Vengeance Will Come: Gender Balance

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:

  1. I intended it to be a society with no traditional divides or social taboos between the occupations men and women could undertake.
  2. That men and women were considered equal within the general consensus.
  3. 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

Cigar, sir?

‘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.

Balance. It’s important.

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.

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