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Moonlight meanderer

Writing Strong Characters of Any Gender

Tantz_Aerine at Aug. 26, 2023, midnight
tags: character design, gendered characters, strong characters, Tantz_Aerine, writing

Last time I'd written about gender toxicity and what a trap it can be for creators seeking to write powerful characters. It is not something that only plagues the "strong female character" attempt, but also the "strong male character" and definitely the "strong LGBTQ+ character".

Too many of these attempts to portray them end up in either very off-putting characters that come across as entitled, aggressive, obnoxious, or just unnatural, or deeply undermine suspension of disbelief with dialogue or behavior that doesn't convince as human: they are too perfect, have plot armor, are too loveable while being abrasive and obnoxious, and so on.

I genuinely believe that unless the author is some kind of misogynistic, misandrist, or anti-LGBTQ+ weirdo crafting a propaganda piece, these are the results of trying too hard, having the wrong approach, and the wrong idea about what a person is.

Don't get me wrong; this is not an issue of creators not being able to grasp what a person is, but rather the dreadful education we get when it comes to who we are as people: what makes people, people. As always, some of the most basic skillsets that should be taught in school are left out- namely, basic psychology principles and some SEL (socio-emotional learning) skills. As a result, we learn about ourselves from all the wrong sources: TV ads, influencers, fashion magazines, and peer pressure.

It doesn't just make some stuff more expensive…

It allows you to sell the same thing twice!

Of course there's a lot more nuance regarding why society is so hell bent in gendering everything, even when it makes no sense or is ridiculous, like the above two examples. My only point right now lest I digress in different types of socio-economic and socio-political rants is that we are raised in a society that wants us to believe that men and women are so different they literally cannot use or understand the same things. Men will become women if they touch pink, women will become men if the spray Old Spice on themselves by accident.

It's not surprising, therefore, that creators struggle with writing Strong Female Characters when women are supposed to be "soft" and "vulnerable" and Sensitive but Strong Men when men are supposed to be "stoic" and "unfeeling", and don't get me started on "rainbow" queer characters whose entire personality is their sexuality- they literally have no other traits except that.

So how does one overcome this hurdle?

If you're in it for the long haul, I'd strongly suggest to get at least a few seminars and classes on basic psychology principles. Not "life coaching" or "empowerment" stuff. Not new age weird stuff. Just actual, evidence based, straight up psychology. Developmental and social psychology will be your friends. If you're not sure, feel free to PQ me and I'll set you up with free resources.

If you're looking for a shortcut, here are a few steps that are excellent in helping you with biases when character designing:

1. Make a list of all the traits you want your character to have. Your taboo words are "strong" or "powerful" or "nice". These words are masking words, meaning that they don't explain HOW the character is strong, HOW they are powerful, HOW they are nice. If you keep reverting to these words, follow up with the HOW and write down behaviors that make your character strong and powerful etc. And if you really want to get into the weeds, after you've done that ask yourself WHY this behavior makes them strong.

2. DO NOT focus on gender AT ALL while you're working on step 1. This is tough, because when we come up with main characters especially, we come up with their genders almost immediately. However, try to put that aside by thinking of unisex traits first. Are they industrious or lazy? Are they intelligent or dumb? Do they like sports? Are they allergic to something? Can they run fast? Do they like pizza? That sort of thing. Soon you'll be thinking about their personality without thinking about their gender as much.

3. When you have the battery of traits, there comes the time to actually address their gender. Their gender is going to be the filter through which their battery of traits manifests. This goes for ANY gender. Treat their gender as part of the worldbuilding and setting. Their society's gender expectations are different if they are a woman in Ancient Sparta than if they are a woman in Mao's China than if they're a woman in 1700s France. Study up what those were.

4. Once you have the gender expectations of the society your story will be taking place in (that includes fantasy), now you can start to figure out how your character's traits will be filtered through, and to what extent. What will be repressed, what will be fully expressed? To what extent will they go against the grain if their trait clashes with the gender expectations, and what will be the backlash of that? How will they navigate being who they are in a world that will strive to fit them in a box they don't fit very well?

And here I have to point out something important: no matter how much it might seem the opposite, nobody fully fits society's gender norms and gender standards. The girliest girl and the manliest man will have some traits and behaviors that DO NOT conform to their gender expectations. And even the most rebellious of characters that buck the system when it comes to conformity (especially in genders), WILL have some traits that DO conform to society's gender expectations. You can consider this an unbreakable rule and give your characters the capacity to do or be things that wouldn't be expected of them by subverting such stereotypes in accordance with the traits you picked for them.

Like the only girls have cats stereotype

Or that wearing a tutu means you aren't dangerous

All in all, don't be afraid to have fun. People are unique. No matter what society they are raised in, they will remain unique and they will find ways to express this uniqueness through the ages, even if their gender forbids them.

But okay. You have managed to create a character that is a full fledged person, that happens to be a certain gender and have a certain sexuality.

How do you write them interacting with the opposite gender(s) and still keep them strong/powerful as characters, without needing to nerf the other characters? How do you have a full cast of strong/powerful characters that the audience will engage with, remember, and want to see succeed or fail?

I'm tackling that next, starting by finally defining what a Strong, Powerful Character is.

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