Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Gender in Character

People prefer laughing to thinking, my male narrator says.

Expressing the same thought, my female narrator says, On the whole, I’ve found people to prefer laughing over thinking.

I am intimidated and confused when teachers - or to be precise, books which profess to help writers, or characters in books who teach writing, since I've never taken a class - speak about male syntax vs. female syntax.  Still, I made this change automatically; People prefer laughing to thinking, versus On the whole, I’ve found people prefer laughing over thinking.

The first thought was simply me as me, trying to get inside the narrator’s head.  I am a man, so it’s safe to assume near-male syntax.  FYI, the first draft was something like People prefer things that make them laugh over things that make them think.  About ¾ of a page in, the narrator reveals herself as female.  I’ve found that jarring every time I’ve edited this piece.  Truthfully, I found it a little forced when I first wrote it, a deliberate attempt to write outside of myself.  So I thought of syntax.  Male vs. female syntax.  I thought of Emma Thompson’s narration in the movie Stranger Than Fiction, not her words but a part written for her by a male.

The first statement is assertive.  It doesn’t matter how the reader views the world, the truth is that people prefer laughing to thinking whether the reader likes it or not.  The second statement is more personal.  It’s about her experience, and therefore less blunt.

I've thought it over and I don’t know if one choice is better.  If you like minimalist prose, which I tend to, then the first wins.  It gets the point across with fewer words, which is what editing is all about.  Does it say enough about the character, though?

People prefer laughing over thinking gives the narrator strong opinions, a lack of fear in expressing them.  On the whole, I’ve found people prefer laughing over thinking says the narrator wants to express her world view without making it everyone’s.  I suppose you could argue for masculine or feminine, but neither trait is male or female, but

Maybe this exercise is less about whether syntax can be male or female and more about my own sexism.  Is it sexist to give a female character more empathy and self-awareness than a male character?  On the whole, I’ve found women to more in touch with their emotions (and that’s me, not me trying to write as a woman).  But we’re not talking about life, we’re talking about fiction.  We’re talking about the reader buying into the femininity of the narrator.  So while a weak thought doesn’t destroy a character’s masculinity and a strong thought a character’s femininity, perhaps the assertion of a narrator’s sexuality can’t survive a string of thoughts like these.  Unless, of course, the writer is saying something specific about who this particular narrator is.

A few years back, I was about two thirds of the way through a British writer’s book who I knew wasn’t Nick Hornby.  I flipped to the cover to learn the writer’s name so I could read more (for all the good it did; can’t remember the author or the book).  The fact that the author was female shocked me.  She didn’t just “get it,” she stepped into the skin of the men in her life, looked through their eyes, and put it to paper (I have no idea what this unknown female British author’s thoughts are like; I’m talking about how well she writes as a man).

A couple of friends in college were talking while I pretended to read nearby.  They were both from New York City and were thrown by the campus’ lack of diversity.  Both were happily surprised when they found the club beneath the dining hall.  “I walked in and it was like, ‘what’s up,’” one friend said, “black folks were coming out of everywhere, like damn roaches.”  Then they both laughed.  Later, this same friend said, “Don’t you just love being black?”  I’m half Mohawk Indian and half (mostly)Scottish.  If I wrote that as dialog, no one would buy it.

We’re talking fiction, not life.  As lifelike as you want to make it, there are limits to the real life you can use.

In Amanda Boyden’s second book, Babylon Rolling, one of her POV narrators is a black gang member in New Orleans.  As a teacher in New Orleans, Boyden has heard this syntax.  I have not.  I only need to listen to my wife tell stories about her own inner-city students to know how much a teacher learns, but I still found it difficult to read past Boyden's whiteness.  If she was black, I wouldn’t have given those chapters a second thought.

As much as I love women, I am socialized to sexism as much as the next person. I’m also a man. I’m afraid it will scream from the page.
My Allegedly Female Narrator: There’s a romantic notion of what happens when one places the muzzle of a gun to one’s head and pulls the trigger, much more so in the written word than on screen.
My Very Female Reader: I’m sorry, that was supposed to be a woman?  I couldn’t tell over the sound of your testicles burping.

If I am to write convincingly as a woman, I need to put aside my fears of sounding sexist.  I need to inhabit her, the way that British writer inhabited her men.

This is the part where I long to be in a writing group again.

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