• Henry Neilsen

Man, I feel like a Woman

I was having a discussion the other night with the woman who I'm lucky enough to call my future wife. We were sitting on the landing at the top of the staircase in our townhouse in Melbourne. My legs were stretched between the two walls, while she sat with one of them on the top step and the other resting on her knee. There's a crack at the top of the stairs; it runs floor to ceiling and then across, halting just short of the edge of the hallway. I'll probably have to get it looked at sooner or later; if it's structural it's a problem.

We do this a fair bit, we'll end up having conversations in hallways or in the office or out in the yard while we're gardening, and we'll sit down and continue for what could end up being hours about the topics on our mind. The discussion ebbed and flowed and I started talking about my current writing project, Spice Trader. It's going very well, and I have been making surprisingly fast progress on it. It seems to be one of those projects that is practically writing itself- certain ideas just flow from the keyboard as the characters interact. I have a general plan of how it's going to go, but not too many specifics at this point. My concern, which is what I said to my fiancee while staring vaguely at the crack in the wall next to her curls, is that I don't have any female characters in the story yet.

Why not? She asks, and from there the conversation becomes one that threw some of my unexplored prejudices into sharp light.

"It's a story centered around three friends who are constantly partying in the pub" I say, "It seemed natural that they all be guys. That's what guys do, they go to pubs."

Okay, what about the other characters?

"So far there's only one, and he's a worker at the factory the main character works at. he's a conspiracy nut..."

The conversation went on in this vein for some time. I found myself making excuses as to why I hadn't put a female character in as yet. These guys are crass, girls wouldn't want to hang around them, I say, ignoring the fact that my fiancee makes dirtier jokes than I do. My interpretation of the characters is that they wouldn't have female friends, I say, as if I wasn't making the characters myself. I finally come around, and agree that maybe I should have some female characters. But surely the main group is still all guys, right? I can just make random characters female?

This is where it becomes incredibly obvious to me that my fiancee is far cleverer than I ever will be.

"Don't just put in female characters because you decide female characters should exist. That helps nobody. Put in female characters because your project is about people living in society, and we exist."

This is probably far too obvious to people who have more writing chops than I do, or who are more experienced as authors or maybe just harbour less internal prejudice than I do. It's not intentional. Please don't take this piece of writing as some kind of intentional misogyny; I think it's far more about confronting the unintentional decisions we make that for some reason you still defend.

I realised how wrong I was, and how chauvinistic I was being by assuming that only boys can be useless junkies who work at factories, and only men can be tinfoil conspiracy theorists. That I had genuinely been thinking that it made sense for my story to have no women as central characters in it says something about my psyche that I really think I need to do some sort of penance for.

In my defense... no. There is no defense for this. The decisions I made, consciously or no, reinforced the ideal that the protagonists in a story like mine must be male. Once I confronted my own internal decision making honestly and genuinely tried to back my claims up, I found they were held up by nothing concrete.

I decided that I had to fix this before I went any further. I considered what I wanted for each of the characters, what their motivations were, how they interacted with the universe I'd built for them, and asked myself what would change if they were female.

To my surprise, it did change. There are things that if I'm being honest, change when it's a woman answering a question compared to a man, or it's a boy and a girl talking rather than two men. However, it's never anything more than a cosmetic shift, or a recognition of some certain things in life that are true for men but not for women. Things like safety. Things like who they'll accept a drink from in a bar. Whether they'd leave the bar alone. If they felt safe at night in a street.

The other thing that changed was the feel of the whole story. Evening up the gender mix breathed life into the characters and all their interactions. With one stroke, an implicit understanding of how and why my cast were interacting the way they were appeared. The entire setting seemed real in a way it hadn't before. I changed the word "he" to "she", "him" to "her", and tweaked the dialogue ever so slightly. Suddenly, my work in progress went from a caricature to a portrait.

This post is probably entirely too obvious for most of my readers (at least I hope it is) but I want you to consider if there's anything in your own stories that you're prejudicing against unwittingly. If you think there is, find the person you trust most and have a truly open conversation with them. Stairwells work. If you don't have stairs, try to sit somewhere you don't usually, it might help seeing things from a different perspective. If you find yourself fighting against an idea, ask yourself why. And push against that uncomfortable feeling you're getting... you might find you're pushing against an invisible wall.

Until next time.

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