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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Gender referrant problem

   
Author Topic: Gender referrant problem
mayflower988
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I couldn't find this topic when I did a search, but I'm trying to write a story about a man being held prisoner by these aliens that all look alike. One of the aliens is trying to help him, though, so I've found myself needing to use "he/she", but the problem is that my MC can't tell if the alien is male or female because, as I said, they all look alike. The alien gives its name, but it would get really repetitive to just use the name over and over. Plus, I don't like using "its" for the alien. It doesn't sound right. It sounds like the MC is objectifying the alien, which he's not. How does a MC refer to another character when the MC doesn't know the other one's gender, or in this case, the other character doesn't have a gender? My MC doesn't know this yet, but the aliens don't have genders and don't reproduce.
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MAP
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This to me is a characterization issue. How would the POV character (which I assume is your main character) think of the alien.

Does the alien look more masculine or feminine to the MC?

Does the MC have issues with the alien so that he/she would objectify the alien (calling the alien an it because he/she doesn't see it as a person-like being)?

Is the MC a feminist and rather think of an unknown as a she rather than the traditional he? Or would the MC just adapt he due to social norms (unless the society that the MC is different from ours, and that would be a good world-building opportunity).


I think there is no right or wrong answer here. You just need to figure out what your character would do.

Good luck!

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Meredith
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Hmm. Well, assuming this is told from a close POV of your MC, you might try letting the MC think of the alien as either male or female. He's wrong, but it's a very human thing to impute a gender. Heck, we even call ships "she".

So, is there something about the way this alien interacts with him that makes him think of it as either male or female? Does he (again, very human) not want to think of it as female because he finds that creepy?

Used that way, it could even be a source of internal conflict for your MC.

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genevive42
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quote:
Used that way, it could even be a source of internal conflict for your MC.
Yes, hang a lantern on it.
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Robert Nowall
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Offhand, I don't see anything wrong in identifying an alien of indeterminate sex as "it." I wouldn't have any problem with referring to the alien as "he," the traditional English neutral personal pronoun, but that may not be PC enough these days.
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extrinsic
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Formal writing defaults to rather stale impersonal male pronouns. I wondered for a while why one of my professors, a staunch feminist, insisted upon that convention. MLA says that's the way it is. APA, CSE, AP too. I realized she took the prescriptive principle to an extreme meaning. She interpreted the intent as the neutering of masculine imperatives. I thought that was funny for its situational and verbal irony.

I mean, how your character perceives the aliens shapes his perspective. Does he observe the aliens exhibiting human masculine behavior traits? Feminine? Neuter? Some of each? Which is dominant in any given individual? Does the character care more about gender than the aliens? If so, what identity expressions matter to the aliens? If not gender, maybe social status, financial standing, lineage, age, occupation, or ethnicity.

Meredith tackles what I see as the critical opportunity for the character struggling to identify gender. Ripe for "conflict," dramatic complication, and an underlying storyline action unfolding with the main action.

[ February 04, 2013, 06:51 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Grumpy old guy
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I am reminded of the film, Enemy, Mine. Where a human and an alien, who are at war with each other, are marooned on a world. Gender isn't stated and everyone in the audience assumes the alien is male -- until she reveals she's pregnant.

There is always a way to solve these things. The MC is human and will think in human terms and with human, gender-based biases. The alien knows what it is, the third member of a sexual-triad -- why be conventional?

The point is, refer to the alien using the biases of the MC until a time when you get to 'reveal' the *true* state of affairs. A nice little plot complication that can entertain at the least and provide a plot turning point at best.

Phil.

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Robert Nowall
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Of course the original story by Barry B. Longyear was much better than the movie...and, near as I can tell through a quick glance through it, the alien is referred to by name, by nickname, or as "it." Seems "it" was mostly deliberately avoided.
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MartinV
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Two examples come to mind. One is The Left Hand of Darkness where the male protagonist explores a world full of androgynous people. They have male and female modes and one person can be a mother to some children, father to others. Look up how it's used.

The other is The Moon is Harsh Mistress where the computer AI behaves like a male or a female. In effect, it is refered to as a 'he' sometimes, 'she' at other times. Depends on the occasion.

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Robert Nowall
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If I recall right---haven't read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress in awhile, and wasn't looking at it from this angle---the sentient computer [usually] called "Mike" presented a male personality to some people, and a female personality to others, but the one we the reader sees the most was a male personality. There were several different personalities, too. I don't think the "he / she / it" issue came up in this kind of context, though I think it was discussed somewhere...
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MartinV
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Yes but the same could apply for aliens. Sometimes they act male, other times female. Might as well change the referrant. It was done like this in The Left Hand of Darkness.
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mayflower988
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Hmm, okay. Well, so far what I have written in my story is just the opening scene of the guy in prison, then the alien comes in bringing his food on a tray and leaves. I did have the alien interacting with the guy for an extended scene, but I think I'm going to change it so they don't interact for very long. Done this way, my MC won't have much time to observe how the alien acts, so I think I'll go with "it" until he's able to get an impression of the alien that makes him think it's either male or female. I'd like to read these books some of you have mentioned; it would be great to see how other writers have treated similar situations.
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