Bypassing the Gender Spectrum

This month we’re discussing gender. Gender is that wonderful spectrum that encompasses each individual’s relationship with their own body, identity, and (gender) expression. It is a complex ideal that seems to grow daily, and just when you think you have a firm grasp of the concept, something new crops up, and you have something new to learn. Characters in literature can also encompass this complexity, and it’s because of that I have decided to cheat and not write about gender at all.

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I first started writing non-gendered characters with my short story Finding Annie. (If you want to read it, pick up a copy of Happy Days, Sweetheart, published by A Murder of Storytellers, or you can find it in my short story collection Pale Shadows.) I don’t remember why I initially decided to not reveal the gender of the narrator, but by the time I had finished the story, I was glad I hadn’t. The story involves a situation that anyone could find themselves caught up in. That, I think, is the great thing about non-gendered characters—they’re all-inclusive. They give the reader the ability to put him-/her-/themselves into the story and experience something they might not otherwise get to experience. There’s also a connection that some stories may not be able to make if they contain characters of a gender different than the reader.

The best part of writing non-gendered characters is the realization that situations faced by the vast majority of people are no different in the grand scheme of things. There is an ultimate level playing field for everyone walking the planet, and it’s only altered slightly by the varying personal circumstances of the individual. It’s more humanizing, and tears down constructs of “us vs. them.”

Writing non-gendered characters presents some issues to the author. First of all, pronouns for the narrator are right out, unless it’s “I.” The idea is to write an “anyone” character, and you can’t do that if you’re assigning pronouns. (Now understand, this is from my perspective, so if you write non-gendered characters, and you’ve been able to accomplish this in a different way, I would absolutely love to hear about it.) In my opinion, this is a great exercise for finding innovative ways to address character identification and how the character handles and perceives “self” in different situations.

Another issue is readers are going to assume the narrator’s gender is the same as the author’s, if they know the author’s gender. This really isn’t something the author can control, so if you’re having the piece critiqued, the best way to handle it, I’ve found, is to constantly refer to the main character as “the narrator” or “they.”

Issues aside, if you pull off a piece with a non-gendered character, I think you’ve created something that truly showcases your abilities as a writer. (Maybe I’m just tooting my own horn with that, but I’ll let you be the judge.) If you haven’t tried writing (or reading) stories with non-gendered characters, I greatly encourage you to do so. You might be pleasantly surprised at the creative avenues you can explore and the more humanized characters you can create.

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Shannon Iwanski

Shannon Iwanski is the former president of the Tulsa-based writing group Nevermore Edits, a member of Oklahoma Writers' Federation, Inc., and Editor-in-Chief of Inkubus Publishing, LLC. To learn more about him and his plans to turn the world into a dystopian society, check out shannoniwanski.com.