Characters and Gender

I know many of you probably think I’ve done this topic to death by now, but I have more to say. Feel free to ignore this if you’ve had enough of me talking about this by now, and I promise I’ll get around to book reviews soon.

As is apparent on my previous posts on this topic (here and here), I am a strong proponent of the idea that male readers should be able to identify with female characters as readily as female readers are expected to identify with male characters. I’ve recently realised, however, that almost all of my favourite fictional characters are female. More specifically, they’re almost all snarky female smart-asses (the most notable exception, Hermione Granger, is still female and has her snarky moments). I’m too concerned with being polite and don’t have a sufficiently quick wit to let my inner snark run rampant, so I live vicariously though these characters. Maybe that’s why my favourites tend to be female. Perhaps it’s because the feminist in me is just happy to see an interesting female character so I latch onto her. Or maybe it’s just that the female characters tend to have more in common with me personality-wise than the male ones. That is, it’s not their gender that makes me identify with them as such, but that certain traits I possess and admire, for instance bookishness, are more likely to be attributed to female protagonists than male ones.

I noticed this tendency in particular in the series I’m reading right now: Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn trilogy. It’s narrated by a male character, Matt. My favourite character in the first book is his love interest, Kate. I’m onto the second book now, which introduces a new character, Nadira, whom I already like more than Matt, even though I barely know her. I don’t dislike Matt, and I empathise enough with him that I want him to be happy and achieve his goals, but he is, in a word, forgettable. The same holds true for Harry Potter. Harry himself is, to me, nothing special, but I adore Hermione. This is less of a straight example, though, as I am fond of quite a few other characters, both male and female.

Does this mean I’ve changed my mind about boys and men reading books with female protagonists? Hardly. For one thing, I still enjoy these male-dominated books. The men might not be my favourite characters, but the story’s good, and I identify enough with the male characters that I still feel some stake in their fate. For another, the books include these interesting female characters that I like. Finally, it’s not a hard-and-fast rule. There are female protagonists I couldn’t care less about, and male ones I adore. Surely, then, the reverse should hold true for men reading books with female protagonists.

Furthermore, a general preference for characters of the same sex doesn’t translate to an inability to identify at all with male characters. As I said before, I identify with the male characters enough to enjoy the book; where the distinction lies is that female characters are more often the ones that stay with me after I put the book down.

Moreover, I think we can expect men to identify with female characters because we expect them to relate to women in real life. If a man cannot be interested in a story about a woman, then how can we expect him to relate to his mother, his sister, his girlfriend, his colleague, his female friend? If he’s not interested in stories about women, then how can we expect him to be interested in the lives of real, living women? In either case, it’s not the woman’s gender that’s the issue. It’s that the man should find her story or life interesting because she’s a person, not because she’s a woman.

This is the crux of the matter, really. When we read novels, we read the stories of people, of individuals. We might gravitate toward characters of one gender over the other, but that’s because of their individual traits, not because of their gender. I don’t prefer Diana Trent over Tom Ballard in the TV series Waiting for God because she’s the female lead, I prefer her because she’s caustic and sarcastic whereas he’s a bit of an old fuddy-duddy.


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