Flashback: Ask Uncle Figgy – Roleplaying/Writing Opposite Genders

Dear Uncle Figgy,
What are some suggestions for playing characters that are the opposite sex from your own? I am a woman playing a male character and I’m having a hard time roleplaying a man.

I’m calling this a question fro both roleplayers and writers because I was once at a convention panel that was all about writing the opposite gender (And playing a character is the same thing as writing a character). Many people danced around the issue and said things like “A woman/man would/wouldn’t do that” or “That’s just not something a woman/man would/wouldn’t do.”

But those are the wrong way to think about it. The question isn’t “Would a man (woman) do X?” but “Would my character do X?”

Yes, there are stereotypes. Yes, people sometimes fit those stereotypes. But not everyone. Most people are conglomerations of bits and pieces of those stereotypes. Since you’re the one that makes the character, you can feel free to create the character however you want and then determine which gender-specific stereotypes he or she fits (if any). Not every man is a self-absorbed, sex-starved pig. Not every woman is quiet, emotional, and maternal.

What I’m trying to say is that first you come up with the character without worrying about the gender, then add the gender and see what results would logically come. Define the character, then add the gender. Sometimes, that definition could be as simple as “typical, midwestern, farming male”, but be aware that even such a simple-sounding definition brings with it a whole set of characteristics that you need to know about. Characteristics that can define that character’s thoughts and actions.

Again, the question to ask is not “Would a woman/man do such-and-such a thing?” but “Would my character do such-and-such a thing?”

Got all that? Here’s a test: See if you can guess the following  character’s gender based on it’s characteristics. Tracy loves to cook and is an avid football fan. Tracy does the laundry, the vacuuming, and the dusting, but tends to forget things like doing the dishes or taking out the trash. Tracy enjoys gardening, mowing the lawn, and landscaping, but doesn’t care much for flowers in general. Tracy is a bit quiet, but has very strongly held opinions and quite a temper. Tracy drives a pickup truck and loves to play video games. Tracy loves children, but doesn’t feel ready to have any. Tracy is a black belt in tae kwon do, doesn’t drink or smoke, and tries to eat healthy (except for being a candy junkie). Tracy dislikes guns, power tools, parties, nightclubs, and crowds, but loves bookstores, music stores, toy stores, museums, and libraries. Tracy doesn’t like to fight, but will if necessary, and is fairly devastating in combat once that bad temper kicks in. Tracy likes to look nice, has a closet full of fashionable clothing, and spends an inordinate amount of time on hair styling. Despite all that, however, Tracy owns only four pairs of shoes, three of which are some form of athletic shoe.

So could you guess what gender Tracy is? The answer is: It doesn’t matter. What matters is how those above characteristics affect Tracy’s behavior and the behaviors of those around Tracy. If we make Tracy a guy, he might be viewed as a nerd (for liking bookstores, libraries, and museums), a homosexual (for being fashionable, gardening, and liking toy stores), a pansy (for disliking guns, power tools, and fighting), or a whipped husband (for cooking and doing housework). If we make Tracy a woman, she might be viewed as being butch (for liking football, lawn mowing, and driving her truck), a bitch (for being a black belt, fighting well, and having a bad temper),  flighty (for liking video games, toy stores, and not wanting to have kids), or self-absorbed (for worrying about how she eats, how she dresses, and how much time she spends on her hair).

What it all really boils down to is how Tracy’s definition affects Tracy’s actions, which affect the reactions of those around Tracy, which, in turn, affect Tracy’s definition. Remember, whether writing or roleplaying a character of the opposite sex, it is the character that is more important in determining their actions than their gender.

Modern Edit: Over the years since I answered the question, I’ve become more and more aware of how tightly constraining gender roles can be, and how strongly they can be enforced by a person’s environment (society and culture). In regards to gaming, I’ve found that one person roleplaying someone of the opposite gender is less of a problem for them, and more of a problem for the rest of the gaming group — who usually just act like the character is whatever gender the player is. I’ve seen gamers treat male characters played by women as though they were female, and if I had a nickel for every time I’ve been hit on in MMORPGs while playing a female character, I’d be pretty well off. And it’s not just gender, but age as well. I remember games I’ve played (and book manuscripts/published novels) where a child character was treated by the other players (or author) as though it were just another party member. To the point where, in one game, the other players were willing to make a child character the leader of their party because that character’s player almost always played a leader.

In other words, playing a character of the opposite gender is less about how you play it, and more about how the other players (and the GM via NPCs) react to it. In a similar vein, writing a character of the opposite gender is less about how you write it, and more about how your other characters react to it.

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