In this blog post I discuss how I came to realise that I had a gender balance problem while writing my novel, Vengeance Will Come, and the steps I took to overcome it.
(I have the feeling of déjà vu that comes from writing the same article multiple times. I’m pretty sure I wrote a sizable piece on this topic and accidentally overwrote it. Darn it…).
Before I begin, a definition. When I’m talking about gender balance I mean that both genders are represented as intended in my novel. For the purposes of Vengeance Will Come:
- I intended it to be a society with no traditional divides or social taboos between the occupations men and women could undertake.
- That men and women were considered equal within the general consensus.
- Men and women both appear throughout the story; without one gender being noticeably absent.
Recognising the Defect
I realised I had a problem with gender balance when I’d already made considerable progress on the novel. If writing a book were akin to building a house, I’d already laid the foundations, constructed the framework and the roof… and then discovered the foundation was as lopsided. My problem: my main characters were all male, with the exception of the protagonist’s wife. The other females in the novel were bit-characters, or worse, props. Also the overwhelming majority of females were “bad”. The realisation of the problem was traumatising enough that I remember exactly where I was: on board a cruise ship, sitting in a coffee lounge halfway to Hawaii. The sinking feeling I had in my gut was similar to a ship tearing itself open on an iceberg. I realised it was a monumental flaw in the novel, and couldn’t conceive how to fix it.
But please keep reading, I promise I don’t think all women are evil or props. I hadn’t written it that way intentionally, and that’s what bothered me the most: it showed a gaping hole in my skill as an author that I hadn’t seen the problem earlier. (If it had been intentional and I’d designed a society that did delineate between men and women then I’d be OK with that. I would be an artistic choice). But no, that wasn’t the case.
I’ve thought about this issue a lot and had previously assumed it was the product of a
‘male world-view’. And undoubtedly part of it was. It was only today – many, many, months after I’ve realised why and how the problem had occurred.
When I was first writing the novel (years ago) the very first chapter was a scene of society’s elite at a party. Even though the setting was supposed to be futuristic, in my mind’s eye I saw a Pride-and-Prejudice style formal gathering. Without me realising it, that set the foundation for my thinking. Men were in positions of power, and women were not. The image I had in my mind for the very first scene had unconsciously hijacked my world-building.
The take away lesson is be very careful how you envision a scene – make sure it fits the setting. Perhaps my story would have incorporated more futuristic content if its origin hadn’t been tied to ‘ye olden days’ to begin with?
How could I fix the problem without knocking down the whole house and relaying a whole new foundation? I openly admit I lacked the willpower and confidence to significantly re-write the story. Writing a first novel is no small task, considering a complete re-write is like proposing to fill in the Grand Canyon using a wheelbarrow and shovel. No, thank you.
I didn’t see any real way out of the problem. The best I could do was tweak it around the edges and hope that restored some semblance of balance.
(Side note: that same day I began writing what would become The Rebel Queen, an alien matriarchal society. It was the female counter-balance to my writing universe).
Although the sum-balance may have been restored, it didn’t help balance out Vengeance Will Come. I made a few changes; side-characters became female, and I generally tried to have more of a female presence. Evidently my efforts were not enough: one of my beta readers suggested that it was very “gendered”. She explained it further, saying that it was deeper than the characters; sometimes my word choice and in-world expressions were masculine-oriented.
My initial inclination was to reject her words… but that was the reflex instinct toward pain. The more I considered her constructive criticism the more I started to see it: Your objection has some merit. I went through it again with critical eyes.
Restoring the Balance
Changing Genders. I couldn’t face changing the gender of any of the main characters; the collateral damage to the text would be horrendous. The mere thought of changing a main character almost puts me into a foetal position whimpering under the table. I think I’d honestly rather bin the project and start something new.
I looked at the supporting characters but there were various reasons why they couldn’t change gender. The most common reason was, I didn’t want to complicate relationships for the reader. I felt like I could have two males do each other favours as ‘mates’, but if I change one to a female then I need to explain that there isn’t any ‘spark’ there. I didn’t want to muddy the waters.
I changed the gender of quite a few of the bit characters. While this might sound tokenistic, I actually think they are good changes. They are bit characters – yes – but they are characters who demonstrate loyalty, courage and technical expertise.
I removed the “prop women”. One of my characters in particular has ‘unkind‘ or ‘uncivilised attitudes‘ towards women. He was allowed to keep his unpleasant attitude; I just made sure that it wasn’t a widespread attitude.
One female bit character was a criminal. At one point (in draft) she became a “weepy woman”. This was an error on my part. Not only is it stereotyping, it was also unrealistic. Would a hardened criminal really break down easily? Not likely. Although a “bad” girl, I didn’t want to change her gender. Even though a criminal, she was accomplished, and so presents a strong image. Instead of weepy I made her smart and a tough negotiator; she outsmarts the males around her.
Changing Words. I also removed unintended gender pigeon-holing. Instead of referring to “Keeshar’s men” I’d say “Keeshar’s soldiers”. An all male army is not what I think the future will hold; I envision men and women in the army of the future (but minus the lesser standards for women).
I also changed some wording which could be interpreted as derogatory. Words like ‘nagging’ and phrases like ‘old wives tales’.
Perhaps controversially I added in a custom where polite etiquette was for men to greet women by kissing their hands. I consider this to be an honouring gesture, to show that women are respected.