Is there an issue with gender representation in my novel?

Vafnir

Dreamer
Or am I overthinking it again? Anyway.

I've been wewriting and changing things while reading through my WIP recently and have observed a potentially problematic tendency when it comes to the amount of male and female characters in my novel and their role in it. To keep it simple, I made a short list of the main cast down below, with their role and gender in the novel, divided into protagonists and antagonists.

The "main party" consists of three characters:
- Female 1, intersex but identifies as female and is one of two main characters of the story
- Female 2 - female 1's love interest and the second main character, equally important
- Male 1 - protagonist 1's best friend and voluntary servant/helper. The story is less about him than about the other two protagonists, but is still important enough to consider him a part of the "main party".

Other characters who appear regularly around the main party:
- Female 3 - she is an owner of one of two major research organizations in the story. In a way, she's the boss of the three mein characters and sends them on missions from time to time, but dies near the end of the story
- Male 2 - son of a dukedom family's leader and female 3's protege and love interest.
- Female 4 - female 1's sister and male 1's love interest.
- Male 3 - female 1's uncle, who helps the main group a lot, but gets killed later in the story

Antagonists:
- Male 4 - female 1's ancestor whose soul mainly resides in female 1's mind. He is helpful towards the main party for a long time, but turns out to be the main antagonist of the story
- Female 5 - female 2's sister. Acts villainous towards the main group for a long time, but turns out to want to help them. However, she dies before the end of the story.
- Male 5 - female 1's father who tries to chase her down for a long time until a certain point in the story, but tries to help her not long before his demise
- Male 6 - male 1's adoptive brother who works for the other research organization. He interferes in his brother's relationship with female 4 as he doesn't trust her, but in later on he is willing to do anything for his brother's sake. He is the second main antagonist of the story.

It still turned out quite chaotic, but anyways. If you read through this, you might have noticed a few discrepancies. First of all, every female character is on the protagonists' side and not hostile towards them, at least at some point in the story. Also, the rest of the "baddies" are all male characters, even though their circumstances let them look more like allies at some point, except for male 4. Then, when it comes to the relationships between the characters, mainly heterosexual relationship seems to suffer in some way - male 1 and female 4 can't completely find the way to each other because of male 1's brother, while female 3 and male 2's relationship suffers from female 3's death later on. There are probably more ascpets that could seem wrong with this characters cast, but these are the points that stuck out to me.

In case it's imporant, I am a male writer. And admittedly, it is easier for me to come up with ideas for female characters, for some reason. I'd like to mention it because I've read several times that there's a certain stigma or prejudice towards authors writing a main character of a different gender than their own. Another issue I read about was queer characters and/or characters of color, sometimes even female characters, being the first or only ones dying in a story. While this is not the case in my story, it seems like I achieved the complete opposite of it where heterosexual and "major race" get the beating, which is just as sinister as the other way round to me.

Just to make it clear, I invented characters that just came up in my mind and they just happened to be male/female and good/bad, I never had the idea of it having to be a female protagonist or female love interest or male antagonist, it just suited the characters I thought of. Also, I don't want to convey a wrong message where there is no messa to be found, since I don't intend to write a "message fantasy" or whatever it's called.

So what are your thought? Should I modify some characters for balance or am I overthinking it?
Sorry for the way I wrote this, but I can't seem to keep track of my storm of thoughts.
 

A. E. Lowan

Forum Mom
Leadership
What my team tends to do, and we find this very useful, is to ask ourselves, "Does this character have a plot reason to be white/male/cis/straight/abled?" We find the answer is usually no, and we adjust the character accordingly. And don't tell me that you can't change them because 'that's how I see them in my head." I gave up Henry Cavill as a POV character's body model for this. If I can do it, anyone can. ;)

I think that as long as your female characters aren't boobs that talk, you're probably fine. I don't like the idea of the female antagonist dying after she shows her true good-guy colors, but that's not just you. It's because women die for the sake of emotional response way, way too often, until it's become a default plot point.

Women in Refrigerators (Website) - TV Tropes

I would do a little bit of deep dive research into what tropes to avoid and which ones you either can't or can twist around into something new-ish. No woman is a monolith. We all have different experiences and different responses. If you build your characters in your head as people first, and then sex and gender second, you'll find yourself creating richer, more nuanced characters with less of a need to lean on cliches for their existence.
 

Righmath

Scribe
Absolutely howling at A.E. Lowan's response, but she's right! As long as it isn't sexist or has sexist undertones (unless you're going for that) write the story the way you envisaged it.

You're probably overthinking it, but if you're worried are you able to add an extra character? Or is this work complete?
 

pmmg

Istar
Cant argue with the reasoning that its wise to ask what purpose does any aspect of a character do to serve a story. But this is not something I would give much attention to. Just give the story what it needs and stop at that.
 

Vafnir

Dreamer
What my team tends to do, and we find this very useful, is to ask ourselves, "Does this character have a plot reason to be white/male/cis/straight/abled?" We find the answer is usually no, and we adjust the character accordingly. And don't tell me that you can't change them because 'that's how I see them in my head." I gave up Henry Cavill as a POV character's body model for this. If I can do it, anyone can. ;)

I would say I am not one that can't change a character at all, just because "that's how I see them in my head", even though I'm not sure (at least now) how I would like to change them, if it's necessary in the first place. It's more like I have an initial picture of a character with a personality and a role in my head and it's when I put them on paper or, at the latest, in my story when I think of adjusting them, that where my original post comes into play. The characters in my original post are the current outcome and I'd like to know you guys' opinion if this cast of characters seems problematic to you on at the first glance as it seems to me, or I'm just exaggerating again.
But if I understand you correctly, characters should not have a plot reason to be male/straight/white etc? Because I wouldn't want my plot to be driven by aspects such as gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and so on.

Women in Refrigerators (Website) - TV Tropes

I would do a little bit of deep dive research into what tropes to avoid and which ones you either can't or can twist around into something new-ish. No woman is a monolith. We all have different experiences and different responses. If you build your characters in your head as people first, and then sex and gender second, you'll find yourself creating richer, more nuanced characters with less of a need to lean on cliches for their existence.

Correct me if I'm wrong, because I'm not sure if I understand you correctly. You're speaking about the depiction of the female characters, in my story and in general. And while I realize there is a big problem with it in the book industry (in fact, I've read about the "Fridge the woman" trope you showed in the link just today), the main issue in my original post was that, by trying to avoid such tropes with a negative connotation about female or/and queer characters, I'm worried I reached the other end of the extreme, thus depicted men and/or heterosexual characters in a worse way than female and/or queer characters.

I think that as long as your female characters aren't boobs that talk, you're probably fine. I don't like the idea of the female antagonist dying after she shows her true good-guy colors, but that's not just you. It's because women die for the sake of emotional response way, way too often, until it's become a default plot point.

I find this part of your post interesting. I've heard of that trope as well, however I'm convinced this does not apply to my female antagonist, because a) she's an emotional character even before she shows her good-guy colors, b) there are two male antagonists who also die after showing their good-guy natures. So I was a little confused about your main focus on my female antagonist, but I guess that's because this one is more of a notorious trope than the other way round.
 
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ThinkerX

Myth Weaver
What my team tends to do, and we find this very useful, is to ask ourselves, "Does this character have a plot reason to be white/male/cis/straight/abled?" We find the answer is usually no, and we adjust the character accordingly. And don't tell me that you can't change them because 'that's how I see them in my head." I gave up Henry Cavill as a POV character's body model for this. If I can do it, anyone can. ;)

I think that as long as your female characters aren't boobs that talk, you're probably fine. I don't like the idea of the female antagonist dying after she shows her true good-guy colors, but that's not just you. It's because women die for the sake of emotional response way, way too often, until it's become a default plot point.

Women in Refrigerators (Website) - TV Tropes

I would do a little bit of deep dive research into what tropes to avoid and which ones you either can't or can twist around into something new-ish. No woman is a monolith. We all have different experiences and different responses. If you build your characters in your head as people first, and then sex and gender second, you'll find yourself creating richer, more nuanced characters with less of a need to lean on cliches for their existence.

I could be in trouble when the AE Lowan crew get around to reading 'Chameleon.' Then again...

That said:

First draft of 'Labyrinth: Journal' the 'main party' was all male. Made sense, it being a dangerous exploration mission and all. It started nagging at me during the rewrites, so the wizard went from 'old man' to 'old woman,' a move that injected sarcasm and enhanced character.

I very rarely bother with Gay/Lesbian/Bi characters, unless required by the story.
 
Characters are who they are. If anything, it's refreshing to have a cast made up mostly or entirely of female and non-cisgender protagonists. So much literature (and film) has exclusively male major characters, with female characters appearing only in supporting roles--and/or villainous ones--and non-cisgender characters not even present.

That said, I encountered a similar dilemma with one of mine: it has a few non-cisgender characters, who are all either good guys or neutral bystanders, a cisgender female protagonist, three quite villainous male characters, one of whom has a female accomplice who's at least as bad as he is, one posthumous male character who did some terrible things in life, and the rest of the characters, all cisgender female or male, are good or neutral.

I had some of the same thoughts when I realized that I'd created exclusively male bad guys (the female villain was a later addition). I didn't change the genders of any of my existing characters, but I did decide to give more life to some of the truly good male characters. My main protagonist's father, who was initially just a very minor background character, got much more fleshed out as a result, particularly as his daughter sees him: they have a very good relationship. He's similar to my own father, so I had that to draw on.

In my story, the male villains are villainous in decidedly masculine ways: they do the kinds of abusive things that male privilege facilitates and condones in the real world. Think domestic violence (but putting on a thoroughly respectable front, so he gets away with it). Think sexual harassment and assault. That kind of thing. Part of what I'm working with is trying to envision a world that isn't too perfect for those things to happen but does a better job of not letting the perpetrators get away with it--if they're caught. So known sex offenders and abusers don't end up as the equivalent of presidents or Supreme Court justices or the bigwig who can make or break everyone's career in a particular industry. (Or do they?)

And don't worry about being a man writing female characters. Plenty of male writers do a splendid job of that. There are male writers who don't, but I haven't seen any of those write exclusively female casts. Fantasy writing has precedent for that: first one who comes to mind is L.Frank Baum. Nearly all the protagonists in the Oz stories are female (and one turns out to be, in a way, transgender). And Lewis Carroll. Alice is no less believable because she was written by a man. Most of the Narnia stories focus primarily on a female protagonist, despite C.S. Lewis having some complicated relationships with women in real life.

Bottom line: use the character genders you're drawn to. Don't worry about what people will think.
 

ThinkerX

Myth Weaver
Well, after looking over the 'women in refrigerators' link on AE Lowans post and thinking a bit...

A fair portion of 'Empire: Capital' revolves around something like this. In short -

The Solarian Empire, after decades of fighting, crushed demon ridden Traag completely (Traag featured daily human sacrifices among other nastiness). However, this was a 'Pyric Victory' - the cost was extremely high, and the empire is near the brink of collapse as a result. The 'victory high' is still on, despite farms going to weeds, roads that are bandit infested and in dire need of repair, and a whole bunch of broke people running around - including much of the aristocracy.

There are a good couple hundred knights floating about the imperial palace - all of them (literal) heroes of the Traag War who went toe to toe with monsters and demons and somehow came out on top. The majority are reckless spendthrifts on the brink of bankruptcy - think frat-boys with swords - the sort that set off alarm bells with women. However, they are titled aristocrats who enjoy the emperor's favor - aka *potential* wealth and status.

Enter the 'Ladies of the Court' - attractive women hailing mostly from the upper middle class, seeking to snag highborn husbands from this group of knights - who, again, are mostly boisterous assholes of the worse sort. The knights - some of them, anyhow - are willing to 'marry low' - but the women are going to have their work cut out turning them into something other than brutal thugs. In the meantime, these knights view the 'Ladies of the Court' as 'disposable sex toys.'

Much of the abuse is implied or happens 'offstage.'
 

Penpilot

Staff
Article Team
To me, it's impossible to tell if there's an issue based on simple labels. It all comes down to the writing. To me, if you write them as people first, more often than not, you'll be fine. A simple guide is when you make your choices regarding a character, do you ask would a guy or girl or (insert another generic descriptor of a group found in society here) do this, or do you ask would Steve, Natasha, Tony, Carol, Kamala, or T'Challa do this?
One path pushes you towards stereotype. The other requires you really know your characters and what drives them.

In terms of distribution, the characters are the characters. In life there isn't a uniform distribution of traits. Not every group will be represented in a collection of characters, nor do they need to be. BUT if you find some things a bit too homogenized, nothing wrong with making a change and seeing how that affects things. Sometimes it'll lead you down some more interesting paths. Other times, it may not be right for the story, and you'll have to revert back.

Again, it all comes down to the writing. A poorly written character, no matter what group they represent, is still a poorly written character.
 

Mad Swede

Inkling
Coming a little late to this. Others have already commented that you should write your characters as people and then see where it takes you. To that I would add that it also depends on your setting. In a setting of the sort AE Lowan uses you should be asking the questions she suggests once you have created your characters and given them some depth, because in a setting like that there are no good reasons for having only cis characters.

In the sort of setting I use it isn't quite that easy. To take an example, in the setting for my stories homosexuality is not illegal. But, it is not socially acceptable in most places. Which of course leaves people like that open to blackmail. That doesn't mean I don't write characters like that - but I have to think through what the consequences are for that character and how that affects the plot and character development. To take my example further, how and where would such a character meet a partner? How would they approach one another? Do suitably discrete inns exist? How do others react to them? What happens if someone does try to blackmail them? Answering questions like that can give a whole load of pointers for character development and plot complexities, sometimes even complete stories.
 

Vafnir

Dreamer
Characters are who they are. If anything, it's refreshing to have a cast made up mostly or entirely of female and non-cisgender protagonists. So much literature (and film) has exclusively male major characters, with female characters appearing only in supporting roles--and/or villainous ones--and non-cisgender characters not even present.

That said, I encountered a similar dilemma with one of mine: it has a few non-cisgender characters, who are all either good guys or neutral bystanders, a cisgender female protagonist, three quite villainous male characters, one of whom has a female accomplice who's at least as bad as he is, one posthumous male character who did some terrible things in life, and the rest of the characters, all cisgender female or male, are good or neutral.

I had some of the same thoughts when I realized that I'd created exclusively male bad guys (the female villain was a later addition). I didn't change the genders of any of my existing characters, but I did decide to give more life to some of the truly good male characters. My main protagonist's father, who was initially just a very minor background character, got much more fleshed out as a result, particularly as his daughter sees him: they have a very good relationship. He's similar to my own father, so I had that to draw on.
I believe you're right. Instead of forcing a change of the charatcer's gender, giving them more life and personality might be a go-to fix. But at least as of now, I would say that my male characters are quite "living", considered their backstory and personality, despite them being villanous during a big chunk of the story. I guess I will continue with the characters as they are now and see if I still will think of them as well-developed down the line. As you described, you seem to have had a similar issue and dealt with it quite well with that approach.

Although, my new dilemma I've had recently deals with the gender of one of my male characters. I've been thinking about changing Male 2's gender to non-binary, this would further reduce the number of the male characters considered "good". But if I handle it the way you described in your post, that shouldn't have any negative impact.

Coming a little late to this. Others have already commented that you should write your characters as people and then see where it takes you. To that I would add that it also depends on your setting. In a setting of the sort AE Lowan uses you should be asking the questions she suggests once you have created your characters and given them some depth, because in a setting like that there are no good reasons for having only cis characters.

In the sort of setting I use it isn't quite that easy. To take an example, in the setting for my stories homosexuality is not illegal. But, it is not socially acceptable in most places. Which of course leaves people like that open to blackmail. That doesn't mean I don't write characters like that - but I have to think through what the consequences are for that character and how that affects the plot and character development. To take my example further, how and where would such a character meet a partner? How would they approach one another? Do suitably discrete inns exist? How do others react to them? What happens if someone does try to blackmail them? Answering questions like that can give a whole load of pointers for character development and plot complexities, sometimes even complete stories.
Nah, as you see I just managed to reply after a longer period of time, it's fine.
I partially described my setting and world in a different, a little older thread of mine, in which I mainly dealt with the gender of my main character. To put it simply, genders other than male/female and other sexual orientations than heterosexual are not out of the ordinary in my setting, they occur just as often and even people with higher power (rulers, dukes etc.) are non-cisgender and/or non-heterosexual, at times. And that it indeed what I've been aiming for. It also makes the depiction of such character a little less problematic for me as a writer, I believe. If I dealt with a setting similar to yours, I would understand that the approach to gender and sexuality would have to be different and kind of more "complicated", or at least more complex.

To me, it's impossible to tell if there's an issue based on simple labels. It all comes down to the writing. To me, if you write them as people first, more often than not, you'll be fine. A simple guide is when you make your choices regarding a character, do you ask would a guy or girl or (insert another generic descriptor of a group found in society here) do this, or do you ask would Steve, Natasha, Tony, Carol, Kamala, or T'Challa do this?
One path pushes you towards stereotype. The other requires you really know your characters and what drives them.

In terms of distribution, the characters are the characters. In life there isn't a uniform distribution of traits. Not every group will be represented in a collection of characters, nor do they need to be. BUT if you find some things a bit too homogenized, nothing wrong with making a change and seeing how that affects things. Sometimes it'll lead you down some more interesting paths. Other times, it may not be right for the story, and you'll have to revert back.
From the start of my writing, I've been asking myself "Would this and this character this something like this?" rather than "would a girl/a boy do this", because gender of the characters was really secondary for the way I built their personalities. However, if I want it or not, I think a character will be treated and/or evaluated differently by the reader depending on the character's gender. This is probably partly the reason that's made me paranoid about the distribution of my characters' traits.

But from what I could take away from you guys' responses, I've been mostly overthiking it and getting ahead of myself. At least as long as my characters are written as people with personalities (which I am convinced of, so far). But I'll make sure to keep an eye on the developments of my story with regard to this thread's topic, among others.
 
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