s George’s best friend; George, I’m sorry to say, would never manage having a close female friend without trying to seduce her at some point. The eighteenth-century characters sorted themselves out because of the plot and the strictures of their time. Smugglers had to be male, even shore-bound ones like Armitage, although if they had been in a lower class of society there would certainly have been more participation by their female relatives; Camilla’s father is hardly going to let her play Lovey Warne, however. The fact that Camilla’s worldly goods will all belong to her husband (except where carefully exempted legally) is important to the plot. A magistrate has to be male, hence Sir Roger. 

The twenty-second-century characters are a different matter. I was, consciously, trying to achieve some gender balance in Constantine and Associates’ offices. The CEO is male; the CFO is female. The North American Coordinator is male; the European Coordinator is female. The project manager is male; the researchers are female. That seemed reasonable in the context of the times. It didn’t really matter who got assigned what role, but once the characters happened along (and most of them sort of popped out of nowhere when I needed them), their genders were firmly assigned and began to color their personalities. Janet would not be who she is if she were John; Marc would not be who he is if he were Marcia. Certainly George’s attitudes toward them would be different; he likes neither of them, but he dislikes them in ways that are at least in part tied to their sex, even in those enlightened, somewhat gender-blind days. 

And the time travel business is decidedly not gender-blind, anymore than it is race-blind. It can’t be. There are significantly more male jumpers than female because there’s more of a need and an opportunity for them; that’s what history gives us. Olivia is a useful part of the Armitage jump, but it would have been very difficult for her to do it on her own, without George’s protective coloration. A woman traveling alone in the eighteenth century would have been suspect in all sorts of ways. (Two women traveling together might have managed it. But then we’d have lost the revelations over the port.) There are plenty of cases in which only a female jumper will do, but there are far more in which only a male one will do. This works in a society in which sex prejudice is absent or at least abandoned at the workplace door, just as restricting the places to which Andy, as a “jumper of color,” can go works (up to a point, at least) because neither he nor his co-workers feel that his color makes him inferior. Spending time in the past, though, may tend to make the prejudices creep back in; it’s clear that George, for one, is not entirely free of sex-based prejudice. 

Dr. Sinensis could have been female, but he was a character who had lived in my head for some time and had always been male, and, fairly or not, I tend to associate that sort of total obsession with and passion for a subject with maleness. Once he gets on the stage and begins to interact with the other characters, his gender is certainly relevant, though not in an extreme sense. 

There are some characters whose presence in the story is not strictly necessary, namely Mrs. Armitage and Miss Harrison, and it is probably quite significant that they are, not only female, but strong female characters who have been strongly affected by the rules and restrictions governing women in their times. I don’t consider them to be feminist statements, in fact I try very hard to avoid making statements in the context of fiction, but they are certainly products of my feminist-influenced imagination, as is my young Amazon, Camilla. The way Miss H. rewrote herself in my head is evidence that I have trouble creating women who are nothing but silly and frivolous and manipulative. I hope they are a balanced lot, though; they all have faults (certainly Mrs. A. does), and if they are all victims to some extent, this should be a reflection of the way their society functioned, rather than an outright condemnation of male dominance, or rather of the dominance of these particular males. The men couldn’t help it, either. I’d love to turn Halsey’s instinctive admiration for Camilla’s tomboyish ways into something like an equal partnership, rather than an attempt to crush her into conformity in marriage; but Camilla would have to be a lot stronger (and older) for that to work, or Halsey brought up quite differently. I don’t like Halsey much (though I have some sympathy for him, as I tend to for all my characters), but Armitage I’m very fond of; still, the way he treats Miss H. is abominable by our standards, and he’s not all that great with Camilla or Olivia either. But his behavior makes sense — as does Camilla’s rather foolish flirtation with George, Miss H.’s passivity and resentment of Olivia, and Mrs. A.’s vendetta against Halsey. At least I hope so. 

I would like everything in the book to make sense in terms of historical context and character. However, I don’t feel it inappropriate to present the story in terms that make people think about what society — of the eighteenth century, of our own time, even of the twenty-second century as I envision it — has done to the relations between the sexes. I like men; I really do. I don’t find it difficult to see inside male characters (mine or others) or to write them. I don’t care to make George more of a sensitive, let’s-talk-about-our-feelings, stay-at-home-and-read-Jane-Austen kind of guy than I need to (although I can tell you that it’s lots easier to write someone who likes to converse than someone you have to pry conversation out of); let his virtues and his faults be filtered through his masculinity. And I don’t resent or dislike Haydn and Mozart for being male, in an era when the vast majority of composers and performers were male. But I’m not going to miss an opportunity to at least mention Maddalena Laura Lombardini Sirmen, once I know about her. (Or to have Sir Roger quote Johnson about her, or to have Armitage rave about her looks as well as her playing, though admittedly that was a sneaky way to call attention to his admiration of Olivia’s looks.) However, since balance is all and accuracy is important to me, I’m not going to make her a better composer than Haydn, nor would I anachronistically make Camilla a virtuoso on the violin, when well-brought up young ladies of the period played the piano (or other keyboard instrument) and sang, even when their fathers were cellists. (In England. Things were different in Italy, obviously.) That all-male quartet was exactly right for the time. 

I’ll add one thing to the discussion I haven’t already said elsewhere: part of the problem with defining terms like “gender-neutral” or “gender-irrelevant” may be that there are several perspectives from which those terms can be approached. There’s the perspective of the author, that of the reader, and that of the characters (since I tend to think characters are real people). Most characters, I expect, would prefer not to be gender-neutral (George would certainly be horrified at the idea). As an author, I have a difficult time dealing with the concept — characters just don’t appear that way to me — and so I’m not going to write gender irrelevancy into my work; if readers want to interpret it that way, it’s not my business, but I think they’d find it a challenge. 

So that was interesting to rediscover. I think it’s still a pretty good statement of how I regard the issue, though if I wrote it today there would be more awareness of gender fluidity and of the still-staggering imbalance between male and female characters in many genres of fiction and in visual entertainment. And I’ve changed my mind some about Olivia as a rule-follower; for one thing, she has no problem going behind Charles’s back, even at the beginning. Also, I’m not sure I’d blithely state that the 18th-century male characters couldn’t help oppressing the female ones. I still think that’s true, to some extent, but there are ways of expressing it that don’t give them a generational free pass. Every person is capable of treating other people like human beings. But I’m still on the side of using choices in narrative to express this concept, rather than anachronistic character behavior.

I’ve continued to keep the whole problem at the front of my mind while writing the rest of the novels, but so far only one character has actually switched sex in the editing process, and that was a case in which I immediately rewrote the chapter in which he first appeared to make it one in which she first appeared. And yes, it was an explicitly feminist choice (the job she ended up having is demanding both physically and mentally, though all I knew in that first chapter was that she was sincerely and reasonably pissed off at George, and punched him in the face). Aside from that, I continue to know right away what gender my characters are when they spring into being, and also to consciously create plenty of female characters even where the historical circumstances dictate a male-dominated society.

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