On writing

When the sex of your characters makes you novel book-breakingly different

I have just finished reading my way through Rachel Bach’s Paradox series (Fortune’s Pawn, Honor’s Knight and Heaven’s Queen). It’s a good, rollicking space opera with a tough heroine.

Devi Morris isn’t your average mercenary. She has plans. Big ones. And a ton of ambition. It’s a combination that’s going to get her killed one day – but not just yet.
Fortune’s Pawn

The first thing I did when I’d finished the books was look up Rachel Bach (who also writes as Rachel Aaron) on the internet. As readers do.

I came across a link to an interview she did with Book Smugglers, back when Fortune’s Pawn first came out, where she talks about the question

Would [Fortune’s Pawn] have been [different] if the protagonist had been a man?
The Book Smugglers, ‘Rachel Bach on Upsetting the Default

(My paraphrasing here, combining two questions.)

As she says in the article,

Well, yes. Book-breakingly so, actually. My main character, Devi Morris, is a veteran powered armored mercenary who is extremely good at what she does. As you might expect given that background, she’s cocky, aggressive, and ambitious; a career soldier with a serious ego, major trust issues, and all the subtlety of a bull in a china shop…and if she’d been a dude, I would have hated him.

The very qualities that make Devi Devi–her pride, her pigheaded refusal to back down even when outnumbered, her fierce aggression–would be macho to the point of absurdity in a male character. A guy at the top of the food chain beating his chest at the world is just obnoxious, but the same behavior from a girl who has clawed her way up the ladder on nothing but grit, talent, and ambition is brave and admirable and a little dangerous.

The Book Smugglers, ‘Rachel Bach on Upsetting the Default

She is so right.

Book-breakingly right.

Daniel Swenson talked about how changing the sex of his protagonist from male to female

… changed Orison from a book I thought was merely okay to one I’m really quite proud of. Even my editor said, rather emphatically, “Story could never be a man! Story as a man = boring. Story as a woman = awesome.”

Daniel Swenson, Why I gender flipped my protagonist

Book-breakingly right again.

Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, who are writing the Starbound trilogy, sometimes gender flip some of their characters to avoid stereotypes.

“What we do is go through every single character, gender-flip them and then just ask: ‘Does this bug us?'”

Marama Whyte, ‘These Broken Stars’ author Aime Kaufman on the power of gender-flipping characters

Back when we first sent Linesman off to our agent one of the first suggestions she came back with was, “Have you considered making [major secondary character] female instead of male?”

After a bit of angst (i.e. me saying “No way,” and Sherylyn saying, “That’s not a bad idea, why don’t we try it”) we did.

Now, of course, we cannot imagine this particular character as a male. A male in that position would weaken the whole story, by making it so much more just like every other story out there.

Sometimes an ordinary story can be made so much better by cutting some of the stereotypes that bind us.

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