WRITING Characters with ambiguous gender?

Discussion in 'ROLEPLAY HELP & DISCUSSION' started by Yuuki_Tatsunohi, Feb 11, 2016.

  1. I want to write a character with an ambiguous gender. This character has no defining secondary sexual characteristics (breasts, facial hair) that would tell readers which gender this character actually is. In fact, I want to write it in a way that readers could interpret themselves what sex this character is. I understand this will be challenging given the English language, but I still want to try!

    So any advice? Pronouns that would be ideal for this? Ways I can write this character without leaning towards one gender or the other? Also, if you know of any articles or writing exercises that would help me tackle this, that would be greatly appreciated!
    #1 Yuuki_Tatsunohi, Feb 11, 2016
    Last edited: Feb 11, 2016
  2. 'They' is a pretty accepted gender-neutral pronoun. There are others, but 'they/them/theirs' is easiest for most people to understand. There are also plenty of gender neutral titles to use when referring to such a person. For example, calling them someone's child or sibling instead of son/daughter or brother/sister. Also remember that being ambiguous/androgynous doesn't mean you have to stay away from stereotypically masculine or feminine things.

    The character Frisk from the game Undertale is made to be ambiguously gendered (arguably nonbinary) but while their design features ambiguous hair, a simple striped sweater, and pants, some of the equippable items are things like tutus, ribbons, and the 'manly bandana'. There are also options to flirt (and go on kiddie 'dates') with characters of multiple genders as well.

    I hope this helps! I will definitely try to find some other resources if I can.
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  3. Ooh. I like that. Provides leeway for how I can go about depicting my characters, and makes it flexible too. Thanks! If you find any other resources I'd love to see them!
  4. Is this something that you planned on writing in 1st person?

    Because I agree that Frisk from Undertale is a pretty great example of what you seem to be going for, and, normally, they/them is the easiest set of gender-neutral pronouns to use. But, using they/them as a singular pronoun for large amounts of text can be kind of confusing and jarring to read, since it's meant to be a plural pronoun. Yes, I know that lots of people use 'they' as a singular pronoun all the time to refer to hypothetical people whose gender is unknown, but that's a bit different from repeatedly using 'they' to refer to a single person, sentence after sentence. Try writing a few paragraphs of 3rd-person narration using 'they' and you might see what I mean. XD

    Frisk is a 'they' in the game, but, because they're the player character, they're almost never referred to as such. There are only a few lines of dialogue in the whole game where it comes up. So it's easy to not even think about Frisk's gender (or pronouns) at all until those few moments. Plus, because it comes up so sparingly, it doesn't feel nearly as grammatically awkward as it would be to keep using 'they' over and over for a single character.

    To elaborate on what I mean about the wording getting awkward, think about verb conjugation. Compare the sentences "Frisk is from Undertale" and "They are from Undertale". All I wanted to do was replace Frisk's name with a pronoun, but because I'm using a plural pronoun, I have to conjugate the verb differently. And because the verb is conjugated differently, the second sentence sounds more like it's referring to a group of people than just one person. So, if you refer to a single character as 'they', it's possible the reader could get confused as to who you're even talking about. And even if the reader knows what you're trying to say, it can still be jarring to read and come across as a grammatically awkward sentence. (And trying to ignore the difference in conjugation would leave you with clauses like "they is", which is even worse.) This is especially bad since your verb conjugation will be inconsistent between sentences where you refer to the character by name and those where you use a pronoun. And in sentences/clauses where the verb doesn't even have the noun/pronoun directly preceding it, then you as the writer might even struggle to think of which conjugation would be more appropriate to use. It's a big grammatical mess, and definitely something that you'll want to find some way of avoiding if you plan to use 'they' as a singular pronoun.

    A gender-neutral pronoun that doesn't have this problem would be something like xe/xir, which functions exactly like he/him or she/her, and therefore doesn't present the same conjugation problem as they/them. The obvious problem here is, of course, the fact that xe/xir is so obscure that most readers would probably find it even more jarring than the awkwardness of a singular they. While it would be nice if xe/xir was more commonly used, that unfortunately isn't the case. So, finding a good gender-neutral pronoun to use can still be rather tricky.
    #4 Kagayours, Feb 12, 2016
    Last edited: Feb 12, 2016
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  5. Hi!

    I've had this issue before, and it can be hard. I'd say pick a pronoun you like, or that the character likes. They/them, he/him, she/her: all of them work. I went with 'he' and specified that my character is using the scholarly neutral, such as "Man who farts in church sits in his own pew."

    However, my character never refers to himself as a man, nor to himself as a woman. It's usually androgyne (because he's got a stick up his arse) or person, favoring the first. He wears clothes that fit his activities rather than dressing for his biological sex (a skirt to wipe his hands on, tough jeans because he's on the road, multiple layers of shirts and jackets because it can get cold), and he is never nude around anyone, nor does he let anyone touch him.

    He's an extreme case, though, of someone violently trying to be difficult for others to deal with.

    For a more mild solution, simply picking a pronoun, describing a character with a mix of masculine and feminine features (thin lips, narrow hips- typically masculine versues the feminine large eyes and narrow shoulders). Describe them as enjoying a variety of activities, and using both male and female body language, like certain styles of leg-crossing, sweater removal, and even how they prepare their toilet paper!

    Men usually fold it, while women usually wad it.

    Women are more likely to play with their hair when thinking, while men are more likely to mess with their chins and the back of their necks.

    Finally, people will probably try to make assumptions. Let them. Don't fight it, because that's a natural reaction to androgyny. Just keep using those subtle body language things, and they'll start to doubt their conclusions.
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  6. I am thinking of going third person. But you do make a good point about pronouns! I'll definitely do some practice to find the one I like best!
    Ooooh. I'll be sure to use your advice then! :)
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  7. Glad to be of help! If you have any questions, just let me know, and I'll be happy to help if I'm able!
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  8. @Indabayou @Kaga-kun @The Mood is Write and anyone else who happens to stumble upon this and wants to answer

    Besides Frisk, are there any other examples of characters with an ambiguous gender? Particularly characters with stories written in book format excluding comics. I'd just like to see how authors approach and tackle writing ambiguous gender characters.
  9. Hmm. The only other character I can think of off the top of my head is Stevonnie from Steven Universe. Granted, Stevonnie is literally a fusion of two other characters -- one male, one female -- so I'm not sure if they're really what you had in mind.

    That said, what I find interesting about Stevonnie is the way that they have a sort of gender-neutral beauty to them. Androgynous doesn't have to equal unattractive. It's hard to explain, but their appearance seems to sort of align with both masculine and feminine ideas of beauty.

    Also featured in this clip: one male and one female character (both otherwise assumed to be straight) becoming instantly infatuated at the sight of Stevonnie. XD So, going the gender-neutral route doesn't mean you have to avoid including relationships, or that other characters can't fall for them.

    And... OH! I guess there's also the angels from Welcome to Night Vale. I'm not sure how helpful that would be for you, though, since the writers not only go out of their way to avoid mentioning gender, but also do the same with really any kind of physical description. @_@ They're supposed to be super mysterious entities, so it sort of makes sense that even the way they're described in the narration would avoid mentioning any concrete details. I was thinking specifically of the Night Vale novel when this came to mind (since you asked for books) but the same would apply to the Night Vale podcasts.

    Also, one could argue that it's just Night Vale's style in general to avoid giving much of a physical description for any character -- so I'm not sure if this really says much about the gender-neutral thing or if it's just a result of Night Vale's style in general. Still, I figured I'd bring it up, at least.
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  10. Here's some links to pages on Tv Tropes where they list some notable examples (there are different tabs for different media genres). You may need to do some further googling for specific parts of the books, but it's a start.

    Ambiguous Gender - TV Tropes

    Gender-Neutral Writing - TV Tropes

    Though perhaps not quite what you're looking for, one I really like is the Dwarves from Terry Pratchett's Discworld series (they have an entry under the literature section of 'Ambiguous Gender'. All of them have beards and look masculine, but there are female dwarves, which often causes confusion for other characters.
    here's a bit from the actual discworld wiki:
    Show Spoiler

    "There is no female style of clothing or female pronoun; there are no female names in Dwarfish. Both male Dwarfs and female Dwarfs naturally have beards and it has never occurred to any Dwarf to shave, and thus doing so is considered undwarfish and shameful. The gender of a Dwarf is only revealed to those concerned, during courtship, when the concerned parties are deemed mature enough to handle it without giggling (gender not being considered important by most dwarfs compared to things such as metallurgy and hydraulics). An interesting implication of this custom is that there is no gender discrimination when a Dwarf seeks a job position or tries to make a career or open a business.
    Forensics Watchdwarf Cheery Littlebottom clarifies this superficial equality by explaining while Dwarf women are allowed do anything men can do, they are expected to only do those things; acting "female" has less to do with sexism and more to do with acting undwarfish. When she started wearing makeup, leather skirt (very plain-styled), and an armor that is modified in the chest region, a cultural revolution began (see Feet of Clay), leading to much internal conflict in Dwarf politics."

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