Sunday, 6 December 2015

Thoughts on Gender Stereotypes


My stories always begin, in my head, with a killer. It is his or her motivation that shapes the narrative, and everything else spins out from there. There has been more than one such character, because it is hopefully not too much of a spoiler to reveal that the character of the killer changes from book to book. Finding a character readers would want to follow throughout a series was more of a challenge. It was also more important because, although I didn't realise it when I started out, my detective and I were going to be working together for a long time. 

My original detective, in the initial stages of the first draft of my first book, was very different to Geraldine Steel. He was a middle-aged man, a curmudgeonly kind of Dalziel, with a dash of Dalgliesh's culture. As my story progressed, I grew less confident about writing mainly from a man's point of view. I wondered, for example, how a man feels when he sees an attractive woman. Afraid of creating a character who was not fully credible, and reluctant to fall back on stereotypes, I changed the gender of my protagonist. With Geraldine Steel I was on familiar territory, at least vaguely able to remember what it was like to be a woman approaching forty.

Satisfied it had been the right decision to change the gender of my main character, I found it easier to inhabit her thoughts and feelings than my original detective. So Geraldine Steel gradually emerged as a character, my detective's gender no longer an issue for me. 

Four years later, the suggestion that I might write a spin off series for Geraldine's sergeant, Ian Peterson, was irresistible. Ian Peterson was already gaining a following in his own right, and a spin off series gave me the opportunity to write more stories. I happily signed a three book deal for Ian Peterson.  

Only then did I stop to consider what I had let myself in for. I had committed to writing a series with a male protagonist, coming round full circle to writing from a male point of view. 

Who was it called marriage the triumph hope over experience? My husband was quick to respond to the news of my spin off series. 'I suppose you'll be wanting to come to football matches with me now?' As we were discussing which team Ian Peterson could support, my son-in-law, another  football fan, joined us. 'Why does he have to support a team?' he asked. 'That's such a stereotype. Not all men are football fans.' 

Thinking about Ian Peterson's character I realised that there was no pressure to resort to cliches at all. I simply needed my readers to find him a credible character, regardless of his gender. Writing from Geraldine's point of view I was not permanently aware of her as a woman. The same could apply to Ian Peterson. He would be a detective with a character of his own, who happens to be a man. Once I began to think of him as a person, all my problems with him seemed to vanish.  As before, my detective's gender was no longer an issue for me.

My husband still goes to football matches while I stay at home, writing. Perhaps we are stereotypical in that, but hopefully my characters are not. 


This post first appeared in Shots Magazine blog 

6 comments:

Derek Thompson said...

Thanks - this is timely for me, as I've been approached to consider writing a female detective. I have similar concerns, from my male perspective, about sustaining a female protagonist without falling back on cliches, however unintentional. I think you're spot on about understanding the character first and letting it flow from there.

Guillaume said...

Really interesting, I need to comment again when I have more time.

Leigh Russell said...

Good luck with it, Derek!

Leigh Russell said...

Thanks, Guillaume.

Guillaume said...

I wanted to write more about this. I guess it is difficult to create a believable, rounded character in genre fiction especially while avoiding the stereotypes and clich├ęs of the genre. Real people are not only defined by their sex: a policewoman can be a tomboy, a cold bureaucrat, a arrivist, etc. Conversely, a police officer can be written in so many ways. I am a big fan of the TV series The Wire, where characters are very complex, with so many layers and nuances, whether they are gangsters or cops.

Leigh Russell said...

Yes, it's important to avoid stereotypes, but equally important that characters remain credible. It's a tricky balance, Guillaume.