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From the Blog: Choosing Your Protagonist’s Gender

Sometimes, character building is tough. You have to come up with the perfect character to fit your story. NaNoWriMo Participant Nichole Fanara challenges us to think outside the box when writing new characters:

Have you ever thought of a great plot for your (hundredth) story, and instead of jumping in right away, you hemmed and hawed about who exactly your main character will be?

We writers know how important choosing characters (or letting characters choose you!) can be, because (let’s face it) your main character is the heart of your story. But trying to choose and describe a character can be difficult, because whether we realize it or not, there are a lot of stifling societal expectations about how a character’s identity changes the way the story “should” operate. Those unspoken “rules” can bog us writers down, and if we don’t want our characters to fit into societal boxes, we risk a lack of connection with the audience.

One of the biggest instances where your protagonist’s identity affects how readers see and connect with them is your character’s gender. So, imagine this: can we have more nonbinary, genderless, or gender fluid protagonists?

It’s becoming more common for writers to write characters using pronouns such as they / them rather than he / him or she / her. Characters can be full of emotion and spunk and liveliness without the confines of a binary gender, and readers will still be able to connect to that character even if they don’t fit into expected boxes.

As a teacher, I see more and more students deciding to question those expectations and choose pronouns that better reflect their identities. Why can’t they wear makeup? Why can’t they ride a motorcycle? Why should they be subjected to the gender norms that we as a society have grown so accustomed to?

A strong writer allows their character’s personality to be more than the sum of the parts of their various identities. When I think of my favorite characters in literature, I picture looks of determination as they conquer a difficult task, or warm moments of trust as they finally fall head over heels in love. It’s the human emotion that draws us into a character.

I suppose the real challenge for writers is, how do I make my character more human? How can I focus on an emotion that everyone can relate to, such as courage or fear? Can I focus on an experience such as a difficult choice or first love, without the restrictions of expected gender roles? Ask yourself, what makes your character relatable, and what kind of human choices are they making within the world you’ve established?

You can use these deep human emotions to help inform your character’s physicality. Once you choose an emotion, describe what that looks like. Maybe tears are rolling down their rosy cheeks, or they are picking at chipped nail polish. What does hope look like on their face? What kinds of dreams do they have for their future?

Hopefully by exploring your characters’ inner thoughts and feelings, you can get to the heart of who they are. What if those gendered societal boundaries or expectations didn’t exist? What could that look like?

So here’s my call to you, fellow writer: give it a try! If you are stuck behind the glass wall of gendered characters who “can” and “can’t” do particular things, try breaking your protagonist out of some boxes. Let them live how they want to live, let them make decisions and move the story forward, and fall in love like a human.

(For more articles like this, explore the NaNoWriMo blog!)

My name is Nichole Fanara and I am an English teacher and aspiring writer! I love to travel, play with my kitten, and actively seek out anything pumpkin related. I am currently working on two YA novels, one of which is in the final edit stage and I am super psyched about it! You can check me out here!

Top photo by Ben Wicks on Unsplash.

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